About ten years ago (more?) my husband got a Coleman 7 x 12 tent for free, in some kind of “be healthy” contest. He took the boys on an overnight to a nearby lake one year, then the tent sat in our garage, waiting.
So we decided to tent camp in the NC mountains last week, you know, since… we have a tent! And the two younger boys were going to be in summer camp for a week. Plus we figured it was cheap. And hey, we’re cheap! Match, match.
And that’s pretty much where we began. We had a tent. No other camping experience or gear.
I told a friend, who politely suggested we’d need more than just a tent for a week in the mountains, so I stopped by his house and picked up a Coleman stove and a giant bin of miscellaneous camping stuff (Thank you, Bazers). I put those in the car, bought an air mattress and some pre-packaged foods we never normally buy (yay for Jello cups! yay for Vienna Sausages!) and we headed out, armed, ignorant, and dangerous. Just like that.
We camped all week at Hanging Rock State Park near Danbury, NC. Any park with three mountain tops and five waterfalls within hiking distance is awesome in my book. And regarding tent camping, here’s what we learned.
1. Never camp near a bath house.
We were there 5 minutes when we realized that everyone — and by this we mean crazy people from the deep south, camping with their six kids, all of whom converse normally at the top of their lungs (i.e., “Edgar, whar’s mah beeel-fold? Did yew touch mah beeel-fold? Cause I don’t wont yew touchin’ my beeel-fold! That’s what’s got mah cache innit and I don’t wont yew messin’ around with MAH MUH-NEY! EDGAR! ARE YEW LISTENIN’ TAH ME??) — is camped near the bath house.
It only cost us $10 to switch to a campsite a quarter mile from the bath house, out of sight, and more importantly, out of earshot, of any other campers. Best $10 we spent on our entire camping vacation.
2. Bears make camping more work.
In NC we have bears. You can’t leave anything with a scent (including toiletries, canned items, etc.) out on tables or in your tent, ever. So we faithfully packed our stuff away in the car after every single meal, dumped our dishwater far from our site, put our trash in the bear-proof bins, and worried about spitting our toothpaste in the woods. And we slept fitfully the first night, waiting for ursine judgement day.
3. Food eaten on the trail is the greatest food you can ever eat.
We hiked every trail at the state park, some of them twice. On the first day we climbed up to the first mountaintop near us (see picture above), popped open a can of Vienna Sausages and ate as if starved, gazing off the edge of the world. I had no idea Vienna Sausages on saltines were so ambrosial. Jesus must love these things. But then we ate cheese sticks and applesauce on top of another ridge, and had peanut-butter roll-ups on top of another mountain, and I realized it all tasted so good because we were so ravenously hungry.
On our last night camping we drove into town, bought a bag of ice and two ice-cream bars, buried the ice cream in the bag of ice, and hiked (quickly) a mile out in the steamy dark to a quiet little spot by a stream on the Mountains to Sea trail we’d found earlier in the day. We spread out a blanket, turned off our lantern, unearthed our ice cream bars, and ate them under the stars. It was ridiculous and romantic, and the ice cream was too soft and drippy and it was wonderful.
4. Hiking in a downpour can still be a great hike.
We were brave, we were intrepid, and I wasn’t about to let a summer storm keep me off the trail. We donned our silly garbage-bag ponchos and took on a serious mountain trek up a rocky, boulder-strewn trail to a beautiful ridge-top. It was like hiking in the middle of a rushing creek-bed; we couldn’t get out of the stream that was our path because the underbrush was so incredibly dense, so we just said hell with it and forged ahead. It was hot out and there was no danger of hypothermia, we were soaked but had good thick wool socks and sturdy boots, and there was FOOD (and water, of course) in my backpack.
Just as we made the top, the rain quit. We stepped out on this huge rocky outcropping and gazed down into a freshly-drenched valley; the sun came out and we felt like we were in on some great miracle of nature.
Lance was standing on the edge looking down when I happened to see a freak fork of lightning arrow down about a hundred yards behind us, and a giant clap of thunder made us both hit the deck, terrified. Once our hearts began beating again, we shared our trail food and felt incredibly, hysterically, gratefully alive. Then the cloud cover moved back in and the rain started up and we descended, but we had our time at the top. Perfect timing, if you ask me.
