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Camp out! The best gear for a date with nature

Packing up for an adventure in the great outdoors? From the best tent for your needs to the ultimate camping knife, here are Paul Hochman's picks for a weekend in the wild.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

As the summer gets close to its summit — there are only a few weeks left before we begin our slow descent into September — millions of Americans plan to go camping with their families. In fact, according to the Outdoor Retailer Association, July and August are the prime months for folks who head outside for a little fresh air and adventure … even if that adventure is 20 feet from the house. That’s right — this year, there’s even a nice twist: With gas prices showing few signs of a retreat to affordability, it’s nice to think that camping can include an overnight in the backyard with the kids. Below, some great camping gear for everybody from the rank amateur/backyarder to the experienced mountaineer.

Black Diamond Cosmo Headlamp
Don't trip on the grill: The first thing you’re going to need when you’re doing a little backyard overnight with the kids (or, if they’re a bit older, letting them sleep out in the tent by themselves, with their pals) is a good light. Whether it’s your 7-year-old’s late-night bathroom run or just a simple way to inspect all the tent zips in the dark to make sure they’re closed and keeping out the bugs, a lightweight headlamp is an economical, easy-to-use choice. Even highly experienced pros depend on them.

There are many, many choices, but the best light for your money out there right now is made by a serious mountaineering company, called Black Diamond, which makes gear for everybody from the beginner to the Everest expert. Black Diamond’s little “Cosmo,” a headlamp with eight brightness modes (everything from “ghost-story” mode to “Dad, I have to go NOW” mode), is simple and light. Its strap is easily adjustable for almost any head size, it weighs less than three ounces, and when it’s on your noggin, it leaves two free hands for page-turning or fending off imaginary bears. $30; www.bdel.com Brunton Polaris Camping LampOn the other end of the weight spectrum, but perfect for car camping (where you drive to the campsite) or backyarding it, is the Brunton Polaris. It weighs about one pound, due to its use of C-size batteries, but I love it because it makes everybody look great. Seriously: If you have a romantic camping outing on your mind, lighting is everything; the last thing you want is to bathe you and your companion in the same light they use to illuminate the produce aisle at Costco. The Polaris has a unique orange filter that looks like soft firelight, making you look, you know, outdoorsy and healthy. $53; www.brunton.com

REI Quarter Dome T3For protection from the elements, you'll need a great tent. There are literally hundreds of tent choices out there, but my advice is:

  • Go with a trusted brand (you can’t compromise on shelter in the out-of-doors)
  • Insist on a decent price (most people don’t need to spend $750 to get good protection)
  • Make sure it holds enough people for your purposes

The best combination of all of those requirements, I believe, is made by longtime outdoor expert REI (which stands for Recreational Equipment, Incorporated), the Seattle-based camping and outdoor store. My favorite tent for the money: the Quarter Dome T3, which has two doors (key for getting out at night without waking your tentmates), 30 square feet of floor space (great for up to three people) and nearly vertical walls, which makes it feel very roomy. $290; www.rei.com

Deuter Futura Pro 42Taking stuff to go? If there’s one thing almost everybody needs on a camping trip, it’s a good pack. In great backpacks, you’ll find the best combination of the following three attributes: comfort, capacity and cost.

Combining the three in one pack is tough, but world-leader Deuter, the German pack company, does it best, in my opinion. The Futura Pro 42 is packed with little places for everything — water bottle, separate food storage, icky wet stuff, you name it — but it’s also lightweight and capacious (weighs four pounds and holds 2,550 cubic inches of gear). Remember, for overnight excursions, a capacity of about 2,250-2,500 cubic inches is just right, but getting easy access to all of it is truly key (who wants to dig through a whole pack to find a flashlight?). The Futura distinguishes itself with its gajillion pockets and places, making it easy to stay organized. And did we mention the built-in rain cover that keeps it all dry? $130; www.deuterusa.com 

Leatherman SkeletoolFrankly, you should never go camping (even car camping) without a great knife. And while Victorinox and Wenger both have well-earned reputations for utility, I think the most versatile, toughest, and most useful multi-tool out there is still made by Leatherman. The Skeletool doesn’t just help you cut things, you can fix them, too, with onboard pliers, screwdriver, the works. And it only weighs five ounces. $72; www.leatherman.com

Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a Fast Company magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: