March 9, 2018
By Lisa Petrison
Following is a letter that I wrote soon after I started tent camping full-time, to an online acquaintance who was interested in trying it herself.
This was March 2009, and I had been living mostly in a tent (along with a few nights’ stays each week at the local Hampton Inn) near Las Cruces, NM, for about six weeks.
Prior to that, I had lived for about a year after moving out of my house in buildings in Illinois, Florida, Colorado and New Mexico.
My reactivity was really high at the time, and my preferences were slanted accordingly.
As I got less reactive, places like KOA’s started to feel much more appealing. And, as it turned out, getting an RV was a terrific idea!
In re-reading the rest of this, it seems that very little has changed in the nearly 10 years since I wrote it.
I no longer would have to carry around printed books since I could read them on my Kindle, and so that would save some space in the car.
Neither REI nor L.L. Bean takes things back after a year any more, which means that shopping around on the web and buying desired items from somewhere else that is cheaper may be well worthwhile now.
The air in southern New Mexico is not as good now as it was in early 2009, I don’t think. So I would likely be spending more time seeking out good locations now, rather than having everywhere that I went (outside the cities) feel good to me as it did back then, I think.
But other than that, if I were starting over with this process, I’d probably do the exact same thing again and have the same results.
I therefore thought that I would share this information now, for others who are starting out themselves.
The first question to decide on when you are thinking about hitting the road is whether you want to do RV camping or tent camping. I’ve only done tent camping so far.
In general, the best tent campgrounds are ones that are impractical for RV’s or that restrict them to one part of the campground. If you’re going to pitch a tent, you want it to be a bit out of the way.
I’ve also only done “car camping,” where you park the car and then set up the tent within just a few yards of the car.
Some people who want to get really into the wilderness do backpacking, but that seems to me unnecessary. I don’t think that the air is better if you walk a while away from the car. It’s just a more “back-to-nature” experience.
Tent campgrounds generally have a picnic table, a fire ring and (maybe) a barbeque grill for each site.
Fees generally range from free (the Gila Cliff Dwelling campground) to $20. I heard of one campground near Santa Fe that has a variety of different hot springs (e.g. with different minerals in each) and cost $40, but that’s extremely unusual.
I’ve also heard that campgrounds in more crowded areas, like the East Coast, can be more expensive.
Campgrounds often have stay limits – for instance, 14 days within a certain period. This seems to be just to keep people from living there permanently.
One issue that I’ve found is that not all campgrounds have flat spaces to pitch tents. Here in New Mexico, the ground can be pretty hard too. This is an important factor to look for when choosing a particular campsite in a campground.
Some campgrounds take reservations in advance. Most are first-come-first-served. If camping during prime season, getting there at the right time or making reservations may be important, especially on
New Mexico in the winter does not count as prime season, so I’ve not worried about that.
A pretty high percentage of campgrounds have “comfort stations” with warm-water showers. Sometimes these are fine (City of Rocks) with regard to mold, sometimes not.
Don’t step inside the rest room until you know you have a way to decontaminate if it’s bad! Trying to camp while “carrying the response” is worse than staying at home, provided that home is relatively clear.
I am suspicious of shelters with toilets with plumbing, though these seem less likely to be bad than buildings with showers.
Vault toilets – also called pit toilets – usually are fine (presumably because they have no plumbing), but I ran into a very bad one here in NM. New Mexico gets about 4 inches of rain per year, so that really surprised me.
Again, be cautious! Don’t choose the middle of the night to try out the toilet, no matter what kind it is.
I’ve yet to stay at a KOA campground. Maybe I would do it in a pinch, but I’d prefer not. They tend to be located in towns, which means that neither air quality nor ambience is very good.
Bookstores have a couple of big books listing campgrounds.
“Woodalls” is one of them. These books claim to be about RV and tent camping, but they’re extremely heavily slanted to commercial RV campgrounds and are primarily advertiser-driven.
The best campgrounds for tents tend to be national or state parks, which often aren’t listed in these books at all. I see no reason to even buy the books, therefore.
Thus far, I’ve only sought out campgrounds in NM. I was using the Frommer’s guide to New Mexico for a while, because it listed brief mentions of different campgrounds. Their recommendations were fine.
My recent discovery was a series of books called The Best in Tent Camping.
They list various quiet campgrounds for “Car Campers Who Hate RV’s, Concrete Slabs and Loud Portable Stereos.” This is precisely what I’m looking for now.
The NM campgrounds listed in the book have had great air quality and are really lovely.
The book also gives a good idea of what to expect when you get there and how to make the most of experience (e.g. which sites to choose).
There are separate books for most states, with about 40-50 campgrounds described in each book.
