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Afraid to camp? Nothing to fear but fear itself

Published: Saturday, May 17, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
This undated image provided by the National Park Service shows tents pitched at a campground at Yosemite National Park in California. The thought of camping out can be daunting, but packing a few strategically chosen items like an inflatable mattress and food that's easy to grill can reduce the ick factor.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I loved camping.

My family and I regularly escaped the city’s concrete sprawl for California’s wilder edges, driving deep into the desert or high up into the mountains. We’d set up a tent and plunk down sleeping bags, each trip a dusty, if slightly smelly, adventure.

Then something changed. As an adult, I stopped camping. Though still an avid nature-lover and hiker, I didn’t want to abandon the modern perks of home – roof, electricity, bed! – or similarly equipped hotels.

This year I decided to break that 15-year-long camping drought. I joined my stepmother, sister, aunt, uncle and Danish father, who has averaged three camping trips a year since he moved to California in 1977, on a three-day camping excursion in Pinnacles National Park, south of San Jose. The experience turned out fun, freeing and easier than I thought it would be.

Here are five things you might be worried about when it comes to camping, along with ways to cope.

SLEEPING

Forgoing a comfy mattress for a sleeping bag may not sound appealing, but there are ways to lessen the ick. Driving to a campground versus hiking in means you can stuff your vehicle with provisions – including a tent you can stand up in for maximum comfort.

The taller the entrance to your tent, the less it affects your back. Then make sure to have a self-inflating mattress, like a Therm-a-Rest, or an air mattress you can inflate with a pump. Slip it under your sleeping bag to avoid the sleepless scenes from “The Princess and the Pea.” Another option is a collapsible camp cot.

Camping in spring and summer means using lighter rectangular sleeping bags stuffed with synthetic material. When it’s cold, go with a down-filled mummy-shaped sleeping bag that cinches around your face. I also found bringing a bedroom pillow helped. It smelled and felt like home.

UNPLUGGING

These days some commercially operated campgrounds offer Internet access. But if you’re heading to wilderness-type parks, depending on location, you may not even have cellphone service.

You can always bring an external battery pack and angrily play Candy Crush for hours, but that really defeats the purpose of being outdoors. I did bring my excellent Jackery Fit portable battery pack, but only to make sure my iPhone was charged enough to take photos during hikes into Pinnacles’ winding mountain caves.

Channel the great naturalist Henry David Thoreau, and remember that the internet will still be there later. Play cards, eat, drink, breathe in fresh air, hike, build a campfire and enjoy the company of others – in person instead of online.

CRITTERS

You love food, and so do animals, including squirrels and bears, whose sense of smell overshadows ours and who may find your fragrant dinner supplies irresistible. Just remember: They want your food, not you.

Never leave trash, toiletries, dirty dishes, food or drinks unattended. Don’t leave trash and open containers in your car or around the campsite. Look for metal lockers to store trash and food onsite. Keep your tent zipped up, and keep in mind that bugs and birds also enjoy nibbling on half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches, so don’t give them the chance.

As for ticks and mosquitoes, insect repellent works. For major bug phobias or when biting insects are thick, outdoor supply stores and websites sell inexpensive, lightweight mesh jackets that you can zip yourself into – including your hands and face if need be.

BATHROOMS AND ELECTRICITY

You can live without electricity, a full-length mirror and private bathrooms without sacrificing hygiene or general spiffiness.

Most developed tent campgrounds you can drive to have communal bathrooms with running drinking water, sinks and showers, but check in advance. Pretend you’re at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, strap on a floppy hat and embrace a wind-swept, natural look.

Try gas- or battery-powered lanterns for preparing food and hanging out in the evening. A headlamp works well for midnight bathroom runs and as a makeshift night-light hung in a tent.

MEALS

Leaving your smoothie blender home doesn’t mean you can’t have delicious food while camping.

Get a decently sized cooler that can keep your food cold for a few days before the ice needs to be changed out, and a small basin to wash dishes. Bring a propane gas-powered camp stove with one or two burners. In campgrounds with grills, you can fire-roast anything from portobello mushrooms to zucchini. At night my family and I made gooey s’mores.

“Approach camping as an adventure with possibilities of new experiences of fun, and the possibility of challenges,” my dad told me. “Camping gives you a sense of togetherness in a natural environment you’re not usually in, that you end up enjoying together.”

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