Tips for Camping in the Wild Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tips for Camping in the Wild

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tin-opener, tin can, compass
I loafe and invite my soul
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air

'Song of Myself' from Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman

Ahhh... the great outdoors1, the sparkling brooks and pine-fresh air! What better way to charge up the soul than to commune with nature, to get tired and ravenous from long walks, to wake up at dawn with a white dew all around, and to rid your head of that nagging metaphysical ennui that plagues the weary minions in their fast-paced concrete jungles. Switch off your computers and pack your bags - we're going camping.

Things to Take

  • A good set of waterproofs is usually a good idea - including gaiters. These go over the top of your boots, and under the bottom of waterproof trousers (if you put them on). They're especially good if you're going through boggy or marshy ground, because they help keep your laces free of mud.

  • There are some pretty good camping stoves on the market, that pack up really small. You shouldn't need to spend more than £15 on one.

  • A pack of 'compeed' is useful, especially if you are prone to blisters. They are special plasters for blisters, that actually help them to heal (rather than just covering them up).

  • If you do get blisters, make sure you've got a good thick pair (or two) of walking/skiing socks, and a good stout pair of boots. Make sure you rub plenty of dubbin (clear, oily wax leather protector) into your boots, as this helps keep them supple and waterproof.

  • If you've got tins of food, take a proper tin opener - make sure it works! The type you find on a penknife sound like a good idea, but in the experience of many Researchers, they are too much trouble, especially if you are hungry!

  • Make sure you've got a good first aid kit. It should contain a variety of sticking plasters, bandages, alcohol wipes, a needle, safety pins, and a triangular bandage. Some sort of pain relief is also advisable. Make sure all the items are within their use-by date - if not, throw them away!

  • A survival bag is essential. The best ones are foil lined, to reflect your body heat, and brightly coloured on the outside, so that you can be seen easily. You never know when you might need it.

  • You should also have a whistle (one without a dried pea or similar in it), to attract attention should you need help.

  • A map and compass are must-haves if you don't know the area very well. Even better is a GPS system, but these can be expensive (and rely on electricity!)

  • A mobile phone is useful for emergencies (make sure it's charged up) or at the least, enough money for a pay-phone.

  • Kendal mint cake is a great energy food - as are jelly (in block form, undiluted) and dextrose tablets.

  • If you're planning on doing a lot of walking, take a woollen hat and waterproof gloves. The majority of your body heat is lost through the head, and wool is one of the best insulators. Woollen gloves tend to be a bit useless though, as it's rarely cold without being wet. And the last thing you need is wet gloves next to your hands all day. Never trust the weather reports!

And Some More Things to Take...

  • Along with miraculous duct tape, bungee cords, lightweight tarps and an air mattress (in no particular order) are all very useful. Indeed, the air mattress is an absolute necessity as it makes the difference between a fun experience in the wild and a miserable one. The ground sucks heat out of your body faster than air does, so you'll freeze all night without the insulating layer of air underneath you. Also, bring along a box of wine, some insect repellant, a flashlight and a good book - you'll find that these will all come in handy.

  • A sponge is really handy if you're going to have to wash in cold mountain streams or lakes - it saves getting all of you cold at the same time, and you can also dry yourself with it to some extent.

  • If camping for an extended period, epoxy adhesive (JB Weld or Araldite) is great for equipment repair; but make sure it doesn't leak and spread over other stuff you're carrying.

  • Small, strongly-flavoured sweets are excellent for waking up your taste buds if you're going a long time between meals, and are particularly good for morale on long walks in miserable weather.

  • Iodine spray can make a big difference with healing times for minor cuts and grazes, which are quite common if hiking in rocky or densely forested areas.

  • Woollen socks! These are a lifesaver if you're walking through any kind of snow, or water. Cotton socks might be less itchy, but they take forever to dry, and they will hold the cold moisture close to your skin.

  • A towel. In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy it says that the most useful thing you can have with you when you're hitchhiking through the universe is... a towel. So, if it's good for the universe, it must be bloody good for camping in the wild.

  • A sharp knife is incredibly useful and absolutely essential - conversely, a blunt knife is very, very frustrating.

  • A good billy (not a billy goat, you brain donor, a billycan!) and some black tea - not tea bags.

