What does it take for a non-camper to become a camper? Get a tent and sleep in it. Bring something to eat for dinner, breakfast, and maybe lunch – whatever it is, it must be eaten outside. Voila, you’re a camper.
But what does it take for a beginning camper to graduate to the next level? You have a tent and you’ve slept in it. You have carried your meals with you and eaten them outside on the days that you slept in the tent. You may have done some necessary toileting outdoors. You even enjoyed a bit of nature on the way. So then, what’s the sign? Where is way-marker that says to a beginner, “You have left your novice ways behind you”? I say: advice. You have it. You’ve tried enough things along the way (some of them stupid) that you can say to yourself and others “Hey, consider this.”
In the last two and a half weeks, I’ve been camping twice. The first trip was a five-day intercultural trip to the coast with 18 high school kids. We got back on Friday the 3rd. Exactly one week later I was off again, but this time without students. A couple friends and I went up to the Aberdare mountains to camp for two nights. The Aberdares are a spot I had never been before this weekend, and it is a serenely beautiful place.
So here is a study in camping contrasts: two weeks ago, I slept in my tent at sea level in a tropical mangrove forest. Two nights ago, I again slept in my tent, this time at 11,000 ft in a very different kind of forest — one zone short of being alpine. Between the two trips, I gleaned a handful of new tidbits … advice that is mostly for myself (“dummy, next time don’t forget…”). But then, maybe you will find something in here useful … or interesting … or maybe just funny.
1. When camping above 10,000 ft, never leave home without wool. It doesn’t matter if you’re straddling the equator or if it’s still the dead of summer everywhere else in your hemisphere. Above 10,000 ft, frost is always possible. Wool socks and wool long johns – required. Gloves and a hat wouldn’t hurt. You can leave them in the bag if you don’t need them, but you can’t conjure them up when you do.
On the first night we were there (Friday the 10th), we had a light rain in the evening as we were finishing dinner. The stars came out, we made a fire, drank hot chocolate, and went to bed just as the moon was rising. It was pretty chilly. And it got chillier. Jon had warned me that it might be “cool” at night, but I didn’t think to bring any of the above mentioned items. Laying there in my sleeping bag, I did my best to keep the “cool” out (see 1b below). Halfway through the night, my nose was the only part sticking out of the bag and it was downright frigid. Dawn came as a relief. When I unzipped my tent at about 6:15am, this was the sight:
Frost on my tent. And not just a little.
Thick frost on the car windshield. Took awhile to start this puppy up.
There was also a lovely layer of frost on the campsite table. And since the table didn’t sit flat, it was a bit of a trick getting stuff to stay on the table.
These were the shoes I brought to use around camp. But those are not my socks. Jon kindly lent me an extra pair of cotton socks he had brought. Sadly, this little set-up was warmer (barely) than the shoes I had brought for hiking.
1b. Heavy plastic water bottles (ie. Nalgene) that seal tightly make great hot water bottles.
Pour boiling water in one just before bed and throw it in the foot of a sleeping bag to make a cold night cozier. This was the only thing that kept that first night from being completely sleepless. As I tossed and turned through the night, I would move the bottle to new spots that seemed a little too cool. The next night, (when it wasn’t quite so cold) it kept my toes nice and toasty.
2. If you have an nice fire going in the fire pit and it starts to rain, use some stones to cover the fire temporarily (without smothering the fire). The fire will heat the stones and the rain will evaporate off of them. Then, when it’s done raining, you can use a good stick to push the stones back where they belong, and you can throw more wood on the fire. Of course, don’t forget to tuck the extra wood under a tarp or something so that it too stays relatively dry.
I didn’t take a picture of the fire that we saved with a stone covering. However, I did remember to get my camera for the nifty self-starting fire that happened later. After we came back from a hike, there were still some warm coals in the fire pit. We started to throw in some kindling and the fire decided to start itself. One minute, smoke. The next …
3. Cinnamon rolls are possible at any altitude! I made them on both trips. It was a bit of a trick activating the yeast at 11,000 feet with the possibility of overnight frost. At sea level in the tropics, I just put the covered pot in the sun for 30 minutes. At 11,000 ft, I had to tuck a couple of hot stones around the pot and let it sit overnight. Still, it’s possible. And yummy to boot.
Cinnamon rolls getting started.
Ready to eat! They don’t look as pretty as those you bake in an oven since you have to cook both sides, but they still taste great!
4. Don’t ignore hot spots – they are blister seeds that will grow into thorny blister bushes. They hurt! A hot spot literally feels like a spot on your foot (or hand) that is getting warm faster than other parts of your foot. It’s usually due to friction: something rubbing continuously against that spot. If you don’t change something, it WILL become a blister. There is no willpower strong enough to stop a blister while you’re still walking. You’ve got to stop walking and give the spot a bit of extra attention.
We hiked a total of about 20 miles over the weekend. One trek was up to a peak at 13,000ft. The other was to a water fall. On the first hike, I got a lot of grit in my shoes. I should have washed or brushed the shoes out as soon as I got back to camp. They are light and very washable – they would have dried. I didn’t though. So, the next day, we walked about 9 miles to a waterfall and the grit from the day before was rubbing the ball and the heel of both feet the whole way. I could feel the hot spots after about 5 miles. I could have rinsed them out in the stream where we rested. I didn’t. I just kept walking. Result: king-size blisters on both feet. I didn’t take a picture of those, but you can imagine.
5. Witnessing the beauty and majesty of God’s creation is worth the walk – the miles, sore muscles, blisters, bum knee, sunburn, chapped lips, and dehydration headache. Very worth it.
On our first hike, we could see Mt. Kenya in the distance. It doesn’t look like much of a mountain, but I can say from experience that it is a butt-kicker. The tiny tip at the top touches 17,000 feet.
Once you get past the tree line, it’s all bushy moor grass.
Some of the big trees in the forest near the alpine level were covered in this lovely spongy moss.
Hyena track (or so we think).
Baby elephant doo – fairly fresh. No worries though, our guide had a gun … for making loud noises.
This is the top of the Karuru Falls – a waterfall that drops around 900 feet in four breaks.
It drops from here …
… to here. And you can see it dropping off the edge again.
The next layer of trees is a long way down.
This was another water fall across the valley from where we were standing.