Camping With Surplus

Camping with Surplus (When You Don’t Know Camping)

I have to admit it, I did not come out of a household that was into the outdoors if you couldn’t see it from a car window. As such, I practically stumbled my way into camping, so do not look upon me as an expert. Rather, somebody who practically is bandit-tier about it. If camping like a bandit with no clue, or simply wanting to camp with cheap, dated gear sounds up your alley then look no further. Come sit down, read a bit, and have a sensible chuckle at how I was an idiot and ramble about what gear is good enough for you to not die. I might even pop in a few links to what is currently cheap. Pour yourself a drink or something, and let’s get into it.

Basic Gear

Surplus can be cheap provided you are looking through what is current. Do not go complaining to me that some old man won’t sell you his stuff cheap, that’s your mistake. On the other hand, we know that new gear can be quite expensive, let alone confusing if you honestly have no idea what you want form your gear. If you are like how I was, you don’t need the GUCCI gear and just something that works. All your starter gear needs to be is cheap, and allow you to get into it. You’ll discover your gear needs as you camp more.

The Sleeping Bag

One of the first things you will want is a sleeping bag. Do yourself the favor and toss out that thin, fleece crap your parents might have bought you for crashing at a friend’s house. That is garbage. If you can pony up the money, go grab the MSS. Should you haunt the web long enough you should still be able to piece a set (patrol bag, winter bag, bivvy, and sack) for about $150-200 still. Sorry, no time machines to grab them when they were still $80 on the low and $120 on the high end.

These bag setups are bulky and low speed, but they’re good for what you are doing. The patrol bag should be all you need for Spring through Fall. On warmer nights, you may not even need to crawl into the patrol bag by itself. For colder weather, combining the bivvy, patrol, and intermediate bags will keep you warm. This might honestly be the most expensive thing I recommend anybody buy, as it just works.

While I don’t have pictures of the MSS in use during winter, I can say it has kept me warm for several camping trips.

Choosing a Tent

Secondly, you will want to snag a tent. The tent I was thrown at me for camping when I started a few years ago was an old one that no longer was waterproof by any measure. In hindsight, I should have thought about that before using it in the rain, but I digress. I replaced it with one of those cheap, commercial flecktarn tents Sportsman’s Guide had for $60 at the time shortly afterward. At the time of writing this article, SG has the French F1 and a Mil-Tec model as well, and neither one should break the bank.

I seriously tried to find an image of it… I’m sorry.. but all could find was the two water jugs.

Ah, the memories of waking up in a water soaked bag. “Good” times.

While a two-man tent is bulky for camping by yourself, but it is nice to have the space for extra gear. Having one also allows you to buddy up when you are new to being outdoors. Primarily, having a tent is about what it means having shelter. If you don’t have friends or smell bad, you could buy a surplus, one-man tent while they are still available. The obvious advantage to that UCP camo tent is that you’ll never lose it. If camping on the moon is not your look, there may still be some woodland pop-ups left. Bear in mind that with the woodland pop-up, that you will also want a tarp to drape over it for rain. An advantage to the one-man shelters is going to be the smaller footing. Meaning you’ll take up less ground space and can squeeze it into spots the larger tents cannot go. You may not even need the tent if you scored the bivvy to your MSS for a balmy summer night and just sleep under clear skies.

Selecting a Ruck

Third, on our rundown is a backpack or ruck. There are plenty of options out there, and when I snagged my first bag, the German alpine rucks were $35. However, these have currently dried up on the surplus market.

The German Alpine rucks can fit 2-3 MREs, a hammock setup, and spare clothes in the main body if you pack well.

Should you still want to go for that cold war look, you still have options. Somehow you can still find East German bags, though I will advise against it. Better cold war bags will be of the Czech, Dutch, and Italian variety; maybe one from Norway if you must be a hipster. If you’re going bandit tier and half-cocked, they are certainly fitting. However, I have found that running a 50-year-old ruck design with a separate water bladder can be rather annoying. For something modern on a short weekend trip, give an assault ruck with a water bladder space a go. In reality, for your first trip, you simply need a bag that can fit all your food and small items.

