15 Camping Hacks That Actually Make Sense

I love me some nature — the animals, the walking, hunkering down in tents, snuggling in cabins, a good fire, the smell of the dirt, and the pure feeling of being immersed in scenery porn. There are many ways to go and be outdoors. I’m not about to tell anybody the ‘right way’ to enjoy nature or what parts should be most important to them. At this time of the year, people are gearing up to go camping and hiking. (Hey, I got a new tent. I’m ready!)

There are things you do in your own backyard or at your friend’s cabin that you can’t do in the back country — or even at a campground designed for car camping. Going into a public space — and most nature in the US is public land — means respecting the ecosystem and rules set up to protect you and the wildlife. If you haven’t hiked or camped a lot, things that seem ‘fun’ or ‘easier’ really fall under the category of ‘unnecessary’ or even ‘dangerous’. And the 41 Camping Hacks article has more than a few tips that aren’t nature friendly. Hell, they aren’t even real hacks. Here is my improved list of 15 tips that’ll help you have a better hiking and camping experience this summer.

That blue heron caught several fish -- I was just too slow to photograph it

That blue heron caught several fish — I was just too slow to photograph it

1. By an inflatable mattress and double it up with a yoga mat. You actually will be able to buy and find the yoga mat — you may already have one. And log onto Backcountry.com and you’ll be able to find plenty of deals on any level and price of inflatable mattress you want. Or just use a mattress — a foam or inflatable one depending on personal preference.

Inflatable mattress + yoga mat. Because let’s face it: many of you probably don’t even know where you can buy those foam pads

2. Using tin cans as a ‘portable food option’ to store bread is nonsensical. Let me give you a tip: the only thing you need to protect your food is a bear canister. This goes for car camping and backpacking. You can usually rent one, some campsites already have them at your site, and you can buy them for around $80. There are places that specifically require canisters, and that’s because canisters reduce the rate of bear/human incidents. Here’s a basic list of where bear canisters are required and where they’re highly recommended. It’s not just bears that get into your food. It’s ‘mini-bears’ — raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, ect. — and they are vicious little vermin.

3. Don’t glue sandpaper to your match box. Buy storm proof matches and bring a second lighter option (I use a Bic cigarette lighter) for good weather.


4. Biodegradable toilet paper and sanitary wipes should cover all the pooping materials you need. Put them in a ziplock bag. If you’re in an area where you have to pack it out, place the TP bag inside of a second ziploack bag filled with a bit of backing soda. I’ve also used leaves and smooth rocks for TP, but if that thought makes you sad, just don’t go on prolonged wilderness backpacking trips.

I don’t know why you would do this — even when car camping. There are usually running water toilets when you’re car camping — so bringing toilet paper is unnecessary. And are you really going to lug around a coffee can on a hike?

5. Hammocks are cool — in theory. Everyone wants to go outdoors and lounge in a hammock. And you can. No problem. I just think there are cheaper ones than these ones that remind me of baby swings and cost $399.

It’s a $400 baby swing.

6. On the topic of soap and cleanliness: you’re in the outdoors. There is dirt. There are bugs. Don’t try to over-sanitize it because nature will just blow a big, dirty kiss at you. Dr. Bronners soap (unscented) soap is great for camping, and it’s affordable and easy to find. I use it to wash pots, pans, and myself.

This is a day hike during a car camping trip. Charlie's messenger bag is what we carried to keep snacks, water, and first aid in.

This is a day hike during a car camping trip. Charlie’s messenger bag is what we carried to keep snacks, water, and first aid in.

7. I don’t even know what to say about the laundry detergent one. I’ve never seen anyone do this — nor have I ever had a ‘hand washing station’ even when car camping. This isn’t a hack at all — it’s more time consuming to construct and use than just pouring some drinking water over your hands. If you must, get a water filter and use the filtered water to wash your hands. Soap does kill germs, I promise.

This isn’t smart at all. Just use regular water and some soap.

8. This isn’t a hack, either. At the end of the day, all of your pots and pans should either go back in your car or into your bear canister. If you’re not car camping, make sure they’ll fit into the bear canister if you’ve done anything but boil water in them. Despite where you are (established camp ground or primitive site), your pots and pans should definitely not be handing on a tree. I just don’t understand the logic of this one. You can’t wrap those pots in a microfiber towel or put them into a trash bag to ‘keep them clean’? Remember the part about bears and mini-bears? If you’ve cooked food with those, you’re going to have guests coming to sniff at those pans.

Not a hack. If you want animals to come over and investigate your campsite looking for food, do this.

9. The ‘portable washing machine’ is hilarious (and tragic), and it’s another thing I’ve never seen anyone do. Ever, not even in my years of car camping. If you’re out for just 2-3 days, you can bring enough clothes to not have to wash any of them. If you’re on a more extended hiking trip, or feel you really need to wash something, that is what creeks are for. Or, my favorite trick, is to find camp ground showers and crawl in with my clothes on and wash them when I wash myself. Once again, this really isn’t a hack — you’re bringing more things with you that aren’t going to add to the enjoyment of camping. The real hack is showering with your clothes on.

I have never seen anyone do this.

