I started camping in the great outdoors as an infant. And I was way better at it back then. When you're six months old...
Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times writer since 1988, is the author of several best-selling guides to the Northwest outdoors. He has been inhaling campfire smoke most of his life, as evidenced by his Trail Mix column every Thursday in the Northwest Weekend section. His coverage of Olympic sports appears regularly in The Times sports section.
The piece today is excerpted from his new book, “The Roof Rack Chronicles, An Honest Guide to Outdoor Recreation, Excessive Gear Consumption and Playing With Matches,” Sasquatch Books, Seattle. “The Roof Rack Chronicles” is available at bookstores or by calling 800-775-0817.
I STARTED CAMPING in the great outdoors as an infant. And I was way better at it back then. When you’re six months old, the hard parts of camping are all handled by someone else: the packing, the preparation, the futzing around with the tent, the smoky fire that won’t burn, the hornets nest underneath your Coleman cooler. All you have to do is sit there in a bundle of wool and cotton and stare up into the trees, waiting for someone to bring you your next campfire-cooked meal.
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It gets a little more complicated when you become old enough to walk, and thus “contribute” to the effort. It gets a lot more complicated when you become a fine, upstanding adult, at which point you and you alone suddenly become responsible for the driving wind, the poison oak, the trunk rot on the basset hound, the swarming hordes of bloodsucking black flies and the estuary that forms beneath the tent.
Not that any of this should dissuade you because — let’s face it — few things in the world are more relaxing than a perfectly executed, trouble-free family campout. And by God, one day before I’m as old as Bob Barker, I plan to have one.
Alas, I’ve spent my first 41 years figuring out pretty much every way to do it wrong. Most people would take the hint and, after the first several decades of experiencing loss of structural integrity of the rainfly, move on to a hobby more pleasurable and relaxing, such as year-round income-tax preparation. Not me. I consider camping akin to steelhead fishing, a pursuit that by all outward indications is a complete and utter waste of time, but the more you do it, the more time you have invested in hooking that first fish, and next thing you know, it’s impossible to turn back. How can you give up on something on which you’ve already wasted a significant portion of the best years of your life? (Insert your own quip about marriage here.)
Meet the author
Ron Judd will sign and read from his new book on:
June 16: REI Seattle (Flagship store) 7 p.m.
June 17: Silverdale Barnes & Noble, 7 p.m.
June 25: Third Place Books (Lake Forest Park) 6:30 p.m.
July 7: REI (Redmond) 7 p.m.
This is how I feel about camping. And it’s why, even though I have since flirted with the occasional RV, I still consider myself, at heart, a tent camper. All of us do, really. Having evolved fairly quickly, as species go, from swamps to caves to time-share condos — and then devolved back into gated communities — all humans, except New Yorkers, have camping genes that lie dormant. Sooner or later, they will create an undeniable urge to go sit outside, around a campfire, eating possibly carcinogenic ashes of former marshmallows while seated on furniture designed for an early jaguar-hunting trip led by the Marquis de Sade.
Tent camping is the way most people — especially those with families — begin the process of exorcising those demons. Maybe this is what prompted you, the would-be newbie camper, to come to this source for actual useful advice. Well, God save your soul. And allow us to get right to it. Clip and save the following Family Campout Essentials List:
Camping preparation: It’s all about storage
Two words come to mind: Rubbermaid bins.
Two more: duffel bags. And there you go. There’s nothing you really need for camping that won’t fit into one or the other. Each offers important advantages. The bins can hold most of your camping hard goods securely and, more important, keep it all dry even if you dump too much schnapps in your cocoa and, like a complete idiot, fall asleep having left everything out in the rain. Duffel bags are great for soft goods such as clothing, towels, vacuum-packed guacamole and the like — all the camping essentials.
Tent: You probably ought to get one
You will need a place to sleep and to conceal all your hideous camp clothing (see page 16) from the general public. Make certain your tent is large enough to accommodate your gaggle. Tent manufacturers tend to sell their tents based on the “man” rating system, which can be highly misleading. In the tent maker’s eyes, a “four-man” tent would accommodate, say, a family of four. Well, it doesn’t work that way in a nation where the average human is the size of Rush Limbaugh — or his dope habit. Whenever you hear a tent manufacturer start talking about the proverbial “man,” remember that the company is referring to a living person approximately the size of a AAA Duracell battery.
Bottom line: If you or any other member of your family is actually larger than a AAA Duracell, you should adjust your Man Rating accordingly.
In our experience, two people and their stuff fit fine in a four-man tent, live in luxury in a six-man, and start to feel the need to sublet extra space in an eight-man.
Sleeping pads: Because no man is truly spineless
You can use the typical blue-foam, closed-cell backpacking pad, an inexpensive, convenient sleeping mattress that is slightly less comfy than a slab of pig iron. Some people upgrade to air mattresses, which we have found to be fairly comfortable, but cold enough to qualify as a state in the Upper Midwest.
The ultimate sleep setup is the inflatable-foam mattress, such as the quite excellent Therm-a-Rest, which combines foam and air for a sleeping pad that’s warm and comfortable at the same time. (Note: We mention Therm-a-Rest yet again by name here not as any kind of commercial endorsement, but out of the meager hope the Therm-a-Rest company might see fit to supply us with dozens of their expensive, high-quality Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads at little or no cost.)
