Camping – Wildlife to Avoid

Camping can be one of the best adventures you’ll find. Fresh air, stunning mountains, spectacular trees and more are all around most campsites. But humans aren’t the only species to be found among them. And not all the other ones are friendly.

Bears may look very cuddly on TV, but there are species that are dangerous and most people can not tell the difference between one and the next. Grizzlies, for example, are generally regarded as potentially life-threatening. An adult grizzly will eat a human. Telling the difference between them and Black Bears can be difficult.

As the name suggests, Black Bears tend to be dark. But a grizzly can vary from blond to black. Size is a possible clue, but it’s tough to tell the difference sometimes between a full grown Black Bear (around 300-400 lbs and 5ft tall when standing) and a teen grizzly.

Full grown grizzlies are larger, around 500 lbs and 6ft tall when standing. Needless to say, when a bear is standing in front of you, you have other things to think about than identification.

There is one unmistakable sign – grizzlies have a hump on the back of the neck that Black Bears lack. But making it out especially when they are in motion toward you, can be hard. Black Bears have smaller, more triangular heads that can help identification.

Grizzlies have a more flattened face, with a depression between the eyes and their ears are rounded. Black Bears, by contrast have a snout and more pointed ears. If you’re close enough to make out these details without binoculars, however, you are too close.

Wild cats often inhabit wilderness and camping areas, and they too can be dangerous, even lethal. Most will avoid contact with humans, but if hungry or pressed they can attack. A hungry cougar or puma will carry off a child if it hasn’t had any other food source for a while.

Bobcats, though small, are surprisingly strong for their size and no one should test their skill against those razor sharp teeth and claws. Lynx are a similar species, having telltale hair tufts on their ears and blunt tails. Also small and shy (about the size of a large house cat and weighing 30 lbs), they can be fierce if they’re protecting young.

Mountain lions still roam parts of the southwest in the US and don’t always limit their hunting to sheep. If you bring the family dog along on a camping trip be especially cautious about letting it roam where it might encounter a wild cat. Many dogs won’t back down and run away and they will always lose a fight with one.

Investigate which species are known to be in the area you intend to visit and take proper precautions when you’re there. Keep food stored in odor tight containers before and after meals and keep trash stowed well away from the campsite.

Camping – Which Camping Style Do You Prefer?

At one time, the only camping options were tent or open air. A hundred years ago, you would have been fortunate to have a canvas tent. Camping, as a vacation option, really took off about 50 years ago after the post-WWII economy boomed and the highway system developed. Thousands of trucks were fitted with a camper shell, but sleeping accommodations were still cramped.

Today, there are a half-dozen options for building a home away from home.

Tents are still enormously popular and they have evolved to a high art. Internal frame tents are easy to assemble (you have to do little more than just pop them open). They’re made from tough nylon and many are in the form of domes, making them ultra strong. External frame tents are still popular and they have the advantages of being larger, rectangular (so space is optimized) and super sturdy against wind.

But tents are no longer the only viable option.

Some SUV models are so large now that sleeping two adults in the rear with the seats laid flat is a definite possibility. They provide excellent protection against infiltration from wildlife and with an air mattress, are as comfortable as a tent. Some styles are even as easy to wash out with a hose as a tent. Fold down or easy-remove seats with plastic flooring make for easy clean up.

RVs have been around for 20 years, growing out of the ‘truck with camper shell’ idea. RVs now have running water, propane, electricity, movable awnings, air conditioning and space, space, space. Some are so large they may well be used as a semi-permanent home.

They can cost as much, too, with the largest models selling for $200,000 or more. But they have every luxury you could wish for and they are powerful enough to easily tow an SUV for trips away from the campsite.

Motels have been around forever, but these days you’re much more likely to enjoy a low-cost, clean and pleasant room from a major chain. In the past, many motels were… shall we say, an adventure all their own. But big business has made a cheap motel room cheap only in the dollars and cents sense.

Of course, in many areas – and at many times of the year – it’s still possible to truly duplicate the outdoor experience of a hundred years ago. You can lay your blanket or sleeping bag out on the ground under the stars and imagine what it must have been like.

