4 April 2017

So you’re going camping for the first time

Posted by Jessica Ball

Special thanks to Danya AbdelHameid (@DanyaAbel) for helping me craft this post and suggesting the resource links at the end!

A conversation on Twitter recently got me thinking about my first field experience (which, incidentally, was the first time I’d been camping). I did the tent-in-the-backyard type of camping when I was younger , but until I went to college I had never actually gone camping in a park or anywhere else. My decision to take a three-and-a-half-week summer field course at the end of my freshman year that included a lot camping in the middle of nowhere resulted, to put it mildly, in a steep learning curve. I screwed things up every day – set my tent up wrong, left things outside to get rained on, forgot to put food away properly, etc. etc.

But aside from those kinds of minor incidents, my barrier to entry into the camping world was small. My parents helped me buy the equipment, my professors and classmates helped me, without making fun of me when I made mistakes. A recent conversation with @lada90 and @DanyaAbel has helped me realize that others don’t have it as easy. There are structural, social, and economic barriers that prevent many from participating in outdoor recreation, most of which (as a upper-middle-class white woman) I didn’t face. I could afford gear, I could have (had I chosen) asked my family to take me camping, I had the means to travel to parks and access to the outdoors, and I had people around me who were happy to help without being condescending.

A blog post can’t make up for all of those experiences, but I thought I could at least give folks a jumping-off point for that first trip – going over a few of the things that people might not think to tell you, or that you could learn through uncomfortable experiences but would rather know before a trip. Let’s call it Camping 101.

If you’re not sure whether you’re going to go camping often, or you don’t have the money right now, renting or borrowing equipment means you don’t have to spend a lot of money right away. Some outdoor stores will rent you everything you need for a trip (REI comes to mind). Likewise, a lot of geologists tend to accumulate gear, and if you’re in an academic department there’s usually someone with extra equipment (or who isn’t using it) that can loan you things. REI in particular will show you how to use what you’re renting when you pick it up – and if they don’t, make sure to ask them to demonstrate things for you. A good supply store will let you try out the equipment, at least gently.

If you want to buy your supplies, you can sometimes find cheaper gear at scratch-and-dent sales, and there are a few websites that will sell used stuff (geartrade.com is one, and Craigslist can be a good option if you’re in a bigger town). Likewise, if you’re in a department with people who have been camping for a while, they might be willing to sell you their old stuff so they can justify buying new things. Just make sure it’s in decent condition (they should be able to tell you this and be honest about it).

Tents scattered between two campsites in a high desert campsite near forest roads.

A recent camping trip where we had to negotiate forest roads to find some sheltered spots. (Photo courtesy of Nick Duguid, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nduguid/)

Your goal in setting up a campsite is to sleep warm, dry and comfortable, and keep critters from getting into your stuff. This means thinking about where the site is (not in a wash or on a game trail, for example) and what might happen during the night. There’s nothing more exhausting than having to wake up in the middle of the night to deal with something, especially if you’ve been hiking a lot. When picking your spot, these are important questions to think about:

  • Does this spot look safe? Is anything going to fall on me, step on me or bother me if I camp here? (Game trails look like narrow walking trails – you should avoid both)
  • Is it going to rain at night? Am I in or near a drainage? (You should avoid these anyway, but it’s tempting when they’re the only clear area in a desert setting.)
  • Are there trees above me that could drop stuff on me? (Pinecones are hard.)
  • What kind of surface am I going to be sleeping on? Can I clear the rocks/branches away? Am I on top of a burrow or anthill? (Anthills really suck.)
  • Is it going to be windy, and is there a way to shelter from it? (Having a windbreak – trees, rocks, a hill, etc. will keep things quieter and warmer.)
  • Do I need access to water? (Carrying water a long distance is also exhausting, but keep in mind that if you’re near the only water source for a long way – and it’s not a spigot in a campsite – animals are going to want to be near it too.)
  • Is there a good place to use as a bathroom spot if you’re not in a campsite? (You don’t want these too close by, for obvious reasons.)
A tent-less jungle campsite in Guatemala, with a tarp sheltering two sleeping bags.

