We spent a year cooking, eating, sleeping, and playing outside, and we learned a few things about gear.
To prepare for our grand tour, we went on a constant scour for the best gear at the most reasonable prices. We hit up LLBean.com, REI garage sales, thrift stores, Backwoods liquidation sales, Amazon, steepandcheap.com, Columbia, Ross, TJ Maxx… and oh yeah, Christmas wish lists. Read more about how we get cheap quality gear here.
After slowly collecting gear from what seems like every corner of the world, we finally started to feel sufficiently equipped.
On this page, we want to share which products we like, which we don’t like and which we couldn’t do without!
This page includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission on purchased items. All opinions are our own.
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^L.L. Bean Sleeping Bags; 20*, down, rectangular
We love these bags.
Durable- used every night camping on our trip (50+ to date) and holding up really well. Zippers are smooth and don’t get stuck.
Rectangular- roomy and zip together so body heat keeps us warmer.
Compact/Light- I was a bit concerned when I saw they were rectangular because I figured mummy shape was the only kind to use for the backpacking we would be doing often. But these down bags pack down so small and light that they’ve been working great for backpacking too.
CONS (negligible, but if I had to say…)
Stuff sack drawstring- the slide does not stay and the bag will open part way. I just twist the string around under the slide and it holds the sack shut.
^L.L. Bean Pillows; packable, down
Compact/light- at only a few ounces and smaller than a Nalgene, I never feel bad about bringing it backpacking.
Two-sided- one side is smooth nylon and the other is warm fleece, so you can choose your favorite.
Flat- the pillow isn’t as full as I prefer. Elizabeth likes a flatter pillow, but I would prefer doubling these up.
Big Agnes Q-Core SL Insulated Air Pad
Comfy- best sleep I’ve had backcountry camping. Pad is about 3″ thick and allows side sleeping.
Compact/Light- I like being able packing these inside my backpack. The SL is significantly lighter and smaller than the regular Q-Core.
Durable- I never feel like these pads are going to pop and the surface is very slick/wipe-able.
Insulated- key for staying warm during cold camping.
Expensive- definitely on the higher end of the sleeping pad spectrum. But we scored deals on ours.
Slippery- sleeping bags tend to slide on the smooth surface.
Manual Inflating- my least favorite camp setup chore is blowing these up throw the valve in the corner. The SL takes about 22 breaths, so it’s over pretty quick at least. We got the BA “pumphouse” (a squeeze able bag for inflating the pads), but it seems faster using breath.
We started the trip with 1 Q-Core regular, but about 2 months in it got a lot of pin-prick leaks near the valve (maybe from getting bug spray DEET on it?) that were impossible to fix no matter how many nights I tried to patch with the included glue. So for about 2 months 1 of us would wake up on the ground. Finally we were able to ship it to Big Agnes for repair when we got home for the holidays and they not only offered that at no charge, but allowed us to upgrade to the Q-Core SL for just the $20 difference in price. So worth it!
Fits our twin air mattress
Low profile weathers storms well
Easy set up
All-mesh allows maximum air flow
Pockets inside tent are inconvenient
Opening the fly from inside is inconvenient
Our Zephyr has been our everyday tent since our REI Half Dome got shredded in a Death Valley storm. We love it because it so much smaller and lighter than the Half Dome and makes backpacking a breeze. The interior sometimes feels cramped, but there’s plenty of space near the head and in the vestibules. Overall it’s been great and is holding up very well. I think also getting the floor saver (ground cloth) helped.
REI Half Dome 2 Tent
Easy setup- super intuitive and simple to set up. We average about 5 mins.
Spacious- the inside is plenty spacious for 2 people to sit and lay even with bigger sleeping pads. The vestibules are also quite large with plenty of room for your packs.
Double entry- Doors/vestibules on both sides are very convenient.
Durable- holding up well to extended use and waterproofing is working well.
Heavy- it’s not super heavy, but it’s definitely not meant to be a backpacking tent. Hopefully we get a lighter tent soon for backpacking.
Fairly Large- but it does fit easily into the stuff sack which is then compressible.
COOKING & EATING GEAR
^L.L. Bean Collapsible Sink
Sturdy, durable, holds plenty of water and collapses all the way down. We also use it as a carrier for all of our cooking stuff and that is really handy.
We got our Dualist kit a few months ago. We are on a year long trip to camp in all 59 National Parks and use it every day. Because it came highly recommended from BACKPACKER magazine and fit our compact, yet thorough, cook set needs, it was one of the very few items we paid full price for. It has held up well to daily use with one huge exception.
THE SPORKS that come with the set are very chinsy. The ridges that allow the end to slide down the handle and fit into place break very easily. One spork broke probably the 3rd time I used it when I wasn’t applying much pressure at all. About 3 weeks into our trip the other spork broke. We never use them anymore.
