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Tents on Overlooks: A Gear Testing Tale

How to turn recreation into an epic and gain new respect for your own backyard

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Autumn is a crazy time in Backpacker Magazine-land because we’re all in frantic gear test mode, building up, even now, for the April issue. The process begins at the Outdoor Retailer Show in August, and lasts until some time in December when the opus magnum finally gets shipped to the printer and we can all down shots and lapse into a restorative coma.

The Backpacker gang is an active outdoor crew, but still, it requires fanatic measures to survey, sort and field-work all that schwaggy stuff. After looking over the offerings at OR, we’ll order and test about 60 products in each major gear category like packs, tents, boots and bags. And then there’s stoves, cookware, trek poles, lights, cameras, gps, ad infinitum et nauseum. And it all gets field tested, not just, in the publishing vernacular, ‘reviewed.’

Since I coordinate several sections of the Gear Guide, that means I’m out most every day, hiking loads, pitching tents, rating sleeping bags, walking through night-blackened canyons with sacks full of headlamps – all while trying to meet my other writing deadlines too. I’ve got a two-car garage that’s never seen an auto, and every autumn it becomes a wilderness of boxes. My UPS and Fedex drivers get hernias. I crack open a half dozen shipments every day, and usually box about half back up for return or forwarding to a specific tester.

It all gets a bit frantic, and no part of it gets more frantic than the sleeping bag testing, which is just cranking up. Bags always get delivered late, and it can be a scheduling squeeze to sleep out in all the 40F ultralight models before the nights turn frosty. Then we’ll work our way down through the temperatures ratings as they drop toward zero.

Being a photographer doesn’t help much with the bag testing either, because I usually pitch camp atop some scenic but inconvenient overlook where I just might get a killer shot if light and weather and alarm clock cooperate. I think it’s some kind of grail hunt obsession, because outdoor photographers produce thousands of great camping shots each season. The competition is stout and the formula familiar: Smiling faces, great vista, perfect weather, killer lighting. There’s only one problem with this fable: Scenic overlooks are exposed to whatever the weather throws at you. Even the slightest valley gusts are magnified by the Venturi nozzle effect of passes and ridgelines.

Consequently, there’s a story behind most of those smiley-faced camping photos, and it’s often not pretty. Take, for example, my last two testing forays in nearby Capitol Reef National Park. Last Saturday my ultralight freestanding tent with the swanky graphite pole-set got destroyed by thunderstorm winds within minutes of being pitched – in spite of being guyed down with 17 very large rocks (I counted.) I was bummed. This tent had already withstood Wind River hailstorms and a week of above-timberline camping in the Uintas, but a trifling thunderhead happened by and the microburst winds lasted just long enough to flatten our camp and leave Jennifer and I thoroughly sandblasted, albeit completely dry. We did the only logical thing; We bailed, fording the Fremont River back to our car in the last light of dusk. My spouse was not impressed. “Oh yeah honey, I had a great time.”

Being a slow learner, and on the job, on Tuesday night I loaded up another test pack, test bag, test pad, and test headlamp, and went back for a rematch. The evening was sublime. Not a breath of wind. Alpenglow threw a warm, golden light across the maze of slickrock domes. The Stegosaur, a squat spire of Navajo sandstone shaped like a blonde shark fin, towered above camp. I shot some pics and drank in the evening as earth’s purple shadow climbed through the sunset haze. Then I zipped in and sacked out. The night was so still my ears rang – Until the wind hit at 2 a.m. Then I spent the remainder of the predawn hours listening to the atmosphere roar in anger as I held the dancing, flapping tent to keep from being blown off the saddle.

After this second slap-down, I was back in my office by eleven, sleepwalking through the morning’s e-mail. I worked on a feature story until four, unpacked two more gear shipments, went trail running from 5 until dusk with a new pack and gps, then jotted down those notes and loaded up another pack for…Well, you get the idea.

Along the way, I’m relearning how to respect my own back yard. It’s good to be reminded from time to time that even casual campouts can turn sketchy if you don’t smarten up. And as for those gorgeous campsite photos? Well, the next time you see one calling to you from the magazine rack, don’t get suckered. It’s a lie. — Steve Howe

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