The bare minimum necessary for comfort in Guatemala (it was hot). Ground tarp, rain fly, sleeping bag and pad.

At bare minimum, you need a ground tarp and a sleeping pad. Tents can be optional. In desert environments (places where condensation and biting insects aren’t an issue), you can get away without setting up a tent. They’re nice to have to put your stuff in and to keep critters out and they help when it’s cold or windy, but you don’t absolutely need them if it’s going to be warm and dry out. Ground tarps, however, keep moisture away from your stuff and you and keep dirt off your gear.

Likewise, sleeping pads keep you warm. You wouldn’t believe how much heat you can lose to the ground even with a good sleeping bag, and even a little bit of cushioning makes a lot of difference. I’ve slept without a sleeping pad before and it’s uncomfortable.  The pad doesn’t need to be super expensive – you could even get away with a foam pool float or a yoga mat if you had to – but if you’re hiking long distance, you’ll want something that’s not super bulky or heavy. Likewise you could get a perfectly useful tarp from a hardware store, although those will break down after prolonged outdoor use and they get crackly (noisy) when they age.

Setting up a tent is mainly to keep you and your stuff warm, dry, stationary, and free from critters. It’s also useful if you want a private place to change clothing, attend to sanitary/medical issues you can’t deal with in a bathroom, etc.

  • Make sure the ground tarp is tucked in so that it matches the footprint (bottom shape) of the tent. Otherwise, it will collect rain and condensation and funnel it underneath you while you’re sleeping, and you’ll wake up wet.
  • Stake it down with the stakes angled toward the center of the tent. This way if it’s windy, the stakes won’t pull up.
  • When in doubt, put the rain fly on. It’s no fun getting up in the middle of the night in a downpour to do this. (I have, and I don’t want to again.)
  • If you can’t avoid being on a slope, set up the tent so that you’re sleeping with your feet downhill and your head uphill, and consider putting your stuff/pack at the bottom of the tent so you can brace yourself against it.
Two tents in a high desert campsite in the early morning sun.

Tents in the morning. (Photo courtesy of Nick Duguid, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nduguid/)

Next, you want to arrange yourself and your stuff to sleep comfortably. Sleeping outside for the first time can be jarring. Noises can seem much louder and more alarming than usual, it gets dark early and light way before you want to be awake, and there’s always some stupid bird that decides it wants to make noise at 4AM. Taking a few preemptive steps will ensure that you spend your first night out sleeping rather than dealing with annoyances.

  • Never, ever, ever, keep anything edible and/or scented in your tent or your pack. In many places this is an invitation for critters (up to and including bears) to go rummaging around looking for food. Toiletries, wrapped snacks, whatever. Mice will chew through plastic to get to things they can eat, and bears can open up cars like tin cans to get at food. Use a food locker if you’re in a park, and a bear bin or some similar setup if you’re not. (In rare cases when you’re pretty sure there are no bears around you can keep stuff in your vehicle.)
  • Keep your gear in your tent or at the very least in a zipped pack. Critters love to climb into dark, warm places (like your boots or backpack). No one wants to wake up to a scorpion, spider or snake in their shoes! Also, if it rains, you do not want to wake up to wet gear, so even if you leave your stinky boots outside the tent, make sure they’re under the rain fly. If it’s cold out, throw the next day’s clothing (or at least your socks and underwear) into the bottom of your sleeping bag. They’ll be warm in the morning and if you’re limber enough, you’ll be able to put them on without getting out of your sleeping bag.
  • Wear earplugs if you’re expecting it to be windy or rainy or if you have companions who want to stay up late. Tents are also noisy, and even gentle rain or a the tent moving in a breeze can sound super loud until you get used to it.
A group of campers standing while eating oatmeal and drinking tea.

