Tricks for Successful Campers
By Tim Mead    March 5, 2011

Camping gear gets wet and hangs out to dry
Camping gear gets wet and hangs out to dry

Tricks for Successful Campers  

The following article is copyright by Tim Mead and may not be duplicated or reproduced without his expressed written permission.

First time I ever went camping, I was five or six years old.    It was mid-summer and with my parents and little sister had returned to the northern Michigan village where I was born.   When it came time to go to bed, at least by my mother’s reckoning, I suggested that I would sleep in the 4-foot by 4-foot Sears tent I had pitched in the yard – the kind with the cowboy painted on one side and an Indian on the other.

Dad offered as an alternative that he and I would take the tent out south of town and camp on the Lake Michigan beach.    Boy, did that sound like a good idea!

Cozy campsite makes for a pleasant experience
              Cozy campsite makes for a pleasant experience

Though Dad did not sleep very well, at least as he claimed years later, I did.   And in the intervening years, camping has been one of my favorite activities.

Yet, the numerous camping trips I have taken have had “teaching moments.”   Some of these have been unpleasant, some merely instructive.   Here are some of the things I’ve learned.

1.   Always secure your tent and gear before turning in for the night.    Don’t leave things strewn around the camp or unprotected from the weather or animals.

One experience that brought this lesson home I do not remember very well.    I was in high school and slept through most of it.    Dad did the dirty work.

The entire family was camped along the Pigeon River in northern Michigan.    Whoever was the last to enter the tent, and we have never been able to agree who that was, failed to secure the front flap.    During the night, it rained hard for several hours.    All the water that hit the front quarter of the tent was funneled into the tent – a family size umbrella tent with a five inch flap reaching up from the floor.    The flap retained all the water.

Dad rolled over and stuck his hand into several inches of cold water.    Dad and I were sleeping on the floor and Mom and sister Nancy were sleeping on cots.    Dad’s sleeping bag protected me and the cots kept Mom and Nancy above the water.

So Dad stumbled around in the dark and “bailed water” with a wash basin.    According to family legend I mumbled a couple of words to the effect that I would loan my jackknife, but otherwise did nothing.    A little “checking around” before we went to sleep would have avoided the trouble.

When I was in graduate school, I had a “teaching moment” where all the blame fell to me and a modicum of housekeeping would have prevented what could have been a dangerous occaision.    I returned to Michigan with a plan to catch some trout.    Dad was away, so I took the pickup truck, tent, gear and headed for the Manistee River.

One evening I came off the River about 9:30 or 10:00, cooked a couple of trout, and collapsed into my sleeping bag.    I stashed the still fishy frying pan in a corner of the tent with a promise to myself to clean it before I went fishing in the morning.

Several hours later, I heard something moving around – an animal in the woods?    No, something a lot closer than that.    I switched on the lantern and standing in the corner of the tent was a startled coon licking the fry pan.    He skedaddled.    Fortunately, he did not decide he was cornered and needed to fight.

2.   If cooking over an open fire, rub the exterior of any pots with soap.

Wood smoke, particularly from various pines, leaves everything covered with an oily, black film.    If you do not get that film off the pots, it gets on everything it touches – the inside of backpacks, the outside of sleeping bags, the last pair of clean undershorts.

Coating pans with soaps makes cleaning them easy.
                Coating pans with soaps makes cleaning them easy.

If, however, you rub the pots carefully and entirely cover the exterior with soap, water will take the film off with the soap.

This is a trick Dad taught that I had forgotten.   On my first trip to Quetico Park in western Ontario, now more than 25 years ago, I learned it again.    Heinz Feil is the best pot-scrubber around and part of his success is the meticulous job he does in pre-soaping the pots.    Several years ago, while Larry Barden and I were gearing up for a trip to Quetico Park, we assessed the per ounce price of liquid dish soap and bought the cheapest.    Bad idea as the runny soap dripped off the cooking pots and the black film stuck to the pots wherever the soap ran off.

3.   Be prepared to “plan on the fly.”    Deal with “what happens if….”

More than a decade ago, Larry Barden and I were leading (well, mostly Larry doing the leading) a group down McKenzie Bay into the main stretch of Kawnipi Lake.    We hugged the eastern bank to keep out of the wind.    About half a mile from the lake where we planned to head east, Larry and I exchanged the thought, “When we turn the corner, it’s going to be a tough paddle.”

Sure enough, waves had white, frothy caps and between the waves were rollers several feet high.    We made sure everyone had on life jackets and the packs were secured to the canoes, and we headed into the wind.    As a practical matter, it wasn’t working.    Craig, my son, and I were taking water over the bow and I knew others were as well.    Constant paddling without missing a stoke was tiring us all.

Larry and I yelled at one another and we headed for the nearest cove we could find.    We pitched three tents on a little island and rode out the wind.    Doing so made for hard travel to get back to Minnesota on the day specified, but we did it.

