Camping Gear

Quality camping gear: when (and when not) to economize

Original Marmot label

A recent Facebook dialogue regarding the post “OCTK Lite part 2,” and its comparison of quality in outwardly similar tools, reminded me of a column I published in OutdoorX4 some time ago regarding equipment quality in general. I thought it was worth revisiting. Herewith:

I’ve been reviewing outdoor equipment for 30 years now, and using it for a lot longer, in conditions ranging from 115ºF Sonoran Desert summers to Beaufort Sea storms. In a few situations I’ve felt the sharp realization that my life was quite possibly hanging on the quality of my equipment—lost in a winter storm skiing the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, caught seven miles offshore in a sea kayak in a Sea of Cortez chubasco—but in the overwhelming majority of circumstances it’s only been comfort, or the lack thereof, that has been affected by the gear I was using.

Nevertheless, in that time I’ve become convinced of the near-universal truth of this axiom: The best gear is also the least expensive in the long run. Spend more in the beginning on a quality piece of gear, and it will not only perform better, enhancing your comfort (and potentially your safety), it will also last longer, justifying its price over and over. Just one example is the Marmot Gore-Tex Grouse goose-down sleeping bag I bought in 1983. Scandalously expensive at the time on a penurious college-student budget, it has since seen untold nights of use, and has lost, as best I can estimate, perhaps a half inch of loft. I could go on with many other examples.

Okay, as I’ve been adminished many times, that’s fine in theory. But what if one simply does not have, say, $500 to spend on a sleeping bag, and $200 on a stove, and $50 on a double-wall titanium coffee cup? Am I suggesting that person stay home and leave travel to those who can afford bespoke equipment?

Not at all. My overriding goal in being in this business is to encourage people to get out exploring. One can only truly appreciate something if it is experienced in person, and if we are to preserve the most beautiful parts of our country and the world, we need people there seeing those parts and developing a bond of stewardship. And traveling and experiencing other cultures is the best way to stave off the xenophobia and isolationism that seems to be gripping our country these days.

Thus when I offer equipment advice to those just starting out, or looking at replacing worn out gear, and who are on a budget, I emphasize a strategy of priority. There are areas where economizing can be done without much compromise in comfort (or safety), and others where compromising would be foolish. Here are my ideas of where you should and shouldn’t economize. 

Tent: This is the big one. While traveling and camping your tent is your home—your last line of defense against rain, snow, wind, and bugs. You can survive with a cheap sleeping bag, but if your $39.95 dome tent leaks in a shower, or collapses in a breeze, the best sleeping bag in the world won’t keep you comfortable—or safe. Whether you’re after a lightweight backpacking tent for motorcycle or bicycle travel, or a room-sized, stand-up model to carry in a vehicle, buy the best tent you can afford, and care for it well. (For an in-depth look at how to choose a good lightweight tent, see here.)

 This Hilleberg is a good tent.

This Hilleberg is a good tent.

 These are not good tents.

These are not good tents.

Sleeping bag: I own an exquisite, U.S.-made Western Mountaineering Sycamore MF sleeping bag stuffed with superb 850-plus fill-power goose down. It’s spacious, has a waterproof shell, is rated to 25ºF, and weighs barely two pounds. It cost $460, and I fully expect it to last the rest of my life. Yet, quite frankly, the $55 synthetic-fill Blue Jay bag from Wenzel, rated to the same temperature, would be just as warm, and cozier given the flannel lining. No, it won’t last as long, and it weighs over five pounds, which would be an issue if you’re motorcycling or pedaling, but for tossing in the back of the Tacoma, it’ll work just fine.

Sleeping pad: Yes, that $130 Thermarest LuxuryMap inflatable mattress is a dream to sleep on. But for about $70 you can buy a queen-size three-inch-think memory foam pad on eBay and cut two 30-inch wide sleeping pads from it.

Stove: Connoisseurs of outdoor cooking swear by the dual-burner Partner Steel stoves, made to survive professional river guide abuse and stout enough to be employed secondarily as a tire ramp for working under your vehicle. But in my FJ40 I keep a single-burner Stansport propane stove that cost me $12.50 ten years ago and is still going strong.

