Eric's Ultralight Backpacking Page

Camping

We all have a nighttime routine in regular life: wash up, change clothes, prepare the bed, set the alarm, lock the door, and so forth. We are so used to the routine, that we forget how intricate it is. There is a similar routine when making camp. But now there is no routine, and all the intricacies can seem overwhelming. Here are the major steps to setting up camp.

Find a Site

Pick a place to camp. This can involve many considerations. Is the ground suitable for your shelter? Are there major lumps in your sleeping space? Is the terrain shaped to pool or channel water where you'll be sleeping? Is the ground too steeply sloped? (Some slope is fine and prevents water from pooling.) Is the area safe from folks looking to party or make trouble? Is the ground soft and comfy? Are you exposed to high winds? Are there dead branches overhead that could fall?

Remember the Leave-No-Trace principle. Try not to damage vegetation. If you camp too close to a water source, then you need to take extra care not to contaminate it with soap or human waste.

Put Up Your Shelter

Get your shelter up first thing. If rain starts or a wave of exhaustion hits, you can duck inside. This also gives your sleeping bag time to air out. Begin by cleaning the ground beneath your sleeping area of sticks, acorns, rocks, and other debris that may make you miserable and puncture the floor of your shelter.

Tent stakes do not work well in some types of ground. For example, stakes do not grip in sand or deep forest duff. Buried rocks, sharpened sticks, and sturdy plants are often better attachment points.

Optional: Cook Dinner

Next, you might choose to cook dinner. After all, you are stopped and unpacked.

Another possibility, however, is to cook dinner earlier in the evening and then walk on a few miles. One reason is that dinner usually provides an energy burst sufficient to propel you a bit further. My favorite time to walk is after dinner, because the light is soft and animals start to come out. Another reason is that cooking is a sort of scent-beacon for animals. This makes little difference if you are in an established campsite; the local wildlife knows where those are. However, if you're in a remote area, animals (bears, in particular) might not find you without that delicious aroma wafting across the land.

Secure Your Food

You have a sackfull of food in a land of hungry animals. How can you keep your food safe for the night? Unfortunately, you may be under attack on all scales: ants, mice, raccoons, and bears can all be relentless in their pursuit of food.

Keeping your food away from animals is not just about you. Your actions impact future visitors and the animals themselves. By leaving tasty tidbits for mice, you attract more mice for the hikers behind you. And allowing a bear to get your food may be signing that bear's death warrant.

Bear Cans

The drastic solution is a bear-resistant food canister. Used properly, this will protect your food from all wild animals. Proper use is not so simple, however; smart bears wait quietly until you open your canister and then charge. Or they may roll your canister off a cliff. Furthermore, bear cans are rigid and quite heavy. The lightweight Bearikade model shown here weighs about 2 pounds. Competing models from Garcia and Bear Vault cost less, but weigh more. In a few areas, bear cans are the only effective option and are required by regulation.

All currently-available bear cans and the latest Ursack (see below) are compared in the following table.

Can Weight Dimensions Price
Bearikade Expedition 2 lbs 5 oz 14" high, 9" across $245
Bearikade Weekender 1 lbs 15 oz 10" high, 9" across $195
Garcia 2 lbs 11 oz 12" high, 8.8" across $75
BearVault 2 lbs 7 oz 12.5" high, 8.7" across $70
Ursack TKO 7 oz 13" high, 8" across $50

Stealth Camping

At the other end of the spectrum, a lot of experienced backpackers use their food bag as a pillow. Typically, their strategy is to avoid contact with large animals by practicing stealth camping techniques. This entails (1) avoiding established campsites where animals congregate and (2) not cooking where you sleep to avoid drawing animals to the scent. And remember that you are a huge, (potentially) carnivorous animal. Not many forest creatures really want to mess with you, including small bears. Stealth camping is not possible everywhere, however. Narrow ridges, deep valleys, and regulations may rule this out.

Bear-Bagging

The traditional advice is to hang your food from a high tree branch. The most effective bear-bagging technique is to store your food in two bags, and hang them over a high branch so they counterbalance each other. (See the near-photographic-quality diagram at left.) Use a trekking pole or long branch to get the bags into and out of this configuration. Bear-bagging is no panacea, however. First, believe it or not, you can walk for miles without seeing a really good bear-bagging tree. Second, bear-bagging may defeat many animals, but is at best only a delaying tactic against others. Bears, in particular, are just too strong and too smart. Bear-bagging is only effective if you resolve to go out and chase off a bear that is going after your food, by making noise and throwing rocks.

The great majority of bears in the continental US are black bears, which are relatively small and easy to intimidate. However, there are brown (grizzly) bears in few areas, which are bigger, more aggressive, and more dangerous. While I have moderate experience with black bears, do not apply anything I say to brown bears. In particular, trying to chase off a brown bear may get you killed, for all I know.

Ursacks

One company is experimenting with critter-resistant bags called Ursacks. This is an ongoing process. There are many accounts of early-version Ursacks shredded by bears, and some scalpel-toothed rodent ate a hole through mine. The company has upgraded their product repeatedly based on experience, however, and one can only wish them eventual success.

I regard the security of an Ursack as comparable to bear-bagging: it can only delay a bear. During that delay period, you're responsible for chasing off the bear.

Tidy Up Camp

A tidy camp will help you get underway quickly in the morning or even in the night, if something strange happens. Place a light source at a definite spot you can reach. Make your shoes accessible in case you need to pee in the night. Hang wet clothes. Keep a water bottle close by.

If there is rain in the morning, you should be able to pack up while inside your shelter, step out into the rain, take down your shelter, pack that away, and move. Arrange your camp with this plan in mind.

Tidy Up Yourself

Brush your teeth and pee one last time.

Breaking Camp

The ease of breaking camp in the morning is a measure of your nighttime campsite organization. As you begin to walk away from your site, stop and look for items you've left behind. In my all-too-personal experience, walking back a couple miles for a map or pack towel is no fun.




Comments and suggestions to e_lehman@mit.edu.