Camping

IMG_6060Through my travels I do lots of camping. It’s not only a good way to save money on accommodations but is also the best way to interact with a landscape and it’s nature. The information below is based on my travel through the US. While I have done backcountry camping in other countries I don’t feel my exposure is sufficient to give advice on it. When that changes I’ll revise the information below.

 

 

Front Country Camping

Front Country Camping is particularly good for those that want to experience nature but don’t want to rough it as much. You simply drive your car up to your site and you have an area where you can pitch your tent. Ammenities vary from campsite to campsite but they generally have bathroom facilities, a table to eat on,  water refill stations, and at many sites, showers. The fancier ones also have RV hookups. During busy seasons these campsites can fill up quickly so keep that in mind.

 

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping comes in two varieties, designated campsites or open camping. There are pro’s and con’s to each from the perspective of the hiker and from it’s ecological impact. Generally, designated campsites offer some amenities (not always). Amenities such as a privy/pit toilet, bear pole, bear wires, bear boxes, cooking areas, tables, and fire pits. These vary from campsite to campsite as well as from park to park. Ecologically speaking designated campsites are better for the preservation of an area as a whole since they concentrate the damage to these selected zones and have facilities (privies, pit toilets) to deal with human waste. Designated campsites are usually well worn so you don’t have to worry about destroying vegetation while pitching a tent or finding a spot, it is obvious and sometimes even marked with numbers. Some of the negatives associated with designated sites are that the sights can be crowded, dirty, and critters may be conditioned to look for food at the site. This stems from poor backcountry practices such as feeding wildlife, and leaving food lying around. Finally there is the lack of flexibility in that you are assigned a specific sight. Even if you are tired and your campsite is 5 miles further, that is where you have to make it to.

In contrast, open camping sites are those you select in the wilderness. These offer no amenities other than the ones found in nature. One of the benefits to open camping is that if you have total flexibility. If you are tired and no longer wish to hike, you can stop off at a spot you deem appropriate. However, finding an adequate location is not always the easiest. It is as much skill as art and varies based on ones personal preference. For those looking for absolute solitude, open camping is your best option. Not all parks allow open camping and some expressly forbid it so check with the parks regulations. Aside from solitude, open camping generally provides you with a pristine location and critters will not have been conditioned to seek out food at your site. They will still obviously go to town on your stuff if you are not careful but I haven’t found them to be as aggressive as in designated sites. Still, open camping comes with additional work. Aside from selecting your site which I discuss below, you must either dig yourself some cat holes or carry out your excrement. I personally don’t have a problem digging cat holes but I don’t like carrying my waste out.

 

Selecting a Campsite

I think the most important advice I can give regarding the selection of a campsite is to be terrain aware. Every environment is different so there are no clear cut rules on how to select a site. There are also personal preferences that come into play. However that being said there are a few common things to be aware of.

Vegetation – Are there any dying or swaying trees around? This is particularly important as many parks in the US have been hit with the Asian Pine Beetle and there a lot of trees ready to fall. Also be weary of pitching your tent in an area where there is fire damage and dead trees still remain. Dying trees are not the only vegetation to stay clear of, poison ivy, cacti, or thorny bushes are not ideal neighbors when selecting a campsite. If you can avoid them do so.

Water – This is one that I’ve had intimate experiences with. There is nothing worse than having to move your campsite in the middle of the night as the river you camped next to swells from the thunderstorm. It is not pleasant at all. When selecting your site take the growth of a river into account. The same goes for coastal tides. This is irrespective of the weather you’re experiencing. Weather up stream can greatly affect volumes downstream. You may never have a drop fall on you but your neighboring river can still be several inches if not feet deeper in a few hours. Also from an ecological standpoint you shouldn’t pitch your tent by a river. It is something I no longer do now that I am much more educated about appropriate backcountry practices. Good practices dictate that one should be to be at least 200 feet away from water sources.

Landslides – Whether it’s a mudslide, rockslide, or and avalanche, it is key to stay away from zones where these perils exist. In the Tetons I was treated the a powerful sounds of a rock slide at 3:30 in morning. There’s that horrible feeling when you’re in your tent thinking am I in that path? I wrote about it here.

Other – Try and stay away from top predators food supplies if possible. Berry bushes in bear country come to mind.