Camp chair: No matter how active you are, you’ll spend a lot of time in camp sitting. Do yourself a favor and skip the $20 specials with 30 plastic joints on them. I’ve lost count of the broken ones I’ve encountered—cleaning up after each Overland Expo we always find a half-dozen of them in dumpsters, a criminal waste of the planet’s resources. Look at the brilliant (and handsome), made in the U.S. Kermit Chair, which can be carried on a motorcycle or transformed into a full-size chair, the fine GCI Pico, or the bulkier but sturdy Picnic Time Sport Chair with its built-in cocktail table.

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Coffee mug: Motorcycling or bicycling? Go for that Snow Peak titanium model. Driving a truck? If you spent more than $10 you’re just showing off.

 Stove: $12.50. Mug: $45

Stove: $12.50. Mug: $45

Thermarest ProLite Plus

I remember the revelation of sleeping on my first Thermarest, in the early 1980s. For years I’d used various air mattresses, which were compact to carry, comfortable (if a bit bouncy), but prone to punctures (think southern Arizona backpacking . . .) and not good in cold weather; and foam pads, which were comfortable, puncture-proof, and well-insulated but, if thick enough, bulky and rather heavy. The marriage of the two was a stroke of genius, and I haven’t looked back since for backpacking, sea kayaking, and even, with the addition of the hedonistic base camp models, vehicle-oriented camping. Yes, there was still the odd puncture to deal with, but otherwise the Thermarest is indisputably the best of both technologies.

Cascade Designs has not by any means rested on the laurels of those first Thermarests. Especially with regard to the trekking models, they continually search for ways to reduce weight and storage bulk while retaining cushioning and insulation. So for a recent bicycle trip I decided to upgrade my 20-year-old, 3/4-length rectangular Thermarest to the current ProLite Plus. And was I glad I did.

The ProLite Plus, despite being a full-length model, is a bit lighter than my old one (1.6 pounds), and a bit thicker as well. Part of this savings came from the logical step of rounding off the ends of the original rectangular mattress, and tapering it to match the natural contours of the human body. More savings came from modern shell materials and diagonally die-cut foam. It stuffs to the same size as my old 3/4-length model, yet I was perfectly, even dreamily comfortable on it laid out over Negev Desert pebbles. Although I tend to roll around somewhat at night, I never had an issue with the width, and it was lovely to have cushioning under my legs and feet. I stayed warm on several nights that touched freezing—yet the rolled and stuffed mattress took up little precious space in my panniers.

A good night’s sleep is all the more critical when you’re expending a lot of energy during the day, and perhaps have a few muscles that are a bit stiff and protesting their recent treatment. The ProLite Plus contributed hugely to a rejuvenating slumber.

The ProLite Plus fit perfectly (and, here, invisibly!) under my semi-rectangular Western Mountaineering sleeping bag

They may not be perfect, but . . .

 I admit to being a tiny bit anxious as the “official” resident Toyota Land Cruiser disciple when Graham Jackson and his wife, Connie Rodman, bought a 1994 Troopy to match the ’93 Roseann and I had bought, for a trip across Australia’s Simpson Desert and further explorations Down Under. You see, Graham has lived and breathed Land Rovers since his childhood in southern Africa when the family toured the Kalahari Desert in an early Range Rover. Connie is not far off in terms of disciple-hood, and the two of them drove a Defender 110 from London to Cape Town. While Graham has no intellectual prejudice against the Toyota, it’s clear where his heart lies.

So I naturally wanted those two Troopies to perform perfectly. Statistically I knew the odds were high, but we were dealing, after all, with two unfamiliar 20-plus-year-old vehicles with 230,000 km (ours) and 400,000-some km on the clocks. And Land Cruisers in Australia tend to be used as God and Toyoda-san intended. 

And perform perfectly they did. The naturally aspirated 1HZ diesels earned praise from Graham for their 20-21 mpg economy at 110kph on Australia’s paved highways, and for their effortless low-end torque once we hit the Madigan Line to cross the desert. I believe I overheard an adjective along the lines of “fantastic” a few days into the trip.

