Ultralight Hammocks: Your New Summer Camping Accessory

Camping season is almost officially here, and that means it’s a good time to take stock of your gear. Maybe it’s time for an upgrade? If you live in or are planning camping trips in warm, dry climates, allow me to suggest an easy, affordable addition to your arsenal.

Hammock camping is becoming increasingly popular amongst car-campers and backpackers alike. Unless you enjoy camping in volcanic calderas, sand dunes, or similarly treeless places, ultralight hammocks are a great way to conserve weight and space. Best of all, they provide a more outdoorsy experience, yet allow you to remain high and dry, elevated from debris and critters (for those of you who are used to sleeping open-air on the ground). Many versions are enclosed, providing mosquito and rain shelter, although if you tend toward claustrophobia, you may want to stick with a traditional version.

For backpackers/campers like me, who suffer bad backs, a hammock can be either a blessing or a curse. Personally, I go for ultralight gear, and am more comfortable dealing with spinal curvature; it all depends upon your particular affliction and preferences. For my purposes, hammock camping is the ultimate for whitewater trips, because trees are abundant, ground conditions can be less than ideal, and I relish being out in the open.

Ultralight hammocks are generally made from parachute nylon; look for one that’s mildew-resistant, and make sure it comes with a stuff sack so you can test its compression size. Last summer, at a street fair in Boulder, I even saw an ultralight all-in-one daypack and hammock. Check sites like REI or Backcountry.com, and be sure that whatever you buy comes with no-questions-asked return policy should you be less than thrilled.

[Photo credit: Flickr user andrewmalone]

New Technology May Lead To Light- And Heat-Sensitive Tent

The tent we’re all familiar with from camping trips may soon be old tech thanks to a new material designed by a team of Harvard scientists.

Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have announced in a press release that they’ve developed a flexible material that can shed or retain moisture, and turn from opaque to transparent.

You can see how it works in the image below. The material is a liquid-repellent film that coats, and is infused in, an elastic porous backing. Normally the surface is flat and will shed water, but when the backing is stretched it changes the size of the pores, causing the surface to become rough and retain droplets.

In its normal state the material is transparent, but when stretched it becomes opaque. The material could be used to make a tent that blocks light on a dry and sunny day, and becomes transparent and water-repellent on a dim, rainy day.

The material may also be used in products as diverse as contact lenses and water pipes.

Researchers were inspired by the function of tears, which block materials from damaging the eye, and flush out these materials, yet remain transparent. Such inspiration is typical of work at the Wyss Institute, which looks to nature to find solutions to technological problems.

Top image courtesy Krish Dulal. Bottom image courtesy Harvard University.

Camping With Kids On Cape Cod

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can put up a tent and those who cannot. I’m not proud to admit that I’m part of the later group. I’m the youngest of six children and by the time I was born, my parents had given up camping for good. I wasn’t exposed to Boy Scouts and never learned a thing about camping, fishing, survival skills or the Great Outdoors.

So when my wife and I found ourselves shopping for camping gear at REI in preparation for a camping trip to Cape Cod, I was ready to pay $70 more for a tent that had only 11 setup steps, compared to 15 on a cheaper model. But my wife, who was a science major in college, is good at putting things together, so we bought the cheaper, Big Agnes Big House 4 tent, and I quietly hoped not to be exposed for the pathetic tent-setup guy that I am.

In a year when my family has been traveling nonstop since April 1, we’ve stayed in almost every type of accommodation, save a tent. We used to enjoy camping, years ago, but haven’t ventured out into the great outdoors for an overnight stay since our first child was born in 2007.We’ve always wanted to visit Cape Cod, but when I looked into room rates a few weeks ago and saw that even mediocre quality hotels on the Cape were charging two, three and even four hundred dollars per night, I figured it was time for our kids to get their first taste of the camping lifestyle.

So we bought some new sleeping bags, the Big Agnes tent, and some REI self-inflating camping pads, and piled our two little boys and all our gear into the family trickster for the drive to the Sweetwater Forest Campground in Brewster, a graceful little town on the north (bay) side of Cape Cod. We wanted to camp at nearby Nickerson State Park, but since they charge just $12 per tent site, they tend to fill up fast and we couldn’t get in. Sweetwater charges $35 per tent site, which is pricey for camping, but it sure beats paying $300 per night for a hotel room.

