Taming the Trail

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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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."

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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.

"I've seen a lot of people with them," he said. Five years ago, they were an esoteric unit used only by the military and surveyors, he said. Now the price has come down from thousands of dollars to the $200 range.

"They work well," he said. But others caution they are still a bit complicated.

As for the trekking poles, a spin-off from the ski pole, European hikers have been using them for years. The concept of a walking stick is ancient, and some might argue that a sturdy stick found in the woods does the job just as well.

But the trekking poles are sought by the casual walker on up to the serious mountaineer, says John Duffant, sales associate at Adventure 16's Tarzana store.

"When you have 80 pounds on your back, you're real thankful for them," he said. Not only do they help with balance, they aid anyone with bad knees. "I was at Mt. Whitney and an individual offered me $100 for my trekking poles." (They retail for about that price.)

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You can say goodbye to boiling drinking water in the outdoors, or guzzling water purified with foul-tasting iodine. The outdoor market has been flooded with water filtration systems in the last 10 years, said Sport Chalet's Carl Moon. Now you can put your hose in a mountain stream, pump water through the filtering system, and "clean water comes out the other end," he said.

The list goes on. You can pack your gear in a backpack designed with the ultra-padded hardware on the inside. You can cook your pesto linguine in super lightweight pots made of titanium.

For lounging around the campfire after a long day on the trail, you can plop into a 1-pound folding chair with headrest. At night you can store your food in a special bear-resistant canister.

And for the car campers who leave home with everything but the kitchen sink, the Coleman company offers the Coleman Kitchen, which includes a plastic sink, paper-towel holder, shelves, and a table with a built-in board for checkers, chess and backgammon.

Having space for all this paraphernalia isn't a problem if you pick up one of Coleman's "Forest Castle" tents, a three-room 200-square-foot tent that has seven windows and sleeps 10.

Sink? Windows? What has happened since the camping boom of the 1960s and '70s when backpacks gouged your hips and dinner was a can of beans?

All those earlier backpackers and campers have grown up and they have more money than they did in those days, offers Lux. "They're not interested in sleeping on a rock."

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Buyers' Guide

Here are some new camping and backpacking gizmos that may make good holiday gifts. (Prices may vary among stores.)

The Outback Oven: About $40 for the 18-ounce kit with 8-inch pan. Packaged mixes, about $4 to $6.

Mini Expresso Maker: Under $25, depending on size.

Trekking poles: Less than $115 for a pair.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS): $150 to $350.

Mini pack with water container and hose: less than $80. (Buy the bladder and hose separately for under $20.)

Petzl head light: styles range from about $27 to $60.

Coleman Kitchen: About $190.

Shoppers' Guide

Places where you can find camping and backpacking equipment:

Adventure 16, 5425 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana; (818) 345-4266.

REI, 18605 Devonshire St., Northridge; (818) 831-5555.

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