Camping and Hiking: What’s Involved?

The author sits next to his tent at Pine Springs Campground at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas.
The author sits next to his tent at Pine Springs Campground at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas.

Someone asked me the other day, “Don’t you feel kind of vulnerable when you hike in all those remote areas?”

After an 11-year hiatus from camping, I decided to return to it in 2001. This image is from Chaco Canyon's Gallo Campground in November 2001.
After an 11-year hiatus from camping, I decided to return to it in 2001. This image is from Chaco Canyon’s Gallo Campground in November 2001.

The answer, of course, is yes, but more significant is my feeling of self-reliance.

I am trying to temp a photographer friend of mine into joining me for a hiking trip later this year, and he seems agreeable to the idea. He did ask, though, what was involved. The question resonated with me, since I remember feeling entirely lost the first time I wanted to go camping after a long hiatus. In the fall of 2001, I wanted to camp at Chaco Canyon. I hadn’t camped since 1990, and I’d forgotten, or never learned, what I needed to bring, and what I needed to do when I got there.

I’ve been hiking and camping dozens of times since then, and while I consider it an ongoing education, I will say that there are some basics, and that they aren’t really that big a deal.

Some campgrounds, like this one in the Chisos Mountains at Big Bend National Park, are more "furnished" than others. The last time I camped, the only evidence of a camp site was four wooden stakes marking the boundary of the site.
Some campgrounds, like this one in the Chisos Mountains at Big Bend National Park, are more “furnished” than others. The last time I camped, the only evidence of a camp site was four wooden stakes marking the boundary of the site.

Camping:

  • You need a place to sleep. Some of the tougher outdoors people need just a blanket and a pillow (even if that pillow is just a sack of socks.) The next level of shelter would be the bivy sack, which simply a small tent-like bag for your sleeping bag, with a little tent above your face. It’s cozy, but there’s no place to put your stuff. I, however, prefer to camp in a tent. It doesn’t have to be a big tent, but I do like to have room to change clothes, have some stuff in there with me, and if Abby is with me, enough room to deploy our zip-together Coleman sleeping bags.
  • You need food, a way to cook the food if you want it hot, a place to potty, something to sit on, and some way to cope with the heat or the cold. Campgrounds vary regarding restrooms; some have real toilets, while others require you to bring your own portable devices. Most are somewhere in between. Some offer potable water, but that is the exception.

    These are our shoes after crossing a flash flood swollen Terlingua Creek in April 2007. We both had at least one other pair of dry shoes waiting for us in the car.
    These are our shoes after crossing a flash flood swollen Terlingua Creek in April 2007. We both had at least one other pair of dry shoes waiting for us in the car.
  • There are several classes of camping – the one I do the most is car camping, in which you drive to where you are camping, and hike nearby trails. Most of the National Parks are set up this way. The biggest advantage, in my view, is that you you don’t have to carry any of your camp stuff, like food, fuel, sleeping bags, tents, etc., on your back. The disadvantage is that you are limited by daylight how far you can hike before returning to camp.
  • Having my hair short make a big difference, especially if I am camping for four or five days. With my hair as short as possible, the dreaded “hat head” isn’t as bad looking or as itchy.
  • When fires are allowed, I usually bring about two Duraflame® logs per night. Prepared fire logs burn longer and more evenly. Not only do they keep me warm when I am cold camping, but there are few things as mesmerizing as a fire.
On the trail:
  • You need a way to carry water, a way to carry some food, and a few basic accessories like an emergency poncho, a compass, a high-quality map, a couple of powerful but small flashlights, and most importantly, good, comfortable hiking shoes. I’ll add that you should have an extra pair of shoes in camp in case you get one pair wet, which I certainly have. Many people rely on Teva or Keen sport sandals, but I like a little more protection, and have opted in recent years for Moab Ventilators by Merrill. For a long time I carried everything in a photographers vest, but more recently I use a waist pack, which is easier on my back.
  • Know how to read a topographic map. There’s no excuse for getting lost, and when you do, you endanger rescuers and stress loved ones. A GPS might come on handy, but there are places like slot canyons where you might not be able to get a signal. And the batteries never die on a map.