Once out of the desert and past Birdsville, we cranked up the speed again to get back to Sydney. On one stretch of highway I switched from the near-empty front fuel tank to the full rear—and about 15 minutes later the engine started faltering.

Well. Dammit.

We pulled over and consulted. The consensus was that the transfer pump in the rear tank, which simply moves fuel to the front tank from where the main fuel pump picks it up, was failing to deliver an adequate supply to keep up with the consumption at high speed. Clogged fuel filters were ruled out as the engine-compartment-mounted factory units had been replaced before the trip. It was a minor issue as we didn’t need the range of both tanks on the highway; we dumped our spare jerry can of diesel into the front tank and continued with no further problems.But was that the glimmer of a smirk on Graham’s face as he drove off? Just a minute upturn at the corners of his mouth?  So, they are not perfect.

Back in Sydney we left the vehicles with Daniel at the Expedition Centre for further modifications and an investigation into the fuel-delivery problem. And presently the answer came back.

At some point in the past 23 years a previous owner had, quite sensibly, installed a cheap Pep Boys plastic prefilter in the line just ahead of the rear tank—and then forgot all about it. Daniel’s mechanic found it, cut it open, and revealed a solid mass of gunk inside. Problem solved and truck running happily on either tank. They may not be perfect, but at least this issue was definitely not a Toyota issue.

To be fair, there was one other complaint acknowledged by us all regarding both vehicles: The stock seats were rubbish, especially after a couple of decades of ample Aussie bums bouncing around on them across the Outback. We’re addressing that now; report soon.

Irreducible perfection: Sea to Summit cargo straps

I have a confession that will seem like sacrilege to some outdoor enthusiasts: I’m not fond of Fastex buckles.

Why sacrilege? If you’re old enough to remember what we had before them, you’ll understand. The common fasteners for backpack straps, cargo straps, etc., were metal buckles with a sliding toothed bar to grip the strap. They were fussy and time-consuming, and eventually rusted. By contrast, the Fastex buckle (or, generically, side-release buckle) seemed like a miracle of convenience when it was introduced.

But they’re not perfect. They’re plastic and they do break—I’ve lost count of the one-tined buckles I’ve tossed over the years, and the habit of many equipment makers to permanently sew in the buckle doesn’t help. They’re also susceptible to UV degradation: I had a sea kayak that employed them to secure the cargo hatches and every six months I had to replace them all prophylactically to ensure they didn’t start failing in sequence on a rough crossing. Constant sun exposure quickly turned them powdery and brittle.

Finally, and importantly, injection-molded buckles lack any formal kind of working load limit parameters. One is never sure just how much stress a buckle of a certain size will accept before failing—and in some applications that can be critical. 

All this was on my mind when I was shopping for cargo straps to secure my (very expensive) Hilleberg tent to the rear platform rack on my bicycle for a trip through Israel. By chance I discovered the Sea to Summit 10mm accessory straps. They employ a one-piece anodised aluminum toothed buckle impervious to UV degradation, and a relatively narrow (yes, 10mm) strap. Yet, lo and behold, on the buckle was a small tag listing a working load limit (WLL) of 125 kg. That’s 275 pounds to you non-metric people—more than enough, I figured, to safely secure a 4.5-pound tent. 

In use over several hundred miles, the Sea to Summit straps performed perfectly. While not quite as fast as a plastic buckle would have been for securing and releasing, it still took seconds per strap. And despite securing a load that varied from just the tent to a tent plus jacket plus two-litre plastic water bottle, the straps never loosened one millimeter. I soon stopped checking every few minutes to make sure that expensive Hilleberg was still with me.

If you really want a quick-release function, Sea to summit sells the same strap with a hook release, but I wouldn’t bother. The foolproof security of the standard buckle is worth the extra few seconds of setup time. Need more strength? There’s a 20mm version as well, with a 330-pound WLL. Each width comes in three lengths, from 40 to 80 inches—enough to secure very bulky items.

Highly recommended. You’ll find dozens of uses.

The straps are here on Sea to Summit’s site.

