Some of my fondest camping memories are of family misadventures, in my younger days at numerous sites. I recall, with a wry grin, the early morning packing up the station wagon. My father, sifting through the necessities, keeping this, discarding that, while my brother and I sat in awe. "Dad certainly knows what he's doing", we thought. Finally, after a long drive, the three "men" of the family would settle in at a state campground in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New Your. We left the women at home because we would be "roughing it". Little did we kids realize, just how rough it would get.
As soon as the car rolled to a stop, the two of us would pile out and vanish, never to return before ol' Dad had camp all set up. We'd come back then, only to ask how son dinner would be ready. Dad had a real knack for making camp. If there was a low spot, where water would collect, that's where the tent just had to go. IF it didn't blow down by evening, we had to sleep in it, despite floods that would prompt federal disaster aid. Camp meals were the special part of the adventure. Our staples consisted of apple turnovers and Spam. After three days of which we became quite creative, with apple turnovers and Spam sandwiches, apple turnover and Spam casserole, etc. To this day, the mere mention of either brings fear to my heart.
Those early days are long gone, and now I'm the one required to make camp. My work, as a professional guide, has helped me to establish a routine for setting up camp, and I've often benefited from the many little tricks of the trade. Hopefully, some of the suggestions made here will spare a father's ego and quite possibly save a child or two, from that dreadful casserole combination.
Before setting out on your expedition, decide on which type of campsite best suits your needs. Commercial campgrounds offer plenty in the way of creature comforts and activities, as well as access to telephones, transportation and the public. Federal and State campgrounds may not offer much in the way of utilities hookups, however you will have to deal with people, and pay to have a site assigned to you. For the sake of convenience, many will choose the camp at commercial campgrounds, be they State, Federal or privately operated. Usually provided are utilities hookups, toilets, showers, fireplaces, picnic tables, and well groomed tent sites.
However, most of these conveniences can be compensated for, in a wilderness camp setting, with common sense and a little know-how. Wilderness also provides solitude, which is refreshing and relaxing, and ultimately on of the main goals of any camping trip.
Since wilderness camping involves carrying everything with you, either on your back or in a canoe, it entails a good deal more planning than in camping out of your vehicle, as in a campground setting. Pre-trip planning is essential for the success of any wilderness excursion. Set up a checklist for equipment, create a menu and double check all items. Food should be taken out of its containers and repackaged in ziplock storage bags for ease of packing. Frozen foods should be refrozen in block shape to make cooler packing orderly. Use block ice in coolers as it will last much longer than cubes. Take only what is needed; excess baggage can ruin what would otherwise be a successful camping experience. Try to do without luxury items, you're supposed to rough it a bit.
Campsite selection is not something to be taken lightly, as it can make or break your entire journey. Foresight rules, with your main concern, the three "W's" - wind, water and wildlife. Begin looking for a site about two hours before you plan a stopping. You didn't travel all those miles into the backcountry just to settle wherever your hat may happen to fall. Figure on an hour to an hour and a half for set up time once a location has been agreed upon. Remember, you don't want to be setting up in the dark, so adjust your schedule accordingly. There are several items to consider in selecting a campsite. Foremost is a sheltered area, preferably among coniferous trees, certainly not out in an open meadow. Check above for dead limbs or "widow-makers". This is the name given to a dead tree that lodges among the living ones, just waiting for a strong wind to topple it and make a widow of some poor woodsman's wife. Camp clear of these, in a level area that isn't subject to water runoff, or in close proximity to a swamp or bog. These wetlands are breeding areas for insects. Be wary of camping near berry patches, as you may get between a hungry animal and his meal. Check the location for animal signs such as holes, runs, scrapes or droppings; and never settle near beehives, fire ant hills, snake dens or the like. When canoe tripping, in bug season, try to select an island site, or one on a point of land. These breezy locations will keep your camp relatively bug free.
Once you've decided on a site, visualize your camp before setting up. Establish a latrine, a necessity if staying several days in one place, or if camping with a group. Make sure it is downwind of camp, away from any water source by at least 250 feet, and clear of any trails. Dig the pit a foot to a foot and a half deep, and make every effort to restore it as close to the natural state as possible, when breaking camp. Don't use the pit as a garbage dump, since animals will dig up any buried food. The only philosophy for wilderness travel is, "If you carry it in, carry it out". This applies to cigarette butts, which are not biodegradable, as well as candy wrappers. The extra energy you receive from snack foods should give you the additional strength to haul those hefty wrappings out of the woods.
