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Five Necessities to Survive Camping

Written by Jessica on March 19, 2011

We went camping everywhere when I was a kid. Every family vacation I can remember involved a Volvo station wagon and a big patch of dirt to pitch a tent on. Optimists would say my parents did this to build character, in reality, they did it because it was cheap. Ten years later, I’m happy to say I’m gleefully following in their footsteps.

The good times I’ve had under the stars, in the great wide open, are among the best in my life. There is something magical about the wild... you keep wanting to come back.

Then, there are the not-so-good times. The it-won’t-stop-raining, I-can’t-feel-my-toes, a-starving-dog-wouldn’t-eat-this-food, there’s-nothing-to-do-here-but-sleep and, I-swear-there’s-a-giant-mouse-in-this-tent type of trips. You know the ones. They make you want to never, ever, ever agree to another night in a tent, for the rest of your life. Period.

Looking back at all my terrible camping experiences, I've determined that there five major reasons to pack up camp and high-tail it to a hotel. If you can meet these five needs, camping will – at the very least – be tolerable.

Be Warm

Tent covred in snow at Lena Lake CampgroundBe aware of how easily you get cold and what you need to get warm again. I am quite possibly the most sensitive person in the world to cold weather. I travel with gloves everywhere. My husband will stand in a hail storm wearing a t-shirt, no problem. However, everyone will eventually get cold, and subsequently very unhappy.

Easy ways to prevent being cold:

  • Read the weather report and prepare accordingly.
  • Buy cheap warm clothes if you need them.
  • Do what the locals do.
  • Layers. Lots and lots of layers (clothing that is).
  • Camp where you can have a fire.

Gear that helps:

  • Down anything. Seriously, geese know where it’s at.
  • Clothing that stays warm when it is wet (like wool).
  • Clothing that dries fast (synthetics, not cotton).

Stay Dry

Hiking through a flooded gorge, Northern Territory, Australia

In some climates it’s impossible to stay completely dry. But when you can help it, it sure pays to not be dripping wet when you crawl into bed.

Easy ways to prevent getting wet:

  • Don’t pitch your tent in a ditch or a dry river bed. Flash floods don’t provide warnings.
  • Always bring some type of rain gear. We used to ditch it in hopes of saving space, but have since realized that even a lightweight small rain jacket is worth its weight in gold.
  • Read the weather report, consider a hotel for the miserable days.
  • Camp in places with shelters. In some countries campgrounds are well equipped with covered cooking areas.

Gear that helps:

  • Everything made by the company Nikwax. Waterproofing wears off. If you keep your gear maintained, it will keep you dry.
  • Bigger tents. If you have to spend the day hanging out in a tent, make sure you can avoid hitting the sides. If you aren’t alone, get a tent big enough that you don’t feel like strangling your companion(s).

Be Bug and Critter Free

Sign at the campground at Nyika Plateau, Malawi. Do not feed the hyenas.

What can I say, creepy crawlers freak me out. Especially if they have eight legs and I don’t see ‘em coming. Whether or not you are AFRAID of bugs and rodents, your camping adventures are sure to be more enjoyable without them meddling in your stuff.

The sign to the right is from the Nyika Plateau in Malawi. It reads. "Please put all rubbish in pits at the edge of camp. HYENAS eat anything. Store all items in car or tent."

Easy ways to prevent infestations:

  • DEET. None of this herbal medicine crap (I know I’m going to get smacked for saying this). If you really want to keep the mosquitoes away, buy the good stuff.
  • Put your food away and don’t keep it in your tent. The easiest way to attract rodents is to tempt them with tasty bits. Mice will chew through anything. We’ve met some pretty feisty birds, raccoons, honey badgers and matzo stealing monkeys too. Keep everything sealed up and in a car or animal proof box.
  • When deciding where to pitch your tent, don’t forget to look up. Camping under trees infested with spiders, ants, or cockatoos isn’t fun. Trust me.

