Roughing it is for kids! We’re facing it: we’re older. By the creaking bones, the staggering steps in the morning until we get warmed up, not to mention the need for drugstore glasses, we’re reminded. We don’t accept that being older prevents us from doing things we like. We just find different ways to accommodate our changing needs.
We love the outdoors and we love camping. In a tent. Though we sure do envy the RV crowd, especially when the weather is inclement, we’ll be tent people for a while yet. The first time Pete and I planned to go camping when we were dating, I asked what I could bring. He looked at me quizzically and finally came up with, “How about a dishpan?” What a Boy Scout! (I brought two, one to wash and one to rinse.)
Through the years, we’ve come up with some basic solutions to make things easier at the campsite and on us, too. There are a lot of things we’ve tried that haven’t worked well, as well as some ideas and products we’d like to try. What follows are tested tips, items with photos or links when possible and available, as well as discussion of what’s worked for us. Don’t forget our famous extemporaneous information! We’d love it if you’d add your opinions and suggestions in the comments, too!
- Rubbermaid Roughnecks. We keep all our gear stowed in these easy-to-load, heavy duty containers. They’ve served us well. We keep a large one labled “Kitchen,” which includes everything from the dishpans to the pots/pans, dishes, cups and glasses, and our stove. The other large one is for general camping equipment: the axe, bungee cords, tarps, a rug for outside the tent door (cuts way down on dirt tracked into the tent), rope, batteries, mattress inflater, water bladder, mattresses, cased tent and poles, as well as general supplies.
- A proper bed. We traded up from a regular air mattress to a double height queen size several seasons ago. Regular air mattresses are difficult when you’re older. A little height makes all the difference, not only for more comfortable sleeping, but for when you first get out of bed in the morning. Height from which to stand makes things a lot easier. Using flannel or jersey sheets and a down duvet with extra coverlet is just as warm as any sleeping bag and more comfortable, especially if two are sharing the bed. On one trip, we forgot bedding altogether, so we headed for the nearest dollar store. We’ve slept on leopard satin-y sheets with a matching comforter ever since; what a hilarious bargain! We call it “urbanized camo.” Remember your pillows. Not only do they make good reading backrests, but they can bolster the inevitable sag effect from the air mattress. We stuff all bedding into dollar store zipped closet bags. We’ve tried Space Bags, but the zip closure always fails on us.
- Speaking of sag effect – I’m talking about the air mattress here, so stop that! – make sure your air mattress is in good repair. Our last trip, we knew the mattress had a slow leak, so we put another on top of it. I felt like the Princess and the Pea! The bad news, both of them deflated in the middle of the night. The famous find the leak with soapy water trick didn’t work at all the next day, either.
- Use the tent size guide + at least 1 to get an appropriately-sized tent. So, if it’s a two-person tent and there are two of you, you might want to consider a 4 person tent to have room for a few more things besides just yourselves. Tent sizes are like baby clothing sizes – on the small side of reality. Lots of the newer large tents have multiple rooms. I don’t know how necessary that is, but perhaps it works well for families or groups where boys and girls want their own space.
- Go for easy set-up. Look for an uncomplicated tent design, the fewer poles the better. One time we left a tent pole on the ground and drove away from a Michigan State Park. The lovely management held it for us until we passed through on our way back home, but that was a lucky break. It’s easier to set up a simple tent in a pouring rainstorm or pitch black night, especially if the directions have gone missing. That’s what all good directions do, isn’t it?
- Add a screen house adjacent to the tent if you’re setting up for a while. This adds livable square feet under shelter – great for rainy days or just to keep the bugs out. We often move the campsite’s picnic table into the screen house to use for cooking and eating, then set up our lounging chairs and hanging lantern to make a reading area in a corner. In all but the most driving rainstorm, this has been a comfy setup.
- While charcoal grilling has its die-hard enthusiasts, transporting a hibachi or Weber grill is a messy prospect. Relying on the campsite to have ample set-up to grill over the fire or a built-in is dicey, too. We used a Coleman two-burner camp stove for years, but last year, we upgraded to a new folding model, the Fold n Go, which uses the convenient little propane canisters, and fits beautifully in one of the Roughnecks. We love it, and I’m not scared of it, either.