It seems like it would be very easy for an otherwise high quality, durable kit to design and provide sporks that are at least somewhat useful. If GSI has newer, replacement sporks, I would be happy to try them and give an update. The only other slightly annoying thing is that the rubber ring around the pot lid that is meant to seal it onto the pot keeps popping off and it is a pain to put back on. All other pieces of the kit are conveniently sized and well made.
I bought our stove from Amazon. It’s maybe not of the highest quality, but it has worked great so far. We’ve used it at least once a day for three months and haven’t needed anything fancier yet.
The knife is incredibly sharp and big. It’s the only knife we use to slice up everything and it hasn’t dulled yet. The sheath is orange hard plastic which makes it easy to find and clean. The large blade is also comforting as self protection. I haven’t used it as a fire starter yet, but the blade and striker make sparks every time.
Doesn’t collapse super small, but can fit inside our cook set. The lid fits securely and sips well. Sometimes I feel like the base is not steady and it can collapse if you press too hard. Elizabeth loves it though and it’s a perfect size for her morning tea.
CAMP LIFE GEAR
^L.L. Bean Chairs; low-rider
These chairs are so comfortable! Folded up, they are about the size of a regular tailgating chair, but you sit 10″ off the ground. We like being stretching out, leaning back and being closer to the fire or to the ground we’re cooking on. But if you have trouble getting up and down, you may want a different chair. Very sturdy fabric and joints with mesh back and pivoting feet to sit well on uneven ground. We used them to sit at the edge of the waves at Dry Tortugas and it was pure bliss.
ENO Eagles Nest Outfitters Hammock (+ suspension system, bug net, rain fly bundle)
We had never used a hammock while camping before this trip. We threw up our two hammocks up in Congaree and they provided some excellent relaxation. We set them up pretty quickly for our first time. The whole system just seemed really slick and high quality. We slept in the hammocks one night and they were very comfortable and once you got used to it, you could sleep in a number of positions. It was just colder than we expected because the open air underneath the hammock cools you down a lot. Hammock camping allows you to save a bunch of weight by skipping the tent and sleeping pad (and possibly the sleeping bag if it’s warm). The hammocks were also very easy to get in and out of after the first time. Plus the Sub 7 system is ENO’s newest product that is made to be incredibly light and compact. And if rain isn’t in the forecast or it’s not bug country you can go even lighter by leaving behind the fly, stakes and bug net.
Small and lightweight, these stools are a great option when you’re backpacking a short distance or don’t want to lug heavy chairs to your campsite. We also lived having them on hand when friends joined us at camp and sat around the fire. Plus they make sitting as close to the fire as you want a lot easier than when you’re in a chair. The downside obviously is that the stoops don’t have a back, but the price of $15 is hard to beat.
This awning has been super handy on more than a few occasions. When it’s threatening rain, super hot or we have the same campsite a few nights in a row, we always put up the awning to provide rain and sun protection. We even set it up once over our tent in the Smokies while our tent fly dried (bad decision because it just kept raining, nothing dried and the awning wasn’t a perfect fit to cover the tent). It’s surprisingly big with a simple three leg structure that can be adjusted to lower or angle the roof. Set up is very easy as well. The only negative is the poles are heavy and don’t seem super high quality. Our awning came with one broken pole, but after an email to ALPS they were happy to send us a replacement.
This table is a handy size and shape. It’s probably 2.5 ft x 2.5 ft. The aluminum material and plastic pieces in the joint fittings seem like they might break sometimes when I have to force them together. But I wouldn’t trade sturdier for heavier. We haven’t had tons of occasions to use the table yet because we usually have picnic tables when at a car camping campsite, but we’ll surely have more chance to come.
HIKING / BACKCOUNTRY GEAR
This was the perfect pack for me (Cole) because it is large enough for long trips, but compresses down tightly for single overnights. It’s much lighter than my old one and the shape is much more vertical and less wide so the weight distribution is great. The stretchy front pouch and side bottle holders are great for easy access items. I’ve never used the bottom access to the main compartment, but the divider is removable. The fit was a bit tricky at first, but it has gotten better.
I like that this daypack is the shape of a regular backpack, meaning it’s wider than our other daypacks. Like my Shasta, the stretchy front pouch is really handy. I also appreciate that the hip belt is supportive and actually helps you carry the load, unlike some daypacks. The only complaint is that when you stuff it full, the curved coin tour of the breathable back structure makes it hard to close the zipper.
We love anytime we can spend money to get a great product and also help a great cause. The National Parks line of FITS Socks contributes a portion of the sale to the National Park Foundation. These socks are aptly named for their secure, comfortable fit. You’re foot doesn’t slide at all, but they’re also not too tight. The quality is very good and none of our socks have gotten holes in them. The lightweight hiker socks don’t suffocate your foot and the mid-weight ones are thick and warm enough for below freezing weather. To top it off, the National Park-specific designs are cool, original and unique. And sometimes Elizabeth and I accidentally end up matching.
