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|June 4- June 10, 2009
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• Gear Guide
A guide for newbies
by Ed Clendaniel
The summer months are here, and the idea of going somewhere to take your mind off the state of the economy has great appeal. But the state of your finances has you thinking you can’t go any farther than home.
No worries. We have the solution: Commune with nature. Sleep under the stars. Go camping! It’s cheap entertainment, family friendly and good for the soul.
The dedicated backpackers and campers among you already know the drill. But you novices need all the help you can get. Trust me.
There are forces of nature out there that can turn a few days in the woods into a nightmare of epic proportions. And we’re not talking about bears, raccoons or skunks (all of which we’ll deal with later).
Luring the indoor species
No, the species that can cast a pall over your outing is that beast best known as the reluctant camper. It comes in various forms, including the cantankerous toddler, the surly teenager or, the most feared of all, the companion who equates camping with bugs, dirt and outhouses.
I feel your pain. I’ve encountered all of the above in the woods and have the emotional scars to prove it. But I’ve also sweet-talked a Stanford MBA into her first camping adventure, and by the end of the trip she couldn’t wait to go again. This, from a woman whose idea of roughing it was going without room service at the nearest hotel.
Here’s the trick: Smother their opposition with preparation and kindness. The root cause of the vast majority of camping disasters is poor planning, coupled with inattention to a fellow camper’s suffering. Find out before you leave what their biggest apprehension is about a few days in the woods and then get to work to alleviate it.
Doesn’t like bugs? Stock up on citronella for the campsite, make sure you have bug spray along and check the screens on your tent.
Can’t go 12 hours without washing their hair and refuses to even think about using an outhouse? Make sure you find a site with bathrooms and showers (Information about county park campgrounds can likely be found on county websites or by searching directly on the Web), and then go the extra mile by calling ahead to find out if they’re working. Take the extra step of packing a roll of quarters (showers generally cost 25 cents for every three minutes).
Afraid of being attacked by an animal in the wilderness? Do some research on the existence of bears in the area, and most importantly perhaps, how many animal attacks on humans there have been (chances are they’re low).
Rattlesnake bites at a campsite are virtually nonexistent, and sticking to well-used trails and wearing hiking boots greatly reduces the chance of being bitten.
Raccoons, chipmunks and deer are the most likely visitors to your campsite, and if you keep your food packed away in campsite pantries or out of their reach (but never in your tent), you’ll keep varmints from ruining your trip.
One nonnegotiable rule for all campers: Never, ever feed the wildlife, of any kind, under any circumstances.
Here is a step-by-step guide for the uninitiated:
Do a trial run
Another helpful piece of advice is to camp out in your own backyard a couple of weeks before your trip. If something goes wrong, you can just retire to your bedroom. In the meantime, you’ll gain valuable knowledge by practicing to set up your tent and test your equipment. Try out your cookstove and find out how long, for example, it takes to boil water and cook a meal you plan to make on your trip.
Grilling over a campfire is no simple task. For first-timers, keep it simple. Spaghetti, toasted garlic bread and salad in a bag are an easy option that should appeal to adults and kids.
Cereals, toast, and bacon and eggs are morning favorites (although one of my favorite pancake breakfasts came about after we discovered we didn’t bring a spatula and fashioned one out of three pocket knives and some well-placed duct tape).
Sandwiches and fruit are a simple favorite for lunch.
Make sure you can get your lantern going and test your pad and sleeping bag to see if you can get a good night’s sleep.
You’ll need a sleeping bag that will keep you warm in temperatures that dip down near 40 degrees in the late spring and summer.
Experienced campers who frequent cold-weather locations tend to go for down-filled bags, which protect them better from the elements. Cheaper synthetic bags should work well for novice campers.
If I have the extra space, I’ve been known to throw in a futon to alleviate back pain. If you have money to make only one significant purchase for your camping trip, make it a quality cot, mattress or pad. Campers need a good night’s sleep to relax and enjoy their time in the wild.