- Use a garden supply shepherd’s hook (used for hanging floral baskets – see the photo above) to hang a lantern. We love our new propane lantern, and Pete thought of the perfect arrangement for reading at and after dusk. He sawed a shepherd’s hook in half, and then fit a piece of copper tubing to turn it into a collapsible hanger for our lantern. Now we can stick a lantern exactly where it’s needed.
- In the tent, we use a Coleman Tent Light. The battery life span isn’t that great – every trip we seem to add new batteries, but the magnets mean we are able to position them right above our heads on the tent wall for optimum reading light now that our eyes are old.
- LED cap lights. These are the greatest! We use them for supplemental reading light in the tent and to illuminate the way to the “facilities” at night. Awesome, thank you, LED technology. Slide these babies on the brim of your favorite cap and you’re set!
- Anything heavy should have wheels. Next time, the replacements for the Roughnecks will have wheels so we are able to push or pull as well as carry them. Wheeled coolers are a boon! We’re thinking about getting a collapsible wheeled luggage cart to haul firewood from the campsite’s main supplies, too. We could just bungee the wood to secure it and bring twice as much back per trip to the woodpile.
- Fire starters. We’ve used everything from candle wax-dipped pinecones to commercially manufactured logs. Pete’s favorite is fatwood. A roaring campfire is a basic necessity for atmosphere, cooking and warmth. A waterproof matchbook container goes without saying.
- Cooking basics. Pete prides himself on fine cooking, even in the wilds, and as the beneficiary, I’m certainly not one to deprive him of this habit. One of his most clever ideas is using a chemistry set of vials for spices. The spices are lined up and labeled, and the cork tops maintain freshness. The vials are cushioned with foam padding in the carrying case. It’s a great solution.
- Find a hanging tree. Pete puts bar soap in a sock and hangs it next to a water bladder. Gravity makes this a great handwashing station: the wet soap doesn’t get dirty, and the sock serves as a washcloth. In bear country, your food has to be in a hanging cache far from your tent as well. String a clothesline, too for wet bathing suits, dishcloths and towels.
- We have camping-specific kitchen items: pots, pans, plates, silverware, cups and glasses. We don’t like the idea of having to raid our everyday things for fear we’ll forget to bring something or leave something behind when we break camp. It’s easier just to keep a separate set. We like using enameled tin spatterware for plates and cups. Lots of folks like to use disposable plates and utensils, which can be more convenient but less eco-friendly. I like the combination of practical strength and nostalgia.
- Cast iron for cooking. Pete’s latest acquisition is a Dutch oven – a footed kettle with lid that can be used over a fire for stews and chili, and also for baking among the fire’s coals. It is a real treat to get fresh-baked berry cobbler or sourdough biscuits with a meal! This is a great addition for getting creative with leftovers, too. Fresh fish fried in a seasoned cast iron pan is the only way to go!
- Ziplock bags and bungee cords — uses too numerous to mention. Never too many.
- Coffee. A must. We have spent more time and energy ensuring we have our morning coffee than almost anything else. One summer we forgot the coffee pot numerous times, and had to purchase a solution on each trip. That year we had four different methods going, due to forgetfulness. Nothing beats the old-fashioned metal percolating coffee pot with the glass knob like you see in every movie that has a chuck wagon. Believe us, we’ve tried everything from a cheap Walmart Mr. Coffee that we plugged into a neighbor’s electricity to making it the cowboy way in a sauce pan, using an eggshell for the grounds (disasters, all). There’s a reason this coffee pot is a classic.
We are able to get packed and ready to go on very short notice, as we did when we visited Hawk Ridge recently. Even little Daisy has her own travel containers for food and water, and, literally, a pup tent. She is inevitably the one who makes the most new friends on these trips, and we make sure she’s got her stuff together.
We plan to keep camping for a long time. It’s an inexpensive way to get up close and personal with nature. Lately, we’ve been talking about RV’s and we’ve looked at the little Scamp, which would be much more comfortable in inclement weather. We’ve also considered putting everything in a self-contained cargo trailer. Either one could be set up to eliminate the need for vehicle-based packing, and we’d only have to concern ourselves with our individual duffle bags of clothing and personal items.
For now, though, we’ve got a great system with some ingenious solutions to making things less rough on the old folks. That would be us, you whippersnappers.