Get Outside: Enjoy your night in a tent
If you have bad memories of camping as a child, you may need a bit of a nudge to try it again. But try it you should, because the rewards of a night in the great outdoors—slowing down time, connecting with family, being enveloped by nature—are worth it. To make the most of your trip, invest the time to do it right and you’ll find that your effort, along with technological advancements in camping products, will pay off in comfort. With a few tips, you’ll be well on your way.
Buy the right gear
We can prevent cold, wet, and fatigue (not to mention aches of the head and back) just by selecting and bringing the proper equipment. If this is your first trip in some time, pick a campsite you can drive to, which eliminates the need to have all your supplies fit in your backpack (the next level of dedication). And instead of buying a carful of stuff, focus on three items: tent, sleeping bag, and bedroll.
In recent years, tents have taken on monstrous proportions, but opting for a shelter with vestibules and multiple rooms only adds complexity and frustration to set-up. How much time do you expect to spend in the tent anyway? In general, it will only be for sleeping, unless rain forces you inside. It’s more important that your tent repel water than be cavernous, so for everyone’s comfort, pick one that has a rain fly (extra tarp across the top) and is only slightly larger than you think you’ll need. (A tent rated to sleep four people practically has sufficient room for three.)
Sleeping bags, too, have evolved since you were a kid. Futuristic insulation now provides better warmth in a stuff-sack form, and warmth is what you’re looking for. Don’t be fooled by summer weather; you can catch a chill as the dew settles in the wee hours of the morning, and nothing ruins a campout like shivering all night. Sleeping bags are rated by minimum temperature they protect to; even for the summer season, look for something rated to twenty or thirty degrees Fahrenheit. While you’re at it, bring flannel pajamas and a knit hat. I sleep in a knit hat year-round, and it’s better to bring it and not need it than the other way around.
The final, and perhaps most important, piece of gear to get right is the bedroll. Yes, you could bring a massive pump and king-sized air mattress thicker than your bed at home. You could also bring a generator, television, and RV, but then you wouldn’t really be camping, would you? Instead, try an inflatable system from Therm-a-rest or Big Agnes (my favorite). They save your back while maintaining the natural outdoor effect.
One last note on getting a comfortable night’s sleep in a tent: if you sleep best with a pillow, bring one. Don’t roll up a sweatshirt. Don’t improvise. Bring a real pillow. It’s my one indulgence while camping, even when backpacking with space at a premium. I have an extra-small collapsible version, but if you’re going to be close to your car, the one from home will do. It saves your neck and might just mean the difference between chipper and miserable come morning.
Cooking and eating
Your tent keeps you dry, your sleeping bag keeps you warm, your bedroll and pillow let you sleep. Now how to conquer hunger?
The average Spree reader resides on the foodie end of the spectrum, and might be tempted to bring a full range of culinary skills to the picnic table and propane stove. There are unique cooking options available while camping—pan frying freshly caught fish is my favorite—but for your first camping trip in some time, I recommend keeping it simple.
After a day of hiking (hopefully) and building an appetite, quantity is often more important than quality. Two things boil easily on the standard Coleman stove: water and canned dinner. The first quickly makes coffee and instant oatmeal in the morning. The second will never taste better than after a long day—Dinty Moore isn’t just for college anymore. For in between, bring plenty of fresh fruit, bread (or better, bagels, which don’t crush) and peanut butter for sandwiches, and granola bars. S’mores are messier than you remember, but kids love marshmallows around the fire, so don’t forget them. In general, bring food that doesn’t need to be kept cold, and you avoid a major headache: ice and coolers. Leave the lunchmeat at home, and bring red wine instead of beer.
Where to go and what to do
The final misery to overcome is boredom. This may seem an odd hurdle to discuss, but it’s a frequent bugaboo of the unprepared. If you choose a state park with ample trails and things to see, such as Letchworth, Allegany, or one in the Finger Lakes, it’s not hard to spend a day exploring, hiking, and sightseeing. But back at camp, after dinner is eaten and cleaned up, after the fire is made and treats are finished, it can be hours before sleep takes hold. Worse, rain could force you into your tent, even during the day. So how to spend the excess hours?
The most important piece of gear my young sons and I bring along when camping is a deck of cards. We can, and have, spent many hours huddled in our sleeping bags, playing Uno as a thunderstorm lashes our campsite with sheets of rain. In retrospect, some of my fondest memories from camping are moments like those, when we simply made the best of a bad situation. So don’t forget your own game or new favorite book; interestingly, reading in an out-of-the-ordinary location can influence your perspective on the text.
Arrive before dark to set up your tent, bring several two-and-a-half-gallon cubes of water, remember a pillow, and you’ll have no reason to fear the next scouting trip.
Brian Castner writes the “Get Outside” column for Buffalo Spree. His first book, The Long Walk, will be published by Doubleday in July.