19 Oct 5 Things You Should Know About Camping

Last weekend, I took Jill camping at Assateague Island, where Maryland’s wild ponies live. Like a surprising number of Marylanders, she had never been to Assateague. It’s a barrier island, just a thin strip of scrub-covered sand. The ponies arrived about 300 years ago (escaped from settlers) and now live there most of the year. They are an irascible bunch and you’re not allowed to approach them (fines start at $100) because they’ll charge or bite. They know they own the island, so they’re often sauntering through the camp sites. And they know every way to get into food containers, so you’d be foolish to leave out your cooler or, esepcially, a box of groceries. I’ve seen these horses yank locked coolers from under picnic tables, then pound them open.

Jill had been camping only one time before — when I took her to the Arizona mountains. She didn’t like it because we slept in a small tent, and it was cold. The worst part of camping for most people is the absence of running water and real bathrooms. Assateague has great bathrooms — they’re latrines, actually, but really well designed, meaning they’re well ventilated and don’t stink. And each facility has spacious, individual toilets (like closets) — you don’t have to share your business with other campers.

But nobody walks to the (unlighted) latrines at night. You find a bush or a thicket of weeds and do your business there (#1 only, of course). This — the need to pee at night — is what turns many people off to camping. When we were in Arizona, Jill hated having to clamber out of our tiny tent, then get her bearings in the freezing dark, hoping that she didn’t trip on a rock or squat over a sprig of poison ivy — well, you get the picture. It’s not fun. And I don’t know many people who can hold it through the night.

Because we had a nearly full moon and the weather was mild and the terrain was flat and this time we had a big tent, our night time necessity was not a hassle. Wherever you camp, you’ll want to scope out your night-time route for relief. Here are five other things to keep in mind:

1) Forget about staying clean and looking pretty. I know of a woman who has never been camping because she refuses to go anywhere overnight if she can’t bring her blow dryer. Never mind that, if she’s that self-conscious about her hair, she could wear a kerchief for a couple of days of camping, couldn’t she? Usually, wherever you’re camping, it’s not worth taking a shower — or there simply won’t be a shower. Or, if there is a shower, it will be cold water only. So you’ll get dirty. You’ll reek of wood smoke from the camp fire. Bring some hand wipes and a small towel for a cold face wash. Bring a cap to hide your dirty hair, if you must.

2) Practice setting up your tent before you go. I brought a huge, 6-person tent I hadn’t used in 15 years. When we arrived late, it was dark and very windy. We aimed the car’s headlights onto the site and then I wrestled with the tent as though it were a parachute in a squall. I had no idea how to set up the thing. At one point, as I pondered the tent’s shape and its many poles, I considered what it would be like for us to sleep in the car with our pile of stuff and our two dogs. Impossible. Thirty minutes later, at last, the tent was up. And, with relief, I felt that I had done what men are supposed to do.

3) Pack the day before. This is easier said than done. But know this: if you pack the day of, you will forget a startling number of things. Since Jill and I live a harried life, we packed the day of. As a result, we forgot: lettuce, grapes, bread, a cooking pot, a charger (for stuff in the car), a wind breaker, batteries (for the camp lantern), an extra flashlight, and playing cards.

4) Load up, charge, and check all of your lights and appliances the day before you go. The reason I set our tent up in the glare of headlights was because a) I had not put the batteries into our only flashlight and so, when we arrived in the dark, I couldn’t locate the batteries; b) I couldn’t locate the candles I had packed for our candle lamp either because I had tossed them thoughtlessly into one of the supply boxes, and c) I hadn’t loaded batteries into our camp lantern, nor had I tested the lamp to see if it was working (it wasn’t). So we did a lot of pawing around in the dark. In the morning, of course, we found everything easily and figured out whey the lantern wasn’t working.

5) Bring fire wood. What is camping without a camp fire? You can buy fire wood at just about any big-box hardware store or gardening center. Do it before you get to your destination, where, chances are, fire wood will be expensive if and when you can find it. Also bring some kind of fire starter — a box of wooden matches and a roll of newspaper will do.

Jill and I had a great time and now, she says, she’s ready to do more camping. The big tent really helped — it gave us enough room for the dogs. It was their first camp outing. They seemed to love it but, then, they seem to love anything as long as the pack is together.