Fortunately, the sleeping bag you are likely to employ is considerably better than one from that era. Modern materials provide both the exterior and the interior with top flight endurance and comfort. Primaloft insulation, 900 fill down and tough nylon shells make sleeping bags warm, cozy and waterproof.

The geometry has been much improved, too. Mummy bags with room for a pillow or protection for your head, as well as widened waist and foot areas are much more ergonomic. They are shaped as the human body is, making them retain heat better, while allowing easy turning but preventing shifting.

If you really want to get the feeling of what life was like a hundred years ago, you can always go with just a blanket. But you’ll find that the experience that looks so romantic in the movies has a lot more realism than most people would want.

Camping – What To Pack?

Campers are always faced with a dilemma. Either you bring the entire house or you invariably find that the one thing you need was left at home. There’s no perfect way out of this, but a little thought will help improve your odds. Bring what you really need, without overflowing your vehicle or breaking your back.

If you’re planning on tent camping, you’ll need the tent, of course. But that can mean poles, stakes, ropes and other items as well, along with any tools you need to assemble it. Reduce your headaches by investigating a self-assembling tent. That type has all the major components needed to keep the tent sturdy and upright as part of one integrated unit.

You’ll find it easy to assemble (the name is only a slight exaggeration) and much easier to pack, unpack and haul to the campsite. Look for one made from waterproof material and that has sturdy seams.

Something to sleep on is essential. Sleeping on the ground may look adventurous in old Western films, but it’s hard on the back. That will reduce your enjoyment of camping and make hiking the next day difficult. There are a hundred different kind of inflatables, sleeping bags and other options. If you bring an inflatable or air mattress, make sure it’s self-inflating. Make sure your sleeping bag is waterproof and made with good insulating material with a durable shell.

Unless you want to subsist solely on pre-packaged, ready-to-eat food, you’ll want to bring something to cook with. Keep items to a minimum – a multi-purpose pan, a lightweight camping stove, a few utensils. You don’t want to spend all your time packing, unpacking, cleaning and so forth. If you bring disposable utensils, make sure they’re sturdy enough to handle the type of food you prepare and eat.

A first aid kit is a must. A splint can be improvised from available material, but you’ll need bandages (both wrap around and stick on band-aids). A disinfectant and/or anti-bacterial cream or spray is essential. A minor cut or scrape can become deadly out in the wilderness, but is trivial if treated properly. Aspirin is a great all-around drug, but ibuprofen or acetominophen are good substitutes for those with sensitive stomachs.

Bug bite spray or cream can prevent a minor irritant from becoming a major annoyance or worse. Some moleskin is a good idea for treating blisters, too. Scissors or a multi-purpose, Swiss Army-style knife can be really handy. Resist the temptation to bring a hundred different tools, though. Some cleansing towelettes can be great for hygiene and first aid.

Many campsites have a water supply, but the quality varies. Be prepared. Bring water bottles for drinking, cooking and emergency cleaning (wound treatment). You won’t be able to haul enough to shower every day, but you might be able to bring enough to wash your hair once every few days. Water weighs about 8 lbs (3.6kg) per gallon (~4 liters), so plan ahead. You don’t want to haul several hundred pounds of water anywhere.

A rechargeable flashlight (of the sort that can be plugged into the cigarette lighter or cell phone recharger in the car) can be a lifesaver. Even in non-emergency situations, it’s about the most helpful thing you can have at night when you’re a few feet from the campsite.

Think ‘essential’, minimize luxuries. If you want all the comforts of home, bring a big RV or just stay home.

Camping – Weather and the Seasons, A Guide for Camping

Camping – Weather and the Seasons, A Guide for Camping

One of the great things about camping is the opportunity to get out into the outdoors and enjoy the environment. One of the potential downsides in camping is getting out into the outdoors and enduring it.

Testing your hardiness is a fun part of camping, but being wet, cold and windblown is not. Planning ahead by getting a good weather report for your intended location is a good idea, but weather in wilderness areas can change rapidly. The change tends to be more extreme than in urban areas, as well. The temperature difference between daytime and nighttime is often greater in mountainous areas, where many campsites are located.

Bring along a clock of the type that has indoor/outdoor temperatures for in the tent and outside. Or, better still, get one of the more extensive weather stations. They report rainfall, air pressure (a good weather indicator), temperature, humidity and other factors that can affect your plans on the site. They’re portable, powered by AA batteries and accurate.

