Camping Gear

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.

A singularly excellent product

I won't get any free gear out of this, because I'm afraid I don't think as highly in general of The North Face products as I did 20 years ago, but their Base Camp duffel is outstanding.

We stuffed one with all our ancillary gear on the way to Australia. Multiple handles facilitated grabbing easily whether it was on an airport luggage carousel or deep in the recess of our vehicle's cargo compartment. The 1000-denier laminated nylon material is tough and easy to clean, and a D-shaped main zipper makes loading easy as well. Shoulder straps—which are actually contoured—meant I could sling it over my shoulder and leave two hands free for other luggage. And compression straps kept everything in its place. The giant TNF label ensures everyone in the airport knows you're on your way to do something ADVENTUROUS.

I'm something of a duffel-bag snob (or connoisseur if you prefer), but I'll put the Base Camp right up with my top two duffels, the B.A.D. (Best American Duffel) and the classic standby Filson. One of our Filson duffels has been to Africa a total of nine or ten times; we'll see how the TNF compares in a few years. 

 

Your very own Troopy? (Or Hilux, or . . .)

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What is the best expedition vehicle in the world?

Of course there isn’t one.

“Best” as applied to an expedition vehicle means different things to different people, and can vary even then in different situations with different logistical requirements. And any vehicle one might name out of “the usual suspects” will have strengths that might suit one situation along with weaknesses that might not suit the same situation. The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited, for example, combines unmatched technical-terrain performance with a poorly laid-out and small cargo area and low GVWR. The venerable (and no longer made) Land Rover Defender 110 combines an excellent layout and capacity for cargo, an economical turbodiesel engine, and all-coil-spring ride comfort with outdated and cramped driver and passenger accommodations and a history of bipolar build quality. The Mercedes G-Wagen (the diesel-powered world-market version) combines mightily overengineered running gear, excellent traction, and a high GVWR with a fearsomely high price and potentially overcomplex electronics. 

Then there’s the 70-series Land Cruiser Troop Carrier, or Troopy as it’s known. Arguably the most primitive of the bunch—the only one still riding on leaf rear springs—its reputation hinges more than anything else on unmatched reliability and durability. Tens of thousands of them have shrugged off tens of millions of miles of abuse from safari guides and non-government agencies, hammering on faithfully regardless. Years ago Roseann and I, through the auspices of a crooked fixer, led a safari in remotest Tanzania in a wreck of an early (all-leaf-spring) example. It had layers of flaked tan repaint on it; the ancient 103-horsepower 2H diesel engine wheezed and blew Vesuvius-sized clouds of smoke; there were no seals left on any opening and bulldust choked the interior to the point of actually reducing visibility for the driver; the alternator died during a night drive out of potential bandit country in Loliondo and we had to light our way with a flashlight. We loathed that vehicle by the end of the trip—yet it just kept running the entire time, and for all I know still is. Many thousands of miles in much nicer examples have reinforced our admiration for the Troopy—especially those powered by the later (post-1990) 1HZ naturally-aspirated six-cylinder diesel. This has proved such a dependable workhorse that it is still in production 25 years later despite the advent of the much more sophisticated and powerful twin-turbo V8 diesel. The 1HZ is reserved for markets such as Africa where power is less desirable than simplicity. 

70-series

But reliability isn’t the only strength of the Troopy. Open the 60/40 split rear door and you are greeted with a cargo bay large enough to return echoes. It is literally cavernous, and the Troopy’s GVWR rating matches it. You could stash enough actual troops and armaments back here to engineer a coup d’état (and it’s probably been done . . .). For mere safari duty there’s room for all the gear you could possibly need for an extended stay away from supplies. And speaking of capacity, many if not most Troopies are equipped from the factory with dual fuel tanks totalling an astounding 47 gallons.

The driver and passenger seating area is spacious and visibility all around is commanding. Seating is comfortable if you get the individual buckets, not quite so good for the passenger with the split bucket/bench. Power-assisted steering and brakes make driving the beast easier than it would seem, and once loaded with guerrillas, AK47s, and RPG-7s the ride is really not bad at all. Finally, a comprehensive selection of bits to augment the strengths and correct the weaknesses of the Troopy is available from high-quality suppliers such as ARB and Old Man Emu.

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For those of us in the U.S. there was just one problem: The 70-series Troopy was never imported here, nor was any Toyota with the 1HZ engine. However, notice the date the engine was introduced—1990. That puts Troopies (and the companion pickup configuration) equipped with the 1HZ inside the envelope of the 25-year exemption for importing vehicles to this country. 

