Aah, camping. Living simply among the bounty of nature with the stars as your roof and the soft grass as your bed.
That’s the idea. But on our trans-America road trip Carmen and I have often found we have fallen far short of the rustic life we imagined we could have.
We both had done some camping before we set off on our adventure and thought it would be a breeze. But we’ve been freezing cold, sopping wet, bitten half to death by mosquitoes and denied basic sanitation for days at a time.
It’s been a steep learning curve and as we approach the apex of our trip we really began to enjoy camping – now that we’ve figured out how to do it.
Here are a few of our tips for camping we’ve hacked from the unforgiving wilderness.
4 tips for camping in the USA
1. Lighting the perfect camp fire.
Earlier this year in Norway a TV programme about lighting a fire was screened – and ignited a furious debate about whether wood should be stacked with the bark facing up or down. Beats me.
Back in Australia my brother and I usually just poured a cup of methlyated spirits onto some wood and lit a match. Whatever the technique, the only thing people agree on is that you need lots of good kindling.
I watched a park ranger in Yellowstone build a teepee of kindling logs over a stack of scrunched up newspaper which he then lit and fanned with his Smokey The Bear hat. I copied that technique, using my left flip-flop instead of the hat. But then I was introduced to the best fire lighting substance of all time.
Yes. Everyday, household dryer lint. We met a pair of cooks when camping in Utah who carried around a huge plastic bag of the stuff and they let us in on their secret.
They built a huge pile of interconnected firewood logs with a small space at the bottom for sticks of kindling and a handful of dryer lint arranged like a fuse. They lit one end with a match and whammo! Instant fire. No blowing, fanning or feeding. Just pure cotton and hair-fuelled ignition that burns so intensely and slowly that the wood around it catches and burns in no time. Lesson learned. Now to find a laundromat…
2. Turning our passenger van into a camper.
We are travelling on a limited budget so camping is a great way to cut costs while still staying in some beautiful areas. We researched the best ways to camp with a car and found a great site that showed how to make our dodgy van into a camper.
You simply remove the front row of passenger chairs, fold down the rear seats and fill the empty space with strong boxes that contain all of your stuff. You make it as level as possible, blow up an inflatable mattress and put it on top. Job done, and all the gear was bought for less than $150.
Most camping sites are pitch black at night but when we need privacy we just string up some elastic straps and hang towels and blankets as curtains. We can set it up and pack it down in less than ten minutes and by doing all of this we can camp on tent sites which are far cheaper than RV sites.
It’s not glamorous or pretty but who cares about that sort of thing when you wake with the sunrise in Monument Valley and see the sky glow red and pink with the vast desert humming in the wind. Variety is the spice of life, and when we stay in hotels or house sit we enjoy the creature comforts that much more.
Also, in bear country we feel a bit safer locked in a steel box!
3. Finding level ground to camp on.
This is a tricky one. Most tent sites are a mix of angles because tents can go anywhere.
A big van cannot and I have often dug trenches into the dirt so the wheels on one side of the van can settle into the angle of a hill a few degrees shallower. It makes all the difference in the middle of the night when a severe angle can mean falling off the mattress!
But most of the time the ground is relatively flat and it’s a question of moving the van about until it feels right. But there is a better way than that.
History geek that I am, I remembered the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and Romans used water as spirit level to make sure their buildings were sitting correctly. So I have a bottle of water filled half way to a line that I place on the dashboard. Reverse the car, wait till the water settles and see if it’s level. If not, wriggle about some more until it’s perfect.
I could buy a modern spirit level, but where’s the fun in that?
4. Cooking easy, cheap meals that fill you up.
Camping is all about replicating – as much as possible – the comforts of home in the great outdoors. There’s nothing better than cooking up a huge feast on a roaring camp fire or sizzling up something awesome on the propane stove after a long day’s hike.
But when you need to stretch the budget a bit sometimes the simplest things are best.
Our favourite cooking trick has been to buy bags of celery, carrots, onions and garlic and fry up portions of these seasoned with chili or pepper and salt. These vegetables last a long time so they’re good to take camping.
Then you add bacon or sausage, fry that up and pour a can of soup over the top. You get an instant stew that will feed four to six people (we eat the leftovers for lunch the next day if we’re not camping with friends) and save you money that can be better spent on a nice meal at a restaurant or a good bottle of wine.
Another thing we often do is boil up some eggs and buy some tortillas. Both foods keep for a long time and make perfect lunches or snacks when hiking. It’s also super cheap and keeps you feeling full for a long time.
On our travels we’ve met people who take camping very seriously and we know we have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves rugged. But it’s fun to learn new camping methods and there’s something to be said for a life without frills.
You only realise how little you need to live a fulfilling life when you strip away those four walls and a roof.