The tenkara style of fly fishing appealed to me because the fishing equipment was lightweight, compact, simple and cheap. Basically, it’s a long, fixed pole with a exchangeable length of fixed line with a fly on the end. Everything else follows traditional fly fishing. Being a complete noob to fly fishing, setup took a bit the first time. The instructions were very clear. The materials seemed quality. I can definitely see myself slipping this pole into my backpack for some backcountry fishing.
REI Trekking Poles
We are big hiking pole converts. The stability they provide has saved us on multiple precarious hikes and the support helped save our legs on longer hikes like our Grand Canyon 55-miler. The poles aren’t the lightest our slimmest, but they are very adjustable for any height. The paint on the inside telescoping piece for the adjustability scale scraping off, so that’s a little annoying. Sometimes the telescoping pieces don’t lock and slide while walking or sometimes they get stuck and are really hard to unlock. However, the poles are holding up well and the metal tips are very grippy on almost any surface.
Everything Camelbak makes is very reliable. This “Classic” style pack is no different. The bladder is well-sized at 2 liters. The nozzle/bit valve never leak, are easy to drink from and lock securely. The bladder lid is easy to screw on and also doesn’t leak. The pack is very slim and basically only fits the bladder with a small pocket for your keys and phone and bungee cords to strap on a rain jacket. It’s great for short day hikes and feels really light and comfortable.
Kelty 45 Women’s Backpack
Elizabeth’s pack is smaller capacity, but still very doable for a shorter backpacking trip. She loves it. It fits really well with lots of adjustable straps and is very comfortable with a mesh back frame. The way it curves makes the weight sit nicely towards the top. The fabric is durable, but lightweight.
My pack is quite old (2004 – but linked is a newer similar version). It’s got a huge capacity with an expandable top portion, but the pack is heavy. There are about a thousand straps to adjust. It’s served me very well. But I won’t say much more because I imagine they don’t sell anything like it anymore.
^ALPS Stratus Vest
^ALPS Nimbus Rain Jacket
This is a solid jacket that has held up through some major downpours. It has good ventilation and breaks the wind really well. The pockets are convenient and the hood offers good coverage. The only weird thing is the hem at the bottom is tight and doesn’t stretch very much.
^Garmin fenix3 multi-sport watch
This watch can do a ton. First, it’s super stylish with a sports and dress band. We lost one of the pins that holds the band to the watch and Garmin sent us a new band, no problem. I thought the bigger watch face would be annoying, but I now like it a lot and the watch is very comfortable. You choose from lots of stylish watch faces and the display is color. It’s a GPS watch, so you can accurately track any exercise from hiking to swimming (it’s completely waterproof and very durable). The GPS also allowed us to turn on the GPS and randomly kayak into the Congaree swamp without fear of getting lost because you just backtrack your route. You can disect your workout by laps and save any routes or workouts. It shows steps (with goal alerting capability), compass, altimeter, barometer, temperature, moon phase, date/day of week, etc. All these metrics have graphs tracking them over time. It connects with devices through bluetooth and you can do a bunch of stuff on the Garmin Connect app. The only complaints I have are that the altimeter is not extremely accurate and temperature seems skewed by body heat. I couldn’t find a way to get it to tell tides. Also, I wish the about 30-36 hr GPS mode battery life (depending on settings) was longer. But without GPS it lasts 30 days or more.
^Garmin eTrex 35t
This might be our favorite piece of gear. It has saved countless arguments and frustrations. The maps are all generally updated and the display is very clear and plenty large. It shows the lanes and which one you need one convoluted exchanges. It shows how much longer it takes to avoid tolls (I wish it showed how much the tolls were). It shows the restrooms, restaurants and gas coming up. It shows school zones, speed limits, current speed, coming turns and I’m sure lots of other stuff we haven’t discovered. The only thing I wish it had was better accounting for traffic. I think that might be an extra thing you can buy.
It’s larger than many portable batteries (at the size of 7 stacked cardboard coasters), but holds a lot (like 2.5). It’s really convenient to have that much power that we can take on our backpacking trips or just in the car (because we regularly go a week without outlet access). It was also really cheap through an Amazon deal. The only downside is that it takes like 8 hours to fully charge.
BOOKS WE LOVE:
In August 2015 we left our jobs and our home to go on a tour of all 59 National Parks across the US during the NPS Centennial year. We spent a year immersing ourselves for about 5 days in each park as we tent camped, hiked, biked, backpacked, kayaked, and climbed our way through the challenge and adventure of our lifetime.
We are Cole and Elizabeth, twenty-something Missourians turned National Parks explorers - constantly seeking to find new adventure and ourselves. Follow our journey for pictures, videos, park tips, and stories - because after all, the Parks are for sharing.