Camping - it's a brute necessity, and one of the most refined and civilized of pleasures. Our remote ancestors would never have survived and evolved without the ability to build strong and protective shelters in the wild - the wiliness and courage to gather or track down their food - and, perhaps most of all, the resourcefulness to entertain themselves and each other in the infinitely long evenings before civilization.
At the same time, we thoroughly civilized, contemporary urban dwellers have the opportunity to appreciate the outdoors in a special way, one that was, perhaps, not available to our faraway forerunners: the way of contrast.
After all, they knew no other way to live. But we have our hyper-busy existences to compare against the unhurried ways of forest and countryside. And serious campers know that their everyday lives enrich their experience of camping, much as the dash of chocolate syrup can just make that dish of vanilla ice cream, or as a glass of good beer or wine enlivens the cigar smoked afterwards.
Camping is one of those timeless American pastimes, like baseball or hiking, that it's hard to imagine life without. But with government scientists forecasting a continued upswing in extreme weather events - floods, intense storms, droughts, tornadoes, etc. - camping may not always be the easy summer option that it is for most of us today. In an America where, as the Associated Press recently reported, overall summer temperatures are hotter, rainfall more intense and floods more frequent, opportunities for camping may be correspondingly rarer. Which is all the more reason to seize any chance today!
These days, finding a campsite is easy. The National Park Service website maintains a search engine (look for the "Find A Park" service) that enables you to search our country's vast national park system by name, location, activity and even topic ("American Presidents," "Caves," "Civil War," etc.). Plug in "camping" under the "activity" topic and you can find all sorts of opportunities close to home. And most American localities, even the smallest towns, now have at least one sporting-goods store where you can locate anything from a pup tent to the latest high-tech waterproof tent. (If there's an army surplus store near you, even better.) Online classified ad sites, many of them free, make it easy to avail yourself of someone else's lightly-used, high-end camping gear, sometimes for next to nothing - thank goodness for the impulse buys of the affluent.
But though camping gear may be easy to come by, and camping locations too, that doesn't mean you should approach a weekend in the Great Outdoors as if it were no more challenging or dangerous than a weekend in your TV room, or even a night in your backyard. Here are some things to keep in mind before you go tromping off to the woods:
1) Know basic CPR and First Aid. The Red Cross offers courses in many locations through community-ed programs. Keep a fully stocked and labeled First Aid kit.
2) Wild animals are not your friends. Don't approach them. Even the small ones. And don't feed them either - that's not just a cliche.
3) Hang your food from a tree; don't keep it in your tent, or you may find yourself feeding wild animals against your will. (And you may be part of the feed.)
4) Be observant. A wilderness area that's new to you is not the place to go off for one of those absent-minded strolls in which you pay more attention to what's in your head than what's on the ground in front of you. You'll enjoy yourself more if you're paying attention to the area around you, but you'll also be more likely to see that rattlesnake while he's still a relatively safe distance away.
5) Know your own medical history and that of anyone you're camping with. If anybody in your party has a serious allergy, it's everyone's job to keep that person from getting the bee sting that may threaten him or her.
6) Don't hike by yourself.
7) Do some research beforehand, on the flora and fauna of the area (even if you're camping close to home), any dangerous animals, and the upcoming weather. The author of this article was once stuck on a camping trip while tornadoes ravaged nearby Minnesota counties. It's no fun.
8) Make Smokey the Bear proud. Keep a ring of rocks around your campfire, have a full water bucket on hand as well as a fire extinguisher, build your fire away from flammable items, and "for crying out loud!" don't ever leave your fire unattended. Make sure it's extinguished before leaving the grounds, even for a moment.
9) Don't leave trash.
10) Remember that the camping ground isn't yours. It was here before you and it'll be here after you. To put this into practice, here are some "green" camping tips to consider: Avoid using little single-use disposable items or Styrofoam dishes on your trip (you'll have to do more packing, but it's worth it). Bring firewood rather than using fallen branches, which contain nutrients that forest soils need. Dump your "gray water" (dish- and shower-water) in the areas designated rather than in the bushes or streams. For those of you who own power generators, consider replacing them with solar panels. Crank-operated flashlights and radios make a lot more sense in the woods than battery-powered ones, too.
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