Brief Gear Reviews

We’ve done a lot of camping this summer (much of it car camping…not something that we normally do)and I this is my summary of camping gear reviews.

Feathered Friends PenguinSleeping Bag

Last year we bought a Feathered Friends Penguin sleeping bag. It is a made in Seattle rectangular down sleeping bag. The cool thing about this bag is that you can buy an accessory ground sheet which holds two sleeping pads, making it into a double sized sleeping bag. Our bag is an older model (it was a rental)with thicker fabric, but it still packs down to a reasonably small size. It is larger than my down mummy bags, but smaller and lighter than two down mummy bags or any single synthetic sleeping bag that I’ve seen.

We’ve used it for 5 or 6 nights this summer so far and it’s been great. Our bag is rated to 15 degrees which works well for me, but Christine finds it a bit warm. That isn’t too much of a problem because the bag has zippers on each side, so we can each adjust the blanket as we want. We’re using it with Exped DownMats which are really thick (7 or 9cm, vs 3cm for a “luxury” Thermarest) and which also pack down to nothing. The groundsheet was made for Thermarests, but works fine with the Exped pads.

This bag wasn’t cheap, but it is really well made and the design is great. The whole setup (Feathered Friends Penguin, ground sheet, and two DownMats) is the closest thing that I’ve had to sleeping on a real bed while camping.

Kelty Trail Dome 4 (and REI Garage Sales)

The Seattle REI has an Garage Sale area where returned items are sold at a vast discount. I always check this area first when I’m buying something. REI has an incredible return policy and people return things for all kinds of insane reasons. A couple of months ago I bought some Sidi Dominator 5 cycling shoes there for $10 (that is 4% of retail)because the returnee couldn’t get the cleats off of the shoes.

For our trip last weekend there was a forecast of rain. I thought we might want something with more headroom than our TarpTent (by far the best backpacking tent that I’ve used) and which was freestanding for this and other car camping trips. The REI Garage Sale area came through again and I picked up this tent for $50 (normally $170, currently on sale for $120). It had been setup once and then packed up and returned. The rain fly hadn’t even been unfolded.

I think it was returned because the sizing is really misleading. The 4 implies that this tent can hold 4 people. I don’t think that is physically possible,but it is a nice size for 3 people and very roomy for 2. As with all of the Kelty products that I’ve owned it is well made. Nothing too fancy,just nice basic construction and design. All of the seams were sealed and it came with a nice little gear hammock which is useful for holding a flashlight at night. The biggest downside is that the rain fly has no vestibule of any sort. We tucked our shoes under the tent to keep them dry overnight.

It did rain on us during our trip and the tent kept us dry. It breathes well if you tie out the rainfly. At $50 it is a bargain. At $120 it is still a bargain for someone who wants a decent car camping tent. At 10lbs it is too heavy for me to consider taking on a bike or hiking trip, but maybe it will become our kayak camping tent of choice.

Hennessey Hammock UnderCover and UnderPad

I’ve been using these hammocks for about 6 years. They are really great for solo camping. The hard part is keeping warm from underneath because the sleeping bag compresses underneath you. A sleeping pad can be used inside the hammock, but is sort of fussy and doesn’t wrap around your sides (like the hammock does), so you get cold spots there. There are dozens of websites on methods for keeping warm in a hammock.

This year I’ve been trying out the Hennessey Hammock UnderCover and UnderPad. The UnderCover is a tarp (like the rain fly) which fits underneath the hammock. It hangs down slightly lower than the hammock, creating an air pocket. The UnderPad is just a piece of thin padding which fits there to add insulation.

The setup works pretty well at keeping me warm. I’d say that it makes the hammock good to around 40-45F, where I find it chilly much below 60F by itself. Combined with a sleeping pad I’m sure it would be good down into the 20s.

It makes setting up the hammock much more complex than just using a pad. The UnderCover kind of gets tangled up in the stuff sack and you need to sort it all out again. The side lines for the hammock need to be threaded through the UnderPad and UnderCover before being staked out. I always mess it up. Getting in and out is also more complex. The UnderPad has a slot in it that you climb through, just like the hammock. Then you push the pad aside and get through the hammocks slot. Then you push everything back together.

Packed up the whole thing is great. I can fit my sleeping bag, the hammock, the underpad, and everything else related to sleeping in a moderate sized saddlebag.The saddlebag, hammock, pad, and sleeping bag together weigh 6lbs.That plus a handlebar bag up front for my camera, food, and a change of shorts is enough camping gear for a couple of night bike camping trip.

So I’m torn on this setup. It is a lot more complexity in setup for minor gains in comfort compared to a sleeping pad. It is more compact when packed than my sleeping pad, but the difference isn’t huge.

Primus Gravity EF Stove

REI-Outlet and Sierra Trading Post both have this on closeout for about $45 (normally it is $75). Sierra Trading Post has two versions, I bought the slightly more expensive model with a piezo starter. I was attracted to this stove because I wanted something which could better support large pots (for group backpacking orcar camping trips) than my Jetboil. I also wanted it to use the same fuel canister type as the Jetboil. The Primus delivers on both fronts.

I tried to measure fuel efficiency of this vs a Jetboil and couldn’t get reliable numbers. If I used a Jetboil GCS pot (1.5 liters) on both stoves and measured how long it took to boil 500ml of water then the numbers were pretty similar. It takes around 2:30 and 3-4 grams of fuel. With infinite time I would do more accurate testing.

The Primus stove has a much larger burner so the heat is better distributed (nice when making oatmeal or rice) and it also simmers quite well. It isn’t as no-fuss as a Jetboil for packing and unpacking, but it is a lot easier than the gasoline/white gas type stoves. You just unfold the legs, thread on a fuel canister, turn it on, and press the ignition button.

