Hacking Mother Nature
Camping Tips and Tricks from True Outdoorsmen
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Last Updated October, 2017: We’ve adjusted formatting for legibility. Links have also been updated.
Pitch a tent, fire, pack a cooler, tie a two half-hitches: these are the camping basics. Even if you didn’t study them in the Boy Scout handbook, online guides make them easy to learn. But what about the lesser-known, less intuitive ways to make camping more pleasant, comfortable or efficient? These are camping’s best-kept secrets — today we might call them “camping hacks”. Most can’t be found in a book. Think hard and you may discover you’ve built some up yourself: A bandanna doubles as a beer koozie. Hearts is the perfect camp card game. A ghost story is best told with someone hiding in the woods supplying sound effects.
But the best camping hacks come from people whose hearts and minds are constantly on the next meadow and copse, the trailhead, mountaintop or campsite. These experts — survivalists, adventurers, safari guides, chefs and more — are so in tune with Mother Nature’s song that they’ve added harmonies. Some are traditions handed down for generations; others were learned over thousands of hours of hard work in the woods, and others still were picked up by chance or desperate necessity. Though small, they are as varied as the terrain over the hillside. (One’s called a “Poop Tube”.) Together, they can change the way you camp. Here, the experts share their ways.
Alastair Humphreys: National Geographic Adventurer of the Year
Popcorn kernels are a gem of a trick. Tiny weight. I blast a panful as soon as I pitch camp. Salt and oil are welcome after a hard day and popcorn somehow feels decadent.
Black peppercorns. Grind with the pliers on my Leatherman. Adds a touch of class to dinner.
Alex Walker: Guide and Operator, Serian Safari Camps
If you’re camping in or near a sand-river, dig yourself a nice pit and line it with a groundsheet — and voila, you have a makeshift bathtub. Heat some water on your campfire and pour yourself a whiskey as you fill the tub. Recline under the stars for the ultimate al fresco soak, and watch as the night unfolds around you.
Parker Liautaud: Polar Explorer
Be organized. You’re dealing with a ton of crap when you’re camping: millions of little things, gloves everywhere, socks lying around, a penknife, you have your boots lying somewhere. It’s really easy to lose stuff. Having a really well thought-out system for where you put stuff once you’re inside the tent means you don’t risk losing things.
It’s specific to the environment. In Antarctica… I put my inner and outer gloves, face mask, things like that — those all went in my sleeping bag because I knew I needed my body heat to warm those up and keep the moisture out. Anything else I didn’t need to sleep with — goggles, for instance — would go on a little pocket on the inside of the tent so they didn’t get in the way of things. I would always put my boots at the back, because they were always in the way. When I took off my hardshell, I’d use that to elevate my head, as a pillow — we didn’t have pillows, that was extra weight we couldn’t carry.
Darran Wells: Associate Professor of Outdoor Education and Leadership, Central Wyoming College
It is almost always worth it to go that extra mile for the campsite with the view. Being able to navigate confidently off-trail opens up another world of camping possibilities away from often crowded designated camping areas.
Just because someone has obviously camped in that backcountry location before doesn’t mean it is a legal campsite. Always check your distance from trails and water.
My favorite website for planning a hiking route: hillmap.com. Allows split screen which shows a topo map right beside a satellite view at same scale.
Learn to fly fish with a lightweight Tenkara rod and forage for wild edible plants, ‘shrooms, and berries so you don’t have to carry all that mac ‘n’ cheese around with you. It’s tastier when you earn it, and you’ll live longer too.
Chris Burkard: Professional Photographer
Put a headlamp around and facing into a big bottle of water for a soft, freestanding, diffused light.
Will McGough: GP Travel and Outdoors Correspondent
Your choice of shelter is up for debate, be it a big tent, small tent, hammock or tarp. But don’t you dare skimp on an A-list sleeping bag and sleeping pad. They are the two most important deciders of your comfort when in the wilderness.
Don’t blind your friends. Buy a headlamp that has a red light setting. Your friends will thank you.
Two words: canned curry. Pick it up at an Asian grocery store. Whether you’re going light and eating rice and quinoa or packing in meat, the curry will enhance the hell out of your otherwise plain-flavored meal.
My morning mood in camp drastically improved when I invested in an insulated coffee cup with a lid. No longer do I feel I need to chug my coffee before it gets cold, and it is one of those things you wonder how you ever did without.
Joe Carroll: Author of Feeding the Fire and owner of Fette Sau and St. Anselm in Brooklyn
Wood is as much flavor as it is fuel, especially when you’re cooking simple food while camping. You can burn nearly any wood for a campfire, but not all wood is meant for cooking. Stay away from anything with a high sap content, like pine, cedar and other coniferous trees, which will impart an unpleasant flavor. When your only ingredients other than meat are salt and pepper or a simple dry rub (both easy to pack for the woods), the type of wood you use can have a profound effect on the taste of the finished product. While you might not be able to forage for air-dried or seasoned wood, stick with local hardwoods like oak and maple.
And be sure to cook over the coals, rather than plunging your food into the direct fire. Build your fire, and then rake some of the hot coals to one side beneath a suspended grill grate.
Demyan Hryciw: Instructor, REI Outdoor School
When nature calls #2, use a Poop Tube. This is a PVC pipe four inches in diameter and 10 inches in length (dependent on trip length) with a solid cap glued on one end and a threaded cap for the other. I use coffee filters upon which to void my bowels and package the waste. I drop the packages in the tube through the threaded end and sprinkle in oxygen absorbers from my freeze-dried meals to solidify the excrement for easy disposal after my trip. Close all poop tubes tightly so as not to leave a trail of your droppings. This is all in the name of Leave-No-Trace etiquette.
Before I set out on an overnight hike, I dab small globs of toothpaste onto a sheet of paper and let them dry like Candy Buttons. I roll the paper and place it in my lightweight Dopp kit along with other essential toiletries. Mornings of my hike I simply pluck a dab from the scroll, dissolve it in water and proceed to brush my teeth.
Terrence Smith: Senior Instructor, REI Outdoor School
I take a reflective cord for my bear bag. It lights up like day when your headlamp hits it and makes it easy to find at night or for an early morning departure. Tie your aluminum cup up with your bear bag near the clip so if something tries to get at it, you will hear it.
Jonathan Cedar and Alec Drummond: BioLite Stoves Cofounders
I like to pack all of my clothes and gear in stuff sacks inside my pack so I can quickly empty, find, and re-pack my pack in five easy parts.
Bring a good book. You never know when you’ll be stuck in a tent or somewhere else. And Folgers coffee bags. Light and good for one cup each.
Ueli Steck: World-Record Speed Climber
When camping in cold temperatures, I melt snow in the evening and fill my bottle with hot water. Putting the bottle in my sleeping bag makes it warm and comfortable. In the morning you already have water and you can immediately brew a coffee with it!
Buck Tilton: Founder, Wilderness Medicine Institute
Because I’ve grown somewhat tired of freeze-dried fare, these days I often cook something I like at home, something in the one-pot category, and freeze it in plastic, let it thaw in my pack, and warm it up over the old MSR XGK set on low heat.