Rule 1: No nav allowed.
We stood in line at the Walmart in Wassau, Wisconsin adding up the sum of our cart. “Do we really need this?” I asked holding up the 2014 American Road Atlas for $6.95–up until that point we were using some navigation app. Despite all of the penny pinching we did on our one month camping trip, this was the best 695 pennies we spent. This book of paper maps of all 50 states and Canada marked with all major and minor highways, scenic routes, state and national parks, campgrounds, and even roadside picnic tables was the most valuable item we had in our overloaded car. The problem with a navigation system is that you have to know where you are going. We didn’t know where we were going. But with an atlas we could weigh the possibilities. That is what made it an incredible trip.
Rule 2: Always have wood
Last summer we camped in France where campfires are not part of the camping concept. The french are more into pâté and making crepes over a gas flame, but fires are strictly interdit. In the US however, camping just simply isn’t camping without a campfire and making a campfire requires wood. Fortunately, it is easy to buy bundles on the side of the road. We fell in love with the hazy smoke at dusk that filled the campground and the smell of burning pine and cedar. For dinner it’s wood-fired corn on the cob and hot potatos buried in the ashes. For breakfast it’s bacon, eggs and cowboy coffee.
Rule 3: Go for non-electric
The best campsites are the ones that have no electric hookup. No hookup means no blenders, stereos, televisions, or automatic air mattress pumps. Yes, there are people, particularly RV people, who associate these objects with the great outdoors. With just our two person tent, a clothes line and two folding chairs as “equipment,” we tried to avoid these people. At night we listened to the howling of the loons on the lake.
Rule 4: Know that bears might visit
In Wisconsin, northern Michigan and especially Canada, there are bears. Like kind of a lot of them. Bears like sticky marshmallows that fall in the fire, chicken bones thrown into the woods, toothpaste left on the picnic table, and styrofoam trays that once had bratwursts in them. Even though we were very careful to put everything in our car at night, a drooling grunting black bear still paid us a visit at a campground near Sudbury, Ontario. He brushed along the side of our tent while we were inside and made his way over to our water bucket. Luckily he only wanted a little drink and he went on his way.
Rule 5: To make a payment, wait for instructions from park staff
Listen. Camping in the United States, particularly in rural, non-electric, water-pump sites is pretty relaxed. The state park campgrounds are usually several miles into completely isolated forest. There are park rangers of course, but they have thousands of acres to take care of and especially during the week, they are not too worried about the campgrounds. They might ask you to pay the camping fee….or they might not. We found that the best route was to just wait and see.
Rule 6: Drop coordinates
You might want to let someone know where you are from time to time. You know, for safety. In case someone wants to murder you. We left Door County, Wisconsin in a hurry as a thunderstorm rolled in across Lake Michigan. We thought that we could make it to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula without getting caught in it. Three hours later we were driving across a lonely highway under dark skies and roaring wind. We stopped and made camp at the first campground that we found. The place was completely empty save for two tents. As we were setting up under the creaking trees in the eerie pre-storm light, our fellow campers came over to meet us. They had nervous smiles and purple tinted lenses and said they weren’t up there to do any fishing. Maybe it was the macabre atmosphere or the fact that we were miles from any settlement, but the two guys gave me the creeps. In my mind, I started turning over all of the possible murder scenarios, always coming back to that woodchipper in the movie Fargo. Now it seems really funny and it became one of our favorite stories from the trip, but I didn’t sleep a wink that night. At 7am the next morning the rain had stopped. F wanted to go for a walk along the river, but I said “Oh hell no.” We packed up our tent in 5 minutes flat and left as the sun came up.
Rule 7: You need less than you think
It turns out you don’t need a shower everyday. You don’t really need clean clothes. You won’t need to worry about running out of milk. If the eggs aren’t refrigerated for a day or two, it’s no big deal. Your cell phone battery might die. You might need to use your t-shirt as a pillow case. It’s alright. Deodorant attracts mosquitos, so just don’t wear any. A bar of soap and water pumped from the well are good enough to wash your hair. There is no need for music, unless of course you want to listen to radio static or the only Johnny Cash album in the car for the twenty-fifth time. On this year’s camping trip, we kept things really simple. We just made do. Now that I’m back to my slightly more complicated real life, I realize it’s only complicated because I make it complicated. In my mind, I’m going to try to stay in a perpetual state of camping.