In the great outdoors, emergencies and inconveniences come unplanned and unexpected. You must have certain essential supplies on hand to deal with them. You may be comfortable carrying little more than a couple of triangle bandages, tweezers, a garbage bag, a knife and duct tape in a zip-close plastic bag. Others may prefer a more substantial first aid kit and extra survival supplies. Snoop out the preferences of the person you're gifting, or better yet, just ask.
A ready-made lightweight emergency kit such as the Tacoma Mountain Rescue Storm and Survival Kit ($25) from REI keeps everything you need in an emergency convenient and close at hand.
Alternatively, you can create your own inexpensive (but no less useful) emergency kit. Select a container such as a small bottle, tin or even a zip-close bag. Include matches or a lighter and some sort of fire starter or kindling (you can make your own from candle wax, paper egg cartons and dryer lint), an emergency shelter (a large black garbage bag and a space blanket work, for the minimalist), repair materials (duct tape, zip ties and/or cordage), a small knife, a compass and a signal whistle or mirror. No matter how you do it, this gift might save a life but won't bust your budget. That's why it gets number one on my list.
A sleeping bag and pad are very necessary outdoor items for any outdoorswoman. Because a camper's comfort is so dependent on her choice of gear, an experienced backpacker may be very picky about her outdoor essentials. Your best bet is sneaking a peek at what she already uses and which items might need to be replaced. (Hint: If she patches that Therma-Rest at least once per outing, or if her sleeping bag has lost its loft or is starting to shed insulation, it's time for a replacement.)
The Women's TrailPro Therm-A-Rest mattress pad ($79.95) is a must-buy with its extra insulation in the feet. It's compatible with the wide variety of Therm-A-Rest accessories and sleep systems, including "chair" sleeves, stuff sacks and fitted sheets. The TrailPro's comfort may be comparable to similar models, but unless the other models have extra insulation in the feet area, they simply can't compete.
At first, the idea of using a sheet on a camping pad seems like sacrilege. After all, there's no point at all to using a sheet when you're wrapped up in a sleeping bag -- and who in their right mind wants to make going to bed more complicated? But, combined with the Ventra down comforter ($199.95) and a compact camp pillow or a space-saving pillowcase like Therm-a-Rest's Trekker Pillowcase ($10.95), the Therm-a-Rest Fitted Sheet ($20.95 to $24.95) suddenly makes sense. It's not necessarily an item for the hardcore camper, but it does serve as the entryway for an intriguing combination of items.
Once the sheet's on your mattress pad, you can either use the Ventra as a comforter -- cuddle up and go right to sleep -- or use its built-in snaps to attach it to those on the bottom of the fitted sheet. This snugs the comforter up nicely against the mattress, nearly turning it into to an actual sleeping bag -- a necessity if you're sleeping in conditions anywhere near the Ventra's 40-degree rating. You can even use it at freezing temperatures if you're willing to dress warmly.
I was more than a little dubious about the Ventra at first. Why would I even consider using something that wasn't a sleeping bag? But if you're a social backpacker, car camper or just like nifty stuff, it has some benefits. It's clearly made for the trail but can transition easily enough into an informal home setting. More importantly, however, its non-bag nature makes dragging it out and keeping warm beside the campfire so much easier than the hassle of a zipper or tapered footbox. Second, if you're a car camper, a comforter makes for a much easier transition from car to campfire to tent. Plus, it's easier to maneuver than a sleeping bag. (Those who sleep in cars sometimes find themselves with less space, or at least less height, to wriggle around in than in a tent.)
If you're willing to splurge on a more expensive piece of outdoor gear, the Exped DownMat ($164.95) series makes a cushy addition to almost any sleep situation. Only a serious mountaineer is likely to need it -- but almost any backpacker will enjoy it.
Camping and outdoor gear essentials make great Christmas presents, but do your research and include a gift receipt. Remember, outdoorspeople tend to be very opinionated about the gear they use -- but they'll appreciate the thought regardless.
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