A proper shovel

While equipping our Land Cruisers for a trip across the Simpson Desert, we picked up a cheap shovel at a military-surplus-cum-Chinese-camping-gear store in Sydney. Just how cheap became apparent the first night we tried to dig a fire pit. The shovel literally bounced off the ground—the blade simply bent and sprang back under any force at all. It was so bad all we could do was laugh.

That won’t happen with this one. 

We needed indestructible shovels for the Camel Trophy Skills Area at the Overland Expo, and a short web search convinced me that those from Wolverine Hand Tools fit the bill perfectly.

If you name a shovel “Wolverine” it had better be tough, since its namesake is known for chasing grizzly bears off their kills to have a snack. Indeed, this one (DH15DP) is solid, welded steel except for a rubber foot brace (which can be changed side to side). The blade has a sharp wedge tip and most definitely will not bounce off the ground. The 26-inch shaft is steel, and welded to the blade around the perimeter of the joint on both sides. It’s not the prettiest weld on earth—there’s spatter under the paint—but it’s not going to come loose. Likewise, the D handle is steel and welded. 

It’s obviously not the lightest shovel you can buy, but its utility will extend beyond digging fire pits. Prying lodged rocks from under the frame rails of a high-centered truck should be no trouble. And the 15-inch blade offers plenty of surface area for scooping sand out from under a buried vehicle to insert Max Trax (there’s also a 12-inch version). Well-recommended.

Look for them here.

Solutions to problems that never existed

     

 

 

Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing.

Usually.

In the world at large, we can be grateful for those inventions that have benefited mankind and transformed lives: home espresso machines, noise-cancelling headphones, the Porsche 911. Oh, and dialysis machines and stuff.

In the overlanding world we have much to be thankful for as well: the 12V fridge of course, but also LED lighting, MotionX-GPS Pro, diff locks, Star Walk . . .

Then there are . . . the others. Products that make one—or at least me—think, What were they thinking? See if you agree/disagree with any of these. No offense taken or given if you don’t. further suggestions welcome.

Spork

Here’s a brilliant concept: “Let’s make a fork with triangle-shaped tines incapable of penetrating anything firmer than a cube of rotten tofu, and a spoon with built-in drainage cuts in the end so any liquid picked up in it dribbles out on the user’s shirt. Then let’s combine them in one utensil!” And they're everywhere. Even Snow Peak, purveyor of many otherwise stellar products, wastes bits of the world's finite supply of titanium on their own version.

I know genuinely smart people (including blood relations) who claim to be fans of this idiotic device. I’m convinced they are simply mortally embarrassed at having been fooled into parting with good money for one, and are determined to bluster on and insist it’s a fabulous tool. It’s not. It’s dumb. Buy a fork, and buy a spoon (Snow Peak makes nice ones). Your shirt will stay cleaner, and you can eat steak instead of rotten tofu.

Incidentally, if a normal spork is too mundane for you, there’s the Tactical Spork from Ka-Bar:

Single-use soap

You know how difficult it is to get the last few uses out of a bar of soap when it’s been reduced to a sliver? How about paying for a pack of them? The entire concept of “single-use” soap is flawed to begin with. Single use for what? Washing your hands? What if your hands are really dirty? A shower? What if your “single-use” soap runs out when you’re only half clean? You get another, and have a half-use soap sliver left over? All this ran through my mind the first time I saw these things on a camping equipment site. Subsequent consideration hasn’t softened my stance.

One thing’s for sure: You’ll get taken to the cleaners while you’re getting cleaner. I found a pack of single-use soap “leaves” (actually shaped like leaves; cute) on Amazon. Twelve bucks for a pack of 20. That’s 60 cents every time you wash your hands.

Mini survival kits

Here’s the situation: You’re planning to head out into the wilderness with your 4x4/motorcycle/bicycle/backpack. And it crosses your mind that you might find yourself in a situation in which you lose everything—don’t ask how—and will have to stay alive, feed, water, and warm yourself, and find your way back to civilization by relying solely on the contents of the survival kit you grab before your 4x4/motorcycle/bicycle/backpack falls off the edge of a 5,000-foot cliff/is stolen by bandits/burns to ashes. So, of course that survival kit needs to fit inside a Peppermint Altoids tin, right? What’s in there? Let’s see—a razor blade for a knife, to skin the rabbit you catch with the included .00006” diameter “snare wire,” a condom to carry water (my favorite!), safety pins for. . . for . . . well, I’ve never been sure what for. A “fishing kit”: ten feet of ten-pound-test monofilament and three #12 hooks. A micro ferrocerium rod fire striker, of course, because no self-respecting mini survival kit would come with anything as plebeian and effective as windproof matches. And a button compass to precisely determine the difference between northish and sort of south.

