Smoothing It: Secrets of a Happy Camper

Camping can be great fun, but the fun fades fast if you’re soaked, bug-bitten, hungry, or tired. A few days of misery like that, and you’ll find yourself daydreaming about the traffic jam on the way to the office. You don’t have to rough it when you hit the trail, though. Here Tamia tells you how to smooth your way in the wild.

We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home.…
—Nessmuk (George Washington Sears)

by Tamia Nelson | August 10, 2004

Some folks like roughing it, or think they do. I did, once. My dream of a good time was hanging like an addled bat from the flank of a knife-edged ridge and snatching forty winks in a gale-buffeted tent, while waiting for the next avalanche to sweep down off the towering heights. So when my first long camping trip proved to be a never-ending ordeal of sodden clothes and blood-sucking flies, I shrugged off my misery, comforting myself with the thought that I was preparing for bigger and better agonies to come. But we were young and fit. We survived. And we bragged later about how we could take it.

In truth, we’d have enjoyed ourselves much more if we’d followed Nessmuk’s advice. On the other hand, the self-described “limber-go-shiftless” dean of backwoods letters seldom strayed far from the nineteenth-century tourist track, and he often decamped to a waterfront hotel when the going got tough. You may not have this luxury. The longer your trip and the more difficult your route, the more likely it is that you’ll have to rough it at least some of the time. Nature deals the cards, after all. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t try to make the best of even a bad hand. Preparation, organization, and a keen eye for the lay of the land will always improve your odds.

The Ideal Campsite

Just how do you recognize a good site when you find one? First off, don’t expect perfection. Ideal campsites are few and far between, and if you won’t settle for second-best, you’ll spend a lot of nights in your boat. Still, it helps to know a perfect site when you see it. The ideal campsite is…

  • Safe and sheltered
  • Near potable water
  • Level
  • Dry and airy
  • Light when you’re trying to work.
  • Dark when you’re trying to sleep
  • Cool when it’s hot
  • Warm when it’s cold
  • Free from freeloaders and things that go bump in the night

These criteria are mostly self-explanatory. Unless you really like fireworks, you don’t want to camp under a single tall pine. Lone trees make great lightning rods. In fact, you probably don’t want to camp under any tall tree, even if has plenty of nearby company—at least you don’t want to do so until you’ve made sure that no dead branches (“widow-makers” in nineteenth-century logging-camp patois) overhang your tent. Standing dead trees are another obvious hazard, but even seemingly healthy trees sometimes fall without apparent provocation, and without giving any notice. Cathedral groves of old-growth pines are awe-inspiring places to visit, but it’s best to spend the night somewhere else. In and around camp, small is beautiful. WARNING! If you see bear tracks or bear “scat” on the ground around your camp, you should go somewhere else.

No trekker needs to be reminded of the importance of clear, clean, drinkable water. Whatever your water source, don’t go too much by appearances. Even crystal-clear wilderness springs can be contaminated. Sadly, many are. If in doubt, doubt—and then purify.

After securing your site against bolts from the blue and slaking your thirst, you’ll want to catch some shut-eye. But you won’t sleep very well on a slope. That’s why level sites are at a premium. In reality, sometimes you’ll have to camp on a slope. Make the best of it. Pitch your tent so that you’re sleeping on the “fall line.” If you spread your sleeping bag out terrace fashion, at right angles to this imaginary line, you’ll roll off your pad almost as soon as you close your eyes. A minute or two more, and you’ll be wedged against the downslope wall of your tent, where you’ll soon be joined by all your companions. Cozy? Maybe. But it’s not exactly comfortable.

And here’s another heads-up: When you settle in for the night, even on a slope that’s so gentle as to be almost imperceptible, make sure your head is higher than your feet. If you don’t, I can guarantee that you’ll have some of the most disturbing dreams of your life.

Let’s get back to that stream of water for a minute. No one needs to be told not to pitch her tent in a puddle. (Well, almost no one. I’ve met a couple of folks over the years who took the “waterproof floor” mentioned in their tent’s ad copy a little too seriously.) It’s much harder to avoid sites which will become puddles or torrents in a rain, however. Dry stream beds are an obvious no-no, particularly in the mountains, where a thunderstorm many miles away can turn a dry wash into a raging river in just a few short hours.

While you’re checking out a campsite, pay attention to what’s underfoot. Although modern gear makes it possible to camp on bare rock—in an emergency, you can even use tent stakes in the same way that climbers once used pitons, driving them into thin cracks in the rock—most of us prefer something a little softer. Sandy soils drain quickly, while heavy, clay-rich loam hangs on to water for a much longer time.