Cots aren’t as popular as they were in previous generations, mostly because they are bulky and take up space in your vehicle. But they are a cooler option in the hot summer months, and they get you off the hard ground. The downside to mattresses is they need to be inflated and eat up more space than pads. My advice? Inflatable mattresses are generally more comfortable than pads. The thicker the pad or mattress, the better.
Hang out with the experts
If you’ve never gone camping before, it’s helpful to invite someone along who knows what he or she is doing. And, yes, many of the most knowledgeable campers are women (too often they do most of the work, hence their real aversion to camping). My male ego is still smarting from the weekend when my friend Busy’s teepee fire outperformed my cross-section effort, but what really hurt was she also bested me in toasting marshmallows to a golden brown (first let the coals die down, then keep the marshmallow low, away from the flames and nearer the outer red coals and frequently rotate your stick).
The value of having an experienced camper along is they not only know the best places to go, but they also have all the necessary equipment and know how to use it, which means you won’t have to buy or pack as much yourself.
Camp close to home
For your first effort, plan to camp close to home.
This has two advantages. First, the closer you are, the less time you spend in the car and the more time hiking and sitting around the campfire.
Second, if roughing it in the woods becomes so miserable you just can’t stand it anymore, camping close to home allows you to retain the option of driving home in an hour and sleeping in your warm, cozy bed. You can always come back to get your gear in the morning.
I’ve never actually had to put that into practice, but the mere promise to my spouse that I would be prepared to drive home in the middle of the night if we couldn’t get our baby to stop crying was clear evidence she could feel comfortable giving it a whirl — and it went off without a hitch.
Make a reservation
Campers can reserve a campsite at any state park by going online to ReserveAmerica.com or calling 1-800-444-7275.
Make your plans as early as possible, since reserveamerica.com allows people to make reservations on the first of every month, up to six months in advance. (Wake up early, because they start taking calls at 8 a.m.) Weekend dates get snapped up early, but many state parks will have spots available throughout the summer on weekdays.
County parks with campgrounds generally allow reservations on county websites, although some are first come, first served. The more remote the site is, the more likely it is to not have reservations.
Scout a campsite
Look for a spot that is as far away as possible from the entry road and the campground hustle and bustle. Flat ground is a priority, especially if you’re setting up multiple tents. And if you’re going in the middle of summer, afternoon shade is essential.
Being close — but not too close, for obvious reasons — to bathrooms is a plus, especially for anyone likely to use the restroom in the middle of the night. Campground bathrooms should be stocked with toilet paper, but you’ll want to remember to bring your own soap, shampoo and towels.
If at all possible, send an advance team of one or two people up early to set up camp a few hours before the rest of the campers arrive. I’ll never forget the look on my spouse’s face when she pulled in to the campsite in the afternoon to discover the tents set up, a campfire blazing, a tablecloth on the picnic table and a glass of her favorite chardonnay waiting. What she didn’t realize is that with no kids to distract me, setting up the campsite was a breeze. I had 90 minutes to myself to read and enjoy a quiet afternoon in the woods — a win-win proposition.
Make some memories
The most fun part of every camping trip is gathering around the fire for dinner and conversation. The adage that food tastes better outdoors holds true. And there’s something about sitting around a campfire that encourages people to open up in ways they don’t in other settings.
I love to tend the fire myself, but letting children experiment (within reason) and develop their skills is a wonderful way to bring them into the circle.
It’s also important to remember how scared you could get as a child after dark. Children are not as aware as adults that bears, raccoons and other critters are only after your food scraps, not the campers themselves.
One way to allay their nervousness is to make a game out of who can spot the biggest critter during the trip. A better way is to show them how to clean the campsite well enough so that raccoons won’t be so interested in becoming better acquainted.
But best idea of all for soothing a child’s fears and making a friend for life is to provide them with their own flashlight to use at will, prop them on your lap, offer them a hug and a s’more, and before you know it you’ll be creating memories that will last you both a lifetime.
(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Website of the Mercury News, at http://www.mercurynews.com.
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