At least the Altoids kits are cheap. I reviewed another mini survival kit here that was not.

The words “mini” and “survival kit” do not belong in the same sentence. If your life is going to depend on a single container of equipment, there is no reason it needs to fit in your back pocket. The best “pocket” survival kit for a large portion of the developed world is an iPhone. If you go more remote, carry a real kit with useful components.

 

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“Spec-Ops” survival knives

I’ve ranted in detail about these before, here. Suffice to say, burdening yourself with one of these cartoonish monsters unless you have a very, very high chance of needing to “egress from your downed helicopter’s canopy,” chop through a concrete block, or take down a sentry with an occiput strike, is just silly. A good bushcraft or standard hunting knife will perform far better for 99.999 percent of the things you really need a knife for—including survival.

Pop-up tents

You know the kind I’m talking about—a flat disk of fabric-covered springy wire; you fling it open and it either becomes a tent or a windshield shade (“Dammit, we left the tent at home again!”)

These things are a tent connoisseur’s ultimate nightmare: Sea kayaking the arctic coast, I stop to pitch camp to sit through a rapidly approaching Force Five storm, and when I pull my bombproof, four-season Hilleberg tent out of its stuffsack it has transmogrified into a Barney-purple and Minions yellow pop-up dome tent. I wake up in a cold sweat. “Tent dream again?” Roseann says sleepily.

I’ve actually used one—it came with a hired Land Cruiser in Egypt. It would collapse in a breeze that was insensible to a wet finger, and its admittedly instant pitch was more than offset by the fact that it required two people, five arms, and eight tries to accomplish the six-sequence coiling motion needed to return it to its case. Stupid.* Read more here.

*Note that I make an exception for pop-up shower/toilet enclosures, which do not need to keep you dry and safe in a storm or wind.

Happy Hour with National Luna

Look closely at the photo above. Aside from the obvious bit of magic we now blithely accept as normal—I’m downloading and viewing photographs in the middle of the Simpson Desert—note the cocktail. It’s a refreshing warm-weather concoction called a dark’n stormy: dark rum, lime juice, simple syrup, and ginger beer, served over ice.

Wait a minute. Ice cubes, six days from Anywhere, Australia? Yes, thanks to the National Luna 50 Twin Weekender fridge/freezer we had along. 

Just as with digital photography and laptop computers, we now take for granted the sorcery of the Engel 12V fridge and its descendants, which forever eliminated that three-days-out semi-cool swill in the bottoms of our old Coleman coolers (note I’m referring to proper fridges employing proper compressors, not the ineffective thermoelectric coolboxes). I don’t predict ice chests will go the way of 35mm film and typewriters any time soon—a fridge is still a wince-inducing investment—but increasingly an Engel/ARB/Dometic/Waeco etc. is becoming one of the first accessories added to a new overlanding vehicle. (When we were stopped at state border agricultural checkpoints in Australia, the officers automatically said, “Need to check your fridge.” They assumed anyone in a Land Cruiser had one.) 

Recently National Luna upped the ante, and gave us fridges with a separate freezer compartment. No longer do we have to struggle along with just cold beer, milk, and cheese; now we can add to that frozen meats, ice cream—and the means to keep a cocktail properly chilled. (Of course 12V fridges have always had the ability to freeze, but you had to choose one function or the other—fridge or freezer—or bring two units. We’ve done that on group safaris but it’s a bit much for a single vehicle.)

