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On a perfect night, you need very little equipment to camp comfortably

By Commander Edge, SmokeOut Master, with vintage shots from Sam Burns

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Editor’s Note: Commander Edge of the SmokeOut knows the Chopper Code. He knows what it’s like to ride a minimalist chopper on the long road, and he is constantly studying the mission. Last time he wrote a piece about the smallest tool bag possible.

Let’s see how he does with camping.

Carpe diem, a phrase that comes from the Roman poet Horace, means literally "Pluck the day", though it's usually translated as "Seize the day". A free translation might be "Enjoy yourself while you have the chance". For some people, Carpe diem serves as the closest thing to a philosophy of life as they'll ever have.

Commander Edge, the SmokeOut boss.
Commander Edge, the SmokeOut boss.

 Carpe Camping

Mark Farrar knows where the bodies are buried. He has been supportive of all my good ideas and more importantly supportive through the consequences from my bad ideas since the 5th grade. We have touched the infinite, experienced the good, seen beauty, and debated truth. We’ve had brushes with death and brushes with the law. I introduce him as a friend from college because, well… friend from the 5th Grade just sounds weird. He called me when he found out he had Esophageal cancer. He called me a couple weeks later when more results showed it was in his lymph nodes and the cancer had gone into his liver.

We have been blessed with lives of epic adventure, decades spotted with nights in tents under starry skies. A post chemo motorcycle trip seemed like something that needed to be planned. We planned but I wasn’t sure if it would happen. I hoped. Camping would have to be part of this adventure as a salute to many past camping trips. We needed to get back to something we did as kids.

So… this isn’t about that trip really, except one night. One night when we didn’t camp, which I know is a little weird because this is about camping. It should be nice in South Carolina in March and it was for the two weeks before we left. It was beautiful. We had perfect camping weather and then, days before we left it got colder than a well digger’s ass. I have this image of a bearded old sea Captain talking about a Nor’easter.

It snows every third year in Columbia, SC and it was snowing the day Mark, Jeff Najar and I bungee corded the bags to the bikes and left. The snow kept falling and it just seemed to keep getting colder as we rode. Rich from American Biker, the Charleston Indian Dealer, was waiting with a speed boat when we hit the Atlantic Ocean. The plan was to camp on Wolf Island which is only reachable by boat. I was miserable, shaking and I hadn’t gone through months of chemo. Rich was excited. Wolf Island is just that cool. It was a tough call NOT to camp that night.

We felt, actually we knew, we were missing out on something great. But, as it always seems to happen when we stay open to the whims of the universe, we had an incredible night. We started with dinner at a four-star restaurant in Charleston and then Rich talked us into “one drink.” We met Rich’s friends, most of them in their 20s, including Montel William’s wonderful daughter, Maressa Williams, gave Mark a lot of encouragement for his battle with cancer. We fought with a claw arcade game that stole our money. We listened to the struggles of the next generation. We closed the bar and then we stood on the outside deck and we all sang Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” together at 3:00 am. The moment that we seized wasn’t meant for camping… not that night.

We camped the next three nights. It never really warmed up but we had a blast as our Harleys bounced around Florida before we stopped in Daytona.

Everyone who has camped enough has a story about the night they planned to camp and didn’t. This idea is… well, the opposite of that. This is about having a warm and comfortable bed that you don’t use. Staying open to the whims of the universe. Being ready to camp when you encounter a night that has to be celebrated with nothing between you and the stars. It’s getting back to something you did years ago maybe… but without the associated hassle.

I realized on a perfect night, you need very little equipment to camp comfortably. This concept is to pack just a few things and be ready to take advantage of ideal conditions, staying open to small but epic adventures.

This is everything you need for a comfortable night under the stars. The Coke can is just in there for a reference, so you can see just how small this kit is.

For me, naming ideas can be really helpful. The first name that came to mind was “68 degree” camping. The day is a perfect 68 degrees and it’s starting to cool just a little with a light breeze as the sun sets. Basically, this is just camping when the conditions are perfect.

Then I thought of the name “Inadvertent camping," to separate it from the idea of deliberate camping. I still do some deliberate camping, as in camping is my primary plan, and I bring all the necessary stuff. It takes a lot more stuff when it could be cold or hot. When it’s a rain or shine proposition, you need lots of stuff. You have to have a shelter for rain and a bigger bag in case it’s cold, plus all the stuff for meals. There is a lot of stuff to prepare and a lot of stuff to put away when you get back. I do very little deliberate camping now. I have found a better way. This is ideal for people who used to camp and haven’t in years because of the hassle.

Mike, chief of SmokeOut Security.
Mike, chief of SmokeOut Security.