We were given a choice of two sites, and spent more time debating which one to take than Union and Confederate generals spent preparing for the Battle of Gettysburg. One site had far more privacy but also had lots of protruding tree branches on the only level ground suitable for a tent and both of us were reluctant to make a call for fear of being scapegoated for a bad night’s sleep, either from noisy neighbors or the protruding branches.

Eventually we settled on the more private site and my wife methodically went to work putting the Big House up. I stood around and did what I was told but contributed essentially nothing to the endeavor, though my wife was kind enough to pretend as though I wasn’t completely useless.

“Here, use your strength to pull that through,” she’d say. Or, “Why don’t you hammer these down?”

But we all knew that if I had to put the thing up, it would have taken hours, with several failed attempts, plenty of cursing and a bit of soul searching. If I can’t figure out how to put something together upon first glance, without consulting instructions, it probably won’t get done. My wife had the tent up in about 25 minutes flat, and before we knew it the boys were wrestling in the tent.

We made some S’mores at our campfire, but James, my 3-year-old, insisted on eating the chocolate bars a la carte.

At bedtime, he seemed comfortable enough in his kid’s sleeping bag, but was still a bit confused by the whole endeavor.

“Is this our house?” he asked, perhaps wondering if we were planning to live in the tent permanently. “Where is our hotel?”

As we tried to get the boys to settle down and go to sleep, my wife noticed a bunch of unused tabs on the ceiling of the tent and we wondered what on earth they were for. No matter how good you are at tent assembly, there will invariably be some unused parts that cause you needless panic.

Prior to the trip, I had nightmare visions of the boys keeping us up all night with requests for water, bathroom breaks, and God knows what else – but amazingly, I was the only bonehead that didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I’d left the cap on my sleeping pad open and all the air had seeped out of the bloody thing, so I woke up 18 times in the night with a sore back and a cranky neck.

The kids were sprawled all around the tent, half over my wife and me, and not remotely inside their sleeping bags, but they did fine. On our second night, I was battling a bad stomach – and you don’t really want to be a fourth mile away from the nearest bathroom in that circumstance, but with a little Pepto, I got by. That night, I made sure my pad was inflated properly and I slept like a log.

In the morning, we were awakened by a chorus of birds, frogs and crickets, and the day’s first light that crept in through our tent. Ordinarily, I consider noise and light unwanted intrusions in the morning, but greeting the day from my tent, both seemed pleasing. Even better, I enjoyed rolling over and seeing the three people who mean the most to me sprawled in and out of a jumble of sleeping bags in our Big House.

Is it possible to get a decent night sleep in a tent with two toddlers? Believe it or not, yes it is. My 5-year-old son, Leo, told us he was hooked on the camping lifestyle.

“I want to sleep in a tent every night,” he said, right before asking us if we could download a kids movie on my wife’s Kindle.

Gadling Gear Review: Eureka Warrior 230 IR Lantern

One of the great things about spring camping is that the warm days are perfect for being outside and the cool nights make for wonderful sleeping. There are few things better in life than hiking all day with friends only to return to the campsite to cook a wonderful meal and curl up in a warm sleeping bag with a good book. However, once you get comfortable in that sleeping bag, you don’t want to get out. Invariably, someone has to draw the short straw to see whose job it is to turn out the lights at the end of the night. Fortunately, Eureka has created the Warrior 230 IR lantern to prevent just those kinds of disputes from ever happening.

Anyone who camps regularly knows the value of good lighting while sitting around the campsite or in a tent at night. The natural darkness of the wilderness can be impenetrable at times and a good lantern is a must for those outings. The Warrior 230 IR emits plenty of light (230 lumens!), has great battery life and can illuminate a wide area, all of which makes it a perfect choice for family camping trips. But those are all features that you would expect out of just about any lantern you choose. What sets Eureka’s offering apart from the crowd is its remote control.