This was uppermost in our minds as we recently began planning a trip to Australia, where the 70-series Troopy is practially the official national vehicle for any travel off tarmac. Looking at ads on such sites as Gumtree brought up a good selection of vehicles, although many of them had obviously seen a lot of miles in the bush. Also, somewhat counterintuitively given Australia’s huge inland desert, rust is an issue—about 99.9 percent of the country’s population lives along the coast, and beach driving and saltwater fishing are popular pastimes. Prices for early 90’s Troopies ranged from around $5,000 (AUS) for dodgy runners up to $25,000 for pristine examples. Given the current favorable exchange rate (1$ AUS = $.75 US) this left a fair number of possibilities.

With some diligence and luck we found an extremely clean, low-mileage, one-owner 1993 model listed for sale at a dealer in Darwin, and after a few emails back and forth to confirm details, it was ours.

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Given its slightly later manufacture date, we’ll have to wait a couple years to import it, but we have plans for the interim . . .

Meanwhile our friends Graham Jackson (director of training for the Overland Expo) and his wife, Connie, searched for and found their own Troopy, with higher miles than ours but equipped with dual locking differentials and a drawer system. Both vehicles are now on their way to the Expedition Centre in Sydney, where owner Daniel will be installing a few modifications before we arrive. Then we are off to the Simpson Desert for a solid shakedown run.

If you’re interested in importing a vehicle directly to the U.S. and having most of the work done for you, look at AustoUSA.com. Phil Newell there is experienced in the entire export/import process. Of course Troopies are not the only potentials for one’s own version of the “best” expedition vehicle. There are plenty of Hiluxes, Prados, and Land Rovers available as well, including many that were purchased by visitors, fully kitted with roof tents, fridges, etc., taken on a trip, and then ut up for sale when the owners returned home. This opens the possibility of landing in Australia and picking up a fully prepared vehicle for your own journey for about what it would cost to rent one from the many outfitters there. The AustoUSA site lists all the costs to have a vehicle delivered to the U.S., including shipping, customs, etc. There is literally a “click to purchase” button.

Tempted?

 

The Tacky Tourist Mug

Humans have been collecting souvenirs to commemorate their travels for a long time. 

Amber beads from Scandinavia, found in Ireland and dated to around 1,000 BC, are among the first objects to be classified as ‘souvenirs’ by archaeologists—probably because the scientists could figure out no practical use for them, the very definition of a souvenir. By the middle of the first millenium AD, religious authorites in Europe had become so tired of pilgrims breaking off pieces of holy buildings and statues to take home that they began manufacturing and handing out tiny ampullae filled with holy water to stem the vandalism. These soon proved too expensive to produce in mass quantities, so cheaper badges were substituted. Thus we can blame the church for the rows of junk in most modern gift shops.

Wealthy nineteenth-century travelers on the Grand Tour of Europe commonly had compact portraits painted of themselves next to famous landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe. Anyone else see a direct line of descent to the selfie stick?

These days, as mentioned, the word ‘souvenir’ generally calls to mind Elvis snow globes (the largest gift shop in the world is in Las Vegas), Chinese Inca figurines, and T-shirts. Yet the drive to take home some essentially inconsequential memento of exotic travels remains strong in us. How to assuage it without becoming an item of ridicule in the local paper on one’s death?

Roseann hit upon an excellent solution a few years ago, on a trip to Egypt. We’d hired Land Cruisers with camping and cooking equipment, but the only cups included were plastic throwaways. In a parking lot near the Pyramids she scanned the offerings of a group of vendors, and picked out a spectacularly hideous mug with Pharaonic motifs done in gold leaf. I chided her for contributing to the Chinese-ification of the souvenir trade until she turned it over and found it was made right there. And she had a nice ceramic mug for the rest of the trip, while I drank coffee from Dixie cups (we never found another souvenir mug dealer).

That mug (which she referred to as her ‘tacky tourist mug’), judiciously packed, made it home, and a tradition was born. Now we have an ever-expanding collection of mugs from destinations as diverse as Ushuaia and Steamboat Springs. While some remain decidedly on the tacky side—witness the Pope Mug from Argentina—many others simply commemorate a favorite town or cafe. And we never run out of coffee mugs for visitors.

Worth the space?

All motorcyclists carry that one luxury item they could do without, but which makes the trip so much more comfortable. For most riders it's a pillow, for some it’s a torque wrench or musical instrument. It used to be that chairs fell into that category. Lately, they seem to be on the must-have section of the packing list since so many riders are carrying one. Is it worth the 2 lb. and 14x5” it takes up in the pannier?

