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I Know It's Summer When


My name is Rachael, and I camp. In fact, if I could find a bumpersticker that declared, "I'd rather be camping," I'd violate my self-imposed no-bumpersticker-rule and slap that bad boy loud and proud on the rear of my Ford.

But I haven't always been a camper. I was 15 years old the first time I slept in a tent in the great outdoors (rather than in my parents' basement, where my siblings and I regularly test drove our Mickey Mouse tent as children). I lived in Hawaii and my father developed a sudden habit of hauling the family out to camp on the beach for a few weeks a year. We drove in, set up shop, surfed all day, showered in the beach's public showers and repeated daily until it was time to drive back to the other side of the island and go home. We didn't have a TV hooked up to a generator, but it was camping with a mini-mart in spitting distance and, at least once, I remember returning home to reload on supplies.

When I moved to Idaho, I had to learn how to camp like the big boys. "No surfing, no shower, no toilet, bears aren't stuffed animals, if you get lost in the mountains, you could die" kind of camping. But I did it all in moderation without missing a beat. Hike two miles with all my gear to camp at a mountain lake? Sure. Pee in the woods? Fine. Miss a few showers? Gladly.

Eventually, things spun out of control in my mid-20s. After our late shifts at work ended, my friends and I began sneaking up to near-Boise sites in the middle of the night to camp without any gear. Then I spent a month sporadically living in a tent, stealing camping from pay sites the length of the West Coast. A year later, there were six weeks in a camper van in Australia, a time which, hygienically speaking, was one of my lowest points. But it wasn't until this last winter--after I spent two full months living in my tent in Patagonia--that I realized I had a serious problem. For eight weeks, I bedded down in my sleeping bag, drank glacier water, washed my clothes in riverwater, and humped around with my shelter on my back like a turtle.

Now safely back in the comfort of four real walls, I wish I could say that admitting I have a problem means that I have committed to change. I haven't. Nope. Without doubt, I'll be carving out little windows of opportunity to camp all summer long, and though I am but a junkie amateur rather than a self-professed camping pro, here's my little starter guide to getting out there and sleeping under the stars.

The Where

Before you head out of the big city and into the wilderness, honestly evaluate your preparedness. If you've never camped before, maybe embarking on a 10-day trip over the Centennial Trail is a little ambitious. And if you're a seasoned veteran, it's possible the noise and overpopulation of a proper campground on Highway 55 in the middle of July will forever turn you off camping altogether. Think seriously about your limits and make decisions that won't adversely affect your vacation time.

First decide on a location. Get a guidebook, surf the Internet, ask friends or consult outfitting companies to determine where you want go and what amenities are available. If it's your first trip and you want to brave a tent, consider driving to a state-run or private campground (one with restroom and shower facilities) that is located within a few miles of a small town. That way you can pack far more supplies and gear than you need in the trunk, you'll have a shower and, if you do run out of supplies, having a town nearby means you can buy whatever you need should you forget something.

On the slightly more adventurous end of the spectrum, forget about a campground. Like hot springs, the best places to pitch a tent (or simply hang your hammock for the night) aren't advertised, you can't rent them, and most aren't even known outside of certain circles. Wandering around the wilderness in search of an abandoned ring of burnt stones can be dangerous, so if you don't have a secret spot or two, ask friends or co-workers where they like to camp (because I won't be sharing any of mine).

Regardless of your previous camping experience, if a tent just doesn't float your sleepy boat, public agencies like the Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and Idaho Parks and Recreation rent yurts ($45-$75) and cabins ($45-$200), as do private businesses like KOA. However, tent camping is far less expensive. Public agency pay sites range from just under $10 per night for any slab of dirt you can find to a fully functioning home-away-from-home site with RV hook-ups for water and electricity upwards of $20. Proper camping sites (as well as those secretive sites) on Bureau of Land Management land are fee-free.

The What

Location and season are everything when it comes to gear beyond the basics. Bear country may require bear-proof food canisters. High altitudes--even in summer--still mean being prepared for sub-freezing temperatures. But since this is a summer guide to Boise, I'll keep it basic.

In order to be comfortable and accommodate all your gear, buy a tent that's at least one size bigger than you need (for example, if you're a two-some, get a three-man tent) and set up at least once before trip so that you not only know how to do it but can be sure you have all the necessary parts and tools. Use a sleeping bag that's appropriate for the weather you plan to venture into. And for added comfort, skip expensive sleeping mats and mattresses and instead, go with a cheap, inflatable pool lounging bed--they pack up small, have a built-in pillow, keep you off the cold ground and double for daytime entertainment if you're camped near water.

For safety, augment your first aid kit to include antiseptic, bug repellent, pain reliever, non-stick gauze pads and heavy-duty rubberbands. Other essentials are duct tape (which I've used while camping for everything from a foot blister to repairing the rainfly on my tent), a map and compass, water purification tablets or a water-purifying pump, a few feet of rope, a flashlight (carry extra batteries or buy a no-battery flashlight), and a multiuse tool like a Leatherman or Swiss Army knife. Be sure to bring matches, but do your research on fire building, as campfires are illegal in many areas.

That brings us to sustenance. If you're hiking in to a campsite, buy food high in energy and protein that is nonperishable and easy to pack. Energy bars, granola mix and just-add-water meals are good options. For cooking purposes, carry one small frying pan, one small pot big enough to boil water in, and a small single-burner stove that screws onto the top of a gas canister. If you're driving in, however, you have my permission to go hog wild. Stock a cooler with food, a cooler with beverages and go for broke with a double burner tabletop propane grill. But no matter where you're camped, never store food in your tent, always clean up dishes and leftover food immediately after eating and hang all trash from a tree.

The Rules

No matter where you camp, always tell a friend, neighbor or relative your exact whereabouts and when you expect to return. When necessary (like in national forests), check in and out with forest officials.

If you pack it in, pack it out. And that means the unpleasant items--like trash and used toilet paper in sites without restroom amenities.

When camping at a site where restrooms are not available, bury all human waste at least six inches deep and 200 feet away from all water, trails and campsites.

Be courteous to other campers in the area. Remember, a tent is only fancy fabric, not a sound-proof wall.

Stay on marked trails when instructed or when you're unfamiliar with the area.

Never bathe or wash clothes and dishes in rivers, streams or lakes. Instead, collect water, carry it away from the water source and use environment-friendly soap to clean up.

Happy trails, campers.