10. There’s a lot of focus on creating lamps and light for your campsite. First, you’re probably going to get plenty of daylight (I’m assuming it’s summer). If you light a campfire, you’ll definitely have enough light. For extra light, flashlights and headlamps are all you should need. If you want ‘mood lighting’, go for it, but don’t use homemade oil lamps. They’re going to be more of a fire hazard than anything. If you’re in your tent, use headlamps when it’s dark. But don’t make hotel shampoo bottles into oil lamps. You will start a forest fire.

Pictured: an unsafe fire hazard

11. This is a picture of what is called ‘disposable hiking tape.’

Uses: none

If you’re hiking, here are two very important things you should do: 1) bring a compass (and know how to use it) and 2) bring a map. If you have problems using a compass and a map, you shouldn’t be going off trail. Hell, in many national parks and forests, there are areas where you specifically should not go off trail because if everyone did this, the ecosystem would get severely damaged. I posted my Olympic hiking photos from March, and we were told that the trail in the Hoh rainforest was a sludge path, but don’t go off the trail because if everyone did, the surrounding plant life would get trampled into mud. Trails are there to keep your clumsy, human feet from stomping all over nature. Many trails are well maintained or at least clear enough that a good (topographic) map should keep you from getting lost.

12. Don’t use a bucket and a milk crate as a disposable toilet. I’ve never seen this done, and it’s just as asinine as the laundry bucket idea. If you’re car camping, there are usually running water toilets. At some more primitive campsites, there are pit toilets. If you’re in the back country, you’re going to be digging catholes. If you’re not comfortable digging a hole and pooping in it, you shouldn’t be camping in the back country. Also, I don’t think I’d want to hike a full minute trying to carry a ‘disposable toilet’.

13. Once more with the light sources: don’t bring unnecessary fire hazards. Your best bet is to bring extra batteries for headlamps and flashlights. The phrase ’emergency light source’ should equal ‘extra batteries’ in your mind.

Pictured: more terrible advice

14. Another quick word about food: Use bear canisters. If you’re car camping, coolers are great, but there’s a reason bear canisters have quickly become the norm in food storage regulations on federal lands — it’s because they work. Most of the food tips on this list aren’t bad — hell, one of the reasons I still go car camping is to bring the dutch oven and make some awesome food over an open fire. But I pack up my food properly at the end of the day.

15. Honorable mentions: there are some tips that are actually good. The instant coffee and the microfiber towel are things I do carry on all my camping trips. They’re easy — and they work for car camping as well as in the back country. A lot of these tips are not applicable if you’re hiking and camping when you have to lug stuff on your back before you get to your campsite. The food ideas are fine for cabin BBQs or car camping, but I won’t be hauling spices with me on the 4 day 45 mile hike I’m taking this summer.

Pictured: all you need to enjoy nature

Pictured: all you need to enjoy nature

Limping across a railroad bridge — a guide to regret

Some people go to Disney land growing up (for the record, I did that, too). But some people also go see metal railroad bridges in the middle of nowhere. My parents strongly preferred the latter type of vacation. Hence, how I spent part of my summer when I was fourteen. It was spectacularly uncool — like nearly everything I did growing up. I wanted to hang out with my friends and read Harry Potter, not go see a railroad bridge. Specifically, we went to see the Kinzua Bridge in northern PA.

Behold, turn of the century engineering -- last century.

Behold, turn of the century engineering — last century.

And my dad said, ‘Hey, let’s walk across that.’

So we did — go across, I mean. Not really walk. More like use the splitter-giving wood railing as a guide dog. I would have crawled — if there weren’t gaps wide as my foot in the floorboards. Did I mention the thing was built in 1882? And refurbished to accommodate heavier trains in 1900? I was certain that’s the last time the ‘pedestrian walk way’ was built. It was living history; no one bothered to remind it that in 2001, there were child labor laws, standards to be upheld. Your walkways shouldn’t be small-adult hazards. It wasn’t just ‘don’t step on a crack’, but ‘step through a crack and plummet to your death.’

But I didn’t crawl. But I did whine. I also took frequent pauses, and when I did, it was breath-taking. I remember stopping to watch a deer drink in the creek bed below. It’s one of those idealistic Appalachian valleys they put on post-cards. And the bridge? The bearer of the murder walkway suspended me in the middle of it all. That was nice, or as nice this bridge was going to be to me.

I got the other side, and it was just like the side I’d left. And then, I had to inch my way back across — at least this time, knowing the boards should all hold my weight. My dad, of course, is striding across the railroad tracks, looping across the bridge in twice the time it took me to complete the round trip. I’m still glad a train didn’t come along. I would have pressed myself against the railing and cried. If that bridge had been shaking, the sunny day ordeal would’ve turned perilous. I wouldn’t have wanted to be there during a storm.

I crossed the bridge — there and back again. It took several hours, and was suitably thrilling for a fourteen year-old book worm. But my mom didn’t cross. She got out there with us and turned around. When we got back, she asked how it was. I’m sure I said something like, ‘Horrible, and dad just kept telling me it was no big deal.’

