As the snow moves out in Minnesota (albeit slowly), veteran campers are starting to get a little twitchy — another summer in the great outdoors will soon be here, and it’s time to start getting ready.
But among the old pros soon headed for campgrounds and state parks will be those putting up tents and rolling out sleeping bags for the first time. For some of them, the experience will be transcendent, the beginning of a lifetime of loving to sleep outdoors. For others, the adventure may not go exactly as planned, and they’ll swear their idea of roughing it will forever more be limited to a hotel without room service.
This is a story about helping fledglings find that camping nirvana.
To that end, we’ve enlisted a corps of seasoned tenters to share their experience and advice. Many of them made their own rookie mistakes, but learned how to enjoy camping anyway. While they’re proof you don’t have get it right the first time, their tips may help others avoid their suffer-fests.
When Jenny Kowski was in college and a novice camper, she headed to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park near Faribault with a group of friends and family for a nice weekend in the woods.
That was the plan, at least.
The group hadn’t checked the weather forecast, so they were surprised when a thunderstorm rolled in. Intense wind and lightning convinced them to abandon their campsite, and they spent most of the night in a park bathroom. It was a wise move.
“When the worst of the storm passed, we went back to the campsite to find our tents were knocked down and all our sleeping gear and clothes were completely soaked,” said Kowski, an attorney in St. Paul. “The poles on my tent tore holes in the side and punctured a sleeping pad.”
“I’ve learned a lot since that trip, but watching the weather is the most important lesson,” she said. “You aren’t prepared if you don’t know the weather conditions. If the forecast is bad, don’t be afraid to bail.”
Of course, Kowski admitted, it didn’t help that her group’s tents (“nothing fancy”) weren’t up to the task. Nicole Halgrimson of St. Paul also learned what can happen when you use inadequate gear during a weekend outing with friends at Gooseberry Falls State Park.
Halgrimson had experience camping. She figured she had everything she needed, even if it was equipment that had been stashed in her garage for a decade after an earlier stint with camping had been abandoned. After a night of rain, she awoke to a pool of water under her mattress. She abandoned her tent and slept in her car for the rest of the weekend.
“I’m fortunate that this was a group trip,” Halgrimson said. “It gave me the opportunity to see what kinds of up-to-date camping gear people were using. I’m not sure I would have realized that there are tents that don’t leak and mattresses that don’t require a five-pound air compressor to inflate.”
“You need appropriate gear but it also needs to be in good condition,” she added. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it needs to be properly cared for. My tent’s waterproofing was clearly compromised from being in storage. Now I make sure I test my gear out either at home or on an overnight trip before going out for longer excursions.”
While the latest-and-greatest gear may not be necessary, some adults eschew the outdoors because of unpleasant memories of the camping gear their families used way back when.
“I remember being yelled at over and over by my parents, ‘Don’t touch the side of the tent, water will come through if you do,’ ” said Mandy Weilandt of Goodview. “Of course, if it did rain, it was like putting a kid in a candy store — we were going to touch it and we would end up soaking wet.”
The issue was that tents made in those days were cotton canvas and not waterproof. Today’s waterproof double-wall nylon tents — sold in all price ranges — have made unnecessary the kind of admonishment issued by Weilandt’s parents.
A mistake some new campers make is looking for a wilderness experience in large campgrounds that can get crowded and noisy. The solution involves not only where you go, but when.
For example, Brian Beckman of Ashland, Wis., has found that “if you want to get out in nature, camping on the North Shore in early May is a lot more peaceful than a big state park over the Fourth of July.”
Brittany Johnson of Park Rapids likes to avoid campgrounds that have too many kids running around or people more interested in partying than camping. “So we prefer camping when school is going on, because there are fewer people,” she said. “It’s peaceful, plus it’s a little cooler, and the bugs are minimal or gone.” Johnson has also found that state forest campgrounds can be less crowded because they offer fewer amenities (such as showers) than state parks.
HOME VS. CAMP
Many people start out thinking the best way to camp is to just do what you do at home — except outdoors. Anyone who camps has seen setups with a generator, a mass of lighting, and a fully-equipped “kitchen” that covers half the campsite. It’s better to keep things simple, said Nolan Hanson of Minneapolis.
“The big thing is time,” Hanson said. “When my family started camping, we just transferred normal life tasks into the woods, using much less effective equipment [than at home], and everything took so much time to accomplish. We wound up spending several hours of the day prepping to cook, eating, or cleaning up from meals. When you have to focus attention like that on a task, it gets stressful and the fun disappears.”
Now, the Nolans go with fire-toasted bagels and instant oatmeal for breakfast, deli meats and crackers for lunch, and “hobo” dinners in the evening. “We eat things that result in very little waste and few dirty dishes, and it has made a world of difference,” he said.
That philosophy has extended to gear as well, Nolan added. “Each time we have bought gear or upgraded an item, we aim for lighter, smaller and faster to set up. It has taken years to get the equipment and experience we have, but the result is that we get to a park, set up in about an hour, eat and clean up quickly, and then get to exploring. The kids never get bored sitting around waiting for dishes to be done.”
Introducing children to the outdoors can be a special part of camping, but Amanda Garcia of Minneapolis agreed with Nolan that it takes effort to make sure the little ones have a good time. Part of that, according to Garcia, is getting them used to sleeping in an unfamiliar environment.
“If you’re camping with kids, start by setting up the tent in the backyard,” Garcia said. “Allow them to sleep in it for a night or two to get used to being on the ground, and so they’re comfortable setting up their sleeping mats and bags.”
And especially with kids, always be ready for an emergency. Andi Kernan Howell of St. Paul learned that lesson.
“During our first time camping, my daughter immediately cut her finger,” Kernan Howell said. “I was dealing with that when our toddler knocked her jogging stroller backward and hit her head. That’s when I realized I forgot to pack a first-aid kit. It was a long day.”
“We still camp,” Kernan Howell said, “but the first-aid kit is the first thing in the camp box.”
In the end, as helpful as knowledge and preparation and advice may be, things can go wrong. When they do, Johnson said, demeanor is important. “My advice for newer campers or ones that have had bad experiences is to keep a positive attitude — even if it’s raining,” she said. “Just be grateful you’re not at work!”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.