A Map and a Compass

Perhaps these two items are the most important items you could ever take with you camping. History-making battles have been won or lost on the basis of whether the officers knew where they were going. If you know which way is which, you can figure out where the closest road/civilisation is in case of an emergency, and you can be sure you aren't just walking around in circles. Knowing where you are can save your life.

In order to be able to use a map and compass, you have to know how. Also, you need to know what kind you are using. In terms of compasses, most are similar - for camping, the kind that has a baseplate and degrees, and rotates is usually the best. The most important thing to remember about compasses is that the red needle points north. Compasses rely on the attraction of a magnet in the needle to the magnetic tug of the poles of the earth. Once you figure out which way is north, you should automatically know that south is the opposite (where the white needle points), west is perpendicular to the left of the needle and east is to the right (ie, facing north, south is behind you, west is to your left and east is to your right).

Maps are somewhat more complicated. For most camping, extended hiking and backpacking excursions, you will want to bring a topographical map of the area that has trails shown on it. In the USA, the most popular and common version of these are produced by the USGS (US Geological Survey), and can be bought at map stores, park headquarters or over the Internet (in the UK the equivalent maps are Ordnance Survey maps). Usually, these are 1:24,000, which means every 1 cm on the map equals 24,000cm, or 240 metres (0.14 miles) in real life. The main features of a 'topo' map are topo lines, which are brown lines that run parallel to each other all over the map. Each line represents a certain elevation above sea level - on a USGS topo, there is a line for every 20 feet (6 metres) of elevation change. Thus, the topo lines show hills and valleys - figuring out what they mean is a matter of logic. If there are streams marked on the map, they are going to be at the bottom of a hill, so those lines are the lowest, and if there is an enclosed circle, it usually represents the top of a hill, since there is only a small circular area that is higher in elevation than the top line. In judging the slope of a hillside, the closer the lines are together, the steeper the slope (there is a lot of elevation change in little horizontal area).

Using the Map and Compass

In order to use the map, the hiker must first get oriented. To do this, simply use a compass to face magnetic north. Then line up the compass rose (that funky arrow thing that has an N, E, S and W on it) on the map with the compass so that the little red needle points the same direction as the 'N' arrow on the map. Now, to make things more complicated, most topo maps (unless otherwise stated) are drawn so that the north arrow (which usually lines up with the sides of the map) faces what is called true or geographic north (literally, the top of the world). The problem is, your compass faces magnetic north, which is a couple hundred miles off of true north. Usually, though, the two are not far apart, and for basic camping a rough estimate of north should be good.

Map and compass - don't leave home without them (or you may not be able to get back...)

Lighting a Fire

Here are a few tips for lighting fires. First, unless you know what you are doing, don't; lots of nice places have been burned out by some fool lighting a fire, which promptly gets out of control. But if you are going to light a fire, here's a bit of advice:

  • Collect all of your firewood before you start, and keep it handy. Only collect fallen wood that isn't green - you want a mix of twigs, branches and logs.

  • If you can find any wrinkled bark on dry wood, peel it off because it makes great firelighters, and if you add it as flakes, it works even better.

  • You can try doing the rubbing two sticks together trick by bowing the top one, but remember, they both have to be hardwood.

  • To get your wood to burn, feed your fire with flakes of dry wood, and dry grass. When this is burning, you can add a few small twigs, then move on to slightly larger twigs, then small branches, then large branches, then only if you need to, the logs.

  • Another alternative is to build one big fire that will be both stable and will last all night, but this takes lots of wood, and quite a bit of skill.

Dead wood, still attached to trees is often put forward as a good substitute if all the fallen wood is soaking wet. After all, it should be drier than that lying on the ground (Old Man's Beard lichen makes a good firestarting material, apparently). However, the problem with any wood that is still connected to the tree is that you can not be sure that it really is dead. If you take wood that looks dead, but leave a wound, the tree can get infected and die. So you should only take dead wood from a tree if it is vital that you do so. Also, you don't know how long it has been dead on the tree, so it may still have sap, making it harder to burn.