    This is poison ivy; it may look lush and beautiful, but if you are like me, getting into it could ruin a month of your life.
    This is poison ivy; it may look lush and beautiful, but if you are like me, getting into it could ruin a month of your life.
  • A lot of people advocate a wide-brimmed hat, but I’ve always had success with a regular baseball-style cap. In addition to protecting my head, the bill provides shade, which reduces eye strain and fatigue. My favorite sunscreen in recent years has been anything unscented. The last one I got that I really liked was a cheap unscented 50SPF Walgreen’s brand. If you are anywhere near water or foliage, you’ll probably want to drench yourself in a good insect repellent.
  • Particularly important for me is the ability to recognize poison ivy. I have enough of it on the property at home that I am something of an expert at spotting it.
  • Abby and I carry small two-way radios when we hike together, for times when we might be separated by a few hundred yards, like when she wants to stay on the trail and I want to explore an alternate route.
  • See this entry for my advice about photographic gear in the trail.
On the road:
  • On the road: you need a reliable vehicle, a plan (preferably a flexible one), and plenty of fuel/coffee stops. (See The Zone.)

In terms of training, all I can offer is that I try to stay in decent physical condition all the time. It’s certainly easier to stay in shape than to get in shape, and I want to be able to hike, camp, play, walk, run, and anything else all the time. One thing I can’t easily train for is altitude and elevation changes, but I seem to acclimate well if I have a few days in an area to prepare for a hiking trip.

Probably my favorite place to camp is Gallo Campground at Chaco Canyon, like on this occasion in 2003. One reason is that I like to visit Chaco in November (since I like to camp when it's cold,) and I end up with nearly the whole campground to myself.
Probably my favorite place to camp is Gallo Campground at Chaco Canyon, like on this occasion in 2003. One reason is that I like to visit Chaco in November (since I like to camp when it’s cold,) and I end up with nearly the whole campground to myself.
For a while I had this gasoline camp stove, but it developed a leak, so I switched to propane. It worked out well for me, since I "car camp," and the big bottles aren't an issue. Propane is easier to use that a gasoline stove.
For a while I had this gasoline camp stove, but it developed a leak, so I switched to propane. It worked out well for me, since I “car camp,” and the big bottles aren’t an issue. Propane is easier to use that a gasoline stove.

On my last camping trip, I asked the friends with me if they camped for camping’s sake, or saw it as a means to an end, and they both agreed that it was for them, as it is for me, a means to an end. Camping puts you close to places like trails and overlooks, mountains and canyons, forests and deserts, and allows you to explore them from dawn to dusk, or, in the case of backpacking, for uninterrupted days at a time.

Speaking entirely editorially for a moment: I don’t understand people who express the desire for luxury when camping. I don’t see the purpose of things like television or the internet when camping. In fact, camping away from things like that is one excellent reason for camping.

I have some extra stuff – tents, stoves, mess kits, coffee cups, etc, for anyone who might be interested in discovering the outdoors with me the next time I am out in it. Give me a shout if you are interested.

One place I hope to camp and maybe even backpack soon is the eerily beautiful Bisti Wilderness in northwest New Mexico. It is far enough away from civilization that camping is the only way to explore it in depth.
One place I hope to camp and maybe even backpack soon is the eerily beautiful Bisti Wilderness in northwest New Mexico. It is far enough away from civilization that camping is the only way to explore it in depth.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Well-written, Richard.

    The “luxury while camping” thing seems like an oxymoron to me… I don’t call it “camping” when someone rents a motor home and plugs it into a campsite.

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  2. Like so many of these posts, here is excellent quantity of usefull information.

    It’s good to learn from your own experience, A better use of time and smarts is to prepare from others experience like Richard’s.

    I predict high readership -wonderfull post.

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  3. I’d like camping better if there were some way to be clean and shaved every day. I hate being stinky and prickly.

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  4. Thanks for the camping tips, Richard. A friend of mine suggested the Duraflame logs for emergency preparedness. They sound like a good idea for a campout as well.

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