Summer camping is more common, but weather is still a factor. Daytime highs in many camping areas can reach the 90s or higher in July and August, then drop down to the 50s at night.

That daytime high is a concern for hikers, a common activity during camping. It creates a need for additional water and minerals (bring along a low-sugar sports drink). Be prepared to rest at least five minutes every hour. Dress in layers so you can take clothing off during the heat, but still be comfortable as the day cools off.

Don’t go shirtless except in open areas, and sometimes not even then. Toxic plants, scrapes from bushes, trees and rocks can turn septic more readily outdoors. Excessive UV exposure is a greater problem in high altitude areas. Use sunscreen on exposed areas of skin and keep those areas to a minimum.

Winter camping is less common but a great delight for those who enjoy snow and colder temperatures. The chances for seeing wildlife can be greater since deer, moose and other creatures have to forage at lower altitudes to get adequate food. Bear sightings are less common, which is another advantage. It may sound cool to see a bear, and it can be. But they can be dangerous and grizzlies see people as food, not playmates.

Thermal socks and underwear, the type that wicks away sweat and still allows some air to pass slowly through the material, is a good item to take along. You’ll be more comfortable and temperature control is important during colder weather. Frostbite is a real possibility and sometimes the damage it does to nerves and tissue is permanent.

Avoid walking on frozen lakes, ponds and streams during winter camping trips. The ice is often only a couple of inches thick (if that), and the crystalline structure of natural ice is riddled with asymmetries. That leads to cracking at random moments. Ice that was sturdy ten minutes earlier can fail to support you without warning. There’s nothing quite so unpleasant, and potentially dangerous, as icy water against your skin.

Plan ahead for the season and the climate for your intended location and you’ll find your trip that much more enjoyable.

Camping – Stoves and Fires, Convenient Cooking and Essential Heat

Camping – Stoves and Fires, Convenient Cooking and Essential Heat

Not having every comfort of home is part of the camping experience – and a very pleasurable part, as you test your hardiness while enjoying the outdoors. But even primitive man had fire, both for cooking and for providing needed heat on those chilly nights.

Some campsites don’t allow fires in pits, some don’t allow them at all. That leaves campers with the necessity to supply their own method for cooking and heating. Modern technology to the rescue! Today you can find cooking stoves and heaters that do a great job of satisfying those two needs.

Though they are usually called propane stoves or Colemans, there are several different types of fuel used and many manufacturers. Stoves typically burn either propane, butane or white gas (‘Coleman fuel’), though some still use kerosene or even unleaded gasoline. The latter two shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice. They produce odors that are unpleasant and even unsafe, particularly when used for cooking.

Propane and butane are roughly equivalent, though the former is probably a little more common these days. Coleman fuel burns cleanly and produces the most heat, though propane stoves can become plenty hot. If you must use unleaded gasoline, avoid spilling any on your skin and restrict its use to boiling water, except in emergencies.

Duel fuel stoves are available that allow you to have two different types in twin containers. But they can also be used as a repository for twice as much of the same fuel. They’re more expensive to use, since Coleman fuel is higher than gasoline. But it burns much more cleanly.

Propane will burn the most cleanly of all, but propane prices have been rising for the past few years. Also, they don’t produce quite as much heat as liquid fuels. Propane in a container is liquid, but only because it’s under high pressure. At room temperature it’s a gas.

Fuel cannisters come in several sizes – 5 gallon, 10 gallon and up. For most camping, you won’t want anything larger than the 10 gallon container. They’re about 10 inches high and 10 inches in diameter. Larger containers are unwieldy, unless they’re attached to your RV via a hose and connector.

There are several sizes to choose from and you may want to consider having more than one. A smaller one is lighter and easier to pack for those short trips, larger ones are handy for cooking for multiple people in the shortest time.

Two-burner stoves are common and convenient. They allow you to cook for two people or, more often, two different foods – such as meat and vegetables, or pasta and sauce. There are special cooking pots that can be stacked on top of one another to allow even more choices. You can boil potatoes in water on the top pot, for example.

