I didn’t grow up camping. I’ve never been actively opposed to it—I just haven’t had a lot of experience.
But after taking a 17-day road trip with some experienced camping friends—a trip that included nine nights of camping at five different campgrounds—I now have a reasonable enough sampling to offer my thoughts on why camping is one of the craziest things modern humans do.
1) Pit Toilets
The Internet said our campground at Yosemite had flushing toilets. The Internet lied. Or rather, it didn’t specify that the group campsites were a good seven-minute walk to the flush toilets. If we really needed to go in a hurry, we had to use the pit toilets in the center of the group sites.
Pit toilets, if you’re unfamiliar, are basically glorified outhouses. They smell somewhat acceptable if they’ve just been flumped (that’s the technical term for removing the waste from a pit toilet—you’re welcome). But after a few folks have done their business, pit toilets are nasty. No other way to put it.
The four group sites at our campground held a total of 120 people. They weren’t all filled to capacity, but let’s estimate there were 80 people there. Two pit toilets for 80 people. Take a moment and imagine that. No amount of flumping was going to save our poor nostrils.
But at least those pit toilets had hand sanitizer. The flush toilet bathrooms seven minutes away had cold water sinks, but no hand sanitizer, and no soap. Apparently finding a campground bathroom with soap is like winning the lottery.
Lesson learned. Always carry soap.
2) Pit Toilets at Night
Nope, not done with the toilet thing yet. Pit toilets are bad enough during the day. But at night? With a flashlight? That’s the stuff of horror movies right there. Seriously.
We were pretty fortunate that it’s been a hot, dry summer in the west. Fires galore, but almost no mosquitoes!
Nonetheless, the first night we camped, I dreamed that I was being eaten by bugs in my sleeping bag and had to kill them by whacking them with a spoon. There were no bugs to be seen during the waking hours, but the mere fact of sleeping outside made it feel like there were bugs crawling all over me, all the time.
Also, did I mention the flies in the pit toilets? There were flies in the pit toilets. Flies and no soap. Yes, I’m a privileged whiner. I get that. But still. Flies and no soap. BY CHOICE. See? Campers are crazy.
Personal comfort and the fact that I almost froze to death one night aside, let’s talk about the silliness of sleeping in a tent.
At home, we are surrounded by neighbors we presumably know, at least on the surface—yet we lock our doors at night to keep the creepy people out.
While camping, we purposefully surround ourselves with perfect strangers in the middle of the woods, with nothing between us and the potential serial killers but some flimsy nylon and a zipper.
Seriously, the whole time we camped, I was writing a murder mystery in my head.
“The zipper opened slowly . . . the family barely stirred . . .”
And since I’m still not over my bathroom rant . . .
“As she clicked the lock shut on the pit toilet door, her flashlight flickered, then everything went dark . . .”
5) Lions and Tigers Raccoons and Bears, Oh My
How about those adorable little raccoons and squirrels who crawl all over your make-shift kitchen and picnic-table-dining-room all night long? Oh, they’re there. Trust me. I have proof.
Also, if a bear or a mountain lion were wandering through an average American neighborhood, there would be PANDELERIUM, people. Folks would be freaking out, locking their doors, brandishing weapons, and peering nervously out the window.
Yet, while camping, bears and mountain lions roam around freely all night long, and there’s nothing between them and your precious sleeping babies but some flimsy nylon and a zipper.
I’m telling you. Insanity.
6) Fellow Campers
Another special feature of the nylon/zipper barrier to the outside world is that you get to hear what all of your neighbors are up to all night long. The young lady at Yosemite with the loud, hacking cough was a real peach come bedtime (although she probably succeeded in keeping the bears and mountain lions away—YAY!). Equally charming was the family at the Redwoods who brought along their two dogs, Jack and Rita (whose names I know because “JACK! Get back here right now!” and “RITA! We don’t chase people!”).
We did get a girl with a guitar and a lovely singing voice once. But we also got someone who kept blowing an air horn like you hear at football games. Who the heck brings an air horn to the woods? Crazy campers, apparently.
7) Campfire Smoke
In normal life, most of us try to avoid second-hand smoke at all costs. Yet while camping, we sit there and happily suck in campfire smoke by the lung full. I may as well have smoked a pack of cigarettes for how much smoke I inhaled around the campfire during our trip.
The smoke is also impossible to get away from, no matter how many times you change seats. They say that smoke follows beauty, but I think it just follows people who think camping is crazy.
Also, there are apparently folks who love the smell of campfires. These are not my people.
8) Cleanliness (or Lack Thereof)
Don’t let the perfectly groomed families in the L.L. Bean catalog fool you. Camping is dirty. Like, filthy dirty. Like, impossible to get clean dirty (especially when the bathrooms have only hand sanitizer or cold water and no soap).
You can’t get away from the dirt. It just becomes a part of you. We’ve been home for four days, and I still can’t get my feet totally clean.
And the kids? Forget about it. Think Pig Pen from the Peanuts cartoon. Every day. All day long.
Shower, you say? Oh, some campgrounds don’t believe in those. And those that do usually require quarters for the privilege of warm running water. I’ve never been so happy to pay $1.25 for three minutes of anything in my life, ever.
Oh, yes. By all means, let’s take a horribly filthy situation and add sticky faces and fingers to the mix.
S’mores are one of the stickiest, messiest things on earth to eat—yet we feed them to our children when they’re covered in—and surrounded by—dirt with no easy means to clean them.
Oh, and then let’s try to put our sticky, sugared up children to bed in a tent together. Crrrraaaazzzyyyyy.
10) Somehow, it’s FUN.
Despite my seeming disdain for the whole thing, camping was, in fact, a fun experience. The fresh air and trees and being immersed in nature was pretty darned tootin’. We could see stars—oodles of them. Watching deer prance through our campsite at Crater Lake was somehow more thrilling than when they prance through our yard at home. And when you’re camping at national parks, well, the scenery can’t be beat.
Even the inconveniences were positive in the end. The fact that our kids were covered in dirt was balanced by the joy in seeing them revel in the great outdoors without any modern-day distractions. And the truth is that being forced into moderately uncomfortable situations is probably good for most of us. It’s definitely good for me.
So as it turns out, as fond as I am of my creature comforts, I may just be one of those crazy people who enjoys camping. (As long as I call ahead to clarify the toilet situation and carry my own soap from now on.)