Give some thought to the sun. In the north, campsites facing south or southeast get the morning light. By midday, though, they’re often hot and steamy.

Lastly, avoid camping on a dump. This is surprisingly hard to do, even in remote areas. Over the years, we’ve hauled hundreds of pounds of other peoples’ garbage away from camps in northern Ontario and Québec, cursing the load on every mile of every portage. In more “civilized” places, the problem is even worse.

Settling In

That brings us to the business of deciding on a campsite and making it into a home away from home. Mid-afternoon isn’t too early to begin looking in earnest. Even in high summer and high latitudes, the light has a way of failing before you expect it to, particularly in the mountains. Peaks and canyon walls cast long shadows, and the perpetual dusk of much of the great northern forest doesn’t make things any easier. You want everything running smoothly before night falls.

Nighttime is not the right time to set up camp. Accidents happen when you’re tired, hungry, and harried, and navigating unfamiliar surroundings by the light of a headlamp can be hazardous. It’s almost always better to make do with a second-best site than to end the day struggling to pitch your tent in the dark—or, worse yet, to let night overtake you while you’re still paddling.

This is a good time to review the Gospel of Low Impact. Whether or not it’s required by regulation, use established sites whenever possible. (Let’s hope they’re not also established dumps!) Leave the camp carpentry, drainage ditches, and other “improvements” where they belong—between the covers of nineteenth-century camping handbooks. Think twice before making a wood fire, and never set match to tinder when the nearby woods are dry. Whatever the forecast, always bring a stove and extra fuel, just in case. Carry all your garbage back home with you, and when you gotta go, do your business well away from any water source.

Anarchy and doing-your-own-thing have their place, but that place isn’t the campsite. When everyone works together to get the necessary chores done, each person has more time to enjoy the remainder of the day. Small parties of friends and family groups can usually get by with an informal division of labor. Larger parties will find it makes sense to do things by the numbers:

All ashore! Choose your campsite and get your gear unloaded.

Home, sweet home. Tents, shelters, tarps… get them set up, and unroll sleeping bags and pads. (If it’s pouring rain, get a big tarp set up first. It’ll give you a place to work and store your gear.) Remember the fable of the princess and the pea. By some process as yet unknown to science, roots and stones that are too small to be seen by day grow bigger and sharper when you turn in. Stretch out on your bed in daylight, while it’s still easy to move house.

Feed the inner trekker. Dip water for cooking and washing. If it’s turbid, let it settle before purifying it. If it’s choked with glacial silt, pre-filter it. Collect firewood if you must. (Burn only dead, downed wood. Standing dead trees are part of the scenery, best viewed from a distance.) Heat water for washing and start meal preparation.

You gotta go, so.… Decide where you’re going before the need presses. If there’s an established privy or pit toilet, use it. If not, and if local regulations don’t require that you pack everything out, designate a “relief zone” located at least 150 feet (that’s about 30 double-step paces) from any body of water. Large parties—or any group remaining in one camp for more than a couple of days—will need to dig a pit latrine. Small groups who are just staying overnight can get by with individual “cat holes,” but only if care is taken to avoid inadvertently recycling each other’s holes. Temporary flagging can help here, but be sure you remove all of it before you leave. In addition to its role in answering nature’s call, your relief zone is the best place to dump the camp’s “gray water” (dishwater and washwater).

Secure your stores. Suspend a line between two trees and hang your food packs, or choose an area well away from the tents to stack your party’s bear-proof barrels.

Tidy up. To avoid tripping the light fantastic in the dark (and maybe falling into the fire ring), get ready for the night by making sure all loose gear is tucked away. String a line in some sheltered place for wet clothes.

Breaking Camp Ain’t Hard to Do

All good things come to an end, and when it’s time for you to leave, don’t dangle about. It pays to get an early start. The wind will.

To make things easier, break camp by the numbers, too. Just reverse the tape: pack up, eat up, finish your packing, strike tents, load up, and go. Leave your tent and tarp standing as long as possible. This gives you sheltered work areas for sorting and packing. Then, when the last pack is stowed, take a minute to police your site, looking for stray gear and trash. Make sure your fire is drowned dead. If you’re afraid to stir the ashes with your bare hand, you need to do a better job.

As you pull away from camp, look over your shoulder one final time. Your last sight of your home away from home should look better than your first. You’ll want to come back someday, and you don’t want to be disappointed, do you?

Camping Out - (c) Tamia Nelson - Verloren Hoop -

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions