Glamping. Before the term was hijacked to become the act of staying in a 4-star tree house overlooking a volcano on the grounds of a Four Seasons resort, it was simply the term used by regular campers who like to bring a bit of glamour/luxury along with them on their camping trips. A few creature comforts perhaps, to brighten the camping experience.
Disclaimer: I'm all for back-country camping, the sort where every ounce of weight is carefully considered and only the absolute must haves for survival are brought along for the ride. But for a weekend away with the family, where the car is parked next to a standard government-issue site with picnic table and fire ring, we take along as much as we can fit into the car. If it adds to comfort or reduces hassle, and there is room in the car, we'll throw it in.
One other note: we don't typically frequent sites that have electric/water hookups. Electricity obviously opens up a new world of opportunity, but it comes at a price: RV people. Where possible, we like to seek out walk-in or tent-only sites. It all starts with good old fashioned research and planning. There are lots books out there (we have a great one: The Best in Tent Camping - Tennessee, by Johnny Molloy), website forums etc, which will point you to the best campgrounds and campsites. Planning well ahead will get you the best spots which can be booked online (often with pictures of each site), far away from generator noise, TVs, and other things that RVs bring. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not our thing.
This instructable is our family's collection of learnings, hacks, and standard must-haves - from food to essentials, to things-to-do to keep everyone occupied. Hopefully there is a nugget or two in here that will make your next trip all the more awesome!
Step 1: The Camping Checklist
This is our list (attached here as .pdf and Excel spreadsheet for you to make into your own) - it has expanded over the years, sometimes items are removed or replaced, more often things are just added. We're almost at capacity (which in our case is an SUV). Are we crazy? Possibly. Too much? Probably, especially for someone just starting...but for our family of four, most of the camping kit is stored in lidded plastic bins in the garage, and packing is pretty straightforward.
We don't take everything on the list on every trip - it's more of a master checklist that ensures we don't forget anything important. Packing: most of our gear is already stored in lidded plastic bins - we just stack them in the SUV after quickly checking the contents and checking them off the list.
Step 2: Fire
This is how we roll: no need for emergency fire-starter kits or rubbing sticks together - our first rule of camping: we just want the fire lit, lit quickly, and to stay lit. Not being fans of lighter fuel, we take along some fatwood kindling, newspaper, and a matches/lighter. Or bring some other kind of fire-starter log, plenty of choices out there.
I totally agree with discouraging people from bringing wood with them, unless you plan to camp very close to home. No need to introduce foreign things into the ecosystem. However - the main problem we have at most campsites is that the wood bundles you buy are rarely super dry and take a while to get going.
So - two essentials for us. my trusty machete (or you could bring a hatchet), and the battery operated air-mattress inflator.
I split some larger logs into small and medium strips to help get things started. Once the fire is up and running, pile on the large logs. But to start, especially with questionably dry wood, break it down.
To get your fire started quickly, build it with a pyramid shape, because science.
Here's an awesome hack: use the mattress inflator as a blower. Aimed at the base of the fire, it will get even the dampest wood roaring in no time. Call us slow - we had been kneeling and blowing lungfuls of air at a struggling damp fire for years, before that light bulb moment. Sitting just a few feet away was a mattress inflator that would put any blacksmith's bellows to shame. You're welcome.
AND - when it rains (and it will), make a pile of good embers and cover with a foil tent. Most park campsites have a grill/fire ring combo - we just push the embers under the grate part and wrap foil (the oversize heavy duty Reynolds works well) over the grill to protect the embers below. After the rain when you stumble out of the tent, scrape back the ash and there will most definitely be embers - use the blower to get the fire roaring again in no time.
Step 3: Things to Do Around Camp
If you have kids, they need to be occupied. No electronics, right? Sure they can read, but we have found that creating some family camping traditions are a great way to get the kids involved and excited.
A few ideas:
If we're near a forest, one of our traditions is to equip everyone with a stick. Sometimes it takes a while to find the perfect one, but that's half the fun. Ideally it will be cut off a dead branch, and the wood will be sound and not rotten.
