Camping for Newbies--Yes, You Can!!
First of all, we need to explain what we mean when we speak of camping with MoonFire: it’s family-oriented car camping, which makes it really, really easy to do. Car camping doesn’t mean we are not camping; rather, we can use our cars to drive out stuff up to the site and unpack. This allows us to have many more of the comforts of home while camping, something that backpackers and other camping minimalists would not be caught dead doing. We remember with fondness a former member who was so at ease in the outdoors that he would simply suit up with a water-repellant, hooded coat and a bag full of trail mix, then head for the Virginia “outback” for a night or two of communing with the local critters and the elements...let us make it absolutely clear that that is NOT what MoonFire camping trips are about! Even Camping for Dummies doesn’t bother to explain the sort of outdoor sleep-overs that we MoonFire members do. So if you’re new to camping, relax. We’re right down the road from a big Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and Borders. You can bring as much junk as you can cram in your car (though we’d suggest not doing that!), but you’ll also be out and about in a quiet, dark, and earthy place, one where you can reach out and touch nature.
A human’s most basic needs for survival: food, water, shelter and clothing. The rest is gravy... and how much gravy you add is up to you and how much your car can hold.
Think it out: start with a packing list like the one you might make for a casual weekend trip to the beach, a friend’s house, or an extended picnic... then remove the electric appliances and add things like a bladder or two of water, a small towel and washcloth, food, ponytail holders for scruffy hair, etc.
Keep it simple: especially when it comes to the food--go for fresh fruit and veggies to make room in your cooler for perishable stuff (if you bring any in the first place), or go for an easy protein source like nuts. Leave anything that you would be upset with if it got rained on, stepped on, or covered with mud, behind. If you would like to take stuff like digital cameras, iPods, phones, PDA’s, we would recommend getting a waterproof bag or box in which to store them. These boxes seal very tightly, and are specially designed for canoe trips and other activities where valuable stuff (cameras mostly) will be taken near or in water. You can get these boxes/bags at almost any outdoor store, including REI or LL Bean, usually in the canoeing/rafting sections.
Organize your packing: label small zip locks with simple tags like “clean” and “dirty” for personal care items like q-tips, cotton balls, etc. Consider bringing baby wipes (the anti-bacterial hand wipes might be a good idea)--they can help cut back on body odor and provide reasonable comfort to those who may be squeamish about missing a shower. Label your food containers and use the type of small accessory bags that you take on a weekend trip to a friend’s house or the beach. In your suitcase/overnight bag, put Saturday’s clothes on top of Sunday’s, and remember to put your thermies/pajamas on the very top of your bag for Friday night, too--they’ll be easier to reach. You might want to bring one large storage bin for general equipment, and another for food and cooking supplies... try thinking about where you keep things at home, and consider how you might replicate that without the walls.
Plan ahead and prepare to slow down: upon arrival, you’ll need to set up your tent, decide where you want your stuff (including your “kitchen”) to be, and drive your car a few yards back to the traditional parking spot. It takes a little while, just like unpacking in a hotel suite, except you’re also kind of creating the room itself, too--it’s easier to do in daylight, so leave early. Leaving early cannot be emphasized enough; it will set the mood for the rest of the campout, allowing you to arrive, relax, and eat while it is still light outside!
If you’ll be doing any fire-pit cooking, it’ll probably take a little while to get the fire set up and burning, and you’ll probably want to keep an eye on your food until you get a feel for the timing of it. We would recommend planning meals carefully, no matter what you’re doing, if you’re going to be doing any cooking. Fires tend to be hotter and take longer (strangely enough) to cook stuff than kitchen stoves, and fuel stoves tend to be slower than the ones at home. They may also run out of fuel during long cooking sessions. If you intend to cook something like a stew, it is often easier to chop everything and then store it in bags so you can just “dump and go” when you start cooking. Camp cooking is a LOT of fun, but it requires some prior planning, an understanding of your fuel source, and patience. Allow yourself time for the unexpected (like one dish that heats through much more quickly or less evenly than you expected, or another that froze over in your cooler and needs time to thaw gently). If you’re ready to roll with it, it’ll actually be fun--and you’ll gain a new appreciation for modern technology AND the old ways!
