By Dan Kidder, The Gear Guru
I often run into people who tell me that they would like to go camping, but they don’t have the skills, knowledge or experience to strike out on their own. Even within my own family, there are those who have either never been before or haven’t gone in so many years, that they might as well have never gone.
Camping isn’t difficult. One writer described it as paying thousands of dollars to live like a homeless person. While this is perhaps a bit extreme, there can be some truth to this statement. The selection of gear, researching location, development of basic skills and travel to your destination can seem like it will cost an arm and a leg, but basic camping requires very little gear and ultimately, just the desire to get outside and experience all that nature has to offer.
As a professional gear reviewer, I hear many people comment on particular products; that they suck or are garbage or that they are worthless. In 10 years of reviewing products, I can count on my hands the number of products that actually earned any of those invectives. The issues of these users, is often more of an issue of expectations. If you try to use a lightbulb as a hammer, you most likely will determine the lightbulb makes a lousy hammer. A less enlightened reviewer might claim the lightbulb sucks, but in reality, it is more likely that it is a fabulous emitter of light, even though it does a poor job of driving a nail.
The primary source of dissatisfaction with users of gear is that they have not clearly defined in advance what they realistically expect that gear to do. Some gear will perform multiple tasks and other gear is of a single purpose. It is a matter of determining what you expect the gear to accomplish and weighing its usefulness against the price you are willing to pay for it. In a world of multiple products competing for your consumer dollar, there are some that perform more, but they often will cost more as well. Some users demand features they will never utilize and then complain that the widget costs too much.
For camping, having a clear understanding of where you will camp, temperature, weight and the level of comfort you want to achieve before you go gear shopping, is the best bet to ensure you get the appropriate gear for your trip.
Are you hiking into deep wilderness where a technical pack will be necessary or driving to a campsite in a managed campground? Is it spring, summer, fall or winter and will it be wet or dry? Will you need to care for the needs of yourself or multiple people? Do you want to eat hearty meals or quick and easy calories with minimal fuss?
At the end of the day, there are as many ways to camp as there are ways to make chili. Each camping experience is a unique adventure, which is sort of the point of the entire exercise. These unique adventures make unique memories.
For beginning campers, I suggest basic gear that performs a minimum of tasks, with few features. The more features you get, the steeper the learning curve. Look at a basic tent that will comfortably hold the number of people you need to house. For this, I suggest halving the capacity listed on the tent by the manufacturer. If it says it is a two-man tent, you know it will fit one comfortably. You need to have room for the occupants and their gear. If a sleeping bag says it is a 30-degree bag, expect it to keep you barely above iceberg status all night if it is 40 degrees out. The temperature rating on sleeping bags is the temperature you can expect the bag to prevent you from dying of hypothermia, but not necessarily remain comfortable and snug.
When it comes to meal prep, I suggest using what you would normally use at home, until you get a better feel for cooking over an open fire. Cast iron is a great camping companion, if you are not limited by weight.
I am now about to write what could be seen as utter sacrilege for a gear reviewer; don’t get hung up on gear! Focus on the experience. If you are going with others who have more experience, ask them if you will need more technical gear and encourage them to take it easy on you. They may even have gear you can borrow, to see what features you might decide later that you want to incorporate into your own kit. Some of my best nights camping involved me, an air mattress, some blankets, the back of the truck and the open starry sky. Keep your first few trips simple. Stick to an established managed campground or to a state park with basic facilities, like bathrooms. This brings us to our second point.
How to Poo In The Woods
How To Poo In The Woods, is the title of an entire book on, wait for it, how to poo in the woods. The second most frequent objection to camping I hear from those who have never camped is that they fear or dislike heeding the call of nature in the outdoors. This should never dissuade someone from trying their hand at camping, as it is an easily overcome issue.
People have been taking care of their business in the outdoors for thousands of years before there was even indoor plumbing. Most established campgrounds have some sort of sanitary facilities, whether it is plumbing with running water, chemical toilets or pit latrines. They are quite comfortable, though they can be a bit smelly in the summer months. Typically, they will have all the necessary accoutrements to accomplish the paperwork, but it never hurts to take an ample supply of TP with you on any trip. I even keep an entire roll in my truck for emergencies, every day. If you want to get a bit further off the beaten path and venture into territory that will be without comfort stations, consider taking a small portable toilet, like the foldable toilet sold by Reliance. Even a plastic five-gallon bucket with a snap-on seat and some plastic garbage bags can serve the purpose. For the ladies, a silicone folding urinal can be obtained for a small price that makes squatting unnecessary.
Camping is about getting away from the convenience, distractions, and noise of modern living. It is about building memories with our families and friends. It is about staring adversity in the face and overcoming. It is about disconnecting from the modern and connecting with people or our own thoughts or nature or God or whatever we are seeking to find. As Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Camping, at its most basic, is the act of shifting gears, figuratively and literally, to broaden our scope of experience. And since it isn’t a life or death struggle, we can always call it a day if things get hairy and head home or into the nearest hotel. I have done it when things don’t go as planned. Camping is always about pushing your limits and learning from your mistakes so you can build upon your failures and successes. Since it isn’t the apocalypse, you can always run to Walmart if you run out of coffee creamer or Sportsman’s Warehouse if you need to buy a replacement fuel canister for your stove. Or simply try to improvise another means to accomplish what you need or learn to do without. If you keep it basic and stay near established campgrounds until your skill level improves, it is highly unlikely that you will perish.
For those just getting started, the Sportsman’s News Team has created a new YouTube channel called The Amateur Outdoorsman. This channel is new and growing daily and contains basic videos in a 3-5 minute format on the basics of camping from gear selection, to how to pitch a tent. Search YouTube for The Amateur Outdoorsman and subscribe to be updated when we publish a new video and use it as a resource for learning basic skills.
Additionally, let your camping friends know that you are interested in learning and see if they will be willing to take you and teach you the basics. Heck, if you ever come to Southern Utah, shoot me an email. I am always up for a quick overnighter.
Just Do It
At the end of the day, there is really no excuse to avoid camping out. Even if it is some blankets and a pillow, under the tree in the back yard, with the safety of your own home just a quick jog away; shifting gears and getting in tune with nature, recharging with the power of the stars and letting the breeze kiss your cheek through the night will open up a whole new dimension for you. The memories you create will last a lifetime. As we say on The Amateur Outdoorsman, “Don’t just sit there. Do something.”