5. It’s nice to be able to drive into town and get dry.
It rained our first two days. Our old, free tent leaked. Our very good hiking boots and wool socks were soaked. Everything smelled a bit funky. On day three (which was sunny and steamy-hot) we decided to drive down the mountain and find a coin-operated laundromat. Fortunately for us, there was one only 25 minutes away, and — bonus! — it was air-conditioned! Armed with quarters, we stuffed all our clothes, bedding, and even our hiking boots in an industrial-sized dryer, bought an icy-cold Diet Pepsi out of the vending machine, and sat staring into the dryer window at our clothes spinning, mesmerized. We drove back and we were back in camping business, easy as that. Ain’t civilization wunnerful?
6. There are some weird shops in small southern towns.
Our coin-op laundromat was next door to a tobacco-slash-candle shop, no lie. But my personal favorite was the combination bra store and haircut salon. Do you suppose a lot of guys get their hair cut there while their wives, um, browse?
7. Drinking water makes all the difference.
While I’m new at camping, I’m not new to hiking. Over the years I’ve figured out that one of the most important factors in having an excellent hike is carrying enough water with you. Last year we didn’t summit at a mountain we traveled to because we got lost and didn’t have enough water to make it up to the top once we found our path again.
Getting lost on a hike is normal; trail maps and trail signage is never perfect. If you are going on a complicated, half-day or all-day hike, you should allow time for accidental (or intentional) side trips. And that means having plenty of water.
For our longest hike of the week (about 5 or 6 hours, very strenuous) we carried two liters of water each, and it made all the difference. For this mountain, we tried to make sure we reached the top with half our water remaining, and even though we got lost early on, and the climb up was significantly longer than the trail down, we stayed well-hydrated and felt strong the entire way because we had enough water. Well, and we also had those marvelous little Vienna Sausages, heh.
8. People camp with televisions??
Well, smack us on the head. One morning I was hiking up to the bath house and passed a tent-camping couple seated happily in front of a blaring television. I assume it was running off a monstrous battery pack.
I can’t imagine this conversation happening in my family:
Me: Honey, we have to hurry down the mountain! It’s almost time for Glee!
Husband: Oh snap! I forgot to pack the 28-inch flat panel!
On one of the simpler trails we passed a woman about my age, hiking with her dog and playing a transistor radio. I just don’t get it. If you do, please leave me a comment and explain. Or maybe I just don’t want to know.
9. We wished we had brought…
- Bags. Grocery bags, garbage bags, ziplock bags, any kind of bag that would help us organize stuff. We had two or three, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
- Clothespins. For hanging out wet stuff.
- A good knife. I had a tiny pocketknife (thanks, Dad) and a machete (in the Bazer’s bin), but what I really needed was a good, sharp 8-inch knife. For cooking, for cutting rope, etc.
- Butter. Yep, we didn’t think of butter. Which was a real shame, because we brought our favorite, loaded-with-nuts-and-seeds, ridiculously expensive, phenomenally healthy bread. Which was not nearly as good without butter. I bet the people with the television had butter. And a microwave to melt it in.
10. We were SO glad we had…
Other than the stuff we knew to take like good hiking boots and socks, I was thrilled I had bought that air mattress. I don’t think I’ll ever volunteer to sleep on the bare earth again. Also:
- Tent patching stuff. We patched the hell outta our tent. Who knew there were so many teeny — and some not so teeny — holes where water could drip in?
- Bandannas. Mom handed me two of them before we left (they belong to her dog, I’m not kidding) and I was amazed at how many times I used them. They were our washcloths, our food covers, our towels, our napkins, our sunshades, our mud wiper-offers. I tied stuff up in them, swatted bugs with them, and carried them everywhere I went. They dry really quickly. Indispensable.
- Vienna Sausages. But I think I said that already. I’m terrified to buy a can of them now that we’re home. What if they’re really awful? No, I think Vienna Sausages should be saved for mountaintop experiences only.
A most excellent week. I’m already planning my next one.
Top picture: the view from Hanging Rock, where we ate our Vienna Sausages. Image by jarnocan on Flickr.