Pack out your trash: Little Bennett has few trash cans, so set aside one bag for trash and one for recycling... remember those “clean” and “dirty” zip-locks in your tent, too.
Pets are welcome. We usually have at least one dog at the campsite, and well-behaved pets are welcome. You are responsible for picking up after your pet, and, most importantly, controlling it. There is a wide range of wild animals (squirrels, rabbits, deer, etc.) at the site, and dogs can be greatly tempted to go off chasing them, which can cause injury to the wildlife or to the dog.
There are no utilities. There will be no electricity, water, or telephone at the campsite. Latrines are porta-potty style. Plan accordingly: bring water, don’t bring an electric hot plate, and if you need a phone, plan on using a cell phone (already charged).
Essential Equipment (Available at K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, Home Depot, REI, etc.)
o Low-prep food that doesn’t spoil easily, and a cooler for stuff that might
o Water bladders to carry water for cooking and cleaning
o Drinking water--bladders are made of cheap plastic that make the water taste weird: you may want bottled h2o
o A tent and plastic ground cloth
o Sleeping bags--same stores as above (you can substitute a couple/trio of thick, warm blankets)
o A foam pad or other cushion (like a blanket) to put under your sleeping bag. When you lie down on a sleeping bag or blanket you compress the material, which can result in cold spots. A pad or layer to put between you and the ground is helpful.
o Clothes for cold weather nights: pack thermies, a hat/scarf, and clothes you can layer
o Clothes for warm weather days: again, pack layers and include a few thermies along with shorts & tees
o Girl Scouts USA suggests that you sleep in something different than what you wear during the day. Changing into PJ’s or whatever prior to sleeping will make you drier, more comfortable, and happier.
o Cooking equipment: a couple of small pots to heat water in, a frying pan, and heat-resistant utensils are useful (many stores sell light-weight kits that “nest” to save room)
o Inexpensive sturdy plates, bowls, mugs, cutlery, etc.--picnic basket-style stuff
o A small dish-washing kit: biodegradable soap (go to REI), towel, washcloth/sponge, and maybe a small wash bin
o A small gas-powered grill/stove (if you don’t want to use one of Little Bennett’s small fire pits)
o Folding chairs/stools or cushions (if you don’t want to sit on the ground or the camp benches)
o ChapStick, sunblock, bug repellant, a good poncho and water-resistant shoes (mountain grass gets dewy in the a.m. and evening!)
o Any important medicines you may need, and a basic (elementary) first-aid kit--band-aids, tweezers, anti-bacterial ointment, etc.
o Bring a flashlight and lantern. The flashlight should be small enough for you to carry to the bathroom in the middle of the night, while the lantern should provide light for cooking and in the tent. Camping stores sell a wide range of lanterns and flashlights. If you are just starting, we would suggest a simple electric lantern and a mini-Mag-light (not the really tiny one, the medium sized, 6-inch ones). You will be able to use the electric lantern in your tent and for cooking/eating. (You should NOT plan on using candles or flame lanterns in your tent, for obvious reasons.) If you don't mind looking like a miner, then an inexpensive headlamp (sold at camping stores) would be in order; we recommend the LED kind.
Desirable Traditional Equipment (the nicer stuff is sold at specialty stores like REI)
o More elaborate or sophisticated cooking tools (if you care for it)
o Flash guides &/or wildlife guidebooks--these are great to help identify critters and plants
o Binoculars, good hiking/walking boots
Extra Equipment that’s Nice to Bring if You Have the Space/Money/Desire
o Drums, ritual garb
o CD player and music--preferably the “hippie/earthy” stuff
o Your journal and a good book
o Accessories for a small altar
o Comfort foods like cider/cocoa, oatmeal, hot dogs, trail mix, marshmallows/chocolate/ graham crackers
o Your camera
o Your favorite tarot deck, yoga mat, card game, or whatever
o Tevas and clothes to wear in the cool, cool creek
o Gourmet freeze-dried food (for those who prefer eating to cooking), available at REI, etc.
