One of the real attractions of camping lies in its simplicity: it doesn’t require a lot of intellectual, left-brain input. Once your camp is set up, you can lay back, switch off, and go with the flow. After all, that’s what relaxation is all about, right?
On the other hand, though, is that the most effective way to go about it? Maybe there isn’t too much rocket-science involved, but have you ever come home with the nagging doubt that, maybe your camping trip might have gone off a little better with just a tad more think-time? That midnight turmoil with the collapsed awning, for instance. Shouldn’t that have been anticipated? Or trying to get the campfire started with soggy kindling? And what about that empty propane cylinder?
Given that few camping trips go exactly as planned, maybe there are ways to stack the odds in favor of a good holiday as opposed to ordinary.
Indeed there are. And campers who consistently get the most from their time away are those who, over the years, have developed techniques to ensure that things rarely, if ever, get out of control.
Here’s what they do:
n Plan and prepare for every trip
Possibly the single most important thing any of us can do to make a camping trip better is to invest quality time in its planning. This certainly won’t require the degree of detail as, say, Operation Desert Storm, but if you sit down -- preferably with other members of your group -- and step through important elements of the trip, it becomes far less likely that something is going to sneak up later and bite you on the backside.
Things to discuss -- or at least think about -- include: your destination options, likely weather, travel routes and timings, resources available at the campground and locally, camping equipment required (including trip-specific extras), meals and cooking, and portable power sources (for lights and refrigeration). Also, it’s a good idea to consider in advance how you might handle any campsite catastrophe -- like someone getting sick, or the camp being hit by a severe storm.
Incidentally, there are a few simple tools that savvy campers are never too proud to fall back on during their planning phase. Things like checklists (e.g., equipment, food, first aid kit, home security), maps of areas being considered, plus telephone and e-mail contact with tourist information centres or Park Rangers. In fact that last idea, along with any reading material you can lay hand to -- such as brochures and field guides -- provides a reasonable insight into what’s available at destinations on your short list.
At about this time there’s also a lot of other preparatory work you ought to get started on, rather than leave a raft of small jobs to tackle a day or two before departure. Does anything need topping up in the first aid kit? Is all your gear serviceable and complete? Do various fuels and batteries need replenishment? Will you have to buy any extras to meet the special needs of someone in the group?
As you might suspect, this all takes time. Although there are no hard and fast rules, you should spend the best part of a day on planning for each week of your holiday, and also get your planning under way well in advance. If, for example, you have a month-long trip in mind, figure on putting in around four days total planning and preparation, commencing at least two months ahead.
n Get the family involved
To get the most from your camping, it helps if your entire family (or group) is involved, right from the early planning stage. Different jobs like research, catering, equipment checks, travel plans, and so on, can each be “allocated” to members of the team. Getting everybody involved heightens anticipation and enthusiasm for the trip.
This can also extend to the campsite, of course, once you’ve arrived. If chores and responsibilities are doled out to appropriate members of your group, everyone stands to get just that little bit more from their outdoor experience. Some families take this a step further, swapping jobs around every so often.
The trick is, though, not to make it too regimented. It is, after all, an opportunity to catch up on family bonding, not a lead-up to military training! Ask everyone what role they’d prefer, give them some broad guidance, then check back with them once in a while to see how they’re going.
n Allow for extra campground activities
Without doubt, camping can be a lot of fun. But after a week or so at the same location, boredom often creeps in -- particularly amongst the teenagers in your group.
Successful campers remain aware of team members’ individual needs by “staying tuned” to the underlying mood of the camp as each day rolls by. Most often there’s no problem, but if lousy weather sets in for a few days, or pockets of inter-personal “friction” develop, watch out. Planned distractions should be put in place!
Letting everyone play a part in the daily running of the camp certainly helps restore peace, but more important still are extra activities like hiking trips, bird watching, photography, fishing, campfire cooking, books, board games -- yes, even those dreaded electronic devices, like TV and computer.
Remember, too, we all need a bit of “alone time” every so often, especially on an extended vacation. This is so much easier if group respect for personal space is encouraged from the start.
n Establish a personalised outdoor lifestyle
No doubt when most of us got started in camping we simply packed along the sort of outdoor hardware that most other campers seemed to be using, or whatever we read about in the magazines. After all, how hard could this be?
Well, maybe it isn’t too difficult, but this sort of “generic” approach -- adopting the same techniques as everybody else -- is hardly a blueprint for personal satisfaction. Effective campers, therefore, allow their lifestyle to adapt and evolve, while continuing to move in the direction of their outdoor aspirations.