And yes, I’ve decided that I hate RV’s. The only thing appealing about them is that if I had a little trailer, I could fit more stuff in it.
Contemplating going on long distance travel with just what I can fit in the SUV is getting a bit daunting.
I was doing okay until I added a cooler, shower-in-a-box, shower shelter, some vaguely decent clothes (will I ever wear them though?) and some non-perishables. I’m going to have to put some thought into how to streamline.
Following is what I’ve been carrying in the car:
* Tent (moderate size, would fit four people really tightly squeezed together; I can just barely stand up in the tallest part)
* Mallet to pound tent stakes into the ground.
* Two warm sleeping bags, two fleece sleeping bag liners/sheets (all put to use on cold nights!)
* Silk sleeping bag liner/sheet
* Self-inflating sleeping bag pad and a fleece blanket to put over it (prevent slipping and sliding)
* Washable/compressible pillows
* Privacy shelter for showering
* Foldable camping chair, foldable stool for carrying long distances, foldable little chair for use in tent
* “Dual Fuel” lantern (uses white gas or gasoline), various battery-operated lamps and headlamps
* Propane grill-stove (works as two burners or grill)
* Little propane tanks and white gas
* A bunch of pans and dishes
* Thermos carafe for warm beverages at night
* Foldable basin to wash dishes, biodegradable soap
* Clothes and shoes (maybe too many even for a mold warrior)
* Camping towels (small and fast-drying)
* Ceiling fan (to improve air circulation)
* A few books (tourist/campground guides, a few novels, “Mold Warriors”), passport, blank notebooks, a few miscellaneous papers
* A very few cosmetics/toiletries
* Tiny little purse, keys
* One pair of earrings, one necklace, two super-expensive watches (the latter obviously was a mistake, and now I have to make sure I don’t lose one….all the other jewelry is in a safe-deposit box)
* Glasses, contact lenses
* Cell phone, regular and car chargers
* Rag rug for tent
* Lots of bottled water
* Collapsible 5-gallon water container
* Laptop computer (an inverter allows me to charge through the cigarette lighter while on the road)
* iPod adapter (to play through car stereo)
* Plastic hangers (for drying clothes in hotel rooms)
* Hiking staff (I just ordered this from LL Bean)
* Collapsible backpack
* Supply of garbage bags, paper towels and handy wipes
* Firewood (sometimes)
This is a lot of stuff, and upon reflection I’m surprised that it fits in the SUV. My packing skills are really good.
Unfortunately, I use all of this stuff on every trip. It fits now, but barely.
Of course, what I’d really like is the option to sleep in the SUV when it’s rainy or cold or windy.
In theory, I could set up the tent and put all the stuff in it. This would work in cold or rain.
So far the tent has not blown away in wind, but tonight may be a good test! I really should get out of NM during windy season, if I can figure out what kinds of things I can leave behind.
Sleeping in the front seat of the SUV is possible in a pinch but hardly optimal.
I’d rather sleep in the tent regardless of the weather. I’ve done so in cold (down to 15 degrees at night), wind (30 mph) and rain (drenched with the Midwest monsoon from last September), but having an option to sleep in the car would be a good thing.
Wind is the biggest tent problem, at least insofar as one stays in vaguely temperate climates.
Someone recommended recently that I set the tent up as a storage shelter and then sleep in the SUV. The smaller items all are in plastic bins, so this would be possible.
Thus far this has seemed unnecessary though. If I can pitch the tent, I’m inclined to sleep in it for the air quality. Otherwise why am I doing this?
None of this camping stuff is particularly cheap, by the way. Starting over due to unexpected contamination would be a bad thing. Once in a while cars go really bad (I think maybe from the air conditioning?), but this seems pretty rare.
I suppose I could survive fine without some of this stuff. People I meet on the road all do.
It’s hard to imagine doing this long-term without it though. A few creature comforts seem an important thing, if I’m not going to give up on this venture/adventure.
Buying a little tiny trailer just to tote stuff in seems stupid. Maybe I could get a carrier for the top of the SUV, to put sleeping bags in. That would help a lot! Overkill maybe though.
Honestly, tent camping isn’t very hard. And it doesn’t feel like “roughing it” with all these toys.
The people at REI are excellent with recommendations. Both REI (for members) and L.L. Bean will take stuff back for infinity with barely any questions asked, so I recommend buying stuff only from these places.
RV camping seems much more difficult. There are lots of things to maintain and that can go bad. Not just mold, but all kinds of operational stuff. And I’d be afraid of getting into an accident, due to difficulty maneuvering. I wouldn’t know how to judge a used one, and new ones have chemical problems.
And anyway…..I like the idea of this journey feeling like it’s getting back to nature. That makes it feel less like it’s all about avoiding mold.