Sticks are individual, and serve both as walking/hiking sticks, as well as fire muddling sticks. If you don't want to prod a campfire, rearrange the logs, and such, then there is something wrong with you. Everyone needs a fire stick.
The first job is to personalize your stick. This could be stripping all the bark, just the handle, or getting artsy with concentric rings, carving names, etc. Whittling is a rite of passage...supervise, sure, but let them whittle. It's one of the few times that stocking stuffer Swiss army knife will see real action, and developing those motor skills is a side bonus. You packed Band Aids, right?
2. Glow Sticks. Nothing new here...lots of people bring them, but we kick it up a notch. Join glow sticks together (homogenous or an array of colors) and secure them down the length of each stick (above) with little strips of duct tape. In the dark, whirling sticks turn into vivid displays of twirling light, intricate light saber swordsmanship, and general awesomeness. Each twirling two sticks at once is almost like attending the Chinese Olympics opening ceremony. Trust me...it will attract kids from across the campground and your kids will make lots of new friends. If you're cool parent - have a bunch of extras to hand out to those less fortunate campground kids who turn up glowstickless. Smiles all round.
3. Bocce. Not everyone has a set of bocce balls...but if you do, the hard crushed gravel surface of your campsite (in most Fed/State parks) is perfect for bocce/boule/petanque etc. Others might bring corn hole or other games. Whatever, all good.
4. Tie Some Knots. Bring some ~2' sections of rope for knot-tying practice. Sitting around the fire is perfect for this, and let's face it - you know you should know the top 3-4 knots, but do you really? Well - all you Instructables readers probably do, but do your kids? Opinions vary, but maybe try the Bowline, Clove hitch, and Figure of eight. Great how-to and animations for all knots at http://www.netknots.com/rope_knots/.
5. Sparklers/Fire Colors. Different schools of thought on sparklers, but around the campfire is a perfect place, if you're going to do it. Kids love 'em, grownups too. We also pick up some fire colors (think it's called Mystic fire?)...little packets that kids can throw on the fire and flames turn green/blue/magenta etc. Pretty cool.
6. Geocaching. I know we said no electronics, but what kid doesn't like a treasure hunt? Clues to solve. Hidden stashes. It's free (or paid, if you're really into it and want all the bells and whistles) and fun, accessible as long as your smartphone has cell service. Check out www.geocaching.com. Note that most parks don't allow physical caches, but there are virtual caches and also some left by people who don't like rules. Just search for caches near you, and you will be surprised by how many there are. One simple rule - kids can take what they find (usually trinkets, maybe a quarter), but you should always replace with something fun and of low value for the next camper to find.
Step 4: Camp Food - Breakfast
Different strokes on this subject as well, but here's what we do: we bring a large, iron skillet, and a 12" Dutch oven. Know there are whole elaborate camping kitchen setups out there...but we found that most of what we cook can be done in the skillet or Dutch oven, plus - cooking over an open fire is primal and good for your soul. We just use the fire-ring grate for everything else, and the food always tastes so much better than from a portable kitchen/stove.
Instructables has some awesome camping food ideas - no shortage there. Here are some of our staples, and how we roll:
Coffee: There is nothing like smoky campfire coffee, the problems is that it takes precious time before the fire is up and running. We bridge this with a small propane cooker and Bialetti moka espresso maker. Know it's not real espresso, but we call it that. You have awesome coffee in minutes, a shot of caffeine to help get the fire going for breakfast and the larger campfire coffee percolator.
Day 1: Pancakes and Bacon. The reason for this being on day 1 is that we make the pancake batter at home and put it in a large squeezy bottle (could be an old squeezy ketchup container) and toss it into the cooler. No need to think about it until you're ready to squeeze out that first 'cake on the skillet.
Add a little more baking powder than the recipe calls for, as it loses its potency over time and this will bridge the batter through tomorrow.
Cook the bacon in the skillet first. Save some grease for hash browns. We just pour any excess grease onto the fire when we're done. And stand back. Syrup from the cooler and you have happy breakfast campers.
Day 2/3:Eggs/hash browns, Sausage Biscuits. We keep eggs in a hard plastic egg holder, so no worries about breakage. We bring a bag or two of frozen shredded potato/hash...it will be defrosted in the cooler by day 2 - just spread out in a layer on the skillet for awesome crispy smoky 'browns. Follow with eggs. Some do hash/eggs/sausage together for the 'mountain man' breakfast.
