Monday, August 15, 2016

some things I have learned about camping.

James and I recently returned from an - and I don't use this word lightly - epic road trip. We journeyed from our home in southwestern Minnesota to Chicago to Niagara Falls to Toronto to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Door County, Wisconsin, and back home again.

And we did it with the help of a tent.

Let me back up. If you recall, James and I had our first tent-camping experience two summers ago, and I dare say that it was disastrous. I had given tent camping a chance, and it had failed me. Never again was I to make my bed in a tent.
This is a picture of our campsite from June 2014. It looks idyllic, but don't let it fool you: it was hell on earth.
That is, until the following summer.

Last summer, James and I took a road trip to Colorado and back, and we spent two nights in a tent. Turns out? Tent camping in Colorado and the Black Hills is waaaaaaaaay better than camping in mosquito-infested southeastern Minnesota. Plus, the campsites were pleasant (KOA!), and my mind was soundly changed. Tent camping was off my shit list.

James and I kicked off our summer 2016 camping season with a trip to Duluth. We spent the night in a campground outside the city, testing out our camping mats for the first time. This August saw us taking our most ambitious road trip yet. We planned to cover six states and one international border in seven days - and we were going to do it by camping our way there. We stayed in Illinois, New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and we made it out (mostly) unscathed.

So two summers and nine nights in seven states by no means makes me a camping expert, but I have learned a thing or two.

If you can help it, always go with a KOA or a state campground.
KOA was a lifesaver when we first stumbled across it while camping in Colorado. James and I aren't the best at planning our evening stays, and we needed to find a campsite fairly late one evening. KOA not only let us book online (as it was after office hours), but they had no set time by which you had to be in the campground. When we camped in Rapid City, we didn't get to our KOA until after 3 in the morning - and it was no big deal! Our campground in New York State was a part of Four Mile Creek State Park, and it was glorious. They also allowed online registration, and they also had no curfew. Those two things are musts for travelers like James and me: typically flying by the seats of our pants and not figuring things out until after office hours. Plus, we have found KOAs to all have a consistent quality, which is important. No errant hairs in the showers and all that.

The campgrounds we stayed in while in Lanesboro, Duluth, and near Door County were all privately owned, and they were all weird as hell - the Wisconsin campground especially. First of all, we had to be in by 10pm (and we busted our asses to get there by 9:53pm, thankyouverymuch). This weird-ass campground was smack in the middle of a town, and it was one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen. Who the hell camps in the middle of a town? We checked in, and as James was filling out the registration form, he asked the manager (a middle-aged man with white hair) if he needed both our names on the form. "Nope - just HER name so I can call her later!" So registration came with a side of sexual harassment. When it came time to pay (cash only, of course), I got out my wallet. This man was downright incredulous that a woman could or would pay for anything. He acted as if he was unsure if he should take my cash, and looked at James as if, any second, James would chime in and say, "Silly woman! You KNOW you're not allowed to handle money. Now go make me a sandwich." But James said nothing of the sort, and the manager did eventually take my cash. But he sure left an impression on us.

The next morning, as we walked to check out of our campsite, everyone sat outside their campers (we were the only tent in the place) and stared. Unapologetically STARED. I guess non-locals are a novelty at that campground, but you can bet they'll never see THESE non-locals again.

Be on the lookout for coin-operated showers.
We have been unfortunate enough to stay at not one, but two campgrounds that required quarters in exchange for a shower. The first time was in Lanesboro (one of a great many things that went wrong), and we were fortunate enough to have enough quarters stuck in the seats of the car for each of us to purchase four minutes of hot water. The other coin-operated shower was in the Duluth campground, and we were prepared: it cost fifty cents for eight minutes, and I went in with seventy-five. I put in fifty cents, but I found myself wanting just a little more time when my eight minutes was up. I put in my last quarter, and… nothing. Turns out you can only buy hot water in eight-minute increments. So, covered in soap, I put my pajamas back on and headed out to the car, hoping James would have finished with his shower and be waiting there (as he had the car key). But, as is always the case in situations such as this, he wasn’t. So there I stood, dripping, in the parking lot, feeling a bit miserable, until James emerged and let me in the car to retrieve more quarters. You know where you don’t have to pay extra to shower? KOA. Speaking of showers…

You will never have to wait in line for a shower.
I was initially kind of nervous about how long I’d have to wait for a shower at one of these campgrounds. I’d always scout the bathhouse the night before and find that there were between two and four showers (or, in one case, six unisex showers) for a full campground. And you know how many times I had to wait for an open shower? NOT A SINGLE TIME. A few times, I was even the only one in the shower. Either no one was on the same showering schedule as me, or no one else showers while camping. In any case, it worked out smashingly for me. However, you won’t get so lucky with a spot at the sink. While not everyone showers, they do all brush their teeth and do their hair. And, one morning in Four Mile Creek State Park, one of the sinks in the women’s bathhouse was occupied by a ten-year-old boy who – no shit – brushed his teeth from the time I got in the shower until the time I left twenty minutes later. While brushing his teeth, he creepily sang the ABCs while staring at the women around him. This is the stuff of nightmares.

