Originally published May 27, 2005
By Ron Judd, Pacific NW magazine writer
I STARTED CAMPING in the great outdoors as an infant. And I was way better at it back then. When you’re 6 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.
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, 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.)
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 timeshare 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 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. 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.
Cook kit: The reason there’s no such thing as backcountry lasagna. 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.
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. 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 nondonatable condition — will lead to every member of your family spending the entire trip cold, miserable and embarrassed. This is fine: It’s what camping is all about!
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.