The sausage biscuits we bring are pre-made/frozen - just wrap in foil and toss on the grill to warm them up. We have learned that this is a perfect quick breakfast for when you want to be up and head out quickly to go hiking/biking/fishing/boating/exploring, and don't have time for eggs etc.
Lunch: We're out and about so no cooking here...granola bars, chips, etc., just to hold us over until dinner.
Step 5: Chili-Lime Rubbed Roasted Corn on the Cob
The kids usually get away with hot dogs one night (grownups bring gourmet sausages and cheeses), quesadillas or pizzadillas (a thin quesadilla (tortilla or other flatbread) with pizza toppings - done in skillet).
Here is my grilled corn-on-the-cob recipe:
Chili-Lime rubbed Roasted Corn on the Cob:
In the US, roasted corn is usually accompanied by butter, or the increasingly popular Mexican Elote with cheese and chili. I grew up in India, and this is the Indian street food version, low cholesterol, and packed with flavor. The sweetness of the corn, slight bitterness from the charring, and tartness of the lime offset the fiery chili salt to create a balance that is out of this world.
This is really simple: mix table salt (not Kosher - you want small crystals) with chili powder (we like to use a combo of smoky chipotle and ancho, really what ever you have in the pantry - cayenne, or Indian red chili or Kashmiri chili for less heat and good chili flavor are all good), roughly a ratio of 2X Chili to 1X salt. mix it up and spread it out on a small plate/bowl. Cut limes in half.
Roast your cobbs over hot coals until nicely charred. To serve, give each diner a half lime - dip the lime into the chili/salt mix, and rub it on the corn, squeezing the lime as you go (but not enough to wash off the chili/lime mix. Repeat chili dips=more heat, adjust to your tolerance. That's it - now eat.
Step 6: Chili Verde in the Dutch Oven
This is super easy and oh so good! We make a large pot of it and bring home what we don't eat. Or invite friends along. Pre-heat the Dutch oven, and I'll assume you know how to use one. If not, there are plenty of instructions out there.
3.5-4 pounds of pork shoulder/butt. This is cut into about 2" chunks at home, then vacuum sealed. Toss into the cooler and forget about it (vac-sealed = no leaking meat juice in a wet cooler) until you are ready to brown the meat in the Dutch oven. Set meat aside once browned (and it may need to be done in two batches).
Brown onion (1 large onion, diced - again done at home and vac-sealed. Straight out of the pack into the Dutch oven. Later add 2 diced large jalapenos and a couple of sliced garlic cloves.
Reunite the browned meat with the oven and onions/jalapeno/garlic, and add a 16 oz. jar of tomatillos, a jar of tomatillo salsa, and two small cans of diced green chilies. A Tbsp. or so of kosher salt.
Stir, put on the lid and add coals on top of the oven, according to manufacturers instructions. Let it sit for as long as you can stand it...2-3 hours ideally, to get the meat to that fall-apart stage. A little cooking at the end with the lid off will get rid of excess water if it turns out wetter than you want. Stir again (the meat will be breaking up and that is a good thing), do a final seasoning and it's ready to eat straight out of the bowl, in tacos, as a nacho topping, and possibly even make an appearance in tomorrow morning's Huevos Rancheros...
Step 7: S'mores and Banana Boats for Dessert.
Dessert might be s'mores one night - we like to use nutella (or Ikea's insanely good CHOKLADKROKANT BREDBAR) rather than grapple with possibly melted Hershey bars.
Peach/blueberry cobbler in the Dutch oven the next night, and maybe banana boats the following night.
You can make cobbler batter at home and bring in a bottle - same as pancakes, if you are going to make cobbler on the first night.
Banana boats are split banana with mini-marshmallows, choc chips, and Golden Grahams or other crunchy - wrapped in foil and tossed onto the grate until gooey. Unwrap and eat with spoon.
What a nice way to end our camping 'ible! Hope this has inspired you, or given you ideas to mold into your own for your next trip to the great outdoors.