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So, I have this problem. I like camping, I consider myself well-organized person and good at planning things out, but I seem to be unable to combine these two things into planning a camping trip.
Whether it was growing up on Boy Scout trips, camping with friends at the lake, or going on a weekend backpacking trip into the wilderness, I have never been the person who actually plans out the dates, knows the locations, and gets a gear checklist prepared beforehand.
Seems like quite a contradiction, right?
Contradictions aside, how hard can it be to plan a camping trip? Find some trees, throw some matches and other camping gear in a backpack, and head out the door. Simple as that.
Actually, 23 years of not planning a camping trip says otherwise.
I knew I needed some help. I needed someone who was intimately familiar with all of the planning and preparation that goes into a camping trip. Luckily, I had a friend whose knowledge of camping technique knows no bounds: Alex Bentzinger.
Besides starting his own full-service media-production company at the age of 19, Alex achieved Eagle Scout status while in Boy Scouts and has been on 3-14 day treks across the United States. As the Boy Scout motto “be prepared” flashed back to mind while doing research for this article, who better to ask for beginner camping advice than a certified Eagle Scout?
No one, that's who.
That being said, here are the 5 things Alex taught me about planning my first camping trip.
Your location is going to determine a lot of things about your trip: what kind of weather to expect, what gear to bring, packing water vs. finding a source near your site, the list could go on forever. Once you have a general region of where you’d like to camp, next step is finding your actual campsite.
“National Forests, Grasslands and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) property are all great places for camping because you can do some great dispersed camping for free,” said Alex. “Unfortunately, there are not many of these federal areas located in the Midwest, so you will have much better luck with this method if you are out in the Western United States.”
Being in the Midwest, this posed a problem for me personally. Thanks to his years of experience camping in the Midwest, Alex had a quick solution:
“Oh that’s no problem, there are plenty of public use areas around locally where you can usually camp for free. Most public use areas will typically have primitive campsites marked on a map also.”
If you’re striking out with the first two options, Alex has a less-traditional approach that he uses occasionally, called “winging it.”
“Yeah, so if those first few methods don’t work, what I do is just open Google Maps and look for a forested area that is near a source of water. So long as you are responsible and follow the 7 principles of LNT (leave no trace), you should be able to camp almost anywhere with little hassle.”
That approach is for the bolder among us, but if you are a little more on the timid side, you can always check out sites such as www.freecampgrounds.com or www.boondocking.org to find free campsites near you.
If you are looking for more developed campsites, you can check out www.recreation.gov to find a list of official government campsites which can be reserved, in advance, for anywhere from $5-$25.
After you have your campsite picked out, you definitely want to spend a little time checking out the weather forecast for the days that you will be in the outdoors.
“Starting out, you definitely don’t want to camp when it is pouring rain or there are gale-force winds in the forecast,” stated Alex. “Because, you know, at the end of the day this is supposed to be a fun experience, and you will probably not have much fun if you have to sit in your tent the whole time because you’re getting pummeled with wind and rain.”
Alex was right, that sounded like an awful time. Definitely an experience that would not make me want to plan another trip anytime soon.
“A little wind is okay, but you definitely, definitely, do not want to be out in a severe storm. When I was doing a 10-day trip with my (Boy Scout) troop and we got caught setting up our tents in the middle of a thunderstorm. Lightning kills more people than tornadoes, did you know that? (I did not) At all costs, you want to avoid camping when there is a chance of severe storms in the forecast. Please, if you take anything away from this interview, let it be that.”
This is a tough one because it is going to be ultra-specific to your location, weather,the length of trip, and more. That being said, there are a few essentials that you should never head into the outdoors without. That will include things like:
- Navigation (map and compass)
- Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Insulation (extra clothing)
- Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
- First-aid supplies
- Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
- Repair kit and tools
- Nutrition (extra food)
- Hydration (extra water)
- Emergency shelter
Alex gave me a really helpful tip when I was asking him about gear: “What I do when packing for a trip is make a list of everything that I pack in, down to the last match. When I return from my trip and start unpacking, I start checking things off to see if I actually used them. If I didn't use something on my last trip, or I see a pattern of only using an item sporadically, I might not pack it next time to see if I even notice if it’s gone.”
One note about that last part: just because you don’t use an item on every trip, such as a first aid kit, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pack it. Some items you do not use but you still need to pack in every time.
4. Food and Water
Whether you’re going out for the afternoon or spending a week off the grid, staying hydrated and fueled up is going to be a major component of your overall experience. Even if you are sitting on your couch all day you still need food and water, so how are you supposed to explore the outdoors without some fuel?
“For food, you’re going to want things that are dense, high-calorie, and easy to prepare and clean. Things life Clif Bars, packaged tuna or chicken (not canned), and mixed nuts are all great options. I also like to buy preservable food like canned soup or stew in advance so I don’t have to go to the store before each camping trip, but these will definitely add more weight and prep time than some of your lighter-weight options.”
One tip from my last few trips is to always pack a little more food than you think you will need. You never know if you may have to spend extra time outdoors due to inclement weather or injury, so it is always better to overpack than having to ration out your food into smaller portions.
Also, a fully belly is a quick way to boost morale, so stuffing a few extra Clif bars in your pack can turn your average day of camping into an indulgent, satisfying feast.
“Water is one of those things that people tend to overlook. Think about it: how much water do you drink in a day? Probably not enough, even though most of us have easy access to it. Just walk over and turn on the faucet and boom, drinking water. Now imagine drinking that same daily amount of water, but being outdoors, hiking and sweating across rough terrain, and not having an easily accessible source.”
In a study by Baylor College of Medicine, researchers pointed out that by the time you start feeling thirsty, your body is warning you that you are nearing hydration.
“You'd be really surprised how quickly you dehydrate when you don’t have access to clean drinking water. You have to be much more deliberate with your hydration.”
Alex recommends that, between drinking, cooking/cleaning, and hygiene, you should plan to pack around 5L of water per day, more if the location you are making camping at does not have an easily accessible source of water. If you know you will have a source of water nearby, you can get away with packing less water in by purifying the water using any of a variety of purification methods, such as boiling, filtration, or chemical treatment.
5. Training and Stretching
This last tip caught me a bit by surprise. “Training?” I asked, “how do you train to go camping?”
“Well, think of it this way: what do you-- what do most people spend the majority of their day doing?”
“Sitting?” I replied.
“Sitting. Hour after hour, day after day, we spend a lot of time sitting. Now think about what you are doing when you are outside. You are walking, you are crossing tough terrain, and most of the time you are doing this with 20-50+ pounds of gear on your back, depending on the length of your trip. Your body is not used to that kind of stress, and you will get fatigued more quickly than you think. I can promise you that.”
Alex’s recommended training tips are as follows:
Walking: whether around the block after work or during your lunch break, walk around a bit. Not only will it prepare your body for your camping trip, it can also boost your mood and productivity
- Weight training: your body is used to carrying your own weight around, but adding even an additional 10 pounds can significantly alter your walking speed and the rate at which you get fatigued
No matter your skill level or how experienced you are in planning camping trips, I hope that the above interview with Alex opened your eyes to some of the things that you may have been overlooking.
Camping has become on of my favorite things to do on the weekend, or even a quick overnight trip during the week if I need to get away from the constant buzz of notifications and social media. It's nice to get back to your roots, shut your phone off, and look up at the stars around the campfire with good friends.
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