CAMPING TIPS, HACKS, AND ADVICE FOR BEGINNERS
“We gotta go camping!” I told my new girlfriend. “Uhh, ok, I’ll do it it but it’s not really my thing” she responded. I knew I had to make it fun, easy, and comfortable or else she might never go again. I took her on a camping trip for seven days in Yosemite National Park and she fell in love with camping and rock climbing. Now she says “you gotta camp with Mike, he has rules; he does it the best!”
We are meant to be outside. We feel the most alive in the wilderness. I hear a lot of people say “I don’t like camping.” I can’t blame them if they have had the wrong first experience. If I had to endure insects, being cold, wet, sleeping on a hard surface, and not eating well, then I would not be excited to ever go camping again.
Camping can be comfortable
“We loved it” said my parents (who were in their late 60’s) after camping out in Joshua Tree National Park.
My plan evolved from a saying I used to tell my wife when I first started taking her camping.
“We must stay warm, dry, and well fed.”
Generally speaking this covers most of your comfort. But I added 2 more things to cover general health and cleanliness. So here are my 5 rules for comfortable camping.
1. You must stay warm (or stay cool if its hot out)
Climate control is absolutely vital to your enjoyment but also your survival. With the technology available today sleeping bags, jackets, and pullovers are warmer and lighter than ever. There is no reason why you can’t stay warm even on Mount Everest. Staying cool when it is hot out is a bit trickier as you can only remove so many layers of clothing. In this case, try to plan ahead by avoiding hot places altogether during the hot season. Other options are camping near a lake or river and staying in the shade during the day. Do not get sunburned. Sunburn causes skin damage, cancer, pain, dehydration, and exhaustion.
Chances are you probably need more help staying warm. The most important ways to accomplish this are: to remain well hydrated, to stay dry (more on this in just a moment) and the appropriate clothing and shelter. Layering is a system whereby you take on and off layers off clothing as your temperature changes such that you avoid sweating and feeling chilled. When done properly in extreme environments, clothing adjustments become a large part of your day.
Here are the basics: use materials that wick moisture. Coolmax and capilene silk are good. Cotton is bad. My go-to combo for my first two upper body layers nearly anytime, anywhere are: a silkweight capilene shirt and the R1 Hoody. I wore these two layers every day on my Denali expedition. The R1 Hoody has now replaced fleece jackets as fleece is old technology. Add a light windbreaker on top of this and you have a highly breathable, lightweight, and extremely warm upper body system for summer camping. Add a waterproof jacket for rain. For bottoms, I am less strict. For winter camping and expeditions, I layer first silk patagonia brief underwear, then silkweight long underwear, then midweight. I use less base layers for skiing and more for high altitude climbing. Over the base layers, I then use a soft shell like the mont-bell or arc’teryx micropuffies, a waterproof hardshell, or both. The Arc’teryx Beta LT is the best skiing and climbing jacket I have owned. For summer camping, it’s fairly easy. I use silk briefs and some cargo shorts and focus more attention on my upper body, hands, and feet.
2. You must stay dry
Rain is one of the worst weather conditions. I would rather be in a snowstorm because its easier to stay warm when you are dry. When you get wet, you get cold and it feels miserable. Plan ahead for weather. Either change your camping plans or do so with good waterproof clothing and a waterproof rainfly for your tent. I once camped out in the summer on Mt. Elbert in Colorado and it was one of the coldest nights of my life because I used an old tent that leaked water. It was horrible. Water has a higher specific heat than human skin which means that heat is readily is transferred from your body to wet clothing. Wet clothing whether due to rain or sweat will make you cold very fast.
3. You must be well fed. And I mean WELL fed
There is no excuse for not eating well. On my big mountain trips, we ate pizza dinners, cheesy potatoes, and made french pressed coffee. Obviously if you are backpacking for a few days you have to severely limit your luxury items but it can still be done well. I backcountry skied across the entire sierra mountain range in 6 days with just a backpack. I packed some meats and cheese, spicy mangos from Trader Joe’s, chocolate covered espresso and pomegranate seeds. NEVER just pack a bunch of energy bars for whatever type of trip you take. I have probably eaten more energy bars than a person should ever eat and I am sick of them. The problem with them besides growing horribly boring after the first one is that they lack a substantial amount of fat and protein that you need for long term energy. If you are doing an all day hike and eat a bunch of energy bars and gels, you will quickly consume the carbohydrate energy and then bonk (run out of energy and get very very tired). You will feel like crap by the end of the day. Consequently you might not enjoy your trip, get lost, make some bad decisions and hurt yourself.
The solution: try and fit your favorite food options into your plan. Be creative. When I climb at high altitude I always pack many different flavors and textures because it is very easy to lose your appetite and you need to increase your consumption in the mountains, not decrease it. So eat well, bring the french press when car camping, bring the plastic egg protectors, bring fresh fruit and cheese if you have a cooler. Eat and drink the types of things that you would like to have if you were at home.
4. Stay clean
This was originally not in my list of mandatory criteria for successful camping for newbies but my wife pointed out to me how important it is to stay clean. When you are clean you just feel better, but you are also exposed to less nasty things that might make you sick. Bring hand sanitizer to use before eating. The number one way people get sick is from their filthy hands. And bring wet wipes to keep the “parts” clean. I should also say that I am not a big fan of insects but I know how to live around them. During my time in Sudan, I had to live in a miserable hot little hut that was swarming with insects during a Malaria epidemic. Bring your insect repellent. I like switching the chemicals around that I put on my skin and here are the ones I try as recommended straight from the CDC. At least 30% DEET is your go-to item. Never leave the country without it. I have recently become very fond of lemon of eucalyptus which is reported to repel west nile virus mosquitos. It also sounds a bit more easier on my system than DEET. Picardin and IR3535 are two other products recommended by the CDC.
Please visit their site for the most up to date and accurate information. CDC.gov
5. Stay Healthy
I originally did not include this in my camping rules because it should be obvious. Staying healthy is critical. Common ways that people violate this rule while camping are: cutting themselves while preparing food (no joke), sunburn, dehydration, and lack of hand-washing.
Always remember my top three: stay warm, dry, and well fed.
Stick with these basics and you’ll be enjoying camping anywhere, anytime soon!