Years later, mom mentioned how she regretted not crossing the Kinzua bridge. You see, it blew down in a storm (I did tell you it was old and definitely a bit unsafe). She said she wished she would’ve done it. And that stuns me. It took a few hours! You let your teenager limp her way across it. What held you back — no, really, what was it?

She couldn’t say. It wasn’t that she has a fear of heights. It’s not that the weather was bad. Maybe the thing was just imposing — somethings just are. There are things that are bigger than us that are (even objectively) a bit unsafe. There’s a risk in engaging those things; they’ve got a power of their own, an intrinsic ability to humble you. But to go out there, to risk several hours of questionable walkways, is worth something you didn’t even know existed. It’s a change jar for your nerves — slowly accumulating to a point where you realize you might be stronger than you suspected.

And not crossing a bridge is a silly regret to have. Especially because you can’t go back. That chance is gone — the bridge is literally no longer there.

Kinzua Bridge in 2013. It blew down in 2003.

Kinzua Bridge in 2013. It blew down in 2003.

Beyond Soul Searching and Boxes Filled with Photos

I spent a lot of time traveling this summer; one of these trips was Planned and one was Very Much Unplanned. There was some ground, sea, and flight involved; and of course, a fair bit of walking. Last night, I put my suitcase away; I’ve been home two weeks. I looked at it, realizing I was slowly pulling things from it. I just needed to feel like I’m going somewhere; travel is a reassurance you have a destination in mind, a solid place in the universe. Both of my travel moments came out of feeling frustrated; they both came from a sense of lose, a thing that stemmed from a deep sense of failure. There is a bitterness attached to the first trip, a thing I hope fades in time; I know this isn’t the trip’s fault or mine. It’s a thing of timing, a twist of circumstance connecting things in my head; the things that happened after the trip were set before the plane took off, put into motion after I said I was going, but before I left. The second came after a wave of exhaustion and boredom, conquering the need to overpower being ground beneath emotions too heavy and brittle, impatient expectations. I told myself this trip would allow me to wait, pull me away from world; it took me away, whisking me into a self-made fantasy land where time lost meaning; my needs piled up, all large dreams put in boxes and stacked away.

Because dreams, the things I want in life, have no room in suitcases. I can’t find myself or achieve long-term goals on a plane or site seeing. Some people soul search during travel; my soul gets enough action. The places I’ve visited aren’t going to achieve my dreams or air brush meaning into my life; beautiful vistas or exquisite art won’t make me a more complete person. Higher revelations aren’t my thing.

My boyfriend quipped that I should “take pictures with my mind.” I said, “I already do.” That doesn’t prevent me from toting around a digital camera, trying to get some okay photos; out of a hundreds of pictures, there are always a couple that I find decent and encapsulating of what it meant to be in that moment. There are no pictures of food; it’s food, I’m pretty sure I’m not sucking down something thousands of people haven’t seen before. If you’ve got the recipe, I’ll take that, but no, no thanks to plate of French macaroons. I have no need to make a memory book or scrap book my life; yes, I’ve had it suggested I should make a scrap book with my pictures. Sorry, the flickr album must suffice.

This one, I think this next one is my dirtiest traveling secrets: I don’t keep a travel journal. I don’t keep a real journal, either, so I’m not surprised. I kept a journal for a while, and really, what did I get out of keeping it? It was a ‘Book of Problems Written By Someone Who Really Has So Few Problems in Life It’s Laughable.’ Being a detail oriented person, I would write down details, which meant I recorded how things went wrong and how I might change that next time. If you’re running experiments, it’s the way to keep notes; for running a life, I found it made me a needless worrier, trapped in a vortex of things I was doing wrong. I can’t do everything right, but it’s equally true it’s not all wrong.

When I traveled, I got sick, missed a ferry, lost more than a little time hunting down hotels and internet cafes, and drove for hundreds of miles at a time; I learned that you need to budget for these things. But guess what? I get sick at home, miss buses, lose a little time hunting addresses down, and I end up waiting to meet with people. The mistakes aren’t a reason to stay home. The only car wreck I’ve been in happened less than five minutes from my house, on my way back from the gym. That time I got stung by a bee? Backyard. Flu? Crutches? Yup, during the normal routine of school. Staying home, insulating myself never kept me safe; for the record, that was a big bee, and I shut it between my legs so it stung me twice.

I have the pictures, eschewing the soul-searching; I don’t want to talk about deep meanings or grand vistas. The reason I went, and would go a thousand times again, is because of the details; life is in the details, and travel is when all the details are amazing; the intricacies of the world aren’t about rent, what you’re making for dinner, or what night you have to do laundry. Yes, those things are part of travel, but they’re not the sum of it; the color of the rocks under bare feet, the feel of the sky pressing down over endless plains, the soft lines in two thousand year old pottery, the broad strokes of light in a favorite painting you could touch with your nose you’re so close. These are travel, these are the details I keep; I think, “I don’t want to lose this. I want to feel this freedom and passion because I know the world is made of more than I will ever see.”

And that? That’s why you should throw out your travel journal and refuse to scrap book. Although I will keep the camera. Somethings are just meant to be photographed.

The rocks and the sky.

Ancient, tiny pottery.