Take advantage of great days in great places. This picture of George Miller in Hawaii actually has almost nothing to do with this article.
Then I thought of maybe calling it “Luck” camping. It’s cliché but true. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. You encounter a perfect night, but you can only make the most of it if you are prepared with the essential gear.

However, I eventually settled on “Carpe Camping.” Most are familiar with the Latin phrase, “Carpe Diem” which is typically translated into English as “seize the day.” Carpe more literally means “pluck” like you might pick a piece of fruit, at the moment of perfect ripeness. This idea is to keep the most minimal amount of stuff on your motorcycle to camp when these opportunities arise, and seize it.

Most people can make a list of the advantages of camping. Getting back to nature… ya da ya da. They are all true and important but there is no reason to repeat them here. Getting “back to nature” really can’t be overemphasized. Connecting to the infinite shouldn’t be sold short. However, I want to add a few reasons… to the list of reasons to camp.

We need to get out of our comfortable beds and our comfortable houses sometimes to reset our comfort meters. Anything that takes measurements needs to be re-calibrated occasionally. We can get acclimated to any level of comfort, regardless of how plush or soft. In my twenties, I could sleep well on cement. Back in the day, sitting up on any airplane was an invitation for a good power nap. Good sleep has gotten more elusive as I’ve aged. Part of this is because I have a type of arthritis that can affect different joints at times. It’s not just that though, because too many of my friends tell me the same thing. I’ve seen tons of articles about how to get a good night’s sleep with special mattresses or sheets and even the smell of lavender helps… or whatever. Those articles are written for someone who ran out of whiskey.

A good mattress (or whatever) can allow you to sleep more comfortably, but I do not think that’s the entire solution. I bought a Termperpedic mattress years ago and I couldn’t believe how much better I slept, at first, but after a while I wasn’t sleeping as well again. I slept even worse on crappy hotel mattresses.

Oddly enough, I found an answer where I wasn’t looking for one. In a place that seems unrelated. “Asceticism” is the idea of a self-disciplined avoidance of all forms of indulgence. It could be argued that our predominate culture today doesn’t understand the need for suffering and that many people ultimately believe the purpose of life is for all people to be comfortable, to avoid suffering. That’s a notion that I reject entirely but that conversation is best suited for an adult beverage in front of a crackling fireplace.

Regardless, the idea of “asceticism” is pretty unpopular today and it’s seen as archaic. My personal experience is that some fasting is what really wakes up my taste buds. Go without food for just a day and suddenly almost everything taste great. Sleeping on the floor can do a similar thing.

The last several months I have sleep on the floor one night a week. It’s a chance to try out camping blankets and pads but really, it’s a way to offer a small sacrifice and it’s an attempt to develop some self-discipline (which I know I desperately need). No surprise, I don’t sleep as well on the floor, and I can be achy the next day. The big surprise is that I sleep so much better the other six nights. I “rediscover” how great my real bed feels again. I didn’t see that coming.

In a way, I think this is why everyone should consider camping occasionally. If you want to rediscover the wonder of a modern bed or indoor plumbing 15 feet from your bed, camp out.

Allow me one more, seemingly unconnected deviation. I’m a planner. I wrote detailed operations orders in the military with alternate and contingency plans for when something went wrong with the first plan. Generally speaking, spontaneity, surprise and mystery are not highly prized goals of a good military operation, or any life-or-death plan really. Coming from my background, I have to consciously make an effort to not over plan my road trips because spontaneity, staying open to the possibilities of the moment, is the difference between good road trips and great road trips. Carpe Camping is spontaneous. Being ready for a possible moment makes pulling the trigger more likely.

One more tip though. The more people involved the less spontaneous you can be without total chaos ensuing. Unplanned, or less planned, trips are easiest alone but for me it’s a lot more fun to have a cohort in crime. The ideal partner has a good sense of humor when nothing works out well. The ideal for me is two people, three at the most.

Trail Pro pad, tech quilt and a pillow.

So, on with it: Here is the gear I recommend. Less is more. Adding something unneeded is as bad as forgetting something. Extremely minimal gear. Simplicity. Getting by with less stuff is part of beauty of Carpe Camping. Practically speaking, if your kit is too big you will end up leaving it at home. I’ll give you my list and then provide a few comments on each piece of gear.

This is also everything you need (actually more) to crash on a hotel room floor when the hotel prices have doubled during popular motorcycle rallies. This money saving point alone may make it worth getting a kit together.

Sleeping Pad
Tech Blanket or Quilt
Pillow sack (maybe)
Esbit pocket stove with fuel tabs
Stainless steel cup
Hot cocoa, soup mix, instant coffee
Flashlight (probably don’t need a headlamp)
Wysi towels (don’t need a trowel)

Pick up water and food
Optional – poncho and some cord
This assumes you already have a knife and a bandanna.