Even two-burner stoves, however, come in different sizes. Larger grills are great for making eggs, hamburgers, pancake and other foods that require a little space to prepare. Remember, though, that the larger pot – especially if filled with water, will require more gas to heat it.

There are smaller stoves, just for backpacking. They fit well in a backpack, but are designed to prepare only very small meals, which might be just fine for one person.

Many commercial campsites provide cooking facilities, but most State and National parks don’t. Plan your trip to ensure that you have a stove if you need one.

Camping – Safety Tips for Camping Trips

It sounds harsh and even a little bit silly, but the first rule of camping safety is: don’t do anything dumb. You wouldn’t think it should be necessary, and it might be useless, to point out how that’s unsafe. But one can always try. Two common dangers that are easily avoided are lightning and inappropriate climbing.

Over 100 persons per year die outdoors from lightening strikes, most of those in wilderness areas. It kills more people in an average year than any other weather related phenomenon.

Lightning occurs most frequently within clouds, but a small percentage forms CG (cloud-to-ground) strikes. If you happen to be the tallest thing around, such as when you are standing on top of a hill, your odds of getting struck are higher.

Humans have substantial amounts of salty fluid within their bodies and that often makes for a preferred conductive path, relative to other nearby objects. You are even more so when you get wet, as from rain that precedes or accompanies lightning.

But it isn’t necessary to be the highest, or even the most conductive, thing around to get seriously injured from lightning strikes. Being higher or more conductive makes you more likely, but the odds are still far from zero even when you’re not.

Further, it isn’t necessary to be struck to be injured. Lightning carries enormous voltages, it’s true. But it requires only a modest amount of voltage to push electricity through you. The current (the amount of actual electrons flowing) is the primary killer. And lightning contains extremely high currents. Obviously, anything which can split a tree transmits considerable energy.

Just being near a lightning strike can knock you down or disturb physiological processes, such as injuring your eyesight, breaking an eardrum or singeing your skin.

A second major way in which some campers exhibit less than stellar reasoning is taking unnecessary risks in climbing or hiking.

Standing too close to cliffs is an obvious no-no. Rapid, unexpected gusts of wind are common in camping areas. It takes very little to push you over, especially if the ground near the edge is loose (as it often is). Don’t tempt fate by moving closer than a couple of feet from the edge.

Climbing up can be just as dangerous. Rocks can loosen, leading to a fall and producing falling debris on your partner underneath. Trees growing out of the mountainside are clinging to rock by fragile roots. Small disturbances, such as you grabbing them for a handhold, can easily pull them loose. Bad for the tree, worse for you.

Even if you don’t fall a dangerous distance, minor cuts and scrapes can turn deadly outdoors. It’s rare, but improve your odds by keeping them minor. Breaking a bone, especially a leg, outdoors is no minor matter when there are no medical facilities nearby.

Don’t try to exceed your limits by a wide margin. Risk for the sake of adventure is part of an exciting life. Foolish risk for the sake of impressing your fellow campers is dumb.

Camping – Powering Your Campsite

One of the great joys of camping is experiencing the outdoors – fresh air, beautiful scenery, peace and quiet. But there are advantages to modern civilization, too, and not all of them have to be left behind. Cooking, lighting and powering cell phones, GPS units and other devices all require some kind of power.

Most power sources are gas or electric, though liquid fuels like ‘Coleman fuel’ or white gas, kerosene and unleaded gasoline are used as well. If you drive an RV to the campsite, you may be able to power a number of things off the RV, either by connecting to large batteries, or using it as a generator. But most sources will require a self-contained source.

In times past, kerosene was a popular choice for both cooking and lighting. But the unpleasant smell made it less than ideal. Today, most lighting is electric. Coleman-style lamps are everywhere, even though Coleman is far from the only manufacturer. Being copied is the price of producing a successful design.

Solar powered lighting is becoming more common. Most campsites, at least during non-winter months, have ample sunshine anywhere outside heavily tree-shaded areas. Photo-voltaic cells are used to absorb all that free energy, storing it up for later use. They convert that radiant energy into electrical power, typically storing it in rechargeable batteries.

The efficiency of contemporary solar cells is so high that lamps can now be used for up to 12 hours, and some have mechanisms for powering other devices as well. One type, the Everlite (http://www.newlite.com), can supply power to recharge cell phones, Blackberries, iPods, GPS units and other devices.