There are several quality brands of 12VDC/120VAC fridges on the market. We’ve had both an Engel and an ARB for years, and each has performed perfectly. With the exception of Engel, which has stuck with their tried and true Sawafuji swing motor compressor, and Waeco, which uses a branded compressor, virtually all fridge makers use the identical SECOP BD35 compressor in their smaller units, and the SECOP BD50 for larger fridges. (These were formerly known as Danfoss, but that company was bought out in 2010.)

Since the compressor is the heart of the fridge, you might think there wouldn’t be much difference in performance between brands using the same one, and continue to wonder why there is such a price disparity between those brands. Indeed, in general all work well and are reliable in harsh conditions. But the thickness and quality of insulation has an obvious impact on how often the compressor has to cycle (and thus use power) to maintain a set temperature, as does, to a lesser extent, the lid seal. Also, the thermostat can simply turn the compressor on or off, or the manufacturer can incorporate a sophisticated electronic control that varies the output in response to several parameters, further conserving energy. Inexpensive fridges use plastic exterior and interior cladding; more expensive models use aluminum or even stainless steel. In some fridges the evaporator plate is exposed in the interior, where it is susceptible to damage; in others it’s enclosed. Some fridges use plastic latches, others stainless steel.

Finally there are the ergonomic factors. Does the lid open only one way, or can it be switched to hinge sideways? Is there a useful interior light? Is the interior simply one big space, or are there baskets for organizing and securing contents? Does the control panel have an actual thermometer, or just a dial with numbers? What about a voltage monitor and adjustable low-voltage cutout? And since I’ve already written “finally,” a postscript that might or might not be important to you: You’ve spent a lot of money—does the fridge look like it’s worth it?

National Luna justifies its premium pricing by handily checking off all these factors. Particularly in the category of performance, in the fridge comparison tests in which I’ve been involved it consistently manages to both cool contents the quickest and keep them that way while using less power overall—an impressive trick. In fact, the one beef I have with this fridge is the name: “Weekender?” Not sure what NL was thinking, because the 50 Twin combines a 40-liter fridge with a 10-liter freezer—enough capacity for a far longer trip than one weekend. Not only is the capacity generous, but an easy-to-miss additional advantage of fridges over ice chests is that you don’t have to load all the contents at the beginning of the trip; the fridge will easily chill stuff added en route. We had more than enough room for all our refrigerated goods for ten days between supply sources. 

And the ice cubes just kept coming, every evening . . .

The NL fridge temporarily lashed down next to the Kanz kitchen. The fridge will be moved to a permanent position at the back of the Troopy once we have the cabinetry installed.

National Luna is here. North American distributor Equipt is here, offering free shipping as of this writing—or you can pick one up at the Overland Expo. If you have a family and need more room than the 50 Weekender, NL makes several larger models.

When you don't really need it, but . . .

Sometimes quality—and the money you spend for it—is a must when outfitting a vehicle for backcountry travel. 

For example, most people would agree it’s stupid to economize on tires. They are your connection to the road and trail, and your life literally rides on them. Another: I’ve long (probably too long for some readers) pontificated on the value of high-quality tools, arguing that if you have brought out the tools something has already gone wrong, and it would be foolish to risk compounding the situation by using a cheap tool that might not do its job or even break. Likewise, I stand by my stance that you should by the best tent you can afford (read why here). Same goes for air compressors, winches, and many other things for which poor quality can be inconvenient if not downright hazardous.

For other gear, economizing has few if any disadvantages. For example, I own a superb Western Mountaineering goose down sleeping bag that weighs less than two pounds, is comfortable to 25ºF, and stuffs to the size of a loaf of bread. For motorcycle travel or sea kayaking, where weight and bulk are vital considerations, it’s perfect. But for travel in a 4,000-pound truck, why spend $400 when a $90 synthetic-fill rectangular bag from L.L. Bean will be roomier, keep you warm at the same temperature, and have a cozy flannel lining with jumping deer printed on it? Yeah, it weighs five pounds, so what? Or there’s the $35 Lifetime folding table my friend Graham found at WalMart while doing an exhaustive magazine test of camping tables; it won not just the value award but overall as well. We just took it across Australia, and it performed perfectly.