Another thing to consider while your gathering wood is to also gather something to extinguish the fire. Loose dirt, sand, or available water are great for putting out a small campfire safely, and these methods beat stomping on it with your shoe. Also remember to have a good clear area around the fire so it can't jump the gap. And if you're going to be building a fire on grass, dig out a sod slightly larger than the size of the fire you want to build, trying to keep it intact (easier said than done sometimes). Keep the sod somewhere, and light your fire within the small pit. Then, when you are finished and the fire is out, replace the sod and stamp it in firmly. This means you aren't burning grass or leaving your campsite in a mess when you leave. You can improve the likelihood of keeping the sod intact by making the mud you keep with it be 1.5 to 2 inches deep.

Toilet Roll

Four words to say about toilet roll - do not forget it! OK, the really hardcore manage without but, well... let's not even go there.

With toilet roll it's a good idea to take the centre bit out and squash the roll down because it will then pack better. Also, wrap it well in a plastic bag or two. It can be good to split the roll in case some gets wet, and/or keep some in a bag in your pocket in case you're caught short while the main roll is buried in your rucksack, or while you're away from camp. And talking of toilet habits...

... Do ladies Pee in the Woods?

Well, yes, when necessary - they just don't generally talk about it. After all, it's not a delicate subject and you don't get to see too many, er... instructions in camping etiquette manuals. Although you might get to see quite a few disgruntled ladies coming out of the bushes with soggy shoes and splattered jeans, and all because they weren't aware of a few simple rules...

  • Pee downwind whenever possible. Even a very slightly raised area makes a world of difference.

  • Have your wipey ready in your hand so you don't have to stand up and dribble down your leg to get at it, or topple over while groping in your pocket from a squatting position. And please, don't leave the wipey in the woods, unless you are using leaves (shudder).

  • Unless the ground is so hard that it's impossible, make a little trench in the dirt with a stick or the toe of your shoe that leads a couple feet away from you. It prevents surprise puddling from the terrain that you are bound to step in when you stand while pulling up your pants.

  • Spread your feet as wide as possible while not disrupting your balance. Don't sit so low that you get splashback on your bum.

  • Try to be nice and either pour water over the area afterwards to dilute it or cover it up with dirt or leaves so the next passerby doesn't end up unwittingly marked with your scent.

Getting Lost and a Piece of String

A long piece of string can be very useful if in a group and lost in the fog. How, you may ask? By knitting myself a compass? No, silly (God, you're so thick) - everyone holds on to the string so that at least the group stays together.

Mind you, if you're really lost then it's probably best to stay still - especially if your close to a clifaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAGGHHH!!


Backpacking in the Desert

The first rule of hiking in the desert is to bring enough water. If you're backpacking cross-country, the optimum amount of water is a gallon per person per day. This can add up to a lot of water, so plan your hike around springs and rivers in the area. Running out of water in the desert can be fatal, so be careful!


Don't waste your time buying 'camping' food in a 'camping' store. There's many kinds of foods that are perfect for hikers.

  • Dried eggs
  • Bacon bits (to put in the dried eggs)
  • Summer sausage
  • English muffins, tortillas, pita bread
  • Cheese
  • Instant noodles w/sauce (Lipton's, ramen, etc.)
  • Dried soups
  • Dried fruit
  • Nuts - good for an energy boost on the trail
  • M&Ms - dessert!
  • Margarine
  • Dried milk
  • Lemonade mix, Tang, etc
  • Instant Coffee, sugar, and cremora
  • Instant rice (an excellent quick meal is a bowl of instant rice made with just a little extra water, with a packet of dried soup thrown in - French onion or cream of broccoli are quite good this way.)
  • Emergency water:
    This is a true story. My grandad was one of Monty's Desert Rats. During the North Africa campaign he was wounded by a shell (he was a gunner) and his division had to beat a hasty retreat. He was left for dead.
    When he came to, he only had food rations, no water and a day's trek to meet up with his division. He also had a full bladder. What he did, was to pee into his empty bottle and then, using an empty shell, he strained his urine through a hanky filled with sand several times and drank it. It may sound disgusting and it is, but I for one am glad he did it.


