There’s backpacking, in which you strap all of your supplies to your back and carry them to your intended site. Sometimes these can be actual “sites” such as exist on the A.T., with shelters or raised platforms or designated cleared areas. Other times you’ll have to clear your own spot (taking care to minimize your impact, of course).
I’ve never done real backcountry backpacking. In Ireland, I spent a few weeks with a frame pack strapped to my back and camped there, but it was by no means backcountry. In high school, on two successive class trips, I camped in the woods at Chewonki, in Maine. (Chewonki rocks.) The first time, we pitched our canvas tents on raised platforms, cooked over a roaring campfire, and didn’t shower for a week. The second time, we canoed and sailed around the Penobscot River and camped on islands and didn’t shower for a week.
Then there’s car camping. Car camping does not mean that you sleep in your car (though, certainly, that’s a viable option in extreme circumstances). Rather, it means that you pull your car up to a designated site, and set up there.
Most of my camping experience is car camping, as I note in Read This First. There is a wide spectrum of campgrounds out there and the amenities you can find at these places. I’ve seen places with swimming pools and movies and tennis courts and arcades. Some have Wi-fi. Others are more limited, with a small supply store and showers. Some campgrounds in National Parks (though certainly not all) are primitive: no running water, showers, hook-ups, dump sites or facilities of any kind other than perhaps an outhouse.
There is also RV camping. I have never done this. I don’t really consider this camping, per se (but then, some people don’t think car camping is “real” camping, so who am I to judge?). RV camping is, of course, when you pull your RV into a spot and park it there. A lot of private campgrounds (and some in National Parks as well, although there are fewer of these), have dedicated RV sites. They have bigger parking spots and often have “hook-ups” where the RV can plug into electrical outlets and sometimes even cable and internet. Like I said, I’ve never done it, although I am intrigued. It is, after all, a stereotypical American vacation.
So, thinking about all of these options, it got me to wondering:
What is the best type of camping experience?
I don’t really think there’s an answer to this. I camp for a couple of reasons. First, I enjoy it. I like pitching the tent, and waking up in the morning and being a little bit self-sufficient. Second, it’s a great way to stave off loneliness while traveling alone. There is a certain comraderie that springs up between campers at campgrounds. Think about it — it’s easier to meet people sitting at the next picnic table than in the next hotel room. Third, there’s a transient nature to camping — the packing and unpacking and setting up and breaking down — that fits with and enhances a hiking road trip. You don’t have to break your connection with the outdoors just because the sun goes down, and it feels nomadic to carry your shelter with you. Finally, it’s an inexpensive form of lodging, which on long trips (or any trips, really) can be a huge bonus.
With all that in mind, then, what do I look for in a campsite, when camping alone? Generally, the following:
- Showers. They aren’t a deal-breaker (unless I haven’t stayed in a place with a shower for a couple of nights, then I must have a campground with showers), but it’s a pretty strong preference.
- Attendants. Some campsites in National Parks, such as the Sage Creek primitive site pictured above, and the campgrounds at Bryce Canyon, aren’t manned. You pay by finding an open spot, sticking your money in a box, and taking a little tag. Or you don’t pay, if it’s free. This is not to say that no one will come around and check on things, and this is also not a deal-breaker, but I really like it when there’s someone manning a front desk in case I have any problems.
- A pretense of seclusion. I know I said that camping is a great way to meet people, and it is. But I also prefer sites that have some wooded areas so that you can at least have the illusion of privacy between your tent and the one next door.
- Other people. When camping alone, at a campground, this is important to me. At the primitive Sage Creek site pictured above, I arrived after a long drive on an unpaved road during which I had to stop my little sedan several times to wait for Buffalo to move along. When I pulled in, I told myself that I was in the middle of nowhere and would go back and find somewhere else to stay unless there were other people there. There were — one other solo tent-camper, and a couple of horse trailer/RVs. So I stayed. However, in Moab, UT, I chose not to stay at the campground on the side of the highway where only RVs were present. It’s just a matter of balance, but having others around is a safety measure. Also, sometimes they give you bacon (no joke, it happened to me twice on my road trip).
That’s about all I need. I generally have no interest in pools/movies/arcades etc. when camping, because I use camping as lodging and not as a destination in and of itself. A couple of nice-to-haves are a supply store and laundry facilities, but again, not terribly necessary.
So now it’s your turn. What do you want in your campgrounds?
© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.