Off-the-Water Gear

Off-the-Water Gear

Camping in comfort is an integral part of a great summer fishing trip. These products will make you king of the campground.

  • By: Ted Leeson
Bigagnes Bighouse Prs Fmt        

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Whether you’re out for a day or gone for the week,
not every minute of every fishing trip is consumed with working the water. There’s no point in treating angling like a job—it’s much too important for that. So you take some time to knock off for lunch, knock around camp, or put your feet up and knock back a cold one. You sit on beaches and riverbanks, waiting for the tide to turn or the hatch to start or the rain to let up, or maybe just catch a midday nap after an early start. “Even pleasure,” as Jane Austen writes, “is fatiguing.” And, while the best part of any fishing trip is the fishing, the time spent off the water can be nearly as gratifying if some fraction of your equipment is chosen with an eye toward creature comfort, convenience and personal well-being.

I canvassed a number of outfitters, guides and veteran anglers to find out what indulgences, little luxuries and extras they took along, in a car or boat or pack, for camping or day use, to enhance the pleasure of non-fishing interludes. Their recommendations resulted in a memorable field-test experience, though I didn’t get much fishing done.

BIG AGNES BIG HOUSE 6 TENT

On the advice of a friend—“Fish hard, sleep large”—I got hold of a Big House 6. This free-standing dome-style tent assembles quickly and easily, mainly owing to the three-pole, sleeve-and-clip design (the rain fly uses two additional poles); one person can set up the whole works in less than 15 minutes. The one quirk is the fly, which requires a minimum of eight guy lines to provide adequate separation from the tent body, with four additional stake-down points you’ll want to enlist in windy cloudbursts; 12 lines seems a bit excessive. But your reward is lots of space, 90 square feet of it with a 75-inch ridge height—plenty of comfortable room for four anglers to sleep, or to hang out and play poker while waiting for the storm to pass. Ample screening offers excellent ventilation in warm weather and minimizes interior condensation. Twelve mesh pockets inside help keep everyone’s smaller items organized and readily accessible.

The optional vestibule nearly doubles the enclosed area and furnishes a practical space for storing gear, cooking in the rain or housing fishing partners who arrive too late for a spot inside. Two big side doors give easy access.

Wind can pose a major problem for large, big-profile tents. I used this one on the benches above the Madison River—a place where afternoon “breezes” blow drift boats upriver—for 26 straight days. It weathered downpours, hail and stiff winds until Day 17, when a freakish, 15-minute microburst-like storm of thick rain sheets driven by 40-plus mph winds finally folded one of the poles. (I sleeved the damage with a plumbing fixture from the Ennis hardware store, and the tent has been going strong ever since.) The Big House 6 wouldn’t be my first choice for locations where truly extreme weather is routine, but in fair to moderately foul conditions it serves handsomely.

The tent runs $359.95 and the vestibule $109.95. The optional footprint (ground cloth), which I’d recommend, goes for $55. www.bigagnes.com

CABELA’S DIRECTOR’S CHAIR

A civilized outdoor experience, like a civilized indoor one, centers on a good chair. Aside from cradling your bones around a campfire, a folding camp chair is a godsend when putting on waders, and it beats sitting on the ground or a tailgate or in the boat while enjoying lunch or a streamside break. I’ve used at least a dozen different types, and the Cabela’s Director’s Chair handily fulfills the necessary requirements. Unlike some quad chairs, with their deep-slung bottoms and scissor-type folding legs, this one snaps open quickly and has good stability; the powder-coated steel and aluminum frame resists wracking on uneven ground. The PVC-coated polyester fabric is durable and stretched taut enough to make getting out of the chair easy—something I can’t say of quads. I consider armrests a must and a fold-up side table a bonus; this chair has both. It’s comfortable, roomy, practical, lightweight, and reasonably priced at $39.99. www.cabelas.com

CAMP TIME ROLL-A-TABLE

I’d brought a roll-up table on countless camping trips—for cooking, eating, tying flies—before the obvious dawned on me: The same furniture-related comfort could be brought to car- or boat-based day trips. Dining al fresco at a table on a riverbank fosters a certain patrician ease that can’t be achieved by balancing a sandwich on one knee and a cold drink on the other. Of all the camp tables I’ve used, none surpasses the Camp Time Roll-A-Table. The vinyl-covered tabletop slats are supported by aluminum struts held in place by screw-in legs. Set-up takes only a minute, and the table is remarkably sturdy (holds up to 100 pounds) and is stable even on rough ground. It doesn’t sag, droop or wobble, and the surface cleans up more easily than aluminum-slatted tops. And you can pull your chair right up to the thing, which isn’t possible with some tables that use cross-braced legs. The package rolls into an easily transportable 32"x 5.5" bundle that weighs 10 pounds. $78. www.camptime.net

THERM-A-REST Z LITE CAMPING PAD

A more compact, multipurpose alternative to a camp chair is a camping pad, and the most versatile design I’ve seen is the Therm-A-Rest Z Lite. The molded, egg-carton foam pad consists of 14 panels that unfold accordion style (to 72 inches) and make it nicely adaptable to a variety of uses. Unfolded to be two panels wide, it makes a cushion for hard bench seats in a boat; four panels wide and you can kneel on it in a canoe. It offers a dry, comfortable platform for sitting on the bank or beach, and can be folded to an L-shape to furnish a backrest against a tree or rock. You can even double up the panels under your butt for extra cushion, or the panels under your head to make a pillow for streamside snoozes. Unlike self-inflating mattresses (which I do find more comfortable for actual camping use), the Z Lite takes only seconds to set up and won’t puncture when laid over sticks or sharp stones. When it gets dirty, just hose it off. It’s superbly lightweight (14 ounces) and reasonably compact (like a 20-inch-long shoebox) for car or boat, but fairly bulky for a daypack. Nicely designed and durable, it runs $39.95. www.cascadedesigns.com