What NOT to Worry About
o Being left to fend for yourself--MoonFire campouts are group events, and NO ONE is expected to know it all! Questions and requests for help are always welcome, and anyone who can help will be glad to do so! We usually have at least two or three members who are experienced campers, and everyone is willing to help everyone else (most campouts see at least one late-arriving camper being helped to put up their tent in the dark!).
o Maps, compasses, orienteering skills, and so on--this is NOT that kind of camping at all! (Though if someone wanted to run an orienteering course we could certainly set one up.)
o A little dirt: it washes off
o Less-than pristine hair (but do remember that toothbrush and deodorant!)
o Bringing lots of fancy food--everything tastes better outdoors; your caviar soufflé won’t be missed
o Being attacked by wild animals--those we may see are PLENTY wary of us. (In fact, many campers leave garbage and food out unprotected at night, and we have never even had marauders get into the trash!)
o Bugs--they won’t flock to you/your food if you seal your food containers and leave your heavily perfumed personal products at home (you can also use bug repellant of many types)
o Using a potty that doesn’t flush--if a 7-year-old Brownie can, so can you!
o Sleeping in a tent on the ground--remember: you can bring an extra blanket or two to cushion your body if you like, and as many pillows as you can fit into your car (one of the joys of car camping!). There is a wide range of outdoor sleep equipment that you can buy, from a cot or a self-inflating air mattress (yep, we’ve seen both) to a simple foam pad. Look around at the camping store and get what you think will keep you warm, dry and comfortable.)
What you MIGHT Need to Worry About
DISCLAIMER: We are certainly not experts, and we have no medical expertise, so please don’t take what we say next as gospel, just as friendly advice we’ve culled from others who do qualify as experts.
Yes, there are some troubles you may encounter outside, such as sunburn, insect bites, poison ivy/poison oak, splinters, etc.... thus, the simple first-aid supplies we’ve suggested above (which, by the way, we have needed only rarely). Prevention and awareness are the keys to protecting yourself.
To protect against sunburn, use sunblock (and a hat if you burn easily), drink plenty of water to stay well-hydrated, and don’t let cloudy days fool you too much.
To protect against ticks/Lyme disease, wear long sleeves and pants, and tuck pants legs into socks when hiking in dense woods or long grass. An insect repellent such as Deep Woods OFF! can help repel ticks. Check yourself and pets carefully; remove any attached tick at once with fine-jaw tweezers by grasping the tick’s head as close to skin as possible and gently pulling it straight out. Wash the bite area and apply antiseptic. If you develop a ring-shaped rash within 4-20 days, fever, chills, headache, stiffness in the joints, weakness and fatigue, call your doctor right away for treatment. If detected early, Lyme disease is usually quite treatable with antibiotics.
To protect against poison ivy/oak/sumac, learn what it looks like. If you don’t know, ask anyone and we will show you. Note that even if you do know what it looks like, the poison ivy at the campsite can grow extra large, making identification difficult for those used to seeing little ground vines. Poison ivy exudes an oil that, when it gets on your skin, will make it itch and grow bumps in a few days. To avoid it wear long pants, socks, and long-sleeved shirts when walking in fields or wooded areas, but remember the oil can also rub off on your clothes and shoes, so it’s best to avoid it altogether.
If you know you’ve been exposed to poison ivy wash the affected area/clothes/shoes with a dilute solution of Clorox or rubbing alcohol (you are trying to destroy/remove the oil that has rubbed off on you). Clean beneath fingernails, as plant oils can cause the spread of poison ivy, and wash all clothing as soon as possible after returning home. If you develop a red, bumpy, itchy rash as early as a few hours or as late as 2 weeks after exposure, then cleanse the area well with soap and cool water; rinse and dry with a clean towel. You can bathe in an oatmeal bath such as Aveeno Bath Treatment to help ease discomfort and try topical skin products such as calamine lotion and hydrocortisone cream and Benadryl to decrease itching. Try not to scratch the rash as that can increase the risk of infection. Call your physician if you need further treatment, or if the rash is on your face/eyes.
If you are allergic to bees or wasps we would recommend carrying your anti-venom with you as we have on occasion found (the hard way) yellow-jacket nests in the ground on trails or in fields.
About the Authors
Kim has done various kinds of camping since she was in elementary school, and though Andy didn’t discover it until he was in college, he got the hang of car-camping quickly. We both enjoy it, and wish to share our love of camping and some of the common sense and knowledge we’ve gained over the years. We will be glad to answer any questions you might have, so that you might enjoy it, too. Feel free to e-mail us about your concerns at EdgweoodVA@att.net.