Wednesday, July 2, 2014

If you go down to the woods're sure of a big surprise

Sometimes you wonder, living in the PNW, if there's anyone you know who doesn't spend all of their free time kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, or camping. People here basically walk around outfitted like they're about to hop on a trail at any moment. And it's not just us. Outdoors and wilderness wandering is a pretty robust culture here in the States and with all the inspiration "the mountains are calling"-posters and vintage-influenced camping gear it's a growing trend.

Still, or perhaps because of this, plenty of folks seem fairly new to even the front steps of  the backcountry. Just on our last beach jaunt we met both people who were hiking a long ways with packs lighter than ours, and people who clearly couldn't believe they'd made it three down a well-established trail. Car-camping is one thing (lots more luggage, always a dry place to store stuff and sleep at a pinch), but backpacking takes a little more forethought and I for one could have used handy tips for my first times of camping.

Here's some of the things I wish I had known/ wish everyone did know about living in the wild for a little while:


You can eat like a king in the backcountry…the first night you camp and the last night you camp. Depending on how much you're willing to carry, the first night/ morning you're out there you can have things like fresh bread, greens, fresh dairy. Carrying things like greens really pays off, because as long as you can back them loosely, say in a plastic bag with a little bit of moisture in it, tied to the outside of your pack, they add much needed variety to the meals. This time we brought kale and garlic scapes to compliment our rice and beans.

Which brings me to how to best sustain yourself with very little room on your back. Even if you're not packing up and moving every day, you need to make sure that you actually consume enough calories for the day hikes and other adventures that fill a camping vacation. A few years ago, an otherwise lovely trip got a little hard towards the end because we under-estimated the amount of calories we needed.

Here's my staples:

-Eggs (in a carrier case 12 eggs equals 6 days of excellent protein for two people).
-Rice and dehydrated, flavored beans (filling and delicious-sub quinoa for even more protein).
-Coffee and tea (a cup of coffee can be such a luxury on cold camp mornings), you can bring sweet and condensed milk if you can bear to carry it.
-Trailmix, not just for the obvious trail-use, but it's delicious in oatmeal.
-Crackers, we eat a lot of rye crackers and they're the perfect day-hike snack.
-A bar of chocolate for each day of camping, and a bar to split between the hike-in day and the hike-out day. That's a half a bar of chocolate a day for two adults. I'm not kidding about this. I learned this the hard way and you should take my word for it. The darker the chocolate, the more satisfying it is doled out in small doses.
-Salt and pepper.

Beyond those basics there's a few luxury items that I for one like to make room for:
-A stick or two of butter, provided that you're not camping in the desert. Keep it cool, folks.
-A small bottle of hot sauce, if you're into that.
-Brewer's yeast
-And apple, or some other fruit a day to split between two people. If you've got the room, you can carry one for everyone, but really, six or seven apples way a surprising amount.
-The afore-mentioned perishables: bread, greens, cheese, carrots…
-Alcohol. If that's your bag, a plastic container of your chosen hard serves the purpose a lot better than two beers. Boxed wine is excellent too, because once you take the box off it comes in a nice skin that, that once empty, packs light. Unlike a glass bottle.

Other housekeeping items involve, cooking, water and fire:
-We don't really fry stuff, just boil it.
-A water-purifying pump and a source of water is a must. We have an MSR one that Charlie bought around 1998 and it still works great. Your other alternative is to boil all your water, but that requires a lot of gas/ firewood. Make sure you camp close enough to water and that there's water available on your hiking route. It should be a no-brainer, but thanks to the "new normal" even the rainy Olympic Peninsula was surprisingly dry for this time of year.
-Speaking of cooking, a little stove is nice and a must, but fires are fun. We usually do the first for the morning and second for dinner. However, this means, finding and carrying wood (not always easy in popular camp spots) and packing a splitting device.

And like, I said, the first night you eat the perishables and the last night you eat everything that's left, because somehow you think that it's gonna be lighter to carry in your gut than in your pack...

An important note on food storage: make sure it's protected from animals, or rather animals are protected from you food. Use bear-cans, string stuff up, close things tightly, whatever it takes. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a crow with a cheeto or chip in its beak. And always do your dishes before bed. Unless you want raccoons touching them unbeknownst to you...


All the credit for anything I know about sheltering yourself from the elements while camping goes directly to my husband, so these are his tips, not mine.