Bonus Round: Clothing

Just like anything else in life, it’s good to dress appropriately for camping. This means paying attention to the weather reports and packing accordingly. Since the ongoing theme here is to be cheap, let’s assume you have some basics. This can be jeans, cargo pants, shirts, you preferred everyday underpants, socks, and shoes. In most cases, you do not have to go buy surplus to replace these. Though you certainly can go out in full surplus as I have done.

In summer months, your jeans, underwear, and t-shirt are going to be fine, but the other three seasons appear to give people trouble, so let’s discuss base layers. If you do not have a set of long underwear right now, buy some. When it gets to be 40F outside in Fall and Spring, even a thinner set  helps, though wool sets are king in the winter. Even in fall, it’s good to have a light jacket to break the wind and a light sweater or fleece to throw on.

Another thing to keep in mind for winter is wool or fleece-lined pants. If you know you want to go out in winter it is better to grab one now. I’ve had to run out and buy a cheap pair of fleece-lined jeans at Wal-Mart for somebody in the past.

I also recommend getting yourself a pair of lined boots if you are going to go out in colder weather. I run a pair of surplus Canadian, Thinsulate-lined Gore-Tex boots that I bought about five years ago for $45. However, Shopping around shows the USGI surplus ones are still about $80, and other options, even bandit-tier ones, still exist. Nor does it hurt to have wool socks while we are at it. For warm weather, hiking shoes and socks are serviceable.

Lastly, if you do not have a spare raincoat or blanket, invest in one. If the weatherman predicts 40% for rain or higher, it’s better to have a coat and not need it. As for the blanket, well, you never know if somebody is going to be less prepared than you are. Let alone it’s nice to have one. You can still find a woobie for $30.

Starting a Bandit Fire

Let’s face it, if it’s your first time camping outdoors, you’re not a survival genius and I’m certainly not an expert. Yet here we are, but let me tell you there is no shame in stuffing a bunch of dryer lint into Ziploc bags, bringing a candle lighter and a bottle of lighter fluid. Other good things to keep in mind for kindling are cheese curls for the calories, and shaving twigs. Stacking logs in a teepee or cabin shape help too. From there, just be mindful not to let it die or choke it. Remember, I’m not the expert here, just somebody making do.

Food for the Unskilled

There are a couple of options of what to eat when camping. From canned foods at the store, any MRE, or bringing ingredients to cook with. For the sake of simplicity, let us focus on the one-night trip for planning needs. In this case, you’ll want to bring enough food to eat for lunch, dinner, and breakfast. For some, this means a single Rip-It that’s been rolling around the back of a car the last two weeks in the summer, for others this is a bag of cheese curls and two cliff bars. Do not let this be you.

If you have MREs, bring two or three, cut them open and stuff the contents into your ruck and pat yourself on the back. Should you want to cook, I’m not the campfire Gordon Ramsey. Typically, I’ll just heat cans by the side of the fire and I’m good. For those of you who do prefer to cook, keep the weather in mind. Depending on the time of year and the temperature needs of your ingredients, you may need a cooler as well. Usually, I see people bring eggs, cheese, bread, and processed meat like ground beef or scrapple. From there, pan and portable grill choice are up to you.


That more or less covers everything I used to stumble into the world of camping with no formal guidance, being cheap, and a bit of milsurp. To review, we listed a few basic items to have around to camp.

  • Sleeping Bag
  • A Tent for Shelter
  • Backpack (ideally with water bladder)
  • Food
  • Something for starting Fire
  • Proper Clothes for your Weather

At the time of publishing, this is November 2019, so if you’re reading this and those links lead to out-of-stock messages I can’t help you turn back time. Hopefully, you instead use some Google-Fu and look up what is currently out there. I left no lack of hyperlinks to start you with.

The MSS, alpine ruck, flecktarn tent, a gorka, and a rather silly AR.

Now go forth and stumble into camping like I did, you get fun stories that way.

Surely, we could do better, but I’m not dead.


Small time military surplus and Lego collector with a penchant for pocket guns and dry humor.

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