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How to Be a Happy Camper

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The thing about camping that people don’t always tell you about is what it sounds like.

“We were camping out one cool fall night in Red River Gorge by a stream,” recalls camper Marc Phelps, “and fog rolled in and then owls started ‘hooting,’ but it was more of a cry and we couldn’t even tell they were owls at first. That was like something out of a horror movie.”

“It was really a great sound after we got used to it,” Phelps adds.

“The ‘quiet’ is typically something most novice campers do not prepare for and cannot,” say Rosie Enos, owner of backpacking company Roam the Woods. Such noises as “the swaying of tree branches, the humming of crickets, croaking of frogs, the raccoon pilfering for remnants of dinner and the ‘quiet’ of the wind. This can be where our imaginations go wild.”

If you think you’re prepared for the sounds of what Enos calls “just nature being nature,” then there are a few other things you’ll want to know as you attempt to become a happy camper.

Know where to pitch your tent.

Book your campsite online or by phone as early as possible, as spots fill on a first come, first served basis. But where should you camp? As a first-timer you’ll likely want to camp at a public campground, which will have “toilets, fire pits, picnic tables and can accommodate tents, cars and RVs,” notes James Kavanagh in his guide Camping 101. More than 1700 public grounds are managed by the National Park Service and other agencies and thousands more campgrounds are managed by your state parks. Another option is “free dispersed camping,” Kavanagh says, meaning you can camp wherever you please, usually in backcountry areas sans toilets and other amenties. Or you could opt for a private campground, though many of them are oriented toward RVers, he says.

Lynne Radcliffe, who camped as a youngster and present day enjoys packing a small tent on the back of her motorcycle, suggests that newbies “start with a state park. They're well-kept, usually patrolled, and don't cost much.” Eagle Scout and longtime camper Jonathon Papsin says a beginner’s best bet is a campground staffed 24/7. “This could just mean that there is a park ranger living on site or there is some sort of security office that is manned at all times for emergencies,” Papsin says, adding that you ought to “check with friends or contact the local town hall recreation office to get more information on the local campground to make sure it's easily accessible by car.”

Know what questions to ask.

Aside from asking not to sleep downwind of any latrine it helps to specifically “understand the restroom and bathing facilities [at your campsite] before reserving,” says Jeff Barber, who runs campground resource Tripleblaze.com. “Some campgrounds may offer ‘vault toilets’ -- basically a seat installed over a hole in the ground -- while others may specify flush toilets. And just because a facility has running water doesn’t mean showers are provided, and even if they are, they may be cold water only.”

Ask before reserving your spot if the site has “a special tent area,” suggests J. Kim Wright, who has camped in some twenty states, as “you don’t want to be stuck between two RVs who run their generators all night.” Barber notes that some “campgrounds may have rules about how many tents are allowed in a single site, so check if you’re traveling with a group, and also be sure to ask about the refund policy in case you change your plans or run into bad weather.” Also, don’t assume you can build a fire. Says Camping Life magazine editor Stuart Bourdon, “fire rules and regulations depend on where you are camping, so ask ahead of time so you can pack accordingly.”

Know what to pack.

Beyond sleeping bags and a tent – and by the way, if you don’t want to pitch one, “instant tents” essentially pitch themselves in about a minute – you’ll also want to bring along other items that could translate to a better night’s sleep. “Spend more money on the sleeping pad than the sleeping bag,” advises Phelps, and Radcliffe agrees if you don’t have a pad you’ll want “several blankets to put beneath your sleeping bag. Not only does this cushion you from the ground, it helps insulate you,” as even summer camping gets cold, she says. A plastic sheet or tarp is also handy, says Papsin. “Make sure you put this under your tent before setting it up and then tuck it in. Having a wet tent bottom sucks.”

Along those lines, packing your clothing and just about anything else you want to keep dry in zip top bags to ward off moisture, and avoid bringing dampness-retaining cotton garments. If you’re looking for an all-purpose way to dress for camping, Enos says you’ll “typically want a synthetic [long sleeve] base layer for top and bottom, a fleece top, warm hat” and a jacket that repels rain and wind. Also add another light fleece, down, or synthetic jacket if you know you get cold, she says.

Have non-perishable snacks on hand if unexpected weather or regulations dampen your ability to cook. And if you do cook, know open-fire cooking is tricky, says Reel Livin’ author Warren McClenagan, a lifelong fly fisherman and camper. “Two burner propane stoves are relatively inexpensive and simple to use,” he says, and “simple meals like spaghetti or dry soup mixes will provide the quickest, easiest meals. Any food you can prepare in advance and freeze like chili, taco meat, or hamburger patties will also make a convenient meal.” Also bring plenty of bottled water.

Pack insect repellent and sunscreen, a first aid kit, and flashlights and lanterns, since the latter will permit you to work hands-free. Also don’t forget your matches and fire starter, a can opener, a pocket knife, shower flip flops, rubber boots, baby wipes for quick clean ups, and plenty of toilet paper.

Know what’s dangerous.

Before pitching your tent under a tree, “make sure there are no ‘widow makers’-- broken and lose branches or debris -- tangled up in the tree that could come down on the tent in a stiff wind or storm,” says Bourdon. Among other campers, Papsin urged pitching your tent on level ground, “not a "sunken" area that could accumulate with water or stay especially wet should it rain.”

Bourdon suggests avoiding “sites with hazards such as anthills, large bee or wasp populations or piles of rocks or thick brush that may harbor snakes or other pests. As for those other “pests,” McClenagan notes that “bears and mountain lions get most of the press, but raccoons and domestic dogs ruin many more camping ventures. I put all my foodstuffs into large plastic containers and put them in a vehicle at night, just in case.” Never keep food in your tent, Kavanagh says and know that “the clothing you wear while cooking will retain food odors and should be stored away from the sleeping area, especially in bear country.” Also know how to spot poison ivy and poison sumac, says Shawn Urscheler of camping outfitter Campmor, as well as “any of the local poisonous snakes. Every area will have their snakes so you will want to educate yourself on these things first.”

If you have built a campfire, Papsin says to “always be sure that [it’s] completely extinguished before you leave. Your best bet after you have ensured your fire is completely out is to dig a small hole with some water in it and put excess ashes and coals in that and cover it back with dirt.”

Know your camping etiquette.

By far, the one rule most strongly advocated by the campers consulted for this article was leaving “no trace” of having been at your camp site, also popularly referred to as “packing out” whatever stuff and garbage you’re “packing in” to the campsite or campground. Beyond that, says Ray Hendricks, owner of Just Roughin It Adventure Company in Arizona, avoid overlaying the sounds of nature with your own noise. “There aren’t any hard and fast rules for when to keep the noise down [at campsites] but generally, quiet time is from 8pm to 6am.” Also try to set up your campsite about 200 feet from other campers if possible, Kavanagh says, and if you’re at a campground with a lot of people and numbered spaces, it’s “courteous to avoid walking through other people's campsites,” says camper Hazen Arnold.

“Camping can be a very fun adventure but for a lot of folks who haven't spent a lot of time outdoors it can be a huge wake-up call,” says Papsin. “Make sure you're okay with dealing with the bugs, dirt and fresh air. If it rains, things can get sloppy really fast. Like the Boy Scouts motto says, ‘Be Prepared.’”