Campers will always bring truly essential items.
I had the pleasure of staying for a week at a boy scout camp last week. Anyone that knows me will be surprised to learn that I didn’t die, either from ineptitude or unhappiness-inspired suicide. As a matter of fact, I managed to enjoy the experience. Once you get beyond the various elements of camping, such as the food quality, sleeping in the cold, the bats nesting right outside the open window, the lack of strong coffee to defend against fatigue, the paucity of booze, the incessant hiking up and down camp for every errand, and the feeling of being Pigpen, trailing a thick cloud of dust behind you everywhere you go, it turns out to be fun simply hanging out at camp. Maybe it was the books I read, or the camp activities I participated in, or the rambling conversation with the boys and adults in the camp. Or perhaps, just perhaps, it was the complete lack of responsibilities for a week, a first in my life since the week after college finals finished and before the hangover wore off.
It was in this spirit of "camp is fun!" that I mistakenly went for a hike in the woods. It was a mistake not because of the hike itself, or because of the woods, but because of the part where I got lost in the woods. I had a map with me, of course; it would be silly to go hiking in the wilderness without a map. But the map was about as useful to me as a recipe for borscht; once I got past the recognizable sites on the map ("shotgun range", "rifle range", "mountain man"), it ceased to work. I looked for signs which were obvious on the map: trails leading off to the right, forks in the road, bends in the path; none of them appeared. The map must have been drawn by someone that got tired of their job and simply imagined the rest of it. It was like the maps from the Old Country, showing European countries in great and accurate detail, then an expanse of ocean to the west, followed by sea monsters. They didn't quite know what was out there, nor how far that something was, but they were pretty sure it'd eat you. In my case, someone took an educated guess that there'd be a path, and probably some other paths off that, and that maybe it'd circle back to camp eventually. So that's what they drew.
I'm accustomed to tools not working properly and generally know how to fix it, but in this case the map had no reboot switch. Paper is soooo 1800's.
I blissfully followed the trail into the woods for 10 minutes. Then 20 minutes, seeing no other turns. Then 30 minutes, with the trail leading me farther and farther from camp and everything I'd ever known. I began to have a feeling that I might do better by turning around. Finally, at 40 minutes that decision was made for me as the trail simply ended in some random brush at the top of a rise. I turned around and made my way back.
At this point, I realized that it was going to get dark soon, and while the trail led me faithfully away from civilization, I had no idea whether it would conveniently lead me in reverse back to civilization. I thought it more likely that I was caught in a trap, like the crab traps I used in Chesapeake Bay when I was a kid - the crabs found the entrance much easier to use than the exit. I could almost smell the cocktail sauce.
I took stock of my possessions. I was on a trip with the scouts, so of course I knew about the Ten Essentials. These are the items that no boy scout should be without (even, apparently, when going through security at an airport, which explains why TSA detained us due to the three pocketknives in my son's backpack). As I didn't have a backpack on me, my stock-taking was pretty quick:
- Map? yes, although all it had done so far was get me lost
- Compass? no
- Sunscreen and sunglasses? no
- Food? no
- Water? no
- Extra clothes? no
- Flashlight? no
- First aid kit? no
- Firestarter? no
- Pocketknife? no
It turns out that the only essential item I had was the broken map. Unless I could make something useful out of shoelaces and a belt buckle, it looked like I was doomed. I might as well have written "Bear food" on my forehead and gotten it over with (though I also lacked a pen with which to write).
Having generated an appropriate amount of anxiety, I took the appropriate action: I ran back the way I had come.
Fortunately, to make a long story only slightly longer, the trail, in a surprisingly un-crab-trap-like manner, did work in reverse, and I ended up where I started from. I passed "Shotgun range", "Archery", and several campsites on my way to the dining hall, where everyone was happily digging into dinner, having noticed my absence not at all. It was a relief to know that I could have been lost, mauled, eaten, and digested long before it came to anyone's attention.
I spent the rest of the time at camp studiously not hiking. I did many activities for the rest of the week, but hiking was not among them. And getting lost was similarly not on the list.
It is in the spirit of this hike, and of camp in general, that I offer my list of essential items. These are the things that I will take on any future camping trips, and I suggest that if you want to enjoy the experience, you do the same.
- Chair: It turns out that what you mostly do at camp is sit around. Through extensive research and experimentation, I found that a chair is much more comfortable for this activity than a log, or the dirt. An ottoman is optional.
- Hot sauce: Camp food is filling and edible, b it is not tasty. Take hot sauce to either add flavor where it is lacking, or disguise flavor where it is not.
- Earplugs: One of the great joys of camping outdoors is the ability to listen to your fellow campers. All night long. Don't make the nights longer and more sleepless than they need to be. Shut them out.
- Books: As with the chair (see #1, above), books are instrumental in passing the long hours sitting around in camp. Without books, you might be forced to actually do things like enjoy your natural surroundings.
- Warm sleeping bag: One item that scouts are encouraged to have is an "emergency blanket," which is basically a large piece of tinfoil. While this might help retain heat, it cannot bring the same level of comfort as a good, warm sleeping bag. More importantly, a sleeping back will be more helpful when the bears come: a camper rolled up in a polyester bag looks like a packaging nightmare to a hungry bear, whereas the camper rolled in an emergency blanket simply looks like a to-go bag of Jiffy Pop.
- Thick mattress: Sleeping in nature generally involves lying on root- and rock-infested ground. Chances are your body is not going to appreciate the experience. It's one thing to look at a beautiful grove of trees; it's quite another to try to sleep there. Save yourself sleepless nights and bring a camping mattress. Some mattresses are optimized for backpacking, providing a small amount depth and width. These items are useful for minimizing weight and bulk in a long hike, but let's be honest; are you really going to be backpacking any further than the walk from the car to the campground? Do your body a favor; bring a mattress at least a foot thick.
- Lighter fluid: When you want a fire, you want it now. Why futz around with proper kindling and firewood stacking? Al you need is a half gallon jug of lighter fluid. Take the cap off, stack the wood around it, stick a piece of newspaper into the jug and light it. Ba-da-Boom.
- Pen and paper: You probably won't get around to writing deep thoughts as much as you thought you might. But should you find yourself on a hike, you might want a way to write down your last will and testament, for the bears and mountain lions to read with their meal.
- Smartphone: You won't be able to get a signal, but phones aren't really for making calls anymore, are they? Instead, you'll be able to play some games to while away the idle hours in camp (see #'s 1 and 4, above).
- Coffee: A long time ago (around six thousand years, according to religious nuts), man came down from the trees and started walking around this earth. Meanwhile, some apes stayed in the trees, continuing to swing around and throw poop for fun. Meanwhile, the descenders came down to Make Things Happen. The only difference between these groups is that the descenders knew how to make coffee. Don't fool yourself into thinking you can go without for a few days; there's no need to suffer, and you might find yourself swinging in the trees instead. Do yourself a favor; bring coffee and figure out a way to make it in camp: boil water on the camp stove, buy ones of those fancy french-press gadgets at the camping store, or just snort it.
To make this list even more useful, I'll add an eleventh item, probably the most important one:
- Never go hiking into the wilderness.