For me, the most important item on this list is the sleeping pad. If you’re some young buck who can get a good rest on cold cement, god love ya. I’m not. I’m about to talk more about this subject than you may ever want to know.

I’m also going to talk exclusively about ThermaRest products. I’ve tried more than my fair share of other products and I have been let down more often than not, even with some very expensive products. One expensive pad was so slick I would wake up several times a night after I slid off of it. I’m also probably a little biased in the sense that I remember the old, thin, closed cell foam pads we would use in the Army and when I got my first ThermaRest, it was like some magical device that had to have been manufactured by elves. We would purchase the ThermaRest pads to replace the army issued pads with our own money.

I would spend weeks sleeping on the ground and a lot of times we would move locations almost every day. The ThermaRest pad was literally life changing. In the last several years the military did extensive test to choose a self-inflating pad to issue the troops. ThermaRest got the contract, which is a huge statement. Even if you don’t go with Thermarest though, the criteria I use to discuss which pad to select will be useful for pads manufactured by any company.

So let’s talk about sleeping pads. First, there are basically three types of pads, closed cell foam, self-inflating (with a foam core) and the ones you inflate (blow up) that don’t have a foam core.

The closed cell pads have come a long way and they are way more comfortable these days. They are far less expensive and they are definitely the most durable. A sharp little rock you failed to notice isn’t going to defeat this pad. I also do not like to leave the other two types rolled up indefinitely so I have a Z Lite Sol pad that stays in my truck. The downside is they don’t pack down so you have to have space for them. I don’t care for them for this application, (Carpe Camping) because I want something that packs up small.

Self inflating pads have a foam core that smashes down when you roll them up. When it’s time to get ready to use them, you just leave the valve open and in about 20 minutes the pad is within a breath or two of the proper inflation level. They roll down “fairly” small.

The inflating pads without a foam core used to be a bit of a pain to inflate (and get the air out of in the morning), however, the advent of the “SV,” speed valve, has been a game changer. These new pads with a speed valve inflate and deflate easily and quickly. However, if they do get punctured they are basically worthless for that night until you can amend things with a repair kit. These pads pack up the smallest and that is the main reason this type of pad is my first choice for “Carpe” camping. However, if I’m sure I will camp I grab the foam core pad. I still find the foam core pads a bit more comfortable. It’s close.

So, I will try to make some quick recommendations. None of these pads are designed specifically for motorcycle travel and the number of choices on the ThermaRest website can be daunting. I think I spent two weeks comparing specifications. Then I purchased several and I continued to swap pads around and sleep on each about one night a week for about half a year. The following is what I think I know but you might not feel the same way. I do think my experiences are a good starting point though.

The first thing you have to decide is size. Definitely full body length. Don’t even think about the short pads with nothing under your legs. Trust me. However, there are 20” wide pads and 25” wide pads. I am a pretty big guy at 6’0” tall and around 200 pounds and I move around a lot in my sleep. The 20” is adequate for me, as long as it is a complete rectangle. Anything that tapers down and I am opting for the 25” wide pad because I’ll sleep on my side at times and I want my knees on the pad. Base this call on your size.

So here is my thought process. I don’t care about the weight of a pad for motorcycle travel, it’s completely irrelevant. The more durable fabrics weigh more but hardly take up any more space. Pads come in fabric like 30D, 50D and 75D. Seventy-five D is the most durable. Durability is a big deal and I have subjectively determined I want 75D on the bottom and at least 50D on top.

R-value is how well the pad insulates you from the ground. The suggestion is at least an R2 for summer camping and I will say that I prefer an even higher R value, at least R3. I’ll use a pad with rounded edges in a hammock on occasion and I do appreciate the experience of the pads with a higher R value. It’s also noticeable on cold concrete.

As far as the thickness of the pad, I have tried pads from 1 inch thick to three inches three inches thick, in half inch increments. I like to sink into my pad a bit and less than two inches thick definitely feels less comfortable to me. However, over two inches thick doesn’t seem to add much comfort for me though (in most pads but not all). The pads with no form core start to give me a less comfortable “pool raft” experience, even though they are definitely much more comfortable than an actual pool raft.

So, based on the criteria above all the choices on the ThermaRest website come down to this. There is only one mattress in each category that meet all of my criteria for motorcycle Carpe camping. My first pick is an inflatable pad (with no foam core). I recommend the “Trecker SV.” It’s comfortable, durable and packs down ridiculously small.

The smaller Trekker is on the left, Trail Pro on the right.

For a self-inflating foam core pad the “Trail Pro,” is the pad that meets all of the above criteria. This pad does have a larger packed size than the Trecker pad. However, I’m willing to give up the extra couple inches if I am “pretty sure” I’m camping because I find this the Trail Pro, super comfortable.

