"The tents weren't all that great, and I often slept under a canoe and would wrap my head in a towel to keep the bugs to a minimum."
- Esther Keyser, first female Algonquin park guide (1937)
I'm not exactly what they would call a gear head. Those types, the ones who spend more time talking about their latest camp gadget then actually making use of it, drive me insane. But I am like most of us. I hang out at outdoor shops during the off-season gawking at the latest implements of camping and build a passion for a new product just as a child would for a toy in a store window a few days before Christmas. And I do, on occasion, treat the store like some kind of community center, or worse a kind of strip-mall, and spend time chatting with other obsessed campers like myself about the best pick of gear for that particular year - but then never end up buying anything.
I must confess that lately I've become spoiled when it comes to gadgetry. During the last few years I've been doing a routine morning talk-show circuit showing the latest camp gear. Prior to the interviews on television I head to the local outdoor store to gather up the season's hottest items (and regretfully give them back when the tour is done) and then go live on air to discuss the pros and cons of everything from new mosquito repellent to solar radios. One item in particular, a urinary device enabling women to pee while standing up, was how the job all started for me.
I was being interviewed on a syndicated morning show for a recent book and decided to bring a few camp gadgets along to liven things up - including the plastic tube-shape fake penis contraption. The crew and female co-host had looked over the gear prior to the show and asked a few questions about the product, titled Peemate. So they knew full well what the darn thing was. The main host didn't, however. He walked on set seconds before we went live. The guy acted more then a little arrogant. He was complete with hair-plugs and over-the-top makeup, made some smart out-of-context remark about how silly camping was, and then grabbed the first gadget - which happened to be the female urinary device - and asked what it was. Not sure why, maybe because I have a bizarre sense of humor - but live on television I said "It's a whistle; give it a try." He did. The crew and his not-so-arrogant female counterpart fell over laughing. The moment instantly became the joke of the century, at least in the world of morning shows, and almost every talk-show in the country phoned me the next day asking to be on their show to talk about my book - and the Peemate gadget.
This fixation with new camp gear can't be healthy, at least for the pocket book. But it sure is fun trying out the stuff on trips. Camp gadgets are best defined as luxury items you can do without, but you definitely wouldn't want to. A camp chair for example. Not just any camp chair but one that allows you to sit high up off the cold, wet ground, equipped with a back rest and a cup holder. Now that's the life. A friend once brought a camp chair on our one-month canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park. I teased him non-stop about packing such a bulky item along; that is until he let me sit in it for five minutes a day. He instantly became my best buddy.
There's no sense fighting it really. We've been trying to improve our comforts and indulge in new technology since our inception into the wilderness. There are the rare campers who prefer the primitive life style out there but that's probably because they're job is gadget related and they're desperate for an escape away from the high-tech world. However, it is quite possible to get carried away a bit. It seems we're seeing a little too many lab-tops glowing around fire rings these days. But if you follow the simple rule of "if you want to use it, then you carry it" then things won't get to out of hand; and if you don't want to carry it, then RV it at a campground and go hog wild. Over 90 % of RV parks in North America have improved there facilities in the last couple of years to match the demand for high-tech gadgets. Most of the upgrading has been done towards increasing electrical amperage to the campsites themselves to handle things like phone, computer and TV hook-ups.
John Franklin's 1819 equipment list for his trip down the Coppermine River for 28 people:
- a few unserviceable guns
- eight pistols
- 24 broad daggers
- two barrels of powder and balls for 2/3 of that quantity
- nails and fastening for a boat
- some knives, chisels, files, axes, and a hand saw
- cloth and needles
- looking glasses
- blankets and beads
- two barrels of flour
- two cases of chocolate
- two canisters of tea
- 200 dried reindeer tongues
- portable soups
- dried moose meat for ten days
The top four categories the major companies like Bass Pro Shop, MEC, L.L. Bean have been asked by their clients to add more gadgetry are luxury tents, sleeping bags, camp chairs and cooking gear. You've got tents with built-in LED lights, down mummy bags that double as hooded parkas, collapsible camp rocking chairs, espresso kits, double-burner cook stoves and Titanium "sporks" (half spoon and half fork). Other main interests, in sales anyway, were items such as the Eddie Bauer "Insta-bed" with a queen-size air mattress with simulated box springs, those pop-up instant tents, and a bathroom tent complete with portable toilet seat, windows and shower.
Kevin Callan is the author of eight books including "The Happy Camper: An Essential Guide to Life Outdoors." He is a recipient of the National Magazine Award and a regularly featured speaker at North America's largest paddling events.