Last summer when we were in Vermont I editorialized about the advantages of taking along a tent and associated gear in the Airstream. I recognize that many people bought their RVs specifically to avoid sleeping on the ground in a tent, but I still have fond memories of many backpacking trips in the northeast. So once in a while I do like to get out of the trailer and into a tent.
For me, tenting is a more realistic camping experience. Our Airstream has all the comforts of home, and we can live in it indefinitely. The tent has hardly any comforts beyond very basic shelter and a place to sleep. This is part of the attraction: it’s a way to really “get away from it all.” How can you get away from it all if you bring it all with you. A few days of deprivation makes a person more grateful for what they have.
It’s also a great way to force a change in perspective. The tent requires setup, and careful procedures to avoid a night of mosquitoes, condensation, or discomfort. The bathroom is a hike away, either in a primitive pit toilet or off in the woods somewhere. Meals are en plein air whether it is raining or not. You have to toss out all your assumptions about the benefits of modern life and figure out basic survival; This task occupies your thoughts so thoroughly that the trivialities of work and the fine points of personal hygiene become distant secondary concerns.
This description is probably horrifying to 99% of the people who are reading this. That’s OK. If you remember tent camping, perhaps as a Boy or Girl Scout, you probably have a few wonderful stories about things that happened to you. Maybe you’ve got a bear-in-the-campground story, or one about the leaky tent, or getting lost in the woods. As traumatic as those events may have been at the time, you probably also recognize that your life would not be as rich as it could be without them.
Adam and Susan instigated a tent camping trip for me last week. They (rather rashly) accepted an invitation from our mutual friend Bert Gildart to join him in hiking Alaska’s famous Chilkoot Trail. This is about 30 miles of historic trail from the Gold Rush period, which Bert intends to document for his future magazine articles. Adam and Susan, admitted tenderfoots, bought all the necessary gear for five days of backpacking in Alaska’s wilderness but haven’t had a chance to actually use it. Given that their adventure with Bert is looming, it seemed wise to at least tent camp a few days beforehand.
They invited me to help them along their learning curve. I chose the White Mountains region of New Hampshire for the trip. Up by Crawford Notch there are numerous little campgrounds in the White Mountains National Forest, all near great wilderness hikes in the green and dense boreal forest. Of course, the very moment I arrived and began to set up my tent, a light rain began and continued nearly uninterrupted for the next 24 hours. (Rain is virtually a given when tent camping in the northeast.)
We were planning to hike to several waterfalls in the area. There are dozens in the White Mountains, and many of them can be reached in a mile or two of trail. A little rain wasn’t going to stop us, but alas, I had made a serious mistake when packing, by forgetting my rain jacket. A black plastic trash bag was pressed into service. I cut three holes in it (for head and arms) and off we went, sloshing up the muddy trails and spotting a total of four waterfalls in our first half-day of hiking. The garbage bag look is not the most attractive or impressive, but when you’re in the middle of the forest in a rainstorm, it works just fine.
That evening the rain abated just long enough for us to fire up the camp stoves and make some dinner, and then resumed with more force for the rest of the night. The new tent was perfectly dry and I spent the evening in complete comfort, reading a novel by the light of my headlamp. I think that is my favorite moment of every tent camping trip: after a strenuous day of hiking, relaxing in the shelter with a warm sleeping bag, listening to the sounds of the outdoors (in this case, rain), reading or talking, with absolutely nowhere to go and no chance of being interrupted by a phone call.
Our next day was marked by more rain and steady temperatures in the mid-60s, but I had noticed a worthwhile compensation. There weren’t any mosquitoes. In July, to be hiking in the northern forest without any DEET on my skin, and not once hearing the skin-crawling whine of a hungry female mosquito about to bite, is simply unbelievable. I can’t recall a trip in the northeast I’ve ever taken when I wasn’t doused in bug spray, and yet on this trip conditions were absolutely mosquito-free. It was glorious.
We hiked from the Ripley Falls trailhead all the way to Arethusa Falls, and then took a side trip on the Frankenstein Cliff trail, and back, for a total of 7.6 miles. The trail was occasionally steep, narrow, and brushy, but our intent was really to just get a good hike done while Susan and Adam carried full packs — this was their practice run for 8-mile days on the Chilkoot. All went as you’d expect. We came out with pantlegs and boots coated in mud, and feeling a bit sweaty from the humid air.
Since we had accomplished our hiking goal for the day, and the rain had finally stopped, and it was still only about 1:30, we took the afternoon “off” and rolled around in the car to check out some of the White Mountain tourist attractions. Mount Washington was experiencing its 15th day in a row of 100-foot visibility at the peak, so we skipped the opportunity to drive to the top. North Conway was flooded with summertime tourists, so we headed down there to get a celebratory chai and sit on the sidewalk watching the people go by.
Now, you have to recall at this point that we had hiked about 12 miles in total over the previous day, and we all pretty much looked like it. There were no showers at the campground. In fact, the only running water available to us came out of a hand-actuated pump. Now here we were sitting in a sidewalk cafe on display to the browsing public. North Conway is one of those places where you can get away with the rumpled, muddy, “hiker look,” because it is an outpost in the midst of the White Mountains, which are dominated by hikers. (I did slip into a public bathroom with a travel-size bottle of shampoo and do a very quick hair wash. I have a certain amount of experience at this from days of yore, so I can complete the job in a sink in less than two minutes. I have many of the skills required to be homeless, should the situation arise.)
After the chai was gone and our downtown stroll was completed, we headed off to another scenic point a few miles away. Susan asked if I wanted to take my camera, and it was at that moment that I looked in the car and realized it was gone.
…. Yes, gone. Backpack, camera, lens, filter, everything.
It took only a minute for me to figure out what had happened. At the end of the hike, I put the bag down on the ground near the car, and then drove away without it. So it had been sitting on the ground at the Ripley Falls trailhead parking lot for five hours. And the trailhead was 30 miles from our present location.
Well, that was a long and quiet drive for the three of us, during which time I attempted to (a) remain calm, and (b) tally up the value of all the gear I’d just lost. It came to $1,800. But there was one comfort along the way, which was that we were in New Hampshire, and I had left the backpack at a trailhead. Hikers have a natural respect for other people, and other people’s property. I’ve never heard of anyone ever losing anything left in their tent. Trailhead break-ins are a plague at many other spots, but those are usually the work of non-hikers coming to plunder the vehicles of visitors.
Sure enough, we drove up to the dirt parking lot and someone had propped up my backpack by the trailhead post where everyone could see it. The backpack, containing a new Nikon D90 camera, a Nikkor 18-200mm lens, a polarizing filter, and my food and Camelbak, was absolutely unmolested after five hours of being left out in the open. Hikers are great people.
I slept well in my snug tent that night. Despite rain and potential financial disaster, everything worked out just fine. Tent camping gave me two days without the complexities of life, and reminded me of the things I take for granted back at home. Before we’d even broken camp, we were talking about the next time we’ll do this. There’s a chance we’ll get out again in the tents in late August, before the Airstream starts heading west. I certainly hope so.