Forget Lots Of Work; Just Relax And Enjoy
March 1, 2021
Camping is a blast – there's nothing quite as nice as sleeping outdoors, watching the fire, roasting marshmallows, and cooking out in the open. Everything seems to taste better outdoors. As I've said before, people who say they don't like camping probably mean that they don't like being uncomfortable all night. Where and how you set up your campsite has a lot to do with how comfortable you're going to be.
As a kid, I camped countless times with my dad and siblings, and now John and I camp frequently with our French Brittany, Mochi. There are several things to look for when choosing a good campsite.
Choosing A Spot
Look for a place with a level area at least big enough for your tent. Too much of a slope is no fun – you'll be slowly sliding toward the low end all night. This level spot needs to be as rock-free as possible. You can remove the bigger rocks and pinecones and things, but if there are too many it might not be worth the effort.
What's Above You?
Keep an eye on what is overhead. Tall trees with large dry branches pose a possible danger – those big branches are nick-named "widow-makers" for a reason. I always like some trees for shade, but I never set up my tent under one that has big branches sticking right out overhead.
Try to get off the main road. By main road I mean a dirt road, but one that gets a lot of traffic. Vehicles going by at night will keep you awake. We like to be alone, so we try to take a rougher side road and get as far away from any traffic as we can. Don't camp within a quarter mile of a water hole. That's a rule, and it's so that cattle and wildlife can get the water they require to live. A camp set up close to the water will scare them off.
Try to find a spot and get set up before dark. Everything is just so much harder when you can't see. Never camp in a wash – it might be tempting because the bottom of a wash can be nice and level with sand that makes it look like the perfect place to sleep, but a wash in Arizona isn't dry all the time, and it doesn't have to be raining where you are to be dangerous – flash floods are fast and lethal.
Not In A Wash
One time my dad and I were deer hunting and the weather was gorgeous – not a cloud in the sky. So we decided not to bother setting up the tent, and we just threw a tarp on the ground and rolled our sleeping bags out on it. In the middle of the night a tremendous clap of thunder jolted me awake, and suddenly we were being pelted by big hail and all of our stuff was threatening to blow away. We jumped up and got soaked to the skin trying to quickly gather all the gear and throw it in the back of the truck.
It didn't take us long, but it was long enough for a driving rain to turn the dirt roads into slippery mud that had us sliding around all over the place as we tried to drive out to the highway. You never know what the weather is going to do. If we'd been in a wash we might have been killed.
If you are staying in a developed campground, you won't have a problem with finding a level spot, but you might have trouble finding a quiet spot. Try to reserve a spot online before you go, and look at a map of the campground to find a spot that is a little more distant from neighbors. Next to the restroom might be convenient, but it's also likely to draw visitors all night long. Whenever we see campgrounds, we always drive through just to check them out. The State Parks have particularly nice campgrounds, and the sites are not usually packed in too close together.
Setting Up Camp
The first thing we always do is set up the tent. If your site already has a ring of rocks for a fire, don't put your tent downwind from it so you don't get a smoky tent. We start by clearing an area of any noticeable rocks, big sticks, pinecones, etc., to try to get it as smooth as we can.
A ground cloth goes down next, then the tent. Our little pop-up tent literally takes seconds to set up. Unless it is really windy, we don't even bother to stake our tent down. We have enough bedding to keep it fairly well rooted to the earth.
BTW, bedding is the key to successful camping. We bring self-inflating air mattresses, sleeping bags, real pillows (never inflatables – they are awful), a pad for the dog, fleece throws so we can cover our heads, knit caps, and a couple of great stadium blankets that I found online that are waterproof – they make a great first layer on the floor of the tent.
I use those storage bags you can squeeze the air out of to transport them; otherwise all that stuff would take up a lot of room. We Jeep camp, so space is at premium, but I refuse to sacrifice comfort.
If fires are allowed, make a safe fireplace. Just because there is already a rock ring there doesn't make it a great spot. Clear any dry stuff off the ground for several yards around the fire – sparks can travel a pretty good distance. Dig a shallow hole so the fire can be even more protected from the wind. I learned from my dad to always carry a shovel along on camping trips.
If it is really windy, we just don't build a fire. I have a BioLite stove that is fueled by twigs and pinecones, and that's enough fire for marshmallows and something to watch. I always cook with my JetBoil or a propane camp stove because scrubbing soot off pots is not my idea of fun.
I've seen some very elaborate camp kitchens – my dad always brought along a big Army field desk with all the cooking and cleaning supplies. The lid came off and fit into latches on the sides, making a pretty big workspace for the cook. The inside of the box was full of drawers, and that's where all the gear was stashed. That thing was big and heavy.
John and I make do with a duffel bag with the essentials in it. I have a very small table that rolls up and I use it for my coffee station. The top of the ice chest makes a good table, too. A pan can do double duty as a sink when it comes to washing dishes – just fill it up, heat the water a bit, add the soap and you're ready to go.
Guard The Groceries
No matter where you camp, you don't want to leave food out overnight. Close it up in the vehicle or do the old Boy Scout trick of hanging it from a tree. Bears are rarely a problem for us, but there are skunks and other critters everywhere who would love to get into your groceries. So keep them where animals can't get to them.
Bottom Line: Have Fun!
A good way to find out what things you really need and what you can do without is to have a trial campout in your backyard. Pitch the tent, make it comfy, cook, do the dishes – even only use the food you have in your cooler. You'll soon figure out what's essential. I try to be a minimalist because having a ton of stuff to clean and put away when I get home tired and dirty is a drag.
If you're going to be camping frequently, have dedicated gear so you can store it in the same bag you pack into the vehicle – that way all you have to do when you get home is put the bags away and empty the ice chest. So nice. Camping should be relaxing, so don't make it a lot of work. Have fun!