I am a camping dummy, but I married into an experienced camping family.
This made for some embarrassing moments when I first joined them on one of their annual Memorial Day weekend camping trips. You know how on sitcoms and in bad movies about camping, there's always that enthusiastic-but-overconfident idiot city-slicker who has the tent or the sleeping bag, like, wrapped around his head while he's trying to unravel it? That was me.
I waited till dark to set up my tent. I got embarrassingly excited when I saw a deer. I took a turn shooting a family friend's pellet gun at some targets (this was on property my wife's family owns), and I ended up busting my forehead open because I held the scope pressed up right against my eye. It was a frustrating, bloody (literally), exhausting mess — a FUN frustrating, bloody, exhausting mess, but still.
I've gotten a little better since then. I still always end up waiting till dark to pitch my tent — that's a lesson that gets lost amid the excitement of the gathering — but I have a headlamp now, so I'm not out there fumbling with my cellphone flashlight app, wondering where in the entire forest my lousy tent stakes have gone.
I get by, in other words. But technically, I'm pretty sure I still qualify as a camping dummy. Fortunately I've learned that, with help, even a dummy like me can enjoy the wilderness. For help in explaining how, I got in touch with state Department of Natural Resources recreation spokeswoman Sarah Dettmer, who is emphatically NOT a camping dummy, and asked her for advice.
"If you do your research, the outdoors are for everyone," Dettmer said. "Some people think there's a bar to entry, like you need all this experience. If you respect your ability level, that's not necessarily true."
There are a few general ideas campers of all skill levels should adhere to, as outlined in a pair of widely cited lists, the seven leave-no-trace principles and the 10 essentials. Those lists are included in full alongside this story, so we won't go through them point by point. Suffice it to say the former is primarily about behavior and the latter primarily about preparation and gear. Read them. Study them. Refer to them before every trip. A lot of the points within them are common sense, but it still helps to have a checklist.
Beyond the specifics of those lists, Dettmer and I mostly talked about big-picture philosophy-of-camping type things like picking the right site and the right kind of camping for your skill level and practical tips like bringing extra socks. ("There's nothing worse than having cold, wet feet," she said.)
In terms of the big-picture stuff, the best advice she had was to do some research in advance. There are innumerable resources both in print and online. The DNR, for instance, has a page on its website — www.dnr.wa.gov/go — devoted entirely to helping outdoor recreationists. It also has a frequently updated blog that includes posts on current issues such as smoke and fire. That's at www.washingtondnr.wordpress.com.
The U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the Gifford Pinchot and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests (the latter of which includes the Cle Elum and Naches ranger districts in which a huge percentage of Central Washington camping takes place), likewise has a wealth of information on its website, www.fs.fed.us/visit/know-before-you-go/camping.
As far as practical advice, there were simple, intuitive things like checking the weather, fire safety and burn ban status of the area in which you plan to camp; going with more experienced campers if you can; and letting someone who isn't going know where you'll be and when to expect you back.
And there were the more, well, interesting bits of practical advice that Dettmer collected from around the DNR office where she works. For instance, did you know Fritos are not just delicious but highly flammable and excellent for starting fires? Ditto hand sanitizer. And dryer lint. And maybe Doritos, though Dettmer was less sure of that.
Everyone, she said, has their own little idiosyncratic camping tips and tricks. Dettmer, for instance, always brings a camping chair, even if that means carrying it for miles on a hike to a campsite.
"I personally think it's worth it so you can sit around the campfire later," she said. "Or at least the camp stove."
And the hand sanitizer? That's perfect, because it's not only fire-starter fuel, it's also, you know, hand sanitizer.
"I'm a big fan of taking things that serve multiple purposes," Dettmer said.
Along those lines, did you know a water bottle filled with hot water from the fire or camp stove is perfect for keeping your feet warm inside a sleeping bag? And those super-large shopping bags from Ikea? They make great waterproof liners for your pack and double as an excellent carrier for firewood once you make camp.
Those are the kind of habits that develop organically over time, as you determine what works for you. The important thing is getting out there and developing them. You can start with established DNR or National Forest campgrounds, which are a little less wild and woolly than backcountry or "dispersed" camping. But don't be intimidated by the latter, either, Dettmer said. If you know yourself and do the research, you can head into the woods and do just fine.
"Just try to get to where you're going and get your camp set up before sunset," she said.
Or at least buy a headlamp.