Hi, campers! I have been among you.
I’ve gazed into your bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. I’ve loaned you blankets. I’ve suggested you probably don’t want to try to heat the beans over the fire while still in the can. I’ve buried your ashes after you’ve packed up and left the fire burning — discarded half-can of beans and all. I’ve been there. There’s a certain knowledge camping demands.
This knowledge doesn’t come easily. These learnings used to be passed down from generation to generation, but lately, generations have been skipping the whole camping thing in favor of Netflix and online games or whatever.
That’s sad. Camping is a lot of work, but once you’re set-up and comfortable, you find you’re suddenly at home in a place that’s nothing like your apartment or mini-McMansion. You’re actually living outdoors. There’s an intimacy with nature that comes with it that can’t be easily communicated.
Some talk about it as a return to our primal hunter-gatherer origins. I tend to discount that kind of talk, if only because our hunter-gatherer forebears didn’t have nylon tents and mosquito repellent.
But still, setting up camp you go through the same steps you would in setting up any other household, only in miniature and very rapidly. It can teach you (and your kids) not to take things like water heaters and garbage disposals for granted. It can add joy to your daily life upon your return — at least until you forget about it again.
For easy reference, I’ll list some of my most important camping tips here. Some real outdoorsy types will scoff. I’ve never been a hard-core backpacker. I’m an American, dammit. I drive to near where I want to camp with a pickup bed half-full of stuff I need. NEED! “Roughing it” means sleeping outside of the car.
Anyway, some tips for car-camping:
- At camping stores and WalMart you’ll find a thing called a “camping mat” that self-inflates and — to the uninitiated — seems like some sort of magic mattress. It isn’t. If you’re not backpacking, skip those things. They have no power to suspend the laws of physics. Half-an-inch of foam isn’t enough padding or insulation for your body against the ground. Go with an air mattress, or better yet, a cot. When you’re lying on the ground or even a half-inch from it, you’re losing body heat. You’re also feeling pebbles. You have a better option. Go with it. You can find a list of reviewed air mattresses here.
- When you’re selecting a camping spot and setting up your tent, keep in mind not only factors like shade, moisture, insects, and the smoothness of the ground, but also the slope. You’re generally going to be much happier if you arrange the tent and your bedding so that your head is higher than your feet. Rolling side-to-side isn’t much fun, either. Especially if you wake up with a whining 6-year-old in your face.
- One of my best camping gear investments — ever — was the propane pole. This attaches to a standard 5-gallon propane tank and lets you run a Coleman propane stove at the same time you’re running a Coleman propane lantern, which attaches to its very top. That means it not only keeps you from needing to change out those bothersome and expensive little 1-quart propane bottles, but also provides a natural high-mount for the lantern. A full five-gallon propane tank can last a season.
- For a while, anti-bacterial hand sanitizer was all the rage. Then, it became apparent that it was not only drying out skin and encouraging cracks that allowed infection (irony strikes), but also was doing so good of a job that we were losing our natural immunity to bacteria. Still, washing hands is a good idea. I fill an empty laundry detergent container with its handy little squeeze-bulb valve, filled with diluted hand soap. Kids actually think it’s fun to use. Which is important.
- Cookware, flatware, even small appliances like percolators can be found at thrift shops. You don’t need a fancy mess kit, but after dealing with trash from disposables, you’ll probably wish you had just washed dishes. There’s no let-down quite like celebrating the wilderness for a weekend only to leave with a large trash bag full of paper plates, cups, and utensils. It tends to make one feel like the worst kind of phony.
- Speaking of buying gear, you can often buy a whole camping set-up — including tents, cots, lanterns, and stoves — on Craigslist at a massive discount. This stuff often is purchased and used once or twice. It rarely wears out. Just make sure you do a full setup at home before trying to do it live out in the boonies during a sudden rainstorm.
- Things you need: Spare batteries, ice, first-aid kit, sewing kit, duct tape, insect repellent, sunscreen, ibuprofen, rain poncho, a sharp knife, a small shovel, a hammer or mallet (for tent pegs), matches, and kindling of some kind (we used to get kindling delivered on our doorstep every morning, but few people seem to subscribe to newspapers anymore). These are all things I’ve witnessed people leave behind. Sometimes that people was me. Learn from my bad example.
- Finally, if you have kids — give them a break. Let them run around. Let them play with other kids. Give them the chance to run wild in the barely-tamed wilderness and get into a little trouble that doesn’t involve getting run over by busses, pestered by creepy neighbors, or pelted with ads. They know where to find you. Use the camping experience to inspire some self-sufficiency in them. Loosen the grip. It will be OK.
Anyway, camping can be fun — if you let it be fun. I highly recommend introducing the next generation to at least a taste of those hunter-gatherer origins.
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The main character in my novel Eye of the Diamond-T gets a crash-course in living in nature when he awakens in a remote mountain valley after crashing his truck on Route 66 in 1957. Find out what happens HERE.