Yep! You read that right. This lantern includes an infrared remote control that allows campers to turn the light off and on from up to 25 feet away. This is a fantastic option for those times when you are snugly tucked away in your sleeping bag and just don’t want to climb out to shut off the light. The remote also allows you to dim the lantern from a distance. The LED lamp on the Warrior 230 can be adjusted to shine at any brightness level between 10% and 100% of its total rating, which makes it versatile enough to be used in just about any situation around the campsite. As if that wasn’t enough, the remote also includes its own built in LED light, making it act like a tiny flashlight, while an integrated carabineer ensures that it always stays close at hand.Powered by three D-cell batteries, the lantern has an impressive battery life. Eureka says that it can run for 48 hours straight on its highest setting and I’m inclined to believe them. While testing the Warrior 230 under typical circumstances, I never needed to replace the batteries. That includes using it on its highest and lowest brightness settings and a range of illumination levels in between.

Solid and rugged, Eureka built the Warrior 230 to withstand the rigors of camping and the outdoors. Not only is it water resistant, but also its plastic housing is largely encased in rubber, which helps to protect it from normal abuse around the campsite. Surprisingly small and lightweight, the lantern tips the scales at just 1.9 pounds with batteries. That means that it is light enough for children to comfortably carry around with them and the small, rubberized handle seems built to accommodate smaller hands. The lantern stands less than eight inches in height, which means it is compact and easy to pack as well.

Trekkers and backpackers will likely find the Warrior 230 a bit too heavy and bulky for their needs, and a good headlamp remains the best option for those types of travelers. But most campers will love having this lamp at their disposal. It is bright enough for working around the camp in the evening and can be turned down low enough to not disturb others when it is time for bed. The included hooks make it a breeze to hang either inside a tent or outside on a branch, and the choice of LED light makes it a much safer option than a gas lantern when used around children.

If you’re in the market for a new camping lantern, I highly recommend the Eureka Warrior 230 IR. Its combination of bright light, rugged construction and campsite versatility makes it a winner. The fact that you’ll never have to argue over whose turn it is to get out of their sleeping bag to turn it off is just icing on the cake. With an MSRP of $64.99 this is a very good value for families and car campers alike.

A Tiny Sleeping Bag for Your Backpack

I haven’t been a backpacker in the traditional sense in more years than I care to mention. I travel with a rolling bag and a day pack choked with electronics. But I recently found myself needing to pack a sleeping bag for an adventure that also required me to travel light. I tried stuffing my older REI down bag into a compression sack. It was small, but I figured I could do better. I settled on the Visp from Wenger.

You may be familiar with Wenger as one of the two Swiss Army Knife companies. There’s some political history there involving French speaking Swiss and German speaking Swiss, if you’re really keen, you can read up here. Over time, Wenger has expanded to make shoes and camping gear and watches and yes, sleeping bags.

I selected the Visp bag primarily because it compresses down so very small. Stowed in the included compression sack, it’s a little bigger than a football. (An American one, not a soccer ball.) I was traveling near the equator, I didn’t need loads of extra insulation, so a three season bag would do the trick. The bag weighs just short of two pounds, only a few ounces more than some of the most expensive bags on the market. It costs a bit more than my REI bag did — it retails for $224, my REI bag was $187. That’s not a huge price jump for the weight and space obsessed, considering you can spend over $300 if you’re so inclined.

I used this bag almost every night for two weeks at a variety of altitudes. Rated to 45F, I was a little cold on the nights when temps dropped into the 40s, but nothing that pulling a cap on didn’t resolve. The bags are cut unisex, it would have been nice to have a bit more room in the hips. The zip is baffled, so there are no air leaks, and the hood cinches down tight enough. There’s a pocket at the chin, nice for your phone or iPod and, as I mentioned, it comes in a compression sack so it packs away quite small.

The one features I wasn’t satisfied with was the partial zip. I wasn’t able to open the bag out flat on hot nights. This also means you can’t zip the bag in to a mate if you’re camping with the kind of person you’d want to do that with. Even though it comes in a right or a left, it’s a solo bag, which is a little sad. And, because you can’t vent it from the bottom, it’s really a fall or spring bag, a two season bag, rather than a spring, fall and summer sleeping bag.

The partial zip is the only thing that keeps me from recommending this whole-heartedly as the perfect bag for stowing in your round the world or adventure travel backpack. The insulation worked exactly as rated and the bag packed down to a remarkably small size. But I’ll consider range of use over space next time I pack for a trip that requires I carry a sleeping bag.