 

Permits/Fees

Frontcountry Camping – Fees vary from park to park. My experience has been that a frontcountry site will charge anywhere between $7-20 per night for a non RV hookup site. They may tack on an additional fee for the use of the shower or include it in the price of the nightly stay. With rare exception frontcountry campsites are self pay and self registration. You first select a campsite and park your vehicle. You then return to the entrance area where there is usually a bulletin board with the price listed as well as a box with envelopes or registration forms. You fill out your form/envelope, enclose the money, and rip off the stub off of the form/envelope. What you do with this stub is to display it on the dash of your vehicle or a clip that is found on the campsite post number. Most parks accept cash and depending on the park, they will accept personal checks as well as credit cards.

Backcountry Camping – Permits for backcountry camping can range from free to a pricy $25 at the Grand Tetons. Usually you are charged around $5 a night per person. Backcountry permits are done one of three ways: advance reservation via phone or online (varies by park), showing in person to a backcountry office (availability is limited), or self registration and payment at the trailhead (the rarest).

 

Be a good steward of the land

  • Camp at least 200 feet from water sources, and the trail.
  • Don’t cut switchbacks – Why? Because cutting switchbacks creates unnecessary erosion and no one wants rocks falling on their heads as they are hiking up.
  • Stay on trails – Why? Because some of the vegetation you are there to visit grows extremely slowly, is fragile and is older than your great grandparents. For instance the cushion plant found in alpine environments grows .02 inches a year. Don’t kill your great grandparents plants!
  • If possible don’t camp on vegetation. Select a sandy, gravely or area that has solid ground.
  • Dispose of human waste – If you don’t like to see toilet paper with human excrement on it don’t add to the pile. Animals dig up shallow cat holes. Make sure yours is 4-8 inches deep and 4-6 in diameter.
  • Don’t take artifacts home. Why? So that others may enjoy them. I have seen fossils, as well as numerous artifacts that I have left in place for others to enjoy. I have also seen ransacked monuments that have been stripped of their history by black market dealers. Don’t contribute to this by buying or taking artifacts.

 

2 Comments:

  1. Hi Jose, hopefully your having a great time on your latest trip/adventure. I wanted to ask your advice on a couple of items as I saw you did some winter camping in Colorado.  I am planning to do several segments of the Colorado Trail with my daughter during late spring, summer and early fall and I’m struggling with selecting the right backpack for several three-day trips and don’t feel comfortable enough on deciding on size and brand of pack.  I’ve currently have a North Face 40L and an Eddie Bauer First Ascent Alchemist 40 Backpack that expands to a 55L pack-oddly, it does expand–possibly too gimmicky but it’s really good pack. I like the versatility, but not sure it can handle a 3, or 4(max) day trek–carrying max 60lbs. I am thinking I can get to 50lbs, but will test a range of 50 to 60. My daughter will carry the NF 40L and will mostly carry dehydrated provisions, granola, 4L of water and her clothes/toiletries. I wouldn’t normally carry that much water since I have an MSR micro filter, but being at altitude, I think it’s best we have a goodly amount in reserve. I have a cooking/kitchen set the size of a large butane/propane mix tank that will fit inside the set along with a burner 2lbs max. Overall, I was looking at Osprey’s AETHER AG 85 or a Fjall Raven.
    I usually car camp and pitch a nice sized Cabela Westwind tent, but I do have a Big Agnes 2-person ultralight tent and use a Klymit insulated pad and together I am at less five pounds. I’m also digging on Helinox’s 1 pound chair…guess, I have a softer side, if you will.
    I could use a recommendation on a sleeping bag as the ones I have are not backpack capable even when using a compression sack. I do know I need a larger bag because I’m a side sleeper and need a little extra room while “trying” not to break the bank.
    Last dumb question is regarding them things that go on your feet. I am not a boot guy because I like having ankle flexibility and i use Oboz firebrand II waterproof and have had great success and comfort with them. They have great tread/traction and though not trail runners can handle a nice beating. I do have an old pair of Asolo’ s but used then a hand full of times and each time was miserable….even though they were broken in.
    Last, last question: Do you recommend trekking poles? I have a set of Leki’s I use for snowshoeing and the tips can be changed. They’re expandable in length and i don’t typically use them hiking. I am thinking of bringing them in case of emergency and could fashion a splint and/or gurney if needed.