Gear that helps:

  • Did I mention insect repellent with DEET already?
  • Mesh tents. Bring a tent that seals completely and don’t leave the zipper open. Ever!
  • Husbands with big sticks. Ok, I know you can’t exactly pick one of these up at the sporting good store, but it might be fun to try.

Be Well Fed

Some great steaks while camping

You might be the best cook in the world, but if you don’t know how to build a fire, repair a gas stove, or bake on a bed of charcoal, you’ll end up with some pretty terrible meals. Luckily the remedies are easy.

Easy ways to prevent going hungry:

  • When you’re hungry, eat! Don’t wait until you are starving.
  • Always have extra food. Maybe an MRE or a few cans of beans. Nothing stinks more than showing up a campground to find that the camp store is permanently closed and there’s no bus back to town until Monday.
  • Don’t make fancy meals when you don’t have the time. Let’s face it, I love fresh baked cinnamon rolls as much as the next person. But when I’m hungry, a granola bar does just fine.
  • Have easy to prepare food for emergency. And by emergency I mean, someone burnt the meat, spilled the pasta, added salt in place of sugar, or otherwise failed at preparing something edible.

Gear that helps:

  • A cooler / ice box / esky. It’s a lot easier to keep leftovers and fresh vegetables when you have a cool storage place. Even without ice, a cool box is better than the trunk of your car when it’s sweltering outside.
  • The right size pots and pans. Ever try to stir-fry in a small pot? Or pour boiling water from a saute pan? Good cooking is a lot easier and less frustrating with the right tools. I’m not saying pack the entire kitchen, just select pots and pans wisely.

Avoid Boredom

Fishing at Pemba in Mozambique

The worst part about camping is sitting around on the ground staring at each other wondering what to do. Boredom won’t ruin a trip, but combined with freezing weather, terrible food or relentless mosquitoes it becomes excruciating. The lack of anything constructive to do quickly turns an unlucky situation into a miserable one.

Easy ways to prevent boredom:

  • Be interested in where you are at or where you are going. Places that have interesting natural history are a lot more fun to explore than say, your backyard.
  • Camp where there is stuff to do and add extra cash in your budget for “tours”.
  • Talk to rangers and locals. They know a LOT and are generally willing to teach people interested enough to ask.
  • Take up fishing. Personally I think it defines boredom rather than fighting it, others may strongly disagree.
  • Cook elaborate meals. Preferably over a campfire, and involve baking.

Gear that helps:

  • Books! E-books! Books on tape! Or all of the above.
  • Travel games, a deck of cards, dice.
  • Booze


#3 jessicam 2012-08-04 22:20
Sorry, forgot to answer the tent question. We have 2 tents, because we'd kill each other if we had to share. If you are curious about our full list of gear, check out this article:
#2 jessicam 2012-08-04 22:19
Hi Karen,
Yes, DEET allergies are a very real problem, and yes, DEET is a very potent chemical that can melt plastic, ruin sun glasses and certain types of clothing. Used in it's diluted form however, it is usually safe for clothing and plastics. As an alternative I recommend the eucalyptus spray by Repel. We recently tried this because the sand fleas in Central America are impervious to DEET. It works like a charm. The only down side is that you have to reapply every 2 hours.

For bedding we use the thermarest z-lite mats. They are foam and pack small, and are much more indestructible than the inflatables. But, if you are used to a futon, they will be uncomfortable. Usually we put a fleece blanket on top of our thermarests and use the sleeping bags unzipped like blankets. We did write an article about choosing sleeping bags here:

Karen Schaefer
#1 Karen Schaefer 2012-08-03 18:33
Hate to say this, but some of are allergic to DEET. It melts plastic components on electronics. It's not good stuff. Yes, it keeps mosquitoes away. But so do mosquito coils, sold in most countries. If you can't use DEET (like me) try the coils.

Also, I don't read anything about your bedding. I can't stand air mattresses. I cart around a futon, which is heavy and awkward, but comfie for an older woman with back problems. And I never use sleeping bags - those things are too hot most of the time and too confining for words. I use real sheets, a cotton blanket and a good quilt if it gets chilly. How about you guys? And do you all sleep in one tent?

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