Those who followed my previous blog posts (e.g. about Rostock’s hinterlands or a small piece about Usedom) have probably seen a common thread. As much as like spending my time with reading books, playing video games, watching Netflix or motorsports (and with the Formula One season in full swing I have yet another reason to stay at home on Sundays), I love the outside, the countryside and nature. As a student with a budget that is often tight and won’t allow much expenses, many things are literally, and figurative, out of reach. I can’t travel as much and wide as I’d love to and anyone who can is in a truly privileged position. But what if you, too, want to enjoy the outside but don’t know where to start? How to plan your trip? What equipment should you take with you and where should you go? How much money are you going to need if at all? In a following series of blog posts I’ll try to answer all of these questions from my own experience. And that last bit needs to be emphasised. There are probably a hundred different ways to do things and I don’t want to claim that my way is the best way. It’s simply just that: My way of doing things, which has worked out for me so far. So stick around and prepare your first or next trip!
Let me start this list by clearing up any preconceptions. Camping and staying outside overnight doesn’t need to miss any comfort as many people think. I’ve heard all kind of presumptions and statements with regard to camping, and while it’s probably not going to be as comfy as your king-sized bed in your cosy sleeping room, you can still have a great night’s sleep under the stars and skies. It comes all down to preparation and your equipment. And the good thing is you don’t need to spend hundreds of Euros to have a great beginner’s equipment that makes you next trip an amazing experience. Here’s my recommendation, along some notes, of what to carry with you:
- The most obvious: a tent, which comes with a little caveat with regard to our laws on which I’ll explain later on. Your tent should be easy to set-up and should have the appropriate size for you and your travel companions and should be water-proof. They come in all kind of sizes and with different features, which is why it’s impossible to recommend a single one for everyone out there. The main take away should be that you can’t go wrong with anything at the lower budget range since they all have some compromises but they all do the job of giving you basic shelter. It’s when you spend hundreds of Euros for a single tent that you really should read up on the features and the reviews by customers.
- A tarp. I cannot stress this enough. You’ll need a big tarp. Great thing is they’re neither expensive nor heavy to carry, yet they are versatile in use and can spare you a lot of frustration. Practically you can use a tarp as a ground carpet to keep yourself and your stuff dry from a wet ground, which is one of the issues most people I talked to had with camping: “Everything’s so damp in the morning!” While you can’t avoid high air humidity, you can avoid your stuff getting soaked! You can also use your tarp as an additional layer stretched above your tent to give you extra protection from potential rain. You can use your tarp as provisional shelter if you don’t want to set-up your tent or aren’t allowed to do so (I will come to that, I’ll promise). You can also extent your shelter by stretching it alongside to your tent so you and your friends have something to sit under besides your tent in case it’s going to rain. Now, the tarp as a tent substitution if you’re not allowed to set-up camp. Well, I’m not a lawyer, so this not an official legal advice but I’m going to be completely honest with you here: Generally camping, which means setting-up a tent is not allowed in Germany. Every piece of land in Germany is either private or forestry or government property. However, each federal state has its own laws and regulations, and those of MV explicitly state that “Zelten” (tenting), not “camping” or “staying overnight”, is not allowed (cf. §29, (1), sentence 1), which means that you can stay overnight under your tarp or in your sleeping bag or simply on the ground under a tree. Since everyone is allowed to enter and visit forests for relaxation and recreation – and sleep is considered as maximum relaxation – there’s not much that could go wrong as long as you don’t plan on staying several days in one location or you don’t tidy up after leaving your spot. Also, if you do get to meet other people, which rarely happens when you get up early with sunrise, it is best to pro-actively seek the conversation, explain yourself in a friendly manner and have a little small talk. Remember, meeting someone sleeping in the woods is not something we encounter on a daily basis on our morning walks, so be empathetic and share your love for nature!
- Your sleeping bag and a sleeping bag liner. Your primary sleeping bag should be appropriate for the temperature. I made once the mistake of using my sleeping bag for summer in the Kalahari Desert, which hosts temperatures down to the freezing point at night. I thought I could compensate the lack of the sleeping bag’s insulation with additional layers of clothes. It works during the day in winter, right? Yes, but it doesn’t when you sleep. You do not want to sleep in several layers of clothes. Your body increases the temperature of the surrounding air layers which cool off on the outer layers. Colder air cannot hold as much moisture so the air dispenses the moisture onto your clothes. They get sweaty and damp overnight because multiple layers makes it difficult for the fabric to breathe. You can’t compensate a badly insulated sleeping bag with five layers of clothes. Believe me, I tried and I had the most uncomfortable night in my whole live. In hindsight, it was actually quite risky to the point of being dangerous to my health. Don’t be me in this case and bring a sleeping bag appropriate for the expected temperatures. The sleeping bag liner is practically a sleeping bag with very thin fabric suitable for hot environments or heated shelters. It can be used as an additional layer inside your primary sleeping bag or as your only blanket in very hot nights. I always carry it with me because of its ultra-light weight of roughly 200g including its sleeve cover.
