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Taming the Trail

New gizmos--from a portable baking oven to satellite navigation system--add comforts to camping. They make great gifts too.


With a 50-pound pack on your back, you've trudged for miles to a campsite deep in the wilderness, a quiet place to reflect on the wonder of nature. But all you can think about is wolfing down a sausage-and-onion pizza.

A camper's fantasy? Not any more. A Berkeley company, Traveling Light, makes the Outback Oven, a lightweight "oven" that fits over a camp stove. With the company's packaged mixes, you can now dine trail-side on everything from quiche to pizza to brownies.

It's just one of many recent camping innovations that have made the outdoors a little more comfy. All the staples--sleeping bags, tents and backpacks--have high-tech improvements. You can even buy your Gore-Tex jacket with "pit zips," underarm zippers for ventilation on those sweaty climbs.

Camping is a year-round activity in Southern California--where fall and winter can mean torrential rains followed by summer-like temperatures. If you need a push, some of the newer gadgets and gizmos have taken camping and backpacking beyond comfy to, dare we say, even cushy. With the holidays upon us, you might find something for the outdoors person on your list who likes to rough it--within limits.

Here's a glimpse of how civilized the outdoor experience can be:

You arrive at your campsite after dark, but putting up the tent isn't a problem. You strap on your head light, leaving your hands free to do the work. Afterward, you adjust the zoom control on the beam, grab a book, and snuggle into your sleeping bag atop its self-inflating mattress. Overhead, your gear is stowed in the tent's loft, and with the skylight open, you fall asleep under the stars.

In the morning, you sip espresso from your compact espresso maker--complete with small blue enamel cup. You're not perched uncomfortably on a rock because you brought the adapter for your mattress that turns it into a chair. The cool morning air is filled with the aroma of cinnamon coffee cake baking in your portable oven.


Heading out for a day hike, you strap on your mini-pack with its water container and hose so you can sip as you stride along. Your step will be sure-footed and easy on your knees because you brought your spring-loaded, adjustable trekking poles--the ones that double as a camera stand. And you're not worried about getting lost because you've got a friend in the sky--a satellite that feeds you directional information via your global positioning system, a gadget no bigger than a cellular phone.

Has it gotten too cushy?

"It's always going to be hard, dirty work," said Steve Everson, who works at Patagonia's Great Pacific Iron Works store in Ventura. "You're still carrying a 50-pound pack on your back. Your body is screaming by the time you get to the campsite."

But backpackers, and to a lesser extent car campers, needn't suffer like they might have in the old days, he said, when being out in the wilds was sometimes a cold and hungry experience.

Apparently campers and backpackers want a smoother, more comfortable experience--and they're not afraid to shell out for it. The National Sporting Goods Assn., which tracks sales of camping and backpacking gear, predicts sales will hit $1.3 billion this year--that's after a 19% increase seen in 1995 over the previous year.

"People are not afraid to buy good equipment like a $300 backpack," said Tom Shealey, senior managing editor of Backpacker magazine. "Whether they use it or not."

But if they really do head outdoors, they want the experience to go off without a hitch, he said. In the case of sleeping bags, synthetic material is challenging down as the top filler because it is warmer than down in the rain.

"When down gets wet, you might as well get a wet duck and sleep with it," Shealey said.

What about the other nifty new gadgets and gizmos out there? Are they fluff or useful?

Jim Lux pronounced the Outback Oven "the greatest thing ever invented." Lux, who teaches orienteering--wilderness navigation--and leads hikes through the Conejo Recreation and Park District, has used it to bake bread on the trail.

"At lunch I mixed the dough [using yeast], kneaded it and threw it in the backpack," he said. "At dinner, I punched it down, let it rise and then baked it."


The "oven" is actually a Teflon-coated baking pan with a hood-like cover. The rig fits over a camp stove and includes a three-setting thermostat: warm up, bake and burn. It comes in sizes ranging from ultralight (you use your own pot) at 7 ounces, on up to the 3-pound kit.

Backpackers might frown at the extra weight of an oven, but they like the new lightweight head lights that fasten to your forehead with elastic straps--even though they look a little goofy.

"You can cook in the dark and you don't have to hold the flashlight in your teeth," Lux said.

Among the hottest advances are the global positioning systems (GPS), according to Lux. They pick up a satellite signal and can flash a position using latitude and longitude. They tell you the direction you're heading, and some even provide your hiking speed.

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