    I know that this is a ton of information to ask for while on a current excursion, but any of your experienced guidance would be greatly appreciated and certainly beneficial.

    Take care and safe travels!
    Gary

    • Wow, thank you for all that great detail Gary! It helps me give you better advice.
      I am definitely enjoying my time out here.

      Back Packs
      Backpacks were a very difficult thing for me to wrap my head around when I was first starting out. Because of that I currently own 6 different backpacks with various applications. Osprey Volt at 75L, Osprey Day Light, Eagle Creek 90L, REI Flash 62L, Osprey Aether 60L, and Osprey Manta 20L. I’ve tried several others as well.

      A little about brands
      I am personally walking around with an Osprey Volt 75 liter. It’s not the best, but it has a low price point, and is very lightweight. This is the revised version. https://www.rei.com/product/895597/osprey-volt-75-pack I am a fan of the Osprey’s. They have a great warranty and their repair shop is in Colorado, a plus for you if something ever goes wrong. I had some damage due to use and abuse and I shipped it out to them and they did great repairs to it. No charge. All I had to do was get it to them.
      I have used an REI flash 62L I absolutely love for shorter trips of 1-3 days.
      Greggory’s are also good.

      Features
      A must for me now a days is hip pockets. Having snacks, chapstick, or other little things without having to stop and remove the pack is very helpful. I also like a pack that has multiple entry points although the one I have now does not. What I mean by that is access to the main compartment without having to dig from the top (brain) of the pack.
      Finally, I would go to REI and try a bunch of them on. Fit is very important. Our bodies are different and the packs fit us differently. The associates are super friendly and also quite knowledgeable. They can help with fit. Just a warning, they are not cheap. They are full retail. I buy from them because their return policy is great. I used a sleeping bag for 2 weeks and then returned it no questions asked. You have a year to return items so if you buy the pack and don’t like it after use, you can return it.

      My Suggestion
      I feel the Aether is a fantastic choice for you. As far as your trip is concerned I am looking at this from a total volume perspective. 85+40 = 125/2 = 62.5l per person. In my opinion, that is about right for a 3-4 day trip in mild/summer conditions. If I were judging it in isolation (just for you), I would say the pack might be overkill for a trip of that length.

      Hiking Poles
      Should you bring hiking poles? My thoughts on poles have been evolving. Generally I have used trekking poles but I have recently started to go without them. I find them most useful on the downhills. They help absorb some of the momentum and impact on my knees. As you have indicated, they could also be used in other ways in a pinch.
      The reason I have left them behind is twofold, weight and my improper use of them. When I am tired and use them, my foot work gets sloppy. I apply so much pressure to them that when they slip, I have a tendency to tumble. I think what I am trying to say is that they make me over confident. This may not be your experience but thought I would explain my position.
      If you roll an ankle you will be happy you have them. So in closing since it’s two of you, one pair for the two of you is probably a good idea.

      Sleeping Bags
      You inspired me to write an article on sleeping bags. Here it is. If after reading it you want more advice, or if something is unclear, let me know. I sort of selfishly want you to choose the bag I want to experiment with. That one is the Sierra Designs backcountry bed.

      Boots
      I am firm believer in ankle protection because I have floppy ankles and have been to physical therapy several times for them. However, everyone is different. I’ll eventually do a write up on boots as well but to give you some sort of answer. Why would you not use what you are used to? If the Oboz work for you, use them. You know what to expect out of them and they are broken in.
      Now to contradict my advice… My concern is that you may not have used them in multiday hikes with that much weight. You may find that your feet hurt more than usual. There is only one way to find out!  Generally speaking the more weight you carry, the stiffer boot you want. Also make sure you are buying your boots a full size larger to allow for foot swelling. I personally use Vasques and am also a big fan of Salomans. My mountaineering boots are Asolo and I like them very much. My friend that has the same Asolo boots and is afraid of them because of how badly they hurt him. At the end of our trip, it looked like he had diabetic foot ulcers. I give this example because the same boots can have very different results for different feet.

      Just a comment on the Big Agnes UL 2. I LOVE that tent. That is the one that has been with me for years and is in my backpack now. When replacing my first one, I got the exact same one.

      Oh and leave the chair behind!!! I looked it up. The model I saw was close to 2lbs!!! 😛
      Jose

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