If you're hiking in the desert, be aware of the seasons. Check with the ranger for the weather conditions for the week. Be prepared for rain and cold - bring a poncho, gloves and a sweater. Bring a hat that's cool and comfortable, and will let the top of your head breathe. There are all sorts of prickly things that can scratch you, so blue jeans are recommended. Find a good pair of sturdy, comfortable hiking boots that don't rub your feet in odd places. A pair of shoes that feel fine now will be like little iron maidens after a five-hour hike. Cotton t-shirts, a couple of long-sleeved shirts, good thick cotton socks, and long johns for the night (thermal underwear) will complete this ensemble. So, to sum up:

  • Hiking boots, light canvas shoes
  • Socks
  • Underclothing - thermal underwear, etc
  • Cotton t-shirts
  • Long sleeved shirts
  • Sweater
  • Poncho
  • Gloves
  • Hat

Sleeping Gear

If you like to be warm, bring a down sleeping bag. Typically a bedroll consists of a thermal pad, either foam or a self-inflating foam pad (at any camping store) and a tarp under the pad for protection. In case of rain, you have the choice of having to carry a pup tent, or bringing a tarp and rope and hope that you can rig up an awning in the middle of the night while it's raining in your sleeping bag. For a pillow, bring a pillowcase and fill it with the clothes you're going to be wearing the next day. That way, you'll have them close at hand when it's time to get up. (Camping trick: when you first wake up, pull the clothes out of the pillowcase and put them in the sleeping bag with you. Doze a little bit, and let your clothing warm up, so that when you put it on, it won't be quite such a shock.)

  • Sleeping bag - down or fibre fill
  • Ground tarp - an old shower curtain works fine
  • Sleeping pad - thick foam or self-inflating pad
  • Pup tent or large tarp, ropes, stakes, etc

Finding your Way

If you plan to hike anywhere, you have to know how to use a compass and topographic map. Plan your route ahead of time. Always hike with a partner or group. And always, always, always, let somebody know when you're leaving and when you expect to be back. In the US, hikers are required to get hiking permits. These don't cost anything; they're for the rangers in case the hikers get lost.

  • Topographic map
  • Compass
  • Pencil

Other Essentials

You'll need to stop by the camping store for a few items. The camping stove is a luxury item, but essential if you want a hot meal. If you want margarine for your muffins and eggs, you'll need to buy some food tubes - plastic tubes with a screw cap at one end and an opening at the other. Fill these with your substance of choice, then use the clamp provided to seal the opening. Very handy - just be sure to pack them in Ziploc bags, in case they leak. You'll also need lots of water bottles, and a canteen. A walking stick isn't necessary, but it comes in handy for all kinds of things, including easing some of the weight of the backpack from your shoulders (put the stick under the pack and behind your back, then lift with both hands as you're walking).

  • Camping stove
  • Food tubes
  • Water bottles
  • Canteen
  • Walking stick
  • Waterproof matchstick cans
  • Camping knife - pocketknife or Bowie


If you're going to hike in the desert, you can't be too concerned about cleanliness. You won't be able to wash your hair. Wear a hat and ignore it. If it's long, braid it tightly to your head, and then wear a hat. A bandanna also works pretty well, and doesn't look too dorky. The best way to stay reasonably clean and not harm the environment is to use baby wipes. You won't have the feeling you get after a shower, but you won't reek, either. If you really want water on your bod, get a bucket and a washcloth, and stand behind a bush. In the desert, the water will evaporate off your skin before you can find a towel. It's okay to jump in the river (if you can find one) but don't dump a lot of soap in it.


Buy a little green folding shovel at the camping store, and biodegradable toilet paper. The baby wipes come in handy at this point as well (you can figure it out).

Know Your Nuts (and Berries)

Nuts and berries seem to grow virtually everywhere in the countryside. If you know what's what, they can make the basis of a meal, or a good snack. Blackberries are possibly the most common berry in Britain and they go well with apples. Elderberries are very refreshing; if you have the time, you might like to squeeze the juice out of them to make a drink. Hazelnuts are also quite common in Britain. Dead nettles look exactly like ordinary stinging nettles, except for the long white flowers (they won't sting you!) and if you pick one of the flowers, and suck the base, you will get a short, sweet taste of nectar; a great energy boost! If you pick a stinging leaf by mistake and you end up getting stung, there should be a dock plant nearby. Pick a leaf, and scrunch it up a bit to get some of the juices flowing. Rub this on your sting - it should help to ease the pain.


