A Writer’s Camping Guide

November 9, 2020

As a writer of nature-based haiku, I welcome any chance to immerse in Big Nature, such as an overnight camping trip in a state park, or on an even grander scale, a national park. My parents always took me camping when I was growing up, mostly in the Midwest, but also including several grander trips out west.

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As an adult living in the Austin, TX area, I enjoy exploring the many local state parks on a monthly basis for writing inspiration. Check out this recent compilation of haiku poems I wrote along with pictures I took with my iPhone at each of 10 TX State Parks:

In addition to my solitary day drips, I’ve gone camping with my children almost every year. They have both been in scouting programs, so we often went adjacent to a scouting camping trip, where the troop provided everything but the tent that I as a chaperone slept in. We have also gone on camping trips with my parents, where my dad naturally defaults to setting up camp.

But what I really relish and have come to perfect over the past few years is the chance to camp just on our own as a family, where it’s not my dad or the scout leaders managing the campsite process, but mainly me.

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So I thought I’d share my best practices, urged by my work friend (WishcraftGoods on Etsy; check her cool witchy home goods out!) who was wondering about my camping methods. I’d like to break down the camping process with explanations.

First, the supply list, by area:

Sleeping

-Your tent! Not all of them are all-inclusive, so make sure you have stakes and a tarp to lay under it. I love my REI Kingdom 6 tent, which has two “rooms” with a center zippered curtain and plenty of inner pockets for glasses, charging phones, water bottles, car keys and other things you don’t want smashed as you stumble in the dark.

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You will also need to remember a baby sledge hammer to pound the stakes in, otherwise you’ll have to hunt around the site for a sturdy rock like I did early in my solo camping trials. You will also want a small camping broom & dustpan set to be able to get all the debris out of your tent floor after you get everything out at the end.

Sleeping bags. Mats to go under each sleeping bag. Those self-inflating ones actually work pretty well now – I have Coleman one, about $40. I’m so over bulky air mattresses now that my kids are people-sized (although if you bring one of those, do bring an electric inflator that you can plug into your car cigarette port, way quicker than a foot pump.) Cots are a thing too, but bulky to store. It’s also nice to bring an extra fleece blanket per person, to go between the mattress and your sleeping bag for extra comfort and softness. Your real sleeping pillow from home. Life is too short for tiny camping pillows, and your neck will thank you.

-Other handy items to bring related to the tent:

  • a flashlight you can hang from the center of your tent to provide light, or mini lantern. We recently got this 4-pack of collapsible lanterns and they were awesome for lighting up the campsite and taking on bathroom walks; great design and high luminosity
  • a battery-operated fan if it’s hot
  • a large closable trash bag (or lidded storage container) to keep your shoes in outside the tent so you’re only stepping in/out with clean feet. Why lidded/closable? Spiders.

Campsite

Hammock with tree-safe straps. A soft place to relax outside in your campsite – hanging from shelter beams is preferred but tree-safe straps will help keep it environmentally friendly if there isn’t one. It’s nice to take along on a hike too, if you plan on a long one and stopping for lunch or gazing time somewhere remote. Prime reading and writing time:

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-Folding chairs, for sitting around the campfire

Cash for firewood (purchasable at camp entrance; outside wood & foraging forbidden). Although the last time I was at Enchanted Rock SP they had a new iPad where you could buy the wood with a credit card.

Matches or a lighter (handy to have a firestarter too, like the Zip brand one, it’s a little cube you light on fire and put under logs & it burns long enough for logs to catch so you don’t do any aforementioned foraging for twigs, which are essential to forest floor replenishment through natural decay.)

-Marshmallow roasting spears. We have a cute telescoping rod like a fishing rod which rotates the marshmallow. Or there are extra long bamboo skewers your can burn when you’re done with them. I personally can’t imagine camping without s’mores, but booze is also great.

-Sharp knife & small travel shovel/pick. These will just come in handy for a variety of things. Sometimes the ground is rocky and you may need to chisel out more space for your tent stakes.