It works great with large pots and frying pans because the fuel canister is remote from the burner. This stove was used to make our favorite camping breakfast and it does a better job than the Jetboil at it. That breakfast is steel cut oats (soak them overnight, 2.5:1 water:oat ratio) served with sauted apples and raisins on top. The JetBoil tends to burn the oats in the middle of the pan, but the Primus did not.

The JetBoil PCS is still my favorite stove for backpacking and cycling due to it’s small size, no-nosense setup, and fast and efficient boil. For car camping (and maybe kayak camping?) I think we’ll get a lot of use out of this Primus. Having both along is nice for larger meals.

A side rant. It is really hard to find camping pots and pans that aren’t coated with Teflon. I’m surprised, since the dangers of cooking with teflon have been known for many years now. The dangers go up with heat, and the camping stoves and thin pans tend to make concentrated hot spots.

Light My Fire Mealkit

At $20 it is expensive for a few pieces of plastic, but I had just won a $100 visa card in a drawing (I never win anything, so that was a nice surprise) and decided to splurge.

The MealKit is triangular plastic bowl with a plate that fits on top. Inside you’ll find a spork, a little cutting board, another bowl/tea cup, and inside that a bowl that seals. It all packs up neatly into a 6 or 7 inchtriangle.

The teacup is kind of ridiculous as a cup, but works nicely as a bowl for oatmeal or soup. The spork is fine, although I prefer my Snow Peak Ti one. The surprise winner for me is the little cutting board. It has holes which let you use it as a colander to drain off pasta water. It is the perfect size for cutting up an apple, mango, or a piece of cheese. On a bike camping trip I could see bringing the cutting board and no other part of the kit. Lots of practicality, little weight, and it takes up almost no space.

Would I buy it again? Maybe. My only complaint is the price. If I didn’t buy one I’d probably make a copy of the cutting board.


I own too much gear. It’s hard coming up with one setup that works well for backpacking (usually as a couple), bike touring (usually solo), and car camping (usually in a group). This is the summary of what I’m using for each:

Backpacking (for two):

  • Shelter: Tarptent Rainshadow II
  • Bed: Feathered Friends Penguin, two Exped downmats
  • Cooking: Jetboil PCS

Bicycle Touring (for one):

  • Shelter: Hennessey Hammock with Super Shelter under-pad.
  • Sleeping Bag: Western Mountaineering, 20F
  • Cooking: Jetboil PCS

Car Camping (for two):

  • Shelter: Kelty Trail Dome 4
  • Bed: Feathered Friends Penguin, two Exped downmats
  • Cooking: Jetboil GCS plus Primus stove plus a stainlessfrying pan from our kitchen.


  1. mike says:

    Thanks for the reviews. I”m a fan of the Trangia for cooking solo, and I have a jet engine whisperlite for group camping. I just started using a Hennesy. Love it – not sure about their undercover system – I”ll probably make a diy quilt system for mine – but I”ve been comfy down to 30 or so with just a thin pad and good clothing choices.

    Do you like the Jetboil?

  2. mike says:

    Ahh, and for camping pots, I”ve had good success with the SnowPeak gear. I have a solo kit and a larger set. Yeah, its Ti, but so is my bike.

  3. AlexWetmore says:

    The JetBoil is awesome. It is what got me back into carrying a stove while camping. Previously I was using a Whisperlite and later home-made alcohol stoves. Both worked fine, but were a pain to operate so I rarely used them. The JetBoil is really simple, you just pull the stove out of the pot and put it under the pot and press a button to light. The fuel canister and stove stay attached. It is very efficient with fuel too, on last summer’’s bike tour 2 fuel cylinders lasted 5 days for 3 of us. That was with us cooking at every breakfast and dinner.

    Ti pots are nice, but I”m currently in the market for a larger pot for car and maybe kayak camping so I don”t really need the light weight. It’’s a lot of extra money to pay. I might just end up buying a cheap kitchen pot and cutting off the handle and using a pot lifter.


  4. Jimmy Livengood says:

    How does the Kelty do in the rain? How is the Jetboil PCS for stability- it looks tall and tippy in pictures. One thing I like about that Primus stove is the serrations on the pot supports. With my MSR Whisperlite pots are always sliding around whenever you touch them, which can get dangerous with boiling water.

    We added a cutting board to our camping kit a year ago or so (just a round piece of acrylic that fits in a pot) -I don”t know how we got along without it before.

    Do you move around a bunch when sleeping? That’’s been my only reservation about trying a hammock, well that and relying on having trees.

  5. AlexWetmore says:

    Kelty did fine in light rain, but we haven”t tried heavy rain with it. It’’s a pretty standard design (the fly isn”t on in that photo) so it should work fine.

    The JetBoil PCS isn”t too tippy, but I have the support legs from a GCS which I usually use with it. They clip onto the bottom of the fuel tank. It’’s fine with the little PCS pot, but not really ideal with larger pots like the GCS one.

    I toss and turn a bit while sleeping and haven”t had trouble with that in the hammock. I think it’’s good to borrow one before buying though. I was also unconvinced and borrowed a hammock from a friend before purchasing my own.

  6. Chris Lowe says:

    I”ve tried a hammock in the past. I sleep on my side and found it wasn”t as natural feeling as sleeping on a flat surface. On the other hand being up off the ground means no hard ground to sleep on and no rock sticking you in the side. Somehow I always managed to slide off my sleeping pad and find a rock. Would like to try a Big Agnes bag that has a sleeve for a pad – seems like it would be a good fit for a hammock. When in doubt, buy the Hennessey at REI and you can return it if you don”t like it.