There’s a third category, and it applies when a particular passion is involved and the item in question might not need to be the best—you simply prefer the best. Example: It’s useful to have a pair of binoculars in the vehicle, for identifying distant landmarks, scouting, watching animals, or stargazing. There are plenty of $150 models available that will suffice nicely. But if you’re a passionate birder and naturalist, as Roseann and I are, you’ll want the sharpest, brightest, and most weatherproof instrument you can get. We spent—well, move the decimal point right on the above price and you’ll get the idea—on ours, but every time we look through them we appreciate the superior technology and craftsmanship. They’ve proven worth the expense over and over.

What about cooking in the field? One fellow might be happy to dump a tin of Dinty Moore stew into a cheap aluminum pot sitting in a fire, then eat it out of the pot with a plastic spoon. Dinner takes 15 minutes from lighting a match to finishing. The sign of a cheapskate with no passion? Who knows—he might keep the evening meal simple so he can set up a 5-inch Takahashi astronomical telescope that cost as much as his truck, and split binary stars all night long. 

For many other people, though, one of the high points of each journey is the challenge of creating and serving gourmet meals from a compact traveling kitchen or chuck box—and doing so with an eye on aesthetics. The fridge will be stocked with fresh vegetables and meats, the spice kit will be a kit and not a reversible salt/pepper shaker, and nary a plastic utensil will appear on the table. Table? Sure, that WalMart number might hold up your food, but wouldn’t slatted oak be much more satisfying (at least a tablecloth . . .)? 

And what about kitchen knives? Sure, a blister-pack “chef’s knife” from the grocery store might work, but anyone serious about cooking from scratch is going to want something sharper and better balanced. And probably not just one—a deep-bladed chef’s knife should rightfully be accompanied by a smaller paring knife, and perhaps a longer slicing knife. 

The problem is that within the limited confines of a chuck box, full-size knives can steal a lot of space, and if left loose—and properly sharpened—can be a real hazard, and the edges easily chipped. This conundrum was on the mind of Carl Jonsson, of Tools for Adventure, when he designed the Tiktaalik Field Knife set. It comprises a chef’s knife with a versatile 6 1/2-inch blade, a paring knife, and a serrated slicing knife. The trio—along with two useful high-density plastic cutting boards—fits in a metal case 5 1/2 inches wide by 11 inches long by just 5/8ths of an inch thick. How did he accomplish that? Simple: He left off the handles.

That’s not as odd as it might seem. Each Tiktaalik knife is made from a single piece of Sandvik 12C27 steel. The grip area, normally beefed up by plastic or wood scales (to use the correct term), while flat, is rounded and polished, and surprisingly comfortable and secure to hold, not to mention being effortless to clean. The chef’s knife balances right at the rear of the blade. Each knife fits into a precise cutout in the base of the case, but is easily popped out by pressing down on the tip of the blade. The base, as well as the plastic slab that captures the knives on top, doubles as a very decent cutting board. The closest comparison I know of is the Snow Peak chef’s knife, which comes in a wood case that hinges open to double as a cutting board—however, you have to use the outside of the case, which quickly gets stained and scarred. The Tiktaalik set gives you two cutting boards, and the metal case remains clean. (One suggestion: Fingernail grooves in the top cutting board would make it easier to lift out.)

Sandvik’s 12C27 is, on paper, a fairly ordinary stain-resistant steel, containing about the same amount of carbon (.6%) but less chromium (13.5%) than, say, 440A, which is widely used in moderately priced knives. However, bladesmiths report that 12C27 seems to be remarkably pure, and easily heat treated to 57-59 on the Rockwell (HRC) scale. We’ve been using the Tiktaalik chef’s knife for some time now, both in the field and at home, and the edge hasn’t needed touching up yet—a good sign. 

The Tiktaalik Field Knife set takes up scant room in either our Kanz Field Kitchen or the older, smaller chuck box I made years ago. Yet in use the knives perform virtually as well as much bulkier standard models would. (Roseann says that if she were doing a lot of cooking for a large group she would probably bring a standard chef’s knife—a fair caveat.) At $199 the price is reasonable (the knives alone are available for $149). Could you make do with something less? Certainly. It just depends on your level of passion. 

Tools for Adventure is here. Many other interesting products as well.