Twine and clothespins so you can have a makeshift drying rack between trees or picnic shelter beams. Hang wet towels or bathing suits on it, as well as your dish bag.

-Camping stove & two propane canisters (one to use and a full one for backup).

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Mess kit: I bring a bowl, plate, cup, fork, knife, spoon per person. A very sharp knife for cutting foods & packages & bears. Plus water bottle of course.

Cookware: large pot, small pot, and frying pan with lids, a double-burner skillet, whistling tea kettle (propane heats things fast, you’ll want a signal). Tongs, stir spoon, spatula. Collapsible plastic water jug recommended so you don’t have to go to the water source every time; you just fill up 2-5 gallons and use it at the picnic table for everything.

Coffee: you could simply bring the little micro ground instant coffee packets and call it a day after heating up your hot water. Or bring your regular ground coffee and use the Aeropress to make it cup by cup. I love the smooth flavorful coffee that makes. A cache of tea bags for a cool evening is also nice to bring!

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The other option would be a larger French press that travels well and cleans easily.

-Eating cleanup: Plastic folding double sink, silicon scrubber brush/scraper, biodegradable liquid dish soap, two dish towels, a large cloth mesh bag. I put all the clean dishes in the mesh bag and hang it up to dry. Why? Because one time I left them on the table upside down and woke up at midnight to a flurry of clanging and banging as a team of (raccoons? deer?) went through checking out the lingering food smells.

Camping double sink, mess kit, bio soap, scrubber, sponge, 5 gallon water jug

-Trash management: large trash bag with cinch ties (you’ll be hanging it from the pole provided at your camp site to keep critters away) and additional bag for recyclables you can either take home or usually the camp HQ lets you recycle aluminum cans at exit (you can plan to burn any trash that’s paper, like food boxes/wrappers.)

-Food-related storage: a cooler with bag of ice and/or ice packs for the perishables (I used a drainable hard plastic one). Another cooler for dry goods (I used an insulated zippered soft bag but a hard plastic lidded box would do as well.)

-Extra drinking water AS food-storage item: for longer trips, fill a 2 liter plastic jug full of drinking water and freeze. Use as an extra ice pack in your cooler for first couple days. By the time it’s melted your first supply of drinking water will have gone and you can replenish from this container.

-Large plastic box or collapsible box for loose items. I found this handy for carrying all the random stuff from the car (mallet, lanterns, frisbee, propane, cookware, etc.)

Camper Stuff

Personal stuff: Backup rain gear (you never know and a plastic layer can mean the difference between misery and dryness), one bag per person with clothing that includes your sundries (extra socks!), long sleeves, short sleeves, long pants, and pajamas, good hiking shoes, water shoes (if applicable), and slip-on shoes (6am bathroom wake-up you don’t want to fumble with laces) like rain boots or Birkenstocks, etc. I don’t recommend flip flops because campsites get dew in the morning and your feet will get wet and cold. Also a hiking backpack (per person, or per mom if you’re a martyr like me) – I love a hydration pack with 2 liters of water with drinking  hose, and enough pockets for trail essentials.

Toiletries: Sun tan lotion & bug spray, bathroom bag with handle you can hang from hook, quick dry towel, beach towels (if applicable). Campground bathroom sinks are always yucky so you don’t want to have to set your toothbrush down on that mess.

First Aid: Better believe if you go on a hike with just that random couple bandaids, that will be the day you slip on sharp rubble into a fire ant pile and will wish you had the entire multi-piece aid kit in your pack. ALWAYS BRING THE FULL FIRST AID KIT. Picture me, bloody, limping to the trail end shakily approaching some fresh backpackers, excuse me do you have any extra bandaids? They were glad to break into their fresh giant pack, which they’ve never had to use because of course: Murphy’s Law. I even carry a snake bite kit now, because: Texas. Make sure it has tweezers for splinters, cactus needles, and bee stings, all of which I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with.

