As much as I like to check out outdoor gear,  I refuse to be pulled into the vortex of consumption at this time of the year. Frankly, I wouldn’t show up at any Black Friday shopper’s orgy if they were to offer me a free flat screen television. We have enough stuff.

In fact we haven’t bought any Christmas wrapping paper in 20 years. We are not inflicted with Scroogitis; instead we reuse other paper. The Sunday paper comics section, picked up at recycling, makes for colorful paper as do old topographic maps plucked out of a dumpster years ago.  We tend to rely heavily on the gift of experiences. They require no batteries, no wrapping, and no extended warranties. Instead, they require an open and adventuresome spirit, time with each other, an openness to new cultural opportunities and an unbinding curiosity.

For example, two winters ago I put in quite a few hours on a unique and admittedly ephemeral gift for my soon-to-be son-in-law, Ben. It was his first experience with a Minnesota winter so I built him a custom, pimped out snow cave, complete with a sign that said, “Ben’s Den.”  The crystalline cave was carpeted with a large tanned buffalo robe, Christmas lights draped the walls, flickering candles were tucked into carved alcoves and a gravity fed beer dispenser prevented dehydration. Seriously.

Ben was like a Christmas morning child. I could hardly dislodge him for three days. He chose to sleep in their two nights out of three and he even retreated in there to do some med school studying.

Today I was sorting out camping gear for an upcoming January winter camping trip up in northern Minnesota with Ben and his younger brother Dan. Dan, a Clemson University student, has never been to Minnesota. I’m crossing my fingers for at least two feet of snow and some below zero temperatures for these two Pennsylvanians. Wolves howling and a display of northern lights might be too much to hope for.

I’ve been lucky to have had a lifetime of camping in some pretty remote places that include the Canadian and Scandinavian Arctic, the Mojave desert in Mexico, the Grand Canyon and the barrier islands off Georgia. And I’ve been fortunate to have shared many campfires with highly experienced outdoors enthusiasts. Consequently I’ve seen and used alot of different gear.

Today I smiled when I pulled out smoke-tainted packs, dented cooking pots and partially melted gear. Each piece of gear carries a story.  I cherish my gear, new and old.  Admittedly two of my most favorite camping gear items would make great holiday or birthday gifts if you are inclined to buy stuff for the lover of the wild in your family.

First, and most favorite, is my Whelen Tarp purchased from Cooke Custom Sewing.  This versatile tarp is sewn by Minnesota outdoor enthusiast Dan Cooke.  All of his products are top shelf and very well designed and stoutly constructed. I see the tarp is no longer labeled a Whelen tarp but is now called Lean Plus tarp. Don’t scrimp; get the lightweight 1.1 oz. silicone tarp.

This is the same design that Colonel Townsend Whelen , longtime outdoors writer  at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. He was both a highly skilled marksman and woodsman. He preferred using this design tarp to any other tent. It can be set up in a multitude of positions with its side wings and a front awning help keep the weather off you.

The only time I sleep inside the spacious tarp is during the bug-free season. It’s perfect in winter camping as it can be pitched with it’s sloping back protecting you from prevailing cold winds while allowing your breath from ending up condensing the walls of the tent.

 The tarp  is absolutely indispensible when used as an additional shelter at any time of the year. It easily holds packs, gear and four adults.  Rather than holing up in a tent all day, the tarp allows you to comfortably sit, cook, read, play music, spin yarns or putz with equipment during long rain spells. I can’t imagine any sort of camping trip without a tarp. Once our sleeping tent is erected, rain or shine, we always put up the tarp. There is nothing more miserable than trying to put up a tent or tarp in a driving rain.

Our Whelen tarp even fended off a big adult grizzly bear. The silver-backed bruin was ambling downhill directly towards our camp during a remote river trip in the northern Yukon Territory. The bear was totally unafraid of us and had likely never seen a human before. As it snuffled for berries, slowly making its way towards us, it approached within 35 yards of our camp.  Suddenly a strong gust of wind pulled a stake out of the ground and snapped the corner of the tarp. It sounded like a snapping towel and it was enough to unnerve the curious bear and send it on its way elsewhere. We decided not to reanchor the tarp corner.

The second favored item is another Minnesota product built and created by another craftsman who believes in quality. Don Kevalis  owns Four Dog Stove  . His wood lightweight wood burning stoves are in service all across North America. Once while at his house, I heard him take a phone call from a native hunter in Barrow, Alaska. Barrow, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean  is the most northern community in the United States,

While I absolutely love my Four Dog Stove  titanium wood burning stove and my Shackleton canvas tent for winter camping, I am completely smitten by my”BushcookerLtII Bush Camp Stove. This is a single burner, super lightweight  titanium twig burning stove. The best part of this battery free stove is that it requires no white gas, butane, propane or any gas fuel. Instead you only need dry twigs, pine cones and other found fuels to boil up a pot of water in six-eight minutes.

This is a great stove for backpacking as I don’t have to carry additional weight in fuel. And on a canoe trip, you can stop for a needed quick pot of hot tea without leaving any fire scar on the land.  In wet conditions, I always keep a back-up zip lock bag full of twigs and a scrap of birch bark tucked in my pack. This is a stove that is very kid-friendly and the responsibilities of fire building and cooking can be made easier with cooperation of fellow campers.

And I guarantee camp community-building helps create a positive lifetime emotional bookmark for all ages.

Happy Holidays. . .now get outside!


“Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth.”

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

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