Cook kit: The reason there’s no such thing as backcountry lasagne
This comes in two forms:
1. The “standard” cook kit contains your Grandpa’s Coleman stove, two old aluminum pots, a teakettle, a handful of plastic utensils, a roll of paper towels and a can opener.
2. The “deluxe gourmet” cook kit contains your Grandpa’s Coleman stove, two old aluminum pots, a teakettle, a handful of plastic utensils, a roll of paper towels, a can opener and a disposable salt shaker.
(We feel compelled to pause here and note that the old standby for carrying salt and pepper — plastic film canisters — might be hard to come by these days, now that nobody is actually shooting film pictures anymore except your grandmother and poor people in Chad. This is a sad situation because, frankly, we have become accustomed to eating freeze-dried chili mac with that distinctive Fuji Velvia aftertaste.)
Cooler: In almost all cases, better than warmer
You will need something to keep your stuff cold, at least for the first 35 minutes in camp before all your ice melts and you are left with what amounts to a 25-gallon aquarium filled with exotic Ball Park Frankenfish.
The coolers with wheels are quite handy. You can drag them around the campground rather than carry them, thus maximizing their immense plastic-on-gravel noisemaking potential.
Clothing: Fashion takes a holiday
When you’re going to be spending a lot of time outside, clothing is not optional, even if you are in a clothing-optional area. Understand? Good. The most important thing to remember about a car-camping wardrobe is that it should not be too fancy or ever look like it cost more than, say, a cheeseburger and fries at Wendy’s. This rich tradition is every bit as part and parcel with our proud American heritage as unidentifiable luncheon meats.
In fact, America’s arguably greatest campers of all time, Lewis and Clark, who pioneered a really, really impractical route from St. Louis, to Ilwaco in the early 19th century, made it a point to cross half the continent wearing clothing strung together entirely from rawhide, rodent pelts, deer earflaps, meat-lozenge tins, elk hooves and coyote haunches. When Lewis and Clark et al. came staggering out onto the beaches of the roiling Pacific Ocean in 1805, having neither showered nor changed since just after the American Revolution, the local Chinook Indians, noting these strange white people’s odd appearance and horrific smell, proceeded to give them a wide berth.
Privacy-seeking American campers have been following Lewis and Clark’s keen strategy of looking and smelling like rotting compost ever since. Most modern American campers save clothing that otherwise would not be fit to soak up dog urine specifically for camping trips, which are one full step below house painting on the list of acceptable uses for tattered duds.
Unfortunately, the very nature of this old clothing — a lot of cotton goods, most in non-donatable condition — will lead to every member of your family spending the entire trip being cold, miserable and embarrassed. This is fine: It’s what camping is all about!
Man gear: Handle with care
This is anything the male of the camping species can pick up and use to inflict mortal damage on people or surrounding objects — namely, your ax, saw, fire starter, pocket knife, etc. Note that these items can, in a pinch, be used by women to build a fire or construct shelter, but they should always be available to the alpha male for more traditional purposes: hacking off the ends of fingers, poking someone’s eye out or touching off four-state forest fires.
Big blue tarps: God’s apology for rain
The big blue tarp is your outdoor security blanket. You can use it to build a wind screen, make a portable shelter, line a water container, weave into a splint, build an outhouse, hide your rotting, hideous camp clothing from circling vultures or, if you’re really good with a needle and thread, construct an emergency hot-air balloon. Carry several.
Flashlights: And better yet, batteries
These will not, as you might expect, be needed for spotting your children late at night, as you will be able to easily smell your own progeny from several miles away. But a good, bright flashlight is always a welcome and quite hilarious tool for high-beaming your neighbors one campsite over as they attempt to relieve themselves behind their tent at 3 a.m.
Spam: The 11th essential
No one eats the stuff anymore, except in Hawaii, where canned Spam — believed to be a pork derivative — not only is considered high cuisine but in fact was elected governor several times in the 1970s. For the clever camper, it has all sorts of practical uses, including bear baiting, skid greasing, ranger punking and hiking-boot resoling.
Proper Camping Etiquette
• If you have five to seven young, extremely hyperactive children, make certain to claim a campsite directly in the middle of the camping loop. This will allow little Zach, Emily, Gabriel, Leticia and Samuel to spread out as far as possible, as quickly as possible, on their giant, ear-splitting, flame-colored plastic tricycles from hell.
• Once you have established your campsite, proceed to cover everything in it — and by this we mean your tent, car, fire pit, camping gear, spouse, dog and any surrounding shrubbery — with your supply of big blue tarps. Secure the tarps with twine, duct tape and bungee cords. This virtual sea of wondrous Pacific blue will have a calming effect on your neighbors, who will appreciate your gesture and perhaps respond with the internationally recognized one-finger Boy Scout salute.
• Quiet time in most campgrounds is 10 p.m. If you are a high-school or college student camping with your buddies, this is the time to turn your Volkswagen-size portable boom box down to a level that causes surrounding trees to continue to jiggle, but no longer sway from side to side like the Raylettes.
• Be courteous. It’s important to smile and nod to your fellow campers as you troop through their campsite, dropping shaving products, used Q-tips, Band-Aids and trial-size bottles of hair tonic on the ground as you flip-flop your way to the bathroom.
• Most important of all: Please do not wash your dirty dishes in the bathroom sinks. Most campgrounds have perfectly good streams for that.
Family snapshots courtesy of the Judd family; contemporary photos by Seattle Times staff photographer Dean Rutz.