BYER EASY TRAVELLER HAMMOCK

There’s a fine line between innocent outdoor luxury and outright decadence; I believe I crossed it in the Easy Traveller. The adjustable loop-and-toggle mounting is fast and simple to set up, and the hammock is quite comfortable—better than some beds I’ve slept in. It uses a frameless design, suspended at two ends, so you recline at a slight crosswise angle; lie down lengthwise and you risk spinning around and ending up on the ground. All you need is two trees roughly nine or 10 feet apart and you’re in business. The 54"x 84" nylon parachute fabric holds 250 pounds, folds into a compact stuff sack and weighs less than a pound—some of the most rewarding weight in your pack on a long day of hike-in fishing. It’s revolutionized my concept of an outdoor nap. $44.95. www.byerofmaine.com

JETBOIL FLASH JAVA KIT

In this caffeine-enlightened age, there’s absolutely no reason to suffer a lame cup of coffee, even when freezing your nethers off on a winter steelhead river. And the Jetboil offers an exceptionally efficient approach to the angling coffee break. The one-liter anodized cooking cup (with a drink-through lid) twists onto the burner, which attaches to a small propane/isobutane canister, which nests in a stabilizing base. This unit kicks out the BTUs and can boil a liter of water in two minutes. Throw in some grounds (coarse) and affix the coffee press, and you can brew a pot in about eight minutes start to finish. The unit is decently stable for a small stove—the twist-together assembly ensures the pot won’t slide off—and the adjustable burner is housed in a windscreen for conserving heat in a breeze. The Piezo ignition can be a bit temperamental—I’ve never used one that wasn’t—but the press makes highly creditable coffee, and a neoprene sleeve on the pot keeps it warm.

One of the most pleasing aspects is that everything—base, gas canister, burner and coffee press—all fit into the pot, which is about as large as a 12-ounce coffee can and weighs 24 ounces (including a full gas canister). It’s practical for a daypack, and can also heat up soup, stew, chili, Ramen and other indispensables of a streamside warm-up. At $99.95, it’s a bit on the expensive side. But some things you just can’t put a price on. Good coffee is one. www.jetboil.com

GSI JAVA PRESS

If you’re already fixed up with a camp stove and cooking kit, the GSI Java Press is a worthwhile addition. (For outdoor use, I prefer a press to a drip setup since you don’t need to continually add hot water or dispose of paper filters.) This one-liter thermoplastic pot (BPA free) is shatter resistant, lightweight, and fitted with an insulated drink-through lid, though it’s for making coffee only, not boiling water. The plunger has a close-fitting perimeter gasket that prevents the leakage of grounds back into the pot, and it makes a barista-quality cup of coffee. Like a Jetboil pot, it has an insulating sleeve, though neither offers thermos-quality heat retention. Ruggedness, simplicity and functionality are strong points here. $32.95 at www.gsioutdoors.com; also at www.llbean.com

YETI TUNDRA COOLER

When I first saw a Yeti cooler a few summers back, I thought it was an ammunition locker, or the field case for some delicate scientific instrument. But I was elated to see it held food and very, very cold beer. Alarmingly substantial, a Yeti is to other coolers what a Brink’s truck is to a Tonka toy. The roto-molded polyethylene chassis contains a minimum of two inches of insulation in the sides and bottom (three inches in the lid), and seals with a freezer-style gasket. The full-length hinge won’t hyperextend or break, and a pair of T-latches cinches down the lid securely. It has padded nylon-rope carry handles, molded padlock holes and tie-down points, a recessed drain plug and a dry-food rack. This is the real deal, and it keeps ice (dry ice as well) significantly longer than any cooler I’ve ever used. The durability here is impressive—you can sit or even stand on it without warping the lid, cracking the shell or damaging the hinge. Two cautions: These are fairly heavy and expensive coolers. The Tundra 65 model I tested weighs 27 pounds (yes, empty) and runs $359.99. Casual day-trippers or overnighters may not realize much advantage, but if you need to keep provisions cold for days and days or require superior durability and long service, this cooler is a top choice. www.yeticoolers.com

GIBBON FUNLINE

At the urging of FR&R editor-in-chief and legendary sadist Greg Thomas, I tried out a Funline, which he first described to me with a calculated imprecision, concealing the fact that he was literally asking me to walk a tightrope. It was without a doubt the most unusual piece of equipment I’ve ever field tested. This 40-foot length of 2-inch-wide polyester webbing fastens between two trees and tightens with a ratchet. You set it up about a foot off the ground, and then walk on it—an experience strikingly reminiscent of negotiating snot-slick boulders in your bare feet. But the Funline proved a real hoot—a good bit more challenging than it looked and a highly entertaining diversion in camp, much of the amusement derived from sitting back and watching other athletically impaired, equilibrium-deprived geezers wobbling around on a big string. $79.99. www.gibbonslacklines.com

Ted Leeson has been Fly Rod & Reel’s tightrope-walking field-test guru for decades. His latest book is Inventing Montana: Dispatches from the Madison Valley (Skyhorse Publishing; www.skyhorsepublishing.com).