Ahh, the peace and tranquility of camping in the great outdoors. There's nothing like it. The fresh air, the sounds of nature, the clean water, and sleeping under a blanket of stars.
Oh, wait -- don't forget the bugs, the risk of getting lost in thousands of acres of uninhabited forest, hungry bears, and an unexpected downpour. On second thought, maybe camping isn't quite the summer vacation you had in mind.
Before you pull up your tent stakes and tight roll your sleeping bag, give Mother Nature another chance. Camping really can be a vacation like no other -- in a good way. Outdoor experts give WebMD tips on how to be a happy and healthy camper, starting with a good game plan.
"One of the most important parts of camping is to plan ahead and prepare," says Bruce Jurgens, a spokesman for Recreation Equipment, Inc., or REI.
There's more to camping than packing your car full of gear and hitting the road. Savvy campers need to consider a host of scenarios, and plan accordingly. One of the first things you should think about is your destination of choice.
"Pick a location for your camping trip that your group agrees on," says Jurgens. "Everyone should feel comfortable and excited about the destination you've picked for your trip."
Like you do when you are learning any new skill, take lessons from the experts, too.
"What's in your head is just as important as what's in your pack," says Rob Burbank, director of public affairs for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). "Learn about outdoor skills, and know how to do things like read a map and compass. Learn how to read the weather. And it's really worthwhile to take basic courses in backcountry navigation, wilderness, first aid -- anything that will help you have a safer and more enjoyable time."
Another very important camping tip is to never set off on your adventure without leaving a trail of bread crumbs behind -- that is, make sure that someone who is not going on the camping trip knows where you are going and when you should return, so if rescuers need to come find you, they know where to look.
"Always leave someone with information on who you are going camping with, where you are going, and when you should be back," says Jurgens. "You probably won't need to enlist their help, but it's a must when you are preparing to camp."
Now that you know how to prepare for a camping trip, it's time to start packing. Jurgens, an REI store manager in Reading, Mass., recommends these camping must-haves that should be the first things you stuff in your backpack.
- Map, in a watertight case or bag
- Rain and wind parka, and extra clothing for unexpected weather
- Extra food and water -- at least 2 quarts
- A first aid kit
- Flashlight, maybe in the form of a headlamp to keep your hands free
- Matches, also in a watertight case or bag
- Fire starter, such as paper or lint in case you need help getting a fire going
- Sun protection, such as sunglasses and sunscreen
- Whistle, for the "just in case" scenario
- Toilet paper and a bag to carry it out
- A space blanket in case of an emergency to retain body heat
One last thing that you should put in your pack?
"I always try to remember to bring a couple of big plastic trash bags," says Burbank. "They weigh next to nothing, and can be used for a few different purposes."
It's a pack liner, explains Burbank, if it starts to rain, but more importantly, it's an emergency shelter.
"If someone gets injured and you have to spend the night in the woods or if you get lost, you can pull on one of those over your legs and put the other over your head and cut a hole for your face, and you can be sheltered from wind, rain and snow," says Burbank. "It's a cheap and lightweight insurance."
Camping Dos and Dont's
You're finally ready for the great outdoors. Here are some dos and don'ts to keep in mind to make your trip as fun and safe as possible.
Be good to Mother Earth. "One thing is that you should plan to pack out what you take in," says Bryan Fons, manager of the Outdoor Recreation Information Center in Denver. "Also be aware that you shouldn't create new disturbances. If someone has camped in a spot near your destination before you, you should camp there, too -- don't create a whole new area."
Be careful with campfires. "One of the first things I would do is find out if there is a fire ban in place where you're camping," says Fons, whose group partners with organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. "If you do have a fire, then you should minimize the impact."
Avoid campfires near or above tree lines, where regrowth is difficult after a fire, and use a camp stove rather than a fire to prepare meals, explains Fons.