I’ll deviate for just a second and mention that the Trail Pro is one of the two Thermarest pads offered in the Areostitch catalog and I’m not surprised. I’ll spend months contemplating the smallest, most minute, details before I routinely carry one piece of gear over another. Every trip I take I’m evaluating some piece of kit and taking notes. After a while I started to realize a ridiculous number of times the piece of gear that I pick as “the best” is in the Aerostitch catalog. After this experience, I have conceded they must have a madly efficient testing protocol and I wrote myself a note to check what’s in Areostitch catalog first, before I start testing anything now. Just saying. I realized a long time ago anyone who got all of their riding gear from just the Aerostitch catalog would be pretty well set knowing they have the best of the best.

Tech blanket

First let me say I am a fan of natural materials and I have spent a long time trying Mexican blankets, wool blankets and a host of other things but I finally just gave up. These technical materials are just too good. These new tech blankets pack small and they are comfy as a grilled cheese sandwich and hot tomato soup on a cold rainy day.

The Chorus HD Quilt is on the left. The Argo is on the right.

I have a large, ThermaRest, Corus HD quilt that is somehow cool when it’s warm and ridiculously warm when it’s cold. The only downside is that it is pricey. I can also recommend the ThermaRest Argo tech blanket. It is more than adequate for nice nights and hotel room floors. It actually packs smaller than the Corus quilt and is comparatively inexpensive.

Stove - Esbit pocket stove with fuel tabs. Inexpensive, small, works great. Keep it in a separate plastic bag with two packets of bug deterrent. The fuel tabs fit inside the stove.

The tiny Esbit stove is inexpensive and works great.
Lighter – mini Bic. 

Wysi towels – sometimes you just need a something like this and they stack nicely inside a waterproof matchstick case. This also fits in the canteen cup with the other stuff.

Hot cocoa, soup mix, instant coffee and spoon – Even just being stuck somewhere it’s nice to just relax with a hot beverage.

Flashlight – just something minimal. 

A canteen cup is wide and I can pack the stove, lighter, bug repellent packets, soup mix, coffee, hot chocolate and a flashlight inside.

Stainless steel cup – There are all kinds of cups in the world that will work fine. My personal preference is the military issue canteen cup. I don’t care for the superlight, cool cups that fit nicely around the bottom of a Nalgene water. I don’t find them useful in this application. I don’t carry water or food in case I might camp. If I decide it’s a great night for the outdoors I’ll hit a store and pick up some bottled water and whatever food I’m feeling at the time. What I really want is something tough that sort of doubles as a pot for soup.

I throw the canteen cup in a used Crown Royal bag and call it a day.

Adding a tarp with some cord and I have all the equipmet I need to camp in the rain but this is almost transitioning to real camping.

That is all the necessary equipment to camp in ideal conditions but I also need to say just a few words about where to camp. Once you get in the right mindset you start to realize there are great spots, for just a pad and a tech blanket, in all kinds of places.

Walk 100 yards down a wooded path and quite often you will find a flat, comfortable, secluded spot quicker than you might imagine. Even relatively urban areas have flat inviting spaces tucked away. Next time you are at a shop party, ask yourself, “Where would I crash if I had to sleep here tonight?” It a fun mental exercise that prepares you for Carpe Camping.

This is the opposite of finding a hotel on a really miserable night that you planned to camp. This is about recognizing a beautiful night and ditching the hotel room for a change. This is reconnecting with something you used to do… and maybe reconnecting with a younger version of yourselves.

This started with a camping trip after the news of a friend’s battle with cancer, which it appears, against all odds, he has won. That trip got me camping again but now I camp in a more mature, should I dare to say, “distinguished” fashion. Carpe Camping has allowed me to “reconnect,” with something I used to do. More importantly it allows me to seize the moment.

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Reader Comments

This excerpt hits the nail on the head. Many times have I also camped on the side of the road with little more than a sleeping bag and a tarp.

My buddy Mike and I have been woken up by everything from storms, to cops, to truckers pulling in and out of the rest stop.

These little adventures always add to the story and sometimes are the most memorable part of any road trip. While it is ok to stop at a hotel and take a shower, many have forgotten the art of sleeping next to their bike and enjoying the open air.

It changed my life forever...makes me remember my first trip to Sturgis in 2005.

Humble, TX
Sunday, September 24, 2017
Editor Response Yes, I remember that ride with the Bikernet crew and the rain in Durango... No one slept outside that night.
I love this article. As I have gotten older and spend more time in motels, the notion of camping out in a comfortable way is appealing. Really well thought out and tested info here. Makes me want to ditch the bagger and fire up my Shovel Chopper..........

Mike Stevenson
North Hills, CA
Sunday, September 17, 2017

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