Getting In Gear The wrong equipment could make your next camping trip your last one. Here's how to get the best of the gear you need.
By Joan Caplin

(MONEY Magazine) – You have to go camping only once to know that the right gear is what separates the awesome adventure from the outright disaster. But finding that gear--How light must it be? What materials are best? How much should you pay?--can be a wilderness all its own.

To help you find your way, we asked several experts to guide us toward a buying strategy and specific recommendations for each of the big-ticket items every camper needs. Their first piece of advice is that while it's tempting to go high end, you can achieve camping nirvana without pounds of pricey equipment. "People overspend," says Herb Orlansky, sales manager of Appalachian Mountain Supply in Atlanta. "They go out and spend $1,500, and then they never go camping again."

We decided to focus on the crucial gear: the tent, the sleeping bag, the sleeping pad and the backpack. We made our choices, below, based on quality of protection, comfort, portability and the ease of the learning curve. We have selected items with an eye to the relative novice--the three-season camper, who figures tents and snow don't mix, and who plans to go off maybe four weekends a year and set up stakes five miles or so from the car. Unless this level of commitment develops into a serious habit, each of our gear picks should last a decade. The prices we've given, most around $200 manufacturer's suggested list, can be beaten at end-of-season sales or through outdoor-equipment catalogues such as Campmor (800-230-2151; www.campmor.com) and Hilton's Tent City (800-362-8368).

"Before you buy," adds Jonathan Dorn, assistant equipment editor of Backpacker magazine, "try on or climb into or set up every piece of gear to make sure it's comfortable and that it works." If you don't trust your own judgment, pick the brain of someone who's been out there. A camping veteran who works in a specialty store or volunteers for a local hiking club can help steer you to what's most appropriate.

SEEK SHELTER

First up: the tent. Your tent is not so much a home away from home as it is something to keep you dry and bug-free. So forget $1,500 models; less than $200 can buy reliable protection for two people.

Today, most tents are made from rip-stop polyester or nylon, materials that are lighter and more durable than the old-style canvas. To reduce water seepage, you'll want a tent that is made with as few seams as possible, especially in the flooring. "Seams are where you develop leaks," says Bill Wallace, co-owner of Wallace Guide & Outfitters in Collbran, Colo. "Even a needle hole is enough space for moisture to seep in." That's why you'll want the seams of your tent to be covered with waterproof tape and heat-sealed. Also pay attention to the rainfly. This is a piece of waterproof material that stretches over the tent and often beyond to create a kind of vestibule where you can store bulky packs and boots, or cook in a downpour. Also, Dorn advises, "Choose a light color. A dark tent can resemble a dungeon if you're stuck inside long enough." Finally, remember that tents are probably the heaviest item you'll carry and can contribute several pounds to your load.

So which models do we like? Sierra Designs' Clip Flashlight CD is a hoop tent that's reminiscent of the covered wagon. It offers slightly cramped quarters (32 square feet), but at four pounds, five ounces, "it's one of the lightest-weight tents in the free world, considering the size and square footage," says Dan Gleason of Don Gleason's Camping Supply in Northampton, Mass. A geodesic dome shape makes Coleman's Peak 1 Orion roomier than the Sierra Designs (37.5 square feet) but heavier (six pounds, four ounces). The two-person versions of these tents list for $185.

GET SOME SLEEP

When it comes to sleeping bags, getting the right size for you is important. That's because your body heat, not the bag itself, keeps you warm. When you assume a semifetal sleeping posture and feel snug but not confined, you know you have a good fit. A hood at the top of the bag, when pulled around your head, should allow no gaps where drafts can sneak in. The other key factor is what's used to insulate the bag: Down offers better warmth-to-weight ratio but is useless when wet; synthetics like Polarguard 3D are just as warm and fare better in the damp but, according to some, are less comfortable.

To get down, as it were, try The North Face Blue Kazoo. This mummy-shaped bag is "great for staying cool on a hot night and warm on a cold one," says Gleason. It should be warm in temperatures down to 20[degrees]F, weighs about two pounds, nine ounces and lists for $199. The North Face Tourlight 3D, with Polarguard 3D, is good down to 35[degrees]F, weighs one pound, 12 ounces and lists for $155.

You may also want a sleeping pad underneath the bag for extra comfort. Of the pad materials you're most likely to encounter in stores, our experts advised, stay away from the open-cell foam types, which aren't waterproof. As Gleason puts it: "They work better as sponges." In contrast, thin and lightweight closed-cell foam pads are waterproof and virtually indestructible. We like Cascade Designs' Therm-a-Rest Z-Rest, whose egg-carton surface offers extra cushioning. It weighs only a pound and lists for $29. If you'll accept extra weight--and expense--in exchange for more comfort, look at the self-inflating pads, which fill up with air with the flick of a valve. Our choice here: Cascade Designs' Therm-a-Rest LiteFoam. "It is the closest thing to a Posturepedic in the backcountry," comments Backpacker's Dorn. It weighs around two pounds, three ounces and lists for $66.

PACK IT IN

A cheap, badly made backpack is a purchase you will sorely regret, particularly if it leaves you in no condition to set up camp at the end of a hike. Does that mean you need to shell out for one of those $500 deluxe models? Not really. For less than half that, you can get a pack with a good suspension system that will, in effect, lighten your load.

For a typical weekend trip, look at packs with a capacity of 3,000 to 4,000 cubic inches and expect to end up carrying 30 to 40 pounds of stuff (including your tent). Most stores have weights to simulate your gear, so load up and walk around with a variety of packs (remembering that you want most of the weight on your hips rather than your shoulders).

These packs come with either external or internal frames. Internal frames hug the body, are more stable and allow a greater freedom of movement, making them the better choice if you plan to do climbing or rough hiking. They are also easier to handle in transit because they're more compact. External-frame packs, which are fine for basic hiking, typically cost about a third less. They sit slightly off your back to allow better ventilation.

We like Gregory Mountain Products' Reality, an internal-frame pack that was awarded top honors for comfort by Backpacker testers of many sizes. It weighs four pounds, 13 ounces and retails for $215. Among the external-frame choices, the REI Wonderland impressed us with its well-placed pockets, including one that zips off to become a fanny pack. It weighs five pounds, five ounces and lists for $170. As with all this gear, try it out for yourself to make sure it's the best fit for you. That'll increase the odds that your next camping trip won't be your last.