- A woolen blanket. Like the tarp it’s versatile in use. You can use it as a blanket if it’s too warm for using the sleeping bag, you can use it as a blanket to sit on or just to give you additional cover on chilly evenings. It’s also practical for storing your stuff temporarily.
- A proper pillow. Nothing can ruin a good night’s sleep more than having your head in an uncomfortable position. You can actually handle a hard ground quite well and you can even become accustomed to it. You can also find good resources in nature to make the ground softer, but using your backpack or a pile of your clothes as a pillow won’t do you any good. It might work for a couple of hours or even a night, but you don’t want to spend several nights with your head on your backpack. I would avoid inflatable camping pillows because it’s quite difficult to get the amount of air right and it also feels not as natural as the pillow you’re probably used to as the air distribute rather linear to your head movements, which can make your head or pillow slide around. I recommend the Therm-a-Rest pillows. They are highly compressible and use lining and inlays made from recycled material and come in many different cool and modern designs. The inside padding allows for good and comfy fitting for your head.
- A small, sharp knife and a sharp hatchet. No, you don’t need to prepare for the zombie apocalypse, but sooner or later you going to become a bit crafty. It’s either because you want to collect and prepare firewood, want to cut your meat or fruits and vegetables, or you may have lost some of the tent pegs and need to craft new ones out of sticks which is super easy and even sustainable but – you may have guessed it – requires a sharp knife. While the knife is for precise tasks, you’ll need the hatchet for the rough tasks, such as cutting bigger logs into smaller branches and twigs. While firewood definitely deserves its own article because there are so many sorts of wood, each with pros and cons, I will close off that you should only use dead wood or wood that lies on the ground! Living trees are taboo. You should also keep in mind that dead wood on the ground serves an important role to a forest’s ecosystem as well, so be responsible and only pick as much as you need.
- Toilet paper and hand disinfection. Yep, don’t expect to find a fancy toilet with toilet paper in the middle of nowhere. There are ways for minimum hygiene without it, though, but without going into details I recommend just having toilet paper with you. The disinfection is not only highly recommended to use after nature’s call but also to use before preparing your meals. When you’re outside, you’re probably going to touch all kind of things, intentionally and unintentionally, so you better have it with you.
- Fire starters and cooking pots and pans. I always recommend having different kind of fire starters. Matches can get wet, lighters can break or run out of gas, so better have at least two different kinds with you. I recommend a small box of matches, a simple lighter and fire steel and stone. The latter is probably the most difficult to use for beginners but it’s also the most robust. It can easily be dried if it became wet and you won’t break it easily by accident. It’s also wise to bring kindle or resin in case you don’t find any in nature. As for cooking pots and pans, they probably deserve their own article, too. There are aluminium, titanium, iron and stainless-steel cooking wares, each with their pros and cons. To make it short: if you’re living a van-life and don’t need to carry on your back, go for iron for it’s the most robust for its price but also the heaviest. If you have a high budget, go for titanium because it’s very robust but also the priciest. Aluminium is the lightest but heat transfer isn’t optimal. Stainless-steel is somewhere between aluminium and iron. I recommend a small cooking pot to heat water or for making a stew, and a pan for frying your meals. If you have further space, also bring a long a small tea kettle so you can boil water or make yourself a hot chocolate while using pot and pan for preparing your meal.
- One of the most underappreciated items: an umbrella. Don’t rely on your water proof jacket and hood alone. Sooner or later it will get soaked, no matter how waterproof the company promises the jacket to be, unless you wear a rain poncho. Even then it’s always clever to have a backup plan and an additional layer, especially when there many light-weight umbrellas available.
- Mosquito repellent. Nothing can probably ruin your evening or sleep more than mosquitos (at least on our latitudinal lines here in Germany). Mosquitos are attracted by the carbon dioxide we exhale but they can’t handle smoke and breezes well. So, if you forgot your repellent try to have your fire produce more smoke and camp where it’s not too breezy for yourself but enough to keep mosquitoes at bay and also avoid spots near standing water.
So, this is it. My list of essential outdoor items you should always have with you when backpacking for several days. If you have any additional recommendations or want to comment on the things I’ve listed, feel free to share your thoughts. Please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and depending on your location, (bush craft) skills and travel duration, or own experience you might want to deviate from that list. I think of it as a good starting point, however, and especially if it’s your first trip longer than one or two nights, you might want to try it out and evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t afterwards. In any case, take care but be adventurous!
In my next blog post I’ll give some advice on how to plan your route before setting off, how to alter it on the fly while you’re on your way and where to stay in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.