Be self-reliant. "People think they're on their front lawn and can pick up the phone when something goes wrong," Jurgens tells WebMD. "First aid may be miles or days away. You don't have easy access to help, so you need to rely on yourself. Be self-reliant. If you are injured you need to be with the group and be prepared to deal with it."
Alcohol and camping don't mix. "You want to stay alert, pay attention, and know your route," says Jurgens. "You want to be more aware than normal. So while drinking might be OK in the comfort of your own home, it's hard to control things outdoors, so beer and hiking and camping don't mix."
Avoid finding a bear. "The goal is not to run into a bear," says Jurgens. "Use bear canisters when you store your food. Store food far away from your campsite, and use a bear sling in a tree to keep the food elevated. Don't store food in your tent or on your campsite. And if you do see a bear, remember: you cannot outrun a bear. It's impossible."
Bug off. "The days of closing your eyes and walking through a mist of bug spray are gone," says Jurgens. "DEET can be helpful, but a little can go a long way."
You've set up camp and are ready to conquer the nearest high peak -- or a mountain that is higher than 4,000 feet in elevation. But before you start ascending, again, preparation is key.
"If you're going on a hiking trip, you need some preparation," Burbank tells WebMD. "Get a guidebook and a topographic map with contour lines so you can get a sense of the steepness of the terrain. Talk to local folks who know the area well."
Water is another factor to keep in mind when you're planning a hike. Will you be hiking near a water source, or do you need to pack enough for the entire trip?
"Find out where there are sources of water," says Burbank. "Your hike might not be near a source, so you might have to pack more than usual. If there is a water source, you need to disinfect it in some manner by boiling it or using a chemical treatment, or filtering."
Wear the right clothing when you are hiking, because on a mountain, weather can change in an instant.
"Weather is always a wild card," says Burbank. "It can be a bright sunny day one moment and 50 mph winds and rain the next, especially as you get toward the top of a mountain. I've heard it said, 'There's no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.' You want your clothing to keep you warm, dry, and sheltered from the wind, which will help you avoid hypothermia. And that's something to be aware of in all seasons -- it's not just a cold weather concern."
High-tech fabrics such as polypropylene are the way to go, explains Burbank. This fabric is not only good at keeping you warm, but it wicks moisture away from the skin, keeping you dry as well. Cotton, however, is not recommended. It retains moisture and can leave you feeling cold, wet, and uncomfortable.
As with camping, hiking follows the same simple rule: Don't go it alone.
"Hike in groups, and you certainly don't want to split up," Fons tells WebMD. "Every member of the group should have an accurate topographic map and someone should have a compass and know how to use it."
Take advantage of technology, too, and arm yourself with GPS, or global positioning system.
"If there's a possibility to get off the trail, it's not a bad idea to have a basic GPS unit, know how to use, and know how to use it with a map," says Fons. "If someone has a GPS, when you turn it on, it's going to tell you numerically where you are at, and then you can apply it to a map."
What to Do if You Get Lost
If you do get lost, don't panic, and don't move.
"One of the key things is to stay put," says Fons. "You shouldn't just wander off and try to get back if you don't have a map and compass."
If you do have a map and a compass, you shouldn't be lost, theoretically speaking. But sometimes the wilderness gets the best of us.
"When I teach map and compass, I tell people to not wait until you are lost to track," says Fons. "When you cross a stream, mark it on the map. You are going to hike 1 mph-3 mph, and you can gauge where you are on the trail. If you track, you are going to be in better shape than if you go off for six hours and then start tracking, and all of sudden you don't know where you are at all."
And remember the "just in case" items, like a whistle.
"If you get lost, and you make noise with a whistle, you can attract the attention of someone to come to your assistance if they're nearby," says Fons. "Wear brightly colored clothing and bring a signal mirror to use, too."
Enjoy the Wild
Camping, if done right, can be good for both you and nature. With some thorough preparation and education, along with the right equipment, it will be a vacation to remember.
"It's a true enjoyment to be out there among the trees and the animals and nature," says Jurgens. "So enjoy the outdoors. It's extremely rewarding, and camping should be a wonderful experience."