Story and photography by Jason Frye
Never camped out before? No problem. Let a former Eagle Scout guide your through the basics – including how to start a fire with dryer lint and Doritos.
The azaleas have bloomed and another Masters’ Golf Tournament is in the books; here in the South that means spring has arrived. It is prime time to be outside, so grab your hiking boots, ice down the cooler, and throw the tent in the car because it’s time to go camping.
Oh, wait, you might not have camped before, or maybe you’ve only camped in the backyard, or maybe you’ve only camped in the living room pillow fort. No matter, I’m an Eagle Scout and I’m here to help. Welcome to Camping 101.
Camping comes in many forms, from backpacking expeditions where you carry everything on your back to glamping in a tricked-out Airstream complete with WIFI so you can Instagram those s’mores you’re making. Let’s look at something in the middle: car camping at a drive-in campsite. That’s a great jumping off point as you’ll need very little equipment to get started, and the options for exceptional campsites are many (Great Smoky Mountains National Park comes to mind, as do a dozen or more state parks and an equal number of national forests across the South).
Drive-in campsites have a number of advantages over their hike-in brethren, namely your car. When a wind storm whips through camp in the middle of the night, simply retreat to the car and pretend you’re in the Twister sequel. Rabid dog? Grab your keys and hide in the car a la “Cujo.” Hear Dueling Banjos playing and wonder if you’re about to have a “Deliverance” experience even though no one in your party looks as suave as Burt Reynolds circa 1972, and you can drive away. Plus, your car can be a big bear-proof (provided you lock it, bears are scary smart) lockbox for food and unneeded gear.
When car camping, you’ll need a tent and ground cloth or tarp, a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, water and other beverages, fire starting material, a flashlight or headlamp, camp chairs, and bug spray (always bug spray, it’s the South… you’ve been outside). Optional items include a hatchet, Yeti cooler (really, who would camp without a $500 cooler?), swimsuit, kayaks and/or bikes, shower gear, et cetera. Your setup depends a bit on where you’re going and what you’re doing, so I’ll focus on the basics: shelter, fire, water, food.
Most drive-in campsites have fire rings, grills, picnic tables, a level spot for your tent, and a camp store with firewood, snacks, and sundries. They are close to trailheads, lakes or rivers, and there are people around who can help you set up your tent after they’ve given you an embarrassingly long time to do it yourself.
You need a tent. It doesn’t have to be an expensive, low-weight, tough-as-nails tent like you’d use on a trek to Everest Basecamp. A Coleman tent from Target or a decent Kelty model from your local outdoor shop will work just fine. It does need a ground cloth (the thing that keeps dew and the damp ground from soaking through the floor of the tent) and good ventilation. Practice with your tent – set it up in the backyard, take it down, do it again and again until you know how to do it – so you can get camp-established quickly and easily.
Most campsites sell firewood (check and bring your own if necessary) but not fire-starting kits. I could walk you through making a firestarter out of dryer lint, newspaper, twine and paraffin wax, but who am I, Bear Grylls? Instead, let’s make an easy one. Bring a week’s worth of lint and some hand sanitizer with you, make a little cup of lint and place it on a bed of twigs, squirt a little hand sanitizer on it and light. Voila, fire. Now feed it larger sticks until it’s big enough for larger logs and you’re done.
For water, bring plenty. This isn’t expedition-level backpacking and most every campsite has potable water if you didn’t bring enough, so you should be fine. If not, outdoor stores sell purifying pumps and filters, UV light sticks that kill microbes in the water as if by magic, and even tablets you can drop into water to make it drinkable. Still, best bet is to bring too much water with you.
Finally, food. Keep it simple and eat Pop Tarts and Doritos (Doritos make a great firestarter, no joke) and cook some hot dogs on the end of a sharp stick. Or break out your Lodge Cast Iron skillet and whip up a batch of bacon and eggs for breakfast. You could even lean on some old Boy Scout and Girl Scout tricks and make aluminum foil pouches with potatoes, onions and ground beef, then cook these on hot coals. What about coffee? Who knows? I don’t know how to use a percolator, that skill passed with my grandparents, so my money is on an early morning run to the coffee shop, you did go car camping after all.