One way solar powered lamps accomplish that amazing task is by using bulbs that use electricity very efficiently – such as LEDs. The older generation will remember LED clocks and watches from the 1970s. Those clocks had red numbers, made from a series of dots or lines composed of Light Emitting Diodes.

Back then, they required substantial power, but they’ve been vastly improved. LEDs (no longer just red) can now produce very bright, natural spectrum light with a minimum of power. LED bulbs used in the home (not solar powered), for example, can last 10 years or more, while consuming much less electricity to illuminate them.

One of the drawbacks of traditional electric Coleman lamps is the need for heavy batteries – either the large, rectangular (and massive) 6 volt type or several D-sized. With modern fluorescent or LED-type lamps that’s no longer necessary. The power requirements are much lower.

An alternative to electrical lamps is the still-popular propane or kerosene. Either can be used as a means of producing light, and they are cost-effective and produce adequate light. But refilling propane devices is less convenient and kerosene still has that unpleasant smell. For those who prefer them, however, they are available and usually at lower cost than solar powered or LED lamps.

Whichever method you prefer, always pack at least two lighting sources – a Coleman-style table lamp with a handle that can be hung on a branch or set down and a flashlight. You’ll use both frequently.

Camping – Plants to Avoid

The three most common toxic plants that campers are likely to encounter are poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Any one of these can cause a painful, itchy rash.

Poison ivy is probably the most common of the three, since it grows throughout most of North America. Shrubs can be as tall as four feet (1.2m), but it is frequently found as ground cover between 4-10 inches (10-25cm) high. It rarely grows above 5,000 feet, but most campsites are below this elevation.

There’s an old saying ‘leaves of three, let it be’ that makes for a good start on identification. The leaves tend to be a dark, dull green but can be purplish at certain times of the year.

Poison oak also has multi-lobed leaves, with fuzzy fruit on the branches. Sometimes the leaves are scalloped around the edge and can be wrinkled rather than smooth as poison ivy leaves are. Three lobes are more common, but five lobed leaves exist as well.

Poison oak grows in sandy soils from southern New Jersey to Florida, but occur in western parts of the U.S. too, such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The range extends north to the Sierra Nevada all the way up to southwestern British Columbia in Canada and as far south as northern Baja California in Mexico. Some types are found in Washington, in the Columbia River gorge, Oregon and Nevada.

Poison ivy is more common in the east, poison oak in the west and south.

Poison sumac is the least widespread, since it prefers very wet soils such as swamps and peat bogs. The leaves are bluish green, sometimes with red tips or tints. The berries on the bush are cream colored. Though less common, it is the most toxic of the three.

All of them produce urushiol, which is the material that sticks to the skin and produces the unpleasant rash. One particular problem with contact is that since urushiol is oily it can easily be spread to parts of the face, hands and elsewhere by casual brushing. The oil tends to stick to parts it contacts and then stays there, where it quickly binds with skin cells.

The rash can range from mild to severe and cortisol creams are usually used to treat the symptoms. The first step to treating it, once you know you’ve made contact, is to avoid spreading it. Don’t touch your face or other parts of the body.

Washing thoroughly with soap and water helps, but once contact has been made some amount of effect is almost inevitable. Fifteen minutes after contact, washing has minimal effect, since the urushiol has already bonded to the skin. There are a fortunate percentage (around 15%) of individuals who are immune to the effects. There’s no vaccine and extreme cases can lead to blistering and a burning sensation.

Apply a spray or cream to treat the effects and avoid scratching, no matter how great the temptation. That will only make it worse. The effects take about two weeks to fully wear off, but if treated the itching will subside in a few days to a week.

Avoidance is the best policy.

Camping – Planning Your Camping Trip

Camping should be spontaneous, fun and relaxing. But in order to relax and enjoy that spontaneity, advance planning is a must.

Camping has been a tradition for over 100 years, but back then it wasn’t camping so much as just living in the wild for a while. It began in earnest, as a widespread form of vacation, in the 1940s. But it really got going over the following 20 years as the post-WWII economy improved and the highway system developed.