If you manage to catch and kill a rabbit, you're going to have to gut it and skin it. But first, to kill a rabbit, hold the beastie along your forearm, with its head out over the end of your hand, and with a stick tap the back of its head sharply. This should dislocate the skull - one dead rabbit, no mess. Now to skin it:

  • Make the incision along the underside of the rabbit. It should go from the neck right down the body. You can now remove the innards - keep the liver and kidneys if you want to eat them (the heart also makes good eating). If you're not sure what's what, get rid of the lot.

  • To skin the rabbit, start from the back. Reach inside the rabbit through the incision, and grip one of the hind legs. Pull it 'into' the body, so that the skin comes away from it. You should be able to cut or snap the leg just above the paw, so that leg is now free. Repeat with the other hind leg.

  • Hold the legs firmly in one hand, and the skin in the other. Now pull until the skin is over the front legs. Free the front legs as you did the hind legs, and pull the skin right up over the head.

  • You should now be able to cut off the head (without having to look the poor bunny in the face!), and keep all the messy bits together in the skin 'bag'. The rabbit is now ready to be cooked, although it's easier if you cut it into about eight pieces first.

And with your rabbit, remember, you can easily make a good stew. Boil it up with whatever vegetables and herbs you can find (á la Sam Gamgee in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings) and you'll find it'll keep you going for quite a while!

Camping in the USA

Here are a few gentle, personal camping thoughts provided for us by a Researcher who seems well acquainted enough with the great American outdoors:

First of all, I always make two lists of things I need/want to bring; one I keep with me while packing, the other I check off mentally right before I leave, otherwise I forget something really important, like socks. I always make sure to bring matches, water, a towel - usually the biggest I can get my hands on! I like to bring the Connecticut quarter with the tree on the back, because you can strike a match off of it, in case the matchbook gets wet. In the summer I bring loads of sunscreen and bug spray (the mosquitoes are huge!).
I'll bring a small cooler to keep food in, as well as soda (I know that's not really roughing it, but I need my caffeine!) and I'll cook the food on a little wire rack. The best way to cook camp food, in my personal opinion, is to put all the food in a piece of tinfoil, fold it all up and cook it all together. This works especially well with chicken and potatoes. As far as hygiene goes, sometimes there are public restrooms near campsites, but I usually have to resort to taking an ice cold bath in a lake or stream. If I am camping for a long enough time, I'll also wash my clothes, as long as I have an environmentally friendly detergent (I don't want to poison the little critters with my soap).
Some dangers to look out for: wild animals, poisonous plants, hunters thinking you are what they are hunting for, ticks with lime disease, frostbite, sun-poisoning and bugs. For entertainment, I recommend hiking, biking, reading, having a conversation either with the person you're with, or even with yourself! I don't recommend bringing alcohol, though; it's very dangerous to completely lose control over yourself and your functions out in the wild. Of course, you could disregard this entirely, and find out the hard way that it's so much more fun (and safer) when you can remember the whole trip. Some of the places I've camped include Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Montana.

Finally... Show Some Respect!

We'll leave the final word to a Researcher who used work as a wilderness ranger. Needless to say, camping outdoors is as much about respecting natural environments as it is about enjoying them. Happy camping!

I think that first and foremost, one has to begin with the right attitude about camping, namely a respect for nature and how to carry out low-impact camping (ie, use a camp stove instead of building a fire, especially in high altitude areas with scarce wood, or fire-prone areas). When you build a fire, only use dead wood, no green, pack all your non-biodegradable garbage out, use a 'cat-hole' when nature calls (if there aren't toilets)... the list goes on. But the idea is as the motto goes, 'take only photos, leave only footprints'.
I worked some years as a wilderness ranger in the US National Forest Service and at times I felt I was no more than a glorified garbage collector, I spent a lot of time digging aluminium cans and other trash out of fire pits to carry out miles to the nearest garbage disposal. There is nothing like the let down of hiking miles (or kilometers) to arrive at a supposedly pristine area and find trash from the last visitor!
1Bear in mind, when making contributions to this entry, at the time of writing, some areas of the UK and continental Europe are potentially out of bounds due to foot and mouth disease. Please check before making any journeys.

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