My Dad's First Outdoor Gear

My Dad's First Outdoor Gear

While growing up in central Maryland, my father was the one to introduce me to camping, hiking, and canoeing, which he had been doing for decades. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, during WWII, where he lived until he went to college at Sewanee in 1959. In the late 40s and 50s he was a Boy Scout and then a Senior Scout (Explorer) and that's how he got introduced to outdoor activities.

two books: The Camper's Bible and The Sierra Club Wilderness Handbook

Two books I found on Dad's bookshelf: The Camper's Bible (1970) and  The Sierra Club Wilderness Handbook (3rd printing: 1968) 

Most of their Boy Scout gear came from army surplus, including daypacks and boots, and were purchased and owned by the individual scouts. They wore denim, which appalls us now. A typical camping set up was a pup tent shelter-half. Two could be buttoned together to make a full shelter. It had no floor and was not waterproof. When it rained, the scouts used polyethylene as a groundsheet. The Boy Scouts slept on the ground, with no sleeping pads, until cots because available. Rain ran underneath the edges of the tent but it was considered "roughing it." They had sleeping bags that were either army surplus or bought from Sears that were made specifically for the Boy Scouts. The better sleeping bags were warm comfortable cocoons stuffed with down. The more basic sleeping bags were filled with kapok, a fiber from a tropical tree. These sleeping bags had a wrap-around that protected the sleeping bag during travel. It was also supposed to shield the user's face from rain. Dad says it didn't work.

My father much preferred the jungle hammock. It was like a waterproof room, developed for tropical Pacific deployments in WWII to prevent malaria, and it included mosquito netting. It was comfortable, but at over seven pounds, it wasn't something you'd want to backpack with unless you had to. Still, it's the prototype for the hammocks campers use today.

"If you let your arm touch the edge of the jungle hammock and then used a flashlight, you could see the mosquitoes lined up against the netting and you knew it was protecting you, but you had to be careful to not touch the edge," my dad tells me.

bw photo hammock with rifle hanging below

Since most of the expeditions were at Boy Scout camps, water came from a pump and was stored in 2-quart aluminum canteens with heavy rigid plastic lids. No need for a Vecto, there. Each camper had a mess kit, which included a cooking pot, frying pan, eating plate, fork, spoon, and knife.

My father's favorite experience was a month-long trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico in the summer when he was 14.

"It was a major expedition to get the whole troop organized," he says.

They traveled by bus from Memphis. My father remembers they drove through the first night, stopped briefly in Dallas and left via Fort Worth. He was amazed by the contrast of greenery and desert in such a short span.

Memphis, Tennessee, was surrounded by flat cotton lands and deciduous wooded areas. In New Mexico, there were no trees and steep dry valleys that got higher and higher, up to forests of Douglas fir trees that he had only seen in identification books.

"I'm wasn't used to seeing hemlocks or granite peaks carved by glaciers. It was such a contrast from Memphis. Later on, I read an exposé that the camp was just a boondoggle for the upper ranks of the Boy Scouts but to me it was magic," he tells me.

Tooth of time at Philmont

There he went on a two-week backpacking trip with upgraded gear. Dad made the frame of his own backpack out of pine lathes, heated in boiling water and made to conform to his back. His mother sewed the pack and compartments out of canvas. The straps were also canvas but wrapped in something soft for comfort.

He had a "mountain tent" with walls on all sides, a warm sleeping bag, real hiking boots (not waterproof), a large carving knife, a heavy cast-iron kettle, and dehydrated food. The food was purchased from the Philmont camp commissary and his favorite was pancakes. He hated the bitter foraged dandelion greens they ate along the way. Before he left, his father had given him a fishing line and hook, saying it might save his life one day. My dad used it to supplement the dehydrated food and bitter greens with fresh trout that he caught with worms. The scouts purified their drinking water by boiling it.

After high school, he took what gear he had with him to work at national parks and camp around the Western US, including Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

While in college, he upgraded his gear again. He had an acetylene headlamp that he used for spelunking and a better down sleeping bag suitable for colder temperatures. He loved that reliable lamp because as long as he had carbide and water, he had a light source. He still wore Levis in the rain. An overnight trip was about 40 lbs of gear. His camping stove used gasoline and had a couple of burners.

mildewed backpack and equipment described below

At age 20, he got his first store-bought backpack. It's this stinking thing that has been mildewing in our shed for decades. To get it out, I had to survive a downpour of alien-looking camel crickets bouncing everywhere. With an aluminum frame, the pack was once considered lightweight and had fancy padded straps. The compartments were still packed from his last trip with the pack. I found an old disposable razor, stuff sacks that had been chewed on by mice, an intact North Face dry bag, a set of stainless steel utensils (made in Japan), and fishing sinkers.

"I wonder if these sinkers contain lead," I said.

"Yes," he responded, simply.

The tag on his pack says he was traveling from Denver to Regan National Airport in Washington, DC. He doesn't remember which trip that was. Maybe geology related.

While he later added a four-person tent and an aluminum canoe to the mix, my family used the same midcentury camping equipment until my sister and I left home. While my father's outdoor days are over (due to injury and illness) my sister and I ramble around the world for beautiful stones, stories, and pictures to bring back to him.


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2 comments
  • This is a great article! When the email came to my inbox and I saw the pack and other gear, I was immediately brought back to the days in my youth how, during my first campouts, I used similar gear that was lent to me by my father. I still remember the smell of the pack, the canteen and the tent. Thank you for helping me remember those experiences- the sounds, the smells and the great times.

    Brian Langford on
  • This was awesome. My dad had a similar backpack I remember. Thank you for writing about this.

    Tim Dodge on

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