March 3, 2024

Camping Must-Haves

Backcountry North shares their favorite gear for 2023
By Alexandra Dailey | July 15, 2023

Northern Michigan is a prime region for all things camping. Campgrounds big and small are easy to come by, whether you’re sojourning in a tent, RV, or hammock. (There are also cabins, lodges, and yurts for those who need more than the bare necessities.)

When it comes to gear for your trip, look no further than Traverse City’s own Backcountry North. A small independent retailer run and staffed by passionate outdoors people, the outfitter first opened in 1978 and was originally located on Union Street—now Dillinger’s Pub—but moved to its current location on East Front Street a few years later. The business also has a second location on US-31 near Grand Traverse Mall, built in 2012, to provide more space and accommodate a larger selection of watercraft and apparel. (Plus, they have a dedicated indoor installation bay to service roof racks and cargo boxes.)

According to general manager Cory Smith, one unique fact about their downtown location is that “the building itself has been several businesses over the century, but the original ‘Mclellans’ tile mosaic is still present under the rubber mat at the building’s entrance.”

Just as they are keeping history alive, Backcountry North also wants to help keep you alive in the great outdoors! That means getting the right gear for the right person to make sure your trip goes smoothly from start to finish.

Backcountry North carries a wide array of outdoor tools and gear, including backpacks, hammocks, kayaks, socks, and footwear, and brands like The North Face, Smartwool, Patagonia, Fjallraven, KÜHL, and more. Below, Smith shares some of his favorite items for this summer’s camping season.

Northern Express: What’s this year’s best camping clothing item?
Smith: There are so many great new products in the clothing department that it is difficult to narrow it down to just one item, but if I had to pick one item that stands out above the rest, it would be the Outdoor Research Foray II jacket. [The women’s version is called the Aspire II.] 

The Foray jacket is a fully wind- and waterproof jacket that has zippers running full length down both sides of the body, allowing it to be worn as a jacket, a vest, or a poncho. This high degree of adaptability not only makes it the perfect jacket for our changing seasons here in northern Michigan but also for a variety of activities. While designed with the hiker in mind, the Foray jacket is equally at home watching the Friday night football game, playing a round of golf, or going out on a winter snowshoe hike.

NE: What’s your favorite new camping tool or piece of gear?
Smith: Based on frequency of use, my two favorite pieces of outdoor equipment are my Benchmade Bugout knife and my Helinox Sunset Chair.

The Benchmade Bugout is a folding knife that travels with me almost everywhere. It is amazing how much utility I find in having it with me every day. Weighing in at only 1.8 ounces, it weighs less than a set of car keys, so there is no reason to ever leave home without it. 

A Helinox Sunset Chair is also something that always comes with us when we go anywhere. The Sunset Chair is a folding camp chair that folds up about the size of a rolled beach towel and assembles into a full high-back chair that is remarkably comfortable to sit in. Portable chairs aren’t a new thing by any means; however, it is very difficult to find a chair that is comfortable enough to sit in for extended periods of time and small enough to fit into a backpack or beach tote at the same time.

NE: What’s an under-the-radar item that everyone should have when they go camping?
Smith: A headlamp. Headlamps have many advantages over flashlights; they are lighter, take up less space, are hands-free, and are always pointed in the right direction. Headlamps have come a long way over the years. Most modern headlamps are fully waterproof and use LEDs instead of bulbs, which allow them to be extremely bright while using less power to extend battery life.

My favorite headlamp is the Black Diamond Storm; it packs 450 lumens of light into a small waterproof package that is well suited to any outdoor adventure. It can be paired with a rechargeable battery pack or use AAA batteries so it is equally at home during power outages, everyday tasks such as walking the dog, or on long adventures where recharging may be impossible. The Storm also has red/blue/green lighting modes that allow you multiple color options to check maps, track game, or dig into your backpack without forcing your eyes to re-adjust to the darkness.

NE: When it comes to tents, what’s your go-to brand or style for summertime in northern Michigan?
Smith: At the present time I have to call out Nemo as my favorite tent option. They have a new material called OSMO that is significantly more durable and water resistant than regular nylon, while being made from 100 percent recycled and PFAS-free material.

When picking out a tent, I like to talk about “habitability.” I look for things like vertical walls and lots of headspace that allow the occupants to sit up in the tent and play cards or read a book. Double doors and vestibules so each occupant has their own place to stow gear and boots—and won’t disturb the other in the middle of the night if they have to go to the bathroom—and lots of interior pockets to keep things organized.

I also look for tents that have mesh interior walls for breathability, but that don’t go all the way to the ground to prevent those outside from seeing in (think for changing purposes). Lastly, keep in mind that a two-person tent is sized for two people; not two people and their equipment. If you plan to keep your backpacks or anything else inside the tent with you, make sure you account for that when considering your options.

NE: What equipment would you recommend to a novice camper who may only have the basics in their arsenal?
Smith: When I am planning for a trip, I always plan on being self-sufficient. A well thought-out first aid kit is a must. It doesn’t need to be large and comprehensive, but it needs to have the things to get yourself out of a situation should you find yourself in one. I usually start out with an Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight .7, and then add in super glue, dental floss, a sewing needle, a small disposable BIC lighter, nail clippers, a quality set of precision tweezers, and a 2-inch replacement hip belt buckle that will fit any pack. (If yours breaks on the trail, it is a big problem if you don’t have a spare.) I find this combo works well for most medical and gear repair situations. Outside of that, a headlamp, bug repellent, and a good lightweight knife are three things that have tons of utility in any camping situation.

NE: What’s something many campers—new and experienced—forget at home that they should make sure is on their packing list?
Smith: The keys to your cargo box! We get individuals in the shop several times a week throughout the summer that have traveled here on vacation and forgotten the keys to their cargo box or bike rack back at home. Thankfully, we are equipped at our US-31 location to help out those who find themselves in this unfortunate situation and in most cases are able to unlock and get replacement keys for Thule and Yakima products the same day.

For those out on the trail: A pillow. It is easy to cut weight by leaving a pillow at home when packing for a backpacking trip. Pillows are bulky and can be heavy. As such, many leave them home and either go without or use a rolled up jacket or sweatshirt instead. I have always viewed a backpacking trip as a vacation, and when I am on vacation, sleeping well is one of the goals. There are lots of great small packable pillow options out there that are just as comfy as your pillow at home and won’t take up a ton of space in your pack.

Find Backcountry North at 227 East Front Street or 2820 N US-31 South in Traverse City, or visit them online at backcountrynorth.com.

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