Rediscover old-school camping

Ross Bielema
Leader Columnist

In 32 years of reporting, I’ve discovered that I am easily swayed into a fast-burning interest in almost any hobby or sport, but my interest soon fizzles. I recall years ago that model railroading fascinated me. Members of a local club in Clinton, Iowa, wanted me to attend their meetings held in the basement of a downtown building. What kid didn’t marvel at model trains? Sure, I had a small set at one time. I still love trains, especially the old steam trains. But no, as a grown man, I wasn’t about to devote large chunks of my meager earnings and time to this hobby. I also remember a soldier in Davenport, Iowa, who made boomerangs. Again, a totally fun sport. Had one as a kid (I think it was a Wham-O). But I’ll let you in on a little secret: boomerangs rarely come back, and you really don’t want them to come back anyway, because they really hurt when they strike your head. But one thing that has rekindled my connections with both childhood and the outdoors is camping. Lance, a good friend of mine at work, has been gearing up for some serious tent camping the past few weeks. Like me, his first plan of attack on a relatively new activity is to buy and assemble modest to large quantities of gear. Dive in head first, buy lots of stuff, then figure out what works. It’s not the smartest way to do it, but it does help the economy. Lance has an edge on me. He has a son in Boy Scouts and has been official camp cook for his son’s Scout troop on more than one occasion. I know I’ve mentioned before that my wife told me about her love of camping early in our relationship. I bought the story, not realizing that her idea of camping was with her parents in a modern camper. Different strokes, sure, but I want to use a tent, make a fire, cook over that fire, swat mosquitoes, pick off ticks, shoot cans, whittle, poop over a log … OK, skip that last one. But primitive is the watchword, not Winnebago. On Sept. 19, 1998 (I sure hope I got that date right), my lovely bride and I tied the knot. And opened wedding gifts that included a two-person tent, sleeping bags, camp stove, Coleman lantern, camp cookware and other gear that would make Bear Grylls jealous. All that gear is right now in my garage. Unopened. So I’m very excited about a possible camping trip with my buddy Lance, his son and my daughter. I have most everything I need, and what I don’t own, Lance will buy! Call it a symbiotic relationship. Ever since I camped in my parents’ backyard as a grade-school boy with my best friend Lauren, I’ve been hooked on tent camping. OK, maybe not hooked, because my next tent camping came when I was in college. Another good friend, Craig, and I took a canoe trip down the Current River in Missouri (highly recommended) and quickly discovered that 6-foot-tall men don’t fit well in a kids’ pup tent bought with S&H Green Stamps in the early 1970s. • So, Lesson 1: buy a tent big enough to accommodate all your campers (or bring multiple tents). Why are some tents $60 and others are $260? You’ll discover why if it rains. Be sure to buy seam sealer and seal all the seams of your tent, no matter which model you buy. A good tent, like almost any other quality gear, costs a bit more than the junky stuff. • Lesson 2: A good sleeping bag is worth its weight in gold when the weather turns cold. Use the temperature ratings on the packages only as a comparison guide — bags will not keep you warm at the lowest temperature listed. Mummy bags are more efficient at keeping you warm than flat bags. Again, spend a little more and you’ll be glad you did. • Lesson 3: Plan your trip and you’ll have more fun. If you are staying at a park or other organized campsite, you’ll likely have water, bathrooms and other amenities available. This is probably the way to go if you are a camping newbie. If you pick a remote site or set up in an undeveloped area, you’ll need to carry water, which will definitely weigh you down. There is so much good information available out there, whether you talk to a camping expert at one of the sporting goods stores (NOT the discount stores) or go online. REI, a Madison-based outdoor gear cooperative, not only has a huge array of quality gear, but also offers hundreds of articles on camping and other outdoor sports: You can also go camping with an experienced camper the first few times until you learn some of the tricks of the trade. Like not leaving steak bones near the campsite. I learned that one in Missouri, too. I never knew raccoons could sound so menacing as they fought over our steak bones at midnight about 30 feet away! Stay tuned. I’ll tell you how our camping trip goes.