Now, with RVs and the advance of technology camping became enormously popular. Tents, sleeping bags, GPS units, cell phones and much else is much different than 20 years ago. The result? Many campers vie for a spot during certain weeks of the year for a limited number of campsites.

Commercial campsites sprang up to satisfy the need, but there are limits from economic constraints (many campsites don’t make profitable businesses). The number of desirable spots outside National and State parks is limited, too. There’s only so much great scenery around.

So, the first step in planning your camping trip is to decide when and where you want to go, then make a reservation. There are hundreds of places online to do that. Two are ReserveUSA (http://www.reserveusa.com) and The National Park Service Reservation Center (http://reservations.nps.gov).

Like booking a good cruise, you’ll need to book at least three months ahead and, for the best spots, possibly as much as a year or more. Rooms at the famous Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, often require booking two years in advance. Pretty extraordinary considering that the cheapest room is $350 per night.

Once you have a confirmed reservation you can prepare your packing list. You could throw everything into the SUV and take off. But the odds are high you’ll overlook something essential.

You’ll need a well-stocked first aid kit. You should spend time reviewing the list of most common toxic plants for the location you chose and any wildlife warnings for the area. Bears are common in some areas, wild cats in others.

Make a complete list: tents, sleeping bags, clothing, tools, stove, lighting, … that’s appropriate for the place and time of year. That list will be at least one page of four columns full of things even just to hit the basics.

Investigate any road closures, especially if you’re planning a winter camping trip. Floods, rocks slides, snow avalanches, ice and other problems are still fairly common.

As the trip date gets close, check the weather. Most camping areas are in the mountains or away from urban areas. Those areas tend to have less predictable weather with sudden rain squalls, thunderstorms, etc. But, you can get a good idea of what you’re likely to encounter anyway. Pack accordingly.

Plan ahead carefully and you’ll be in a better position to relax and forget about controlling events during your trip.

Camping – How to Pick a Sleeping Bag

Older sleeping bags were little more than a cotton and wool blanket folded over and fitted with a zipper. Modern sleeping bags have benefited from a dozen advances in materials science and ergonomic design, not to mention thousands of (night) hours of field testing.

Almost all have a nylon shell, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same, even in that respect. Nylon can be thick or thin, sturdy or fragile, heat conductive or not. It can also be truly waterproof or merely offer a momentary delay in getting soaked. Look for strong, tight seams and composites that truly do the job.

The interior of sleeping bags has changed over the years, with more and more offering superior insulating materials. Some weigh as little as an ounce per square yard. Primaloft, Dupont Thermolite and other synthetics has made it possible to produce a lightweight bag that really keeps the cold out, while still allowing the interior to breathe.

Clever design has been added to ingenious materials in many models. Those that offer layered synthetic insulation with natural (or even synthetic) down provide excellent temperature control and great comfort. Fill is measured by a number, with 750 now the bottom for a good bag, 900 is better. The number represents the volume occupied by a single cubic ounce of material. Use it to compare bags.

Materials aren’t the only thing that’s important. Geometry has really been improved in contemporary designs. A full length zipper is important on those nights when it’s warm and you want to let a little air in. But having a well shaped mummy hood and draft collar are big advantages on those nights when you don’t.

The mummy hood helps keep your arm warm if you’re the type to put it under or above your head. It’s also designed to allow you stuff clothes and towels beneath a liner to make a pillow. At the other end, space has been expanded in some models to allow those who sleep on their backs to keep their toes pointing up in a comfortable position.

A bag should keep the cold ground out of the bag while allowing you to move freely. Those characteristics are hard to obtain together, but modern designers have accomplished just that.

At the same time, you want that bottom layer to provide sufficient padding when you don’t have an air mattress or cot. Some models accomplish that with a slide-in rollable pad, others have the padding built in. Look for ones that provide adequate comfort without adding excessive weight and bulk.

Your sleeping bag is the most important piece of large equipment you’ll take on a camping trip, unless you sleep in an RV or motel. There are those that would argue that isn’t really camping. A tent is important, but there are trips where you don’t want or need one. Your bag is your last line of defense, and your first line of comfort, for a great night’s sleep in the outdoors.

Get a great night’s sleep and you’ll be well-refreshed to tackle that hike the next day.