Ahh, camping. If you take nothing away from the internet, it should be this: white people love camping. Being mostly white, I can attest to the truth of this.
There is probably nothing in the world better than being in the woods for extended periods of time with nothing but a few dehydrated meals, a sleeping bag, and a water purifier. There is something almost magical about sleeping beneath the stars, listening to the leaves rustle and the critters scurrying, and knowing that you are miles and miles and miles away from Atlanta traffic. Ahhh. The great escape.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that is so incredibly profit-driven that developers would much rather destroy green-space than just renovate the many old dilapitated buildings we pass every day, and so we have to go further and further to find “the woods.” But thanks to good ol’ Jackson, Lincoln and FDR, we still have our National Parks! National parks are pretty sweet and a great place to start camping, since you will most likely have a cell-phone signal in case anything horrible happens, and you’ll never be too far from help, should you need it.
You may want to start by car-camping, which is when you load your car full of all kinds of things that you don’t really need, park at a campsite, and hang out for a few days before loading it all up and driving home. Car-camping can be fun, especially if you have kids or don’t like to sit on the ground. Once, Wes and I car-camped for two nights in North Carolina and not only were there showers at the campsite, we had an electrical outlet and internet access. This is the kind of camping wherein you can roast marshmallows and sit around drinking beer for a few hours before retiring to your air-mattress. Niiiice.
But car-camping is kind of pointless. I mean, you can do all that stuff in your backyard. If you really want to camp, if you really want to get tired and dirty and eat meals out of a bag, then you, my friend, are ready for backpacking. (Eek! I’m so excited!)
Backpacking means that you will carry everything you need for the duration of your trip on your back, hike several miles, set up camp, sleep, tear down camp, rinse, and repeat. And it kicks car-camping’s booty.
Before you set out on your adventure, look-up maps of the area you’ll be visiting and plan the best route. Would it be better to leave one car at the trail-head and one at the exit? I prefer loop-trails, meaning you hit the trail, hike in a giant circle, and end up back at your car. Look at topo maps to get a better idea of the elevation changes and the location of water sources. And be sure to stop-by the visitor’s center to ask about designated camping/fire areas, scenic side-trails, and, of course, to leave your party’s information with them so they know that you’re there. If it’s hunting season, which seems to go on all year here in the south, it’s important that you wear bright clothing (the ever so flattering “hunter orange”), or else Bubba from south Alabamie might mistake you for a deer and kill you. You definitely don’t want that.
Because you will have to carry everything with you, backpacking takes a significant amount of planning. You will need to pack a sufficient amount of food (and water, if there is not a natural water source nearby) because you won’t want to hike 11 miles only to discover that you forgot to bring dinner. (There are no Krogers in the middle of the woods.) If you find that there is a water source along the trail, call the park and make sure it is flowing before deciding that you don’t have to pack water. If it is flowing, well, that’s flippin great, because that means that you can use a water-purifier (this is our baby) and you won’t have to figure out how to strap 3 gallons of water to your pack. Oh, that reminds me–the pack.
You will need to purchase, borrow, or rent a pack. You’ll need something that distributes weight evenly and comfortably. A lot of regular back-packs have adjustable straps, and some even have waist and/or chest buckles now that allow you to adjust how the weight is distributed between your shoulders and hips. So, you may decide that you don’t want to worry about a pack and that your backpack is good enough. Before you do that, why don’t you put 30 pounds of books in your backpack and walk up and down a flight of stairs a few times. If your shoulders, back, feet or hips hurt, then you don’t want to use it. A good back is not only fully adjustable, but it is also more spacious, easier to load/unload, and probably has a space to store a water-bladder, which makes it 100x better than your old Jansen that you’ve had since 10th grade.
Aside from a good pack, here is a good check-list of the top-ten items (gear) you’ll need–the really important stuff:
1. Good, comfortable shoes/boots
2. Something to sleep in/under (tent/hammock/tarp and sleeping bag)
3. Water purification system
4. Camp stove & Fuel
5. Head-lamp for making your way around camp at night
6.Pocket knife or other tool
7. First-aid kit
8. Eating utensiles (a titanium mug, light-weight spork, etc)
9. Rain cover (for your body and for your pack)
10. A map & compass
We also carry camp-shoes (light-weight sandals like Chacos or Crocs) to change into because no matter how comfy your boots are, it feels nice to take them off after a ten mile hike, a bit of rope, a small shovel (for potty-breaks), a portable coffee filter, extra batteries, and a camera.
For toiletries, be sure to bring toilet-paper, hand-sanitizer, tweezers (for getting ticks out), and whatever else you can’t live without (contact solution, for example). Don’t bring anything you won’t need, and try to bring travel-size containers if you can. Put all of your toiletries together in a ziploc bag so you can find everything quickly.
As far as food goes, pack more than you think you’ll need. It is not difficult to get turned around on the trail, and the last thing you want is to find yourself lost and out of food. But pack smart–bring dehydrated foods, nuts, high-calorie snacks, tiny bagels & peanut-butter, cheese snacks, etc, that are light-weight but nutritious and filing. Every health-freak in the world will tell you to stear clear of things like pop-tarts, snack-cakes, etc, but that little extra bit of sugar is sometimes just what you need to keep going on the trail. We bring home-made jerky, dried fruit, trail-mix, granola bars, pop-tarts, and back-packer meals. We also have a small coffee filter so we bring coffee, sugar and creamer (which we put in tiny little ziploc bags–please don’t go out into the woods with a big ol’ container of sugar and creamer!), tea bags, and those nifty little 1-serving Crystal Light powder-things. Put all of your snacks in the side/front pockets so you can get to them easily when you stop for breaks, and pack your camp-food (what you will eat for dinner or breakfast) in the main compartment.
Right now you may be thinking that this all seem like more trouble than it’s worth, but it’s imperative that you are prepared. After you’ve gone through all the planning, you’ve double and triple checked to make sure your gear is working and everything is packed, all that’s left to do is hike.
Once you’ve hit the trail, remember to stop every once and while to enjoy the scenery. If time allows it, stop every few miles or so to take pictures, check out the landscape/views, take a bathroom break, refill your water, and rest your legs. But remember, the quicker you make it to camp, the more time you’ll have to hang-out and explore the area without your pack.
I prefer hiking in groups of 3-6; it’s a great way to get to know your friends and really enjoy one another’s company. Also, the larger the group, the more you can bring since you can split the weight of the items. (Just for reference, it’s not a good idea to carry more than 25-30% of your body-weight unless you are in really good shape.) If it’s just you and a friend, you may not want to carry the added weight of a deck of cards or a harmonica or whatever else you dirty hippies carry into the woods. The most important thing (aside from preparedness, of course) is to enjoy yourself on the trail. A positive attitidue makes all the difference in the world. If you start complaining about how hard it is, it’s going to suck for you and for everyone you are with. Nobody likes a whiner.