Something has to give.

Last spring, as I twice loaded and unloaded my van with all of the gear required for a two day Cub Scout camp out, that was all I could think. My van was loaded to the gills: six man tent, pop up tent for the kitchen area, folding table, camp stove, tote full of sleeping bags, a couple air mattresses, various bags with flashlights, lanterns, and cooking supplies, coolers of food and drinks, backpacks with clothes . . . . .

Being involved with Ben and his scouting adventure has been a highlight of fatherhood. This marks Ben’s fourth year as a Cub Scout, and I have been his den leader for the last three years. It has been a joy to watch him fall in love with the outdoors, and he has taken to camping and hiking with great enthusiasm. But my love of camping with Ben is only rivaled by my disdain for packing for weekend excursions and then breaking everything down.

So, as I began to think of Ben becoming a Webelos this fall, and our camping experiences evolving from front country camping, which is required for Cub Scouts, to back country camping, which Boy Scouts can do, I knew that a quick shift in our approach to gear had to begin, as Ben’s continuing with scouting is a foregone conclusion and we don’t own any mules.

As is the case whenever I enter into something like this, I reached out to people I know who know things I don’t. I chatted with backpacking friends and dads of Boy Scouts who spent a lot of time back country camping to get an idea on what they were using. Approaching the process like a sponge, I soaked up any and all advice, and one thing became pretty obvious pretty quick; getting to the back country could be setting me back. These folks were using a lot of gear and I had virtually none of it.

In an effort to not be overwhelmed, I decided to focus on two essentials, sleeping bags and a tent, first. A good friend of mine gave me rave reviews of his gear from Big Agnes, an outdoor company based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The more I heard from him, and the more I read about his Big Agnes gear, the more interested I got.

On a whim, I reached out to Big Agnes to see if they wanted to be part of my journey with Ben into the world of backpacking. They signed on this summer and, to my gratitude, sent Ben and me a tent and a couple of bags and sleeping pads to try out.

Ben and I finally got to put our Big Agnes sleep systems to use a couple weekends ago at our pack’s first camp out of the year. The sleep system developed by Big Agnes is what drew me to the company to start with and the bag and pad combinations they sent us had me incredibly excited. In a nutshell, Big Agnes has developed sleeping bags with pockets into which the sleeping pad can be secured. In my mind, this is genius. I remember long, uncomfortable nights ending up sideways and askew on those skimpy blue sleeping pads of my youth. Those nights were no fun then. At age 44, they would be even less fun now.

I didn’t let Ben experiment with his pad and bag set up prior to the first night of our camp out. I watched a quick Youtube video on the basic inflation of the pad, but I wanted to give him a true hands-on experience. I handed him the bag and pad, gave him some basic instructions, and turned him loose to puzzle it all out. He rose to the challenge, having the sleeping pad inflated in just over two minutes. I was pretty impressed by that. I had mine ready to go in roughly the same time. We both learned something valuable pretty quickly during that first set up, though; place a slightly inflated pad into pocket in the bag prior to full inflation! After that and one other small hiccup – if you don’t want to reinflate your pad in the middle of the night, make sure the valve cover is fully secured – we were set up for a great night’s sleep within minutes.

Those two nights in my sleep system, taken on the Encampment 15 bag and Q-Core SLX pad, were two of the best night’s sleep I have had outside in a long, long time. The temperatures dipped down into the 40s and I stayed nice and toasty, and my pad provided me plenty of support and insulation from the ground. And, by design, I stayed on the pad and didn’t end up all cattywampus. Ben, with his Wolverine 15 and Insulated Air Core Ultra, a system designed specifically for kids, agreed.

Following this two night camp out, my van was just as full as it was after the camp out last spring. But, even though it took me a couple hours to get unpacked, Ben and I are  a bit more streamlined with the help of Big Agnes. The set up and break down of our sleeping gear was done in less than five minutes and Ben handled the rolling and stuffing of both his pad and bag completely on his own. This newfound independence, unknown when we were rolling our massive car camping bags, bodes well for future experiences and, for now, frees me up to get the rest of the damned gear out of the van.

Ben and I have our next adventures in our sights, and it will involve a brand new tent, hopefully high on some mountain top near our Southwest Virginia home. I know we’ll be sleeping cozy.