So, as soon as possible after deciding that camping is an activity you and your family would like to pursue, you should determine the particular outdoor lifestyle that holds most appeal. This could be anything from mainstream camping (with the family station wagon, at full-facility campgrounds), to backpacking across remote wilderness regions with all your needs upon your back. Obviously, there are various options worth examining at different points along that scale.
As you’d expect, over time, we all tend to go our own way to differing degrees. We achieve this by acquiring the sort of gear that suits our preferences in destinations, activities, and degree of “roughing it”. Provided there’s fair consensus amongst your group for the chosen lifestyle, collective enjoyment expands accordingly.
n Continue to learn and develop
Regardless of which outdoor lifestyle you choose to follow, camping requires a certain amount of knowledge, the accumulation of a range of equipment, and the steady development of relevant skills. Wise campers allow this process to run its course.
Don’t rush it; start simple, grow slowly. Sure, there’s no truly “right” or “wrong” way to go about it, but there is a definite learning curve involved, from picnic day-trips to marathon desert crossings. Enjoy each step along the way, gradually but progressively stretching your skills to the next level beyond.
In many ways, that personalised approach we looked at earlier actually helps the learning process. Because most campers eventually do things differently than everybody else, there’s an endless supply of ideas out there, just waiting for you to give them a try. You’ll find them in specialised outdoor magazines, in books, on the Internet, or simply by watching what others are doing out in the bush.
One area where experienced campers typically develop personalised skills is in establishing set routines for recurring jobs, like loading the vehicle, setting up their campsite, or breaking camp before moving on. This ensures that important things are unlikely to be overlooked, and that everything runs as smoothly as possible.
In fact, effective campers are forever questioning what they do, and how they do it. After trying different ideas that seem to work, they modify their regular camping practices accordingly. Result being, each trip gets a little easier and another step closer to satisfying their ultimate outdoor goals.
n Respect outdoor equipment
Despite the simple, idyllic lifestyle, camping comes at a price. It’s not uncommon for beginners to hand over three grand or more just to get started. And out in the backcountry you certainly don’t want things falling apart. Considering the impact of environmental forces like sun, wind, rain, snow and dirt (not to mention kids and dogs), it’s the smart campers who take the trouble to look after their outfit.
Without doubt, top-quality equipment helps, but that’s more reason still to get the most for your money. And that means devoting a bit of time and plenty of respect.
Not that any of us wants to spend a big chunk of vacation time on maintenance tasks, but it is worth doing the basics. By keeping up with minor repairs, and at the same time avoiding over-working or mistreating any gear, you can be reasonably assured of its long and faithful service.
Furthermore, as soon as possible after you get home, every item should be carefully checked, cleaned, repaired if necessary, then packed away ready for next time.
If needed repairs are beyond your resources or expertise, get them to a specialist as soon as you can. These things are easily forgotten -- until next time it’s unpacked, at some faraway campground!
Finally, before any forthcoming trip, drag it all out for another inspection; if it has been stored a while, you might be surprised at what you find. Also, make sure everything is complete (e.g., ropes, pegs, poles) and that it all still functions as intended.
n Review equipment used
Respect for your equipment is one thing, but having the right gear is quite another. Is your tent too big? Too small? Is the propane barbecue the best way to cook? Would extra stand-up-height living area be more convenient in camp? Are more comfortable camp beds available?
For effective campers, this evaluation process is never-ending. While sorting through their gear -- soon after each trip -- they also question every item’s right to be there. In other words: (a) Did it get used? (b) Is there something better suited to the job? (c) Could this job be done by some other item within our outfit?
At the same time, it helps to reflect upon the trip with questions like: (a) Is there equipment we don’t currently have that would make life better or safer in camp? (b) Did situations arise for which we didn’t have the right gear? (c) Is there anything we could do better next time?
The purpose of this depth of examination is twofold: Firstly, it helps to ensure that superfluous gear is continuously culled, and, secondly, it forces you to examine your outdoor routines, while still fresh in your mind, to confirm that your equipment is not only evolving along lines appropriate to your preferred outdoor lifestyle, but is also suited to the camping scenarios you are most likely to face.
Well, that’s what highly effective campers do. No doubt you’ve developed a few tricks of your own. That’s great. But when you boil it all down, the real secret to good camping can be summed up in a single word: Anticipation. Which is another way of saying that, if you want to be an effective camper, it’s a good idea to put in some think-time before and after every trip.
Then, when next you get out there, all you need do is kickback and enjoy.
Bill Revill is a freelance writer and outdoor lifestyle specialist based in New South Wales, Australia.
This article may be copied, transmitted, shared or used in other media, but only on condition that his byline and the following information is included:
ã 2007 by W.V. Revill