On a subsequent trip, coming from a different direction, we sought the same island in a wind storm.

4.   Safety first.

A few months ago, Dr. Robert Dale of Tupelo, Mississippi gave a seminar to the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association centered on wilderness first aid.    We stood together for a few minutes, wondering whether any would show for an early Saturday morning seminar.

As we chatted, I said, “First rule of wilderness first aid – be careful.”    Dr. Dale agreed enthusiastically.    If the rocks are slippery, don’t step there.    If the current is too swift, don’t wade there.    If the rapids are too strong, don’t paddle there.    Wear the life jacket; modern PFD’s are pretty comfortable.    Don’t wander off without telling folks where you are going and when you will return.   These are all lessons drummed into us by our parents.    They make good sense.

Among the things I learned in Dr. Dale’s seminar is that my Boy Scout First Aid Merit Badge – from 50 years ago – really no longer meets the need.    I need to enroll in a first aid program, perhaps from the Red Cross, and upgrade my skills.

Deadman's stake
                     Deadman's stake

A recent thread on the Quiet Journey website sought was devoted to things that would ruin a camping trip.    Unpleasant companions was cited frequently, but serious injury, it seemed to me, was named most often.

5.   Use a “dead man” to secure a tent where the ground is too hard or too soft for stakes.

In 2010 Hank Oates went to Quetico Park with me.    Our first and second nights in the wilderness, we camped on a small island in Big Merriman Bay.    As is usually the case, the island was nearly solid rock.    How would we secure the tent?

My tents have, at every corner, 20-inch loops of parachute cord.    Through the loops, we stuck branches a couple of feet long and 2- or 3-inches thick.    Between the branches and the tent we laid a big rock to prevent the branch from moving.    Works like a charm.

6.   Don’t “muck” with the wildlife.    Even if you never got poison ivy, steer clear of it.    Don’t antagonize a fleeing snake; even if it is not poisonous, it could still give you a nasty bite.    Don’t get between a mother-anything and her young.    Don’t startle wild animals.

A number of years ago, Dad and I camped on a fly-in lake in northern Ontario.   The outfitter claimed we were in a cabin, but it was pretty close to a tent.

The second evening we were in the bush, I went outdoors “one more time.”    I noticed a sudden movement down by the lake.    A large animal jumped down an embankment.    “Gosh,” I thought to myself, “that’s the biggest coon I ever saw.    That’s not a coon.    That’s a bear.”

Dad and I watched the bear run off into the woods and stare back at us.    Certain we had run him off, we slept soundly.

In the morning, the shoreline had been excavated.    Bear tracks everywhere.    Fish heads remained of the bear’s breakfast.   Previous campers had buried fish remains in the sort sand at the edge of the lake.    For those who buried the fish, there was no danger; they were gone.

On a trip to Alaska a few years ago, I was admonished twice to break off a large fish because the guide did not want a nearby bear to see a fish struggling in the water and associate it with us.

7.   Plan what you really need, take that, and be satisfied with it.

A disclaimer at the outset: I’m a minimalist when it comes to camping.   While I like to be comfortable, I don’t like to tote gear I’m not going to use.   Obviously, for vehicle camping, and I do quite a bit of that, this rule is not so important.

Make a list of the things you think you need and evaluate items on the list carefully.    Take into account how heavy something will seem to be the second or third day on the trail.

Several years ago my trip to Quetico Park included brothers who did not get as much time together as they wished.    They were eager to go and were excellent companions.    They took the list of suggested gear I provided as a starting point, the minimum to which they added other items they might like to have along.    By the time they loaded all their gear in a huge external frame pack, it weighed a third more than the pack I shared with another friend.   We called their pack Big Bertha.

If it does not fit in the pack, after you have all the genuinely indispensible gear stowed, it stays behind.

8.   Do not underestimate the power of the weather.

High winds, chilling cold, lightning – these things are killers.

One of my first experiences in severe weather came while I was in high school.    Lee Reeve and I had been camping buddies for several years.    We were so accomplished we assured one another that we could sleep under the stars.    As protection against the weather, we took only a tarpaulin and a couple of Army surplus kapok sleeping bags (not many will remember those sleeping bags, but they were not much to brag about).

After our dinner, we stretched the tarp on the ground, tossed our sleeping bags on the tarp and went to sleep.   Though it was April, sometime during the night it began to snow, three or four inches of snow fell.    We pulled the tarp around us and shivered and shook until dawn.

Err on the side of safety when it comes to weather.   Keep an eye out for possible hazards.    Get a NOAA weather radio.   While jokes about the reliability of weather prediction abound, metereology has come a long way from the days when a tv weatherman stood outside the station and guessed what might happen by looking at the sky.

Here are a few suggestions to make your next camping trip pleasant, some learned in the university of hard knocks.


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           Last updated on ...March 30, 2011