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Many of my first nights outdoors without my parents were thanks to the British Combined Cadet Force, the British equivalent of JROTC. On long weekends hiking up and down the mountains of Snowdonia, I discovered a love of covering the area on foot, carrying everything I needed on my back. Unfortunately for the British forces, I also discovered an aversion to being told what to do and cutting my hair. So, like a good foot soldier, I decided to improvise, adapt and overcome: I “borrowed” some equipment, found my own routes and set off across the UK in search of a backcountry experience where I didn’t have to stay awake at night looking for imaginary villains or walking in circles for hours.

I filled the gaps in my stolen setup with purchases from a local Army prop store—this was at a time when Amazon only sold books and the gear available at retail was both neon-colored and expensive. While most of the equipment was serviceable, it was often heavy and often more than a little outdated.

Twenty years later, I’ve spent more money on Dyneema and down bags than I’d like to admit, but the army surplus store bargain still holds a special place in my heart. As a conflict journalist, I often work in war zones and other places where the durability and color palette of military equipment makes a sensible choice. Luckily, military backpacking gear has gotten a lot better—and a lot lighter—since my ill-fated cadet days, with even companies like Patagonia and Granite Gear getting into the business of supplying special forces. Here is a list of some camping gear you may want to take with you since the government no longer has a use for it.

(Photo: Courtesy)

Regular MREs – meaning “Meal”, “Ready to Eat”, for those of you who don’t speak “Department of Defense”, or “Meals Rejected by Everyone” for generations of soldiers who have suffered under them – are extremely difficult . Historically, they tasted so bad that the U.S. government had to quickly develop a new ration during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because troops kept throwing away much of their food. On the other hand, some of the lighter arctic options can rival freeze-dried backpacking meals in terms of calories per ounce. Government nutritionists carefully plan the contents of cold weather MREs to provide a balanced diet for troops in the field.

Unlike regular, pre-hydrated MREs, Arctic MREs are typically designed with weight in mind. They provide enough nutrition for a meal, hot drinks and multiple snacks and are also packed with everything you need for consumption including a spoon, salt and pepper, matches, chewing gum and bags that can be used as containers so you don’t need any extra Bring cups or bowls. I tried a few cold season menus and was surprised to find hazelnut hot chocolate and decent dehydrated eggs alongside classics like Pop-Tart and single-serve peanut butter.

I also tried the Norwegian Arctic Rations in addition to the US MRE Cold Weather. These contain 110 calories per ounce (more if you throw away the outer packaging) and include a main meal, an energy drink, a so-called “fruit soup”, a dark chocolate bar, dried fruit, coffee, gum, jerky, an electrolyte drink, a biodegradable spoon and a Zippered bag for your trash. (Interestingly, European MREs are often more environmentally friendly than American ones because government regulations limit the amount of non-biodegradable, single-use packaging they can contain.) The food was surprisingly tasty and a pleasant change from anything I’ve eaten before in the freeze-dried or dehydrated realm food was known. As soon as you open the lid on foreign MREs, the world is your oyster: you’ll soon be able to enjoy Latvian roasted lentils or British Pindi Chana Aloo on your next overnight stay.

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One of my abiding memories of those early camping trips is being told not to look at my “hexy TV”, which to non-Britons refers to the state of stupor in which one stares blankly at a hexamine stove for solid fuels. Nowadays the smelly waxy hexamine block is a thing of the past and is being replaced by the excellent Fire Dragon bioethanol fuel tablets. At 27 grams each and available in a variety of packages – like this French cooker that includes a sachet and a tablet to purify water – they make a real case for an ultra-light cooking method.

I often feel the temptation to go on overnight or weekend trips without the stove, but on a cold morning I can’t quite shake my craving for a cup of hot coffee. With a few Fire Dragon tablets, one of the surprisingly good instant coffee bags in the Cold Weather MRE, and my stupid lightweight MSR Titan Cup, I can save space and weight on my stove. Even when I’m not camping overnight, these tiny gel packs (which are non-toxic and can be safely stored with food) usually find their way into my emergency kit because they’re an excellent way to start a fire. While volunteering at the US-Mexico border, I used them to quickly build a heating fire when hypothermia was a real concern and I didn’t have the time or energy to look for dry tinder in a rainstorm.

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Next to cowboy camping, packing a bivouac is the easiest way to sleep outside, but not always the most comfortable. The Snugpak Special Forces Bivouac weighs 100 grams less than the popular Outdoor Research Helium model. It’s big enough for my height of 1.80 meters and even with a 20 degree bag I have freedom of movement. The Bivy’s military heritage is evident in the extended toe box designed for sleeping with boots and the center zipper for quick exits. As a side sleeper, I appreciated that there was no zipper pressing into my side. Its low weight of 340 grams makes the SF bivouac an excellent choice as an emergency shelter.

The SF Bivvi is designed for use with the SF2 sleeping bag. As with many military surplus products, Snugpak’s line is designed as a system where bags can be combined to provide more warmth: This makes deciding what to bring easy: pack your bivouac and the one appropriate to the temperature (n) bag(s). The SF2, like most military sleeping bags, is filled with synthetic insulation, resulting in a slight weight penalty but increasing both durability and performance in humid conditions. The sleeping bag has a comfort rating of 19 degrees Fahrenheit and a low rating of 10, but can be zipped together with the SF1 bag to reduce the temperature to 5 and -4 degrees respectively. Weighing in at 1.5 kilograms, the bag isn’t particularly light (my Thermarest Hyperion 20 weighs just 50 grams), but it’s become my go-to bag for fall overnight stays or for business trips to cold places that might include unscheduled camping. This bag is a good choice for a search and rescue team member or anyone else looking for a sturdy bag that they don’t have to carry.

Using a sleeping pad as a frame for a backpack may not be a new concept for many ultralight aircraft, but the fact that the Bundeswehr did this was news to me. I’m a fan of the Gossamer Gear Thinlite foldable sleeping pad and often take it with me on business trips to protect my inflatable sleeping pad from holes. At 500 grams, the Bundeswehr Pad is a fair bit heavier than the Thinlite and even slightly heavier than a Thermarest Z-Lite, but it’s thick enough to be comfortably used on its own and sturdy enough to support a well-loaded frameless backpack carry. Prices seem to have skyrocketed recently due to the current Ukraine conflict, but you can find these on Ebay for under 15 euros, and even with international shipping they can be a great bargain.

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The Humble US MRE spoon weighs only 6 grams less than the Snow Peak titanium spoon. Unlike other plastic utensils, it’s also surprisingly sturdy: the one I have now has held up since the start of summer and has survived being shoved into backpacks and stirred around hot foods. If you’re a real nerd, you can shorten the handle so the spoon fits into your cold steeping jar, reducing the utensil to just under 5 grams. These spoons can be purchased separately but are also included with every US MRE.

Source : www.backpacker.com

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