In setting up your shelter, first clear the area of any sticks, stones or other debris that would make for any uncomfortable night's sleep. Sleep is vital, for if you play hard, you must sleep well. Check for the best spot by lying down on your ground pad, and try out the different positions. Next, spread out your ground cloth, to guard against water runoff, an "olive in a martini you ain't". I find two old shower curtains to be ideal for a four-person tent. They help protect against moisture and also keep the tent clean. The ground cloth should be about two inches smaller than the tent floor, for any overhang will collect rather than protect against water. This done, you should get out your compass and set your shelter so the opening faces east. This is the logical direction since most storms come from the west. It also assures early light to warm the morning chill out of the tent. Choose a tent that is roomy for the number of people to use it, but not too large. Look for shock cored poles, which make for easy and understandable set-up. The importance of set-up time is quickly understood when setting up in a downpour, or because of an injury.
The cooking/eating/fire area should also be down wind of the sleeping area. There's nothing worse than sparks from a wind-fanned fire, blowing all over your tent and sleeping gear. The slightest hole burned in a tent, will feel like an open skylight during a heavy rain. Build your fire away from overhanging branches, steep slopes, rotten stumps or logs, dry grass and leaves. Scrape away litter, duff and any burnable material in a ten-foot wide area, then form a fire ring with rocks, or dig a pit. Using a pit fire allows you to return the environment as close as possible to its natural state. With pit fires be very careful of underground fires. This occurs when the forest duff, often a foot or so thick, ignites and smolders underground. This sort of fire can travel over fifty feet away from the source, before breaking through the surface and burning above ground. If a fire ring is already established at your site, make every effort to use it. It takes years for the forest to cover the scars left by even the smallest fires. Wilderness is defined as "a place where man travels and leaves no trace, save his footsteps". Always keep this in mind when building a fire. Never use rocks that hold moisture, from a river bank or lake shore, for a fire ring. Once heated, the expanding moisture will cause them to explode, this is very dangerous. Fires deplete a resource, wood, that can be a necessity in an emergency situation. Fires are also difficult for cooking often being quite messy, time consuming, and unreliable. Wet wood fires offer no constant temperature or simmering potential, and can be terribly frustrating.
To build a fire, start with dry twigs and small sticks, pencil to finger size in diameter. Use tinder, leaves, pine needles, or bark to ignite the kindling. Add larger sticks as the fire builds up. Put the largest pieces of wood on last, being careful not to make a sudden shower of sparks. To keep a good fire going, place large pieces of wood outside and gradually push them into the flames. It's wise to carry a candle as a fire starter to conserve on matches. Fires have a place in camping, and it is basically for aesthetics. Fire also provides warmth, and in an emergency this is vital. Not only is physical warmth attained, but psychological warmth, as well. If lost, fire is security, peace of mind and safety, for we all know animals fear it. Fires are helpful for signaling - three in a row or three puffs of smoke are internationally recognized distress signals. Fire is also a weather indicator. When smoke rolls low off a fire, it means a low pressure front is moving in, to which a storm is usually associated. Strive to keep your fire small, to conserve on wood and limit the damage to the forest floor. This philosophy is best summed up by an old Indian saying. It professes "White man build big fire and stay way back; Indian build small fire and stay up close."
The new breed of small gas camp stoves are the solution to fireless camping. Operating on a wide variety of fuels, such as white gas, butane or propane, these lightweight marvels offer clean, constant and instant heat. As well as being an environmentally sound practice, the use of these stoves allows delicate temperature control. They are a necessity if cooking for a large group because of their efficiency. Clean up is minimal and cooking is immediate, no waiting for coals to develop. Stoves also allow for cooking inside a tent, if necessary. The importance of this is realized after rainbound in your shelter for three days, with no let up in sight. Be sure to ventilate well if cooking inside, and always fuel stoves outside, well away from any equipment.
In establishing your cooking/eating area, look for four trees on which to hang a tarp over the area. Lightweight nylon tarps can add greatly to your camping enjoyment. Look for one with loop straps rather than grommets, about 10' x10' in size. You'll also want to find a place to hang a lantern. This is one item you shouldn't be without. It provides constant and immediate light, and allows for early morning or late night meals. This is very helpful for anglers who want to put in the maximum amount of time on the water. This is especially true for fly fisherman, who just can't bear to part with an active evening hatch. The next thing to do is to locate two good food hanging trees. The trees should be about twenty feet apart, with sturdy limbs at least fifteen to twenty feet off the ground. With about one hundred feet of nylon braid, one quarter inch rope, tie a rock to each end and throw them over a limb on each tree.
With each end looped over a limb, secure one to the tree. Tie your food sack to the center of the rope, between the two trees. Pull down on the other end until the sack is suspended between the trees at least 15 feet off the ground. It is wise to hang some pots and pans on the outside of the food sack. This will warn you of any unwanted dinner guests, as well as create enough noise to scare them off. With this accomplished, and a good supply of firewood gathered, and stacked away from the fire, it's now time to sit back and enjoy your surroundings. Camp need not be too fancy or elaborate, however it should be well organized, functional, and above all, kept neat and clean. This will insure against any unwanted visitors, and generally make your stay more comfortable, pleasant and enjoyable. Common sense and proper pre-trip planning are the essential elements, and soon you'll develop a routine of your own.
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