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I have always been one for simplicity, which usually meant no luxuries. That idea has been forever spoiled after this past Christmas and the purchase of two Helinox chairs and a table. Camping will never be the same. No more sitting on the ground to cook or using a pannier as a chair. The Chair One is perfect for enjoying a morning cup of coffee or relaxing with an evening  beer after a long day’s ride. With a conscious decision of not doing much for the day, you can easily spend hours, comfortably, playing games without noticing the compact size of these chairs. The table is made of a taut mesh, providing adequate stability for our travel chess board, and there are two inset cup holders to ensure no game gets spoiled by spilled liquid.

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The design is simple and the tent-pole-like aluminum frame dis/assembles quickly. It’s light and strong (can hold up to 320lbs.) and has four legs. Gone are the days of balancing on only two to save space.

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After only one weekend, I understand how the Helinox chairs became so popular and found their way into the panniers of many riders—and into mine. For those who don’t have one yet, I highly recommend you give it a try, and lucky for you they now come in a variety of colors to choose from.

Surefire Minimus Headlamp

    A headlamp is a useful piece of kit when you need light and both hands free, whether you are camping, caving, working on your car, walking your dog, or, in my case, using it almost every day for work. 

    I’ve used a few different types of headlamps over the years, and for the most part inexpensive models have worked satisfactorily for once-in-a-while excursions. Recently, however, I started working for a local family owned HVAC company doing installations. Although my working conditions change daily they are usually dark, cramped, and can be dangerous, and I quickly found that the headlamp I used for casual camp chores was not going to do the job and would not survive its rigors. After a few days of frustration with a broken switch, dead batteries, and simply insufficient light, I called Surefire. 

    Surefire is a vendor at the Overland Expo, and I had the chance to take a look at their products at the last show. The company builds a variety of high-quality products for the military, law enforcement, and rescue teams. If Surefire lights can withstand that abuse they should be able to hold up to what I could throw at them. 

When I first opened the box containing the Surefire Minimus headlamp, several things struck me. It’s bigger than some other lamps on the market, yet surprising light thanks to all-aluminum construction. After setting the strap and positioning it on my head I realized the size would not be an issue and the light weight would be a big plus. The moisture-wicking head pad was and remains comfortable to the point that you hardly realize you have it on your head.

The Minimus lamp unit can pivot a full 180 degrees within the headband, which allows you to aim light exactly where you need it. Many other lights either do not adjust or are limited to a smaller range. I found this feature extremely useful, as there are times I need to crawl into some pretty tight areas. Having a full range of adjustment is a good thing when you don't know what to expect. Usable light is obviously a priority, and the Minimus has the best of any I have used. The high-power LED and well-focused lens assembly provides a strong, broad beam of light. With many other headlamps I’ve used the light pattern is either too narrow or too diffused to be of any real use. 

with camera flash

with headlamp light only (no flash)

Surefire claims the Minimus can be adjusted with one hand. I found this to be true except for turning on the unit and setting the brightness. This is done via a dial on the end of the unit, and I need two hands to prevent the light barrel from rolling. However, the dial is robust and, unlike a conventional switch, cannot inadvertently turn on in your bag.

All but one of the four Minimus versions use a single, now-common lithium CR123A battery (the exception takes a AA). These can be expensive if purchased by the pair at a hardware store, but become quite affordable when bought online by the dozen. (They’re still uncommon in many developing countries; take spares in your carry-on—they’re not allowed loose in checked baggage.) I squeaked out a solid twelve hours of use at an estimated 75 percent brightness from the single battery in the Minimus. I found full power (Surefire’s 100-lumen rating) too bright for most up close work. I also tried slightly more expensive replacement batteries from another company, found their performance to be inferior to the Surefire branded cells. I did note that the listed run time on the Minimus seems relatively short compared to Surefire flashlights that use a single CR123. Whether this is due to a different emitter used in headlamps I don’t know.

Using the light constantly for work I found I was depleting a battery every two days on average, so I ordered Surefire’s rechargeable kit, which includes two cells and a charger (120VAC and 12V capable). I added two extra cells. Surefire says the rechargeable cell has about half the run time of the lithium cell, and I found this to be accurate. For my situation this works perfectly. With the amount of use this unit sees, the savings of the rechargeable cells will more than cover their cost.

I’ve now been using the Minimus in the field for about two months, and it’s become my go-to light for many other uses. It now stays with me in my backpack, not my tool bag. Although the batteries are a bit more expensive than your typical AA or AAA cell, the quality of light you get from the Surefire unit more than makes up for it. 

Pros:

  • Aluminum construction shrugs off abuse. 
  • Comfortable headband and moisture-wicking forehead pad.
  • Adjustable brightness from 1 to 100 lumens using a dial.
  • 180 degree adjustment of light beam.
  • Perfectly focused pattern.

Cons:

  • Lithium batteries cost more than alkaline cells.
  • Relatively inefficient run time.        

Find out more about the product at Surefire