Mosquitos in Wisconsin will follow you into the shower and bite you as you shampoo.
No shit.

Camping saved us about a billion dollars.
Honestly, James and I didn’t camp our way through this Niagara Falls trip because we’re super outdoorsy and love to sleep on the ground. We did it because there was no way in hell that we could afford six nights of hotel stays on top of 2500 miles worth of gas costs, plus all the other expenditures that come with a week-long vacation. Allow me to demonstrate with some math. I paid an average of $30/night for our tent sites. Six nights of camping times $30 = $180. Friends, that is likely what we would’ve paid for ONE NIGHT in a hotel in the Niagara region during the height of the tourist season. Let’s pretend that we would’ve been able to find rooms around $120 each night. If we would’ve paid $120 (give or take) per night to stay in hotels, our cost would’ve skyrocketed to $720 – for lodging ALONE. That cost is simply not feasible for two people such as ourselves if we want to, you know, pay our mortgage and buy food and stuff. Thanks to tent camping being an option, we paid about a quarter of what we would’ve paid to stay in hotels – and even half of what we could’ve paid to stay at fleabag Motel 6s at $60/night. Tent camping allows us to be fiscally responsible while seeing some really cool places, and that is a winning combination.

Never EVER count out rain.
As you recall, my first-ever tent camping experience involved a torrential downpour. I got lucky for the next several camping nights – dry as a bone, and some nights even had a slight breeze. However, we can only be lucky for so long. For the last two nights of our Niagara Falls trip, James and I camped in the rain. Thankfully, it was less of a rain and more of a constant mist, but it was damp nonetheless. By this time, we’d had enough practice pitching our tent that we could do it relatively quickly and stay dry-ish. The problems came overnight. Somewhere in our little tent are leaks – and that’s to be expected, as we’re guessing that this tent (originally a gift from my parents to my sister that James and I have since adopted) is at least fifteen years old. The tent doesn’t leak from the roof (would you call it a roof?), but from the sides. We would wake up after a rainy evening with tiny puddles lining the sides of the tent, and the edges of our blankets would always be soaked.

Camping is SO much easier with the right stuff.
This one may be obvious, but I didn’t actually invest in legitimate camping gear until it became clear that we were camping our way to Niagara Falls and back. Until that point, we had camped a total of three times, and I wasn’t about to spend a bunch of money on gear that we’d rarely use. In preparation for this trip, I purchased camping mats, camping towels, and a battery-operated camping fan/lantern. All of these things proved their worth – camping mats meant we didn’t sleep directly on the ground, and the fan provided some much-needed white noise to distract us from the drunk neighbors – but none more so than the camping towels. They were advertised as quick-drying microfiber cloths, and I was eager to try them. Last summer, James and I camped only two nights on our Colorado trip, but we brought along regular towels. Of course, those didn’t dry well in the car, which meant that they stunk, which meant that our entire car stunk. Not so with the microfiber towels. We draped them as best we could in the car’s hatch, and they were always dry within a few hours. And – even after six nights of camping and a day of swimming in Lake Ontario – they didn’t smell. Microfiber towels for the win.

Camping forces us to get up and do stuff.
James and I are in no way early risers, and I find that to be a major flaw – especially on vacation. I want to pack as much as I can into my vacation waking hours, but I also find myself reeeeeeeally wanting to sleep in. So I sleep in, and then I’m wracked with guilt about the things I could’ve done while my lazy ass was still in bed. Camping totally solves this problem. In a hotel room, it’s awfully easy to sleep late – it’s quiet, you have a (hopefully) comfortable bed, and your room is temperature-controlled. Not so with tent camping. By about 7am, your neighbors are starting to get up, and they tend to be pretty noisy – especially if they brought children with them. It’s also starting to get kind of hot in your tent, and chances are your back kind of hurts. Obviously, you can’t really sleep, so you might as well get up, right? Thanks, camping!

Nothing will make James angrier faster than rolling up camping mats in a hot tent.
Pro tip: make sure he’s well-fed and that you do this BEFORE you shower.


Moral of the story? Camping is fun and cheap, but it is full of potential mishaps - and if there is a mishap to be had, James and I will have it. Camping season 2016 may be coming to an end, but stay tuned for more tenting misadventures in 2017!