Breakfast! Oatmeal and tea/coffee are relatively quick and you can eat standing up. (Photo courtesy of Nick Duguid, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nduguid/)

Feeding yourself can be as simple or as complicated as you make it . Some people like to have elaborate stove-cooked spreads when they’re camping, others prefer to keep things light, fast and easy. You’ll want to think about how long you’re going to have at the end and beginning of the day to do it, whether you’re car camping or backpacking, and whether you’ll be able to keep things cold.

  • It’s fun to BBQ if you’re car camping, but sometimes fire restrictions mean that you won’t be allowed to. Check up on the rules and restrictions at your campsite before you stock up on grillable items.
  • Most perishable food will be okay overnight if it’s in a cooler with ice (blocks are better than cubed – you can usually get both at gas stations). Hard cheeses will last for a couple of days unrefrigerated if they don’t get too hot, but other dairy products will go bad quickly, as will delicate fruits and veggies. Even cured meats will go rancid if they’re exposed to heat. And in the US, commercially-sold eggs do need to be kept cool (the disinfecting process they go through makes the shells more permeable).
  • Canned meat and fish (not just tuna) can be perfectly palatable if you’re going to mix it in with other stuff. Sardines and roasted potatoes are one of my favorite camp foods, and canned chicken makes a nice stir-fry. Even Spam is fine if you fry it up. Cured meat like pepperoni is a good way to get a protein fix if you’re a carnivore and you can’t refrigerate things, and well-made beef jerky can be surprisingly yummy.
  • Freeze-dried meals require hot water. If you’re backpacking and you’re not sure about your water supply, make sure you ration for cooking as well as drinking, and that you have a way to warm up your water.
  • Wash dishes in designated sinks, or (if you’re in a wilderness area) in a bucket with biodegradable soap away from your campsite. Don’t wash your dishes at the spigot or in the bathrooms at a campsite. Not only does this waste water, it attracts animals to the scraps and screws with the plumbing in the bathrooms.
  • It’s useful to heat up a big pot of water in the morning for oatmeal/tea/coffee/hot chocolate/washing dishes/washing yourself. Caffeinated campers are happy campers, and a hot breakfast can work wonders.
  • Put food, food containers, cooking implements and trash away at the end of the night. (Remember the rule about not keeping this stuff in your tent? Same thing applies here, especially for empty drink bottles if you happen to bring libations for the evening. Clean up before you go to bed!)
A group campsite at a national park, being approached by a parade of neighboring campers.

Camping in a shared Lassen Volcanic National Park campground where there just happened to be a birthday parade for some of our neighbors. (They held it early, and gave everyone cake afterward, so we were happy to join in!)

Be considerate of your neighbors (if you have them) and camping companions. Just like in apartments or dorms, you don’t get to pick your neighbors. Some people want to party when they go camping; others want to enjoy their surroundings and the serenity of being away from civilization. Shared campgrounds are not the place to have loud, raucous parties long into the night; likewise, not everyone wants to get up at the crack of dawn. Agree on some quiet hours for the evening and morning and you’ll end up with happier camping companions all around.

Of course there’s a lot more I could cover, but these are some of what I consider basic camping FYI. If people find this useful, I might continue with some other topics!

Finally, Danya gave me some great resources that address minority participation in outdoor recreation. These go much deeper into the barriers to participation than I do, addressing topics like safety concerns, income and transportation limitations, and overturning stereotypes. (Please feel free to add more in the comments, and I’ll add them to the list.)

Groups to support that work to expand access to the outdoors:
Outdoor Afro – http://www.outdoorafro.com/
Latino Outdoors – http://latinooutdoors.org/

Additional information and perspectives on the topic:
Hiking While Black: The Untold Story
Why Are Our Parks So White?
National Parks Have Some Work To Do To Become ‘Parks For All’
Outdoor Afro: Busting Stereotypes that Black People Don’t Camp or Hike
National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public (a report about racial and ethnic diversity among NPS visitors)
Exit Interview: I Was a Black, Female Thru-Hiker on the Appalachian Trail