Pet stuff, if applicable: enough dry/wet food, water & food bowls, snacks, leash, longer campsite leash so you can tether dog to a tree

Child-specific or fun stuff: a foldable scooter to zip around the campsite roads, a light-up frisbee for dusk play, telescope if you have one and have room

Meal Planning

Food, this is one of my favorite parts! If going for a few days, know that ice will be all melted after 48 hours, so you’ll want to plan accordingly. I usually plan to eat fresh food the first day (unless I’m arriving late and want to eat fast/easy after the labor of setting up camp), frozen food that has thawed by the second night, and then packaged food for any subsequent days. But if you have a source of ice replenishment and are camping more than 2-3 nights, then you can bring more fresh or frozen foods to eat those first few days.

Here’s a sample of a recent 3 day trip starting with Friday night dinner and ending with Sunday breakfast:

  • Dinner 1: hearty ramen bowls (just add boiled water), Polish sausage roasted on sticks over fire or in skillet with dipping mustard, s’mores (Hershey’s chocolate bars, graham crackers, marshmallows)
  • Breakfast 1: eggs scrambled with chopped leftover sausage, pancakes (made with milk, butter, mix, and the last egg). Coffee & tea, with sugar & milk.
  • Lunch: PB & J sandwiches, oranges & apples, fresh snack size carrots, cucumbers, celery, pickles, coconut chips.
  • Dinner 2: pan-fried chicken tenders (marinate & freeze before you leave, they’ll thaw on ice in the cooler by night #2), boiled corn on cob, rice & quinoa w kale pouch. Dessert: s’more s’mores o’course. My winning chicken marinade which caramelizes really nicely over the high propane heat is: Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (or soy sauce), olive oil, honey, garlic, salt&pepper, and a dusting green herb of choice (I did savory). I just stick the tupperware immediately in freezer.
  • Breakfast 2: Oatmeal made with rest of milk, bananas chopped into it, any fruit or snack leftovers. Coffee & tea.

Some other great meal plans for extra nights include:

-Campfire foil packet method. You’ll need charcoal and foil. A super easy one I’ve done is thin pre-cut potatoes, carrots, ground beef, butter, salt&pepper. So many recipes.

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-Canned stuff: soups, chilis with fresh toppings, beans

-Pouch stuff: the kind you pour out and heat briefly. Literally anything from Trader Joe’s or the outdoorsy stores that sell camping food.

-Breakfast tacos (eggs, cheese, bacon, tortillas), then at night those tortillas can be stuffed with beans, avocado, cheese, tomato, lettuce, skillet beef, etc. And for dessert, you can have s’macos.

Hiking snacks: Always nice to have a granola bar per hike and a hydrating fruit like apple and orange, plus nuts or trail mix. Kids like pretzels and goldfish but that does make them thirstier because of the salt so beware.

At long last; secondly, the setup process:

Campsite Setup

As soon as you get there, set up your tent. Clear your selected highest ground, flattest area of sharp rocks, twigs, and double check for animal droppings or ant piles to stay away from those. Tarp down first, then tent poles and straps/clips, and finally the stakes. Start the stakes in a corner, and pull the tent bottom taut as you move around pounding stakes down in order so you don’t wind up with a bunched up bottom. Pound them all the way flush to the ground so you don’t trip on them. When you pack up later, you can use one stake to help pull up the others by hooking the curved end to the one in the ground.

Next, throw all the sleeping gear into the tent and unroll those self-inflating mattresses so they have time to get nice and plump, set up your pillow and sleeping bag. You’ll be tired later and it’s nice to come to a made bed and space delineated for everyone with their own stuff next to it. Leave the toiletry bags in the car so you can make the bathroom trip later without having to dig it out of the tent.

Now set up your kitchen and the food area, fill up that 5 gallon water jug, and find a space at the edge of the eating area with your sink & supplies.

Get the chairs around the campfire, hang up the hammock, stack the wood in the fire, place your lanterns where you’d like to illuminate later.

Now sit back and relax with a book and your journal. You have a big day ahead of hiking or river hopping and it will soon be time to light the fires and make camp food. But for now: bliss in nature.

Enjoy!

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