-If there's any chance of rain, make a dry hangout area. Five days inside your tent walls, or outside in driving wind and rain, is a recipe for, well anything from ending your relationship to turning on your heels to go home.
-Bring a tarp (or as Charlie did, an old sail) to make a shelter in which to hang out.
-Works for creating shade against the sun too. Even here in the PNW the rays can be a bit much middle of the day.
- If you're staying, create a fire pit, with cooking facilities: rocks between which you can channel heat to cook over, flat surfaces for cutting and setting stuff, a place to dry your dishes, dry seating, spot to hang clothing, etc…
-Collect, dry and stash firewood. This way you don't have to go out every time you want to cook.
-Charlie always puts one of those heat reflecting emergency blankets under out tent. This is awesome because: a)ground is cold b) it's also often wet.

Charlie's an expert in creating cozy spaces, whether it's for a day, or a week. The one we had this time was so awesome our neighboring campers and passing hikers seemed downright miffed. The one day it rained, we were dry warm and merry under our little sail, with tall beach log walls.


Pack what you wear. This sounds like a truism, but I promise you it's a gem of eternal wisdom. See, unless you're a hardcore hiker, a few days in the back country isn't going to turn you into one, no matter how much gear you buy at REI. There's likely something in your closet that'll suffice. I prefer cotton and wool, but then again, I've never actually worn anything that wicks moisture, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.

The staples for any camping trip depend of course on where you are and what the weather is likely to be like, but my staples regardless of the time of the year here in WA include:

-A raincoat.
-Long wool underwear. Keeps you warm even when it's damp.
-A thin wool shirt or cardigan.
-Two pairs of wool socks. (you can air them out and they keep your feet warm even when damp)
-Skinny jeans. Comfortable and can be layered for warmth.
-A brimmed wool-felt hat. Shades from the sun, or keeps rain out of your eyes.
-A pair of undies for each day, plus some. (The plus some is just my travel rule.)

For a midsummer's trip I added to this the following:
-Rubber boots. I'm not a huge fan of hiking boots and we were going to be by the sea. (Normally I might pack a second pair of shoes but bare feet were plenty.)
-A pair of shorts. The best to actually hike in with a backpack on.
-Two tops.
-One soft rayon baby doll dress.
-A long cotton camisole.
-One pair of leggings. (These proved to be somewhat unnecessary, this time.)

Hygiene and First Aid

Oh boy. I bet if you're at all like me you wondered at the top of the post "Is she gonna talk about shitting in the woods?". Yep. This is that kind of a blog. But really, I'm only going to talk about it, because every damn time we go out there people seem to be confused about it. Namely, whether it's okay for them to just not follow the very simple rules of shitting in the woods. Not to go into it too much, but every time we've been to the beach, there's someone (usually multiple people) who's clearly just pooping in the bushes, or worse, on the beach. The same beach they're camping on! Don't be one of those people! Here's how this goes: 1. get a shit-shovel. Most camping places and ranger stations sell them. In the absence of one, find something to dig with. 2. Dig a hole. A deep one. 3. Poop in it and cover your droppings up. No, really. There's grown-ups who don't have a handle on this. No one is an exception to these simple rules, because unless you're completely off the beaten path, there's a fair chance another person might come into contact with your feces. Which is disgusting.

Now that that's done with, let's move on to other intimate matters of personal hygiene:
-Hand sanitizer, this is the one time to bring it. Usually, I'm pretty much all-out-against hand-sanitizer, because I think that washing your hands is effective enough and doesn't lower your tolerance to bacteria, but in the case of no warm water being available it's good to have it handy.
-Especially if you're a gal and it's that time of the month while you're camping. Speaking of which: since you have to pack, bury, or burn your trash, if that is the case I highly recommend a moon cup for camping. I highly recommend one anyway, but especially for camping.
-First aid kit. It weighs a ton, even under the best of circumstances, but under the worst of circumstances it's worth its weight in gold. Don't back everything, pack the things your family might need.
-Know what you're up against. Know the potentially dangerous plants and how to remedy them, whether there's insects, or poisonous snakes, allergens, etc. and then pack your kit accordingly.
-Consider creating an herbal first aid kit. I have a tiny one in my "cosmetics" pouch.
-All-in-one products. I bring one coconut oil-based cream for everything: moisturizing, sunscreen, salve. Same for liquid, bio-degradable soap that works for dishes and your body is great.
-There's usually some body of water to dip in for a quick rinse.
-Don't pack things you don't need that need to go to a bear-can at night, or when you're not in camp. Most parks recommend that anything scented be kept in a bear-container.
-Bring food items that can double as medicines. Tea and coffee for instance, are great for this. So is honey.

Need something to keep you occupied beyond the wood gathering, the wildlife, the surf, the day hikes, the flora, the sunsets, each other?

We usually bring some small game, cards, scrabble cubes, or dominoes, but lately we haven't really been using them much.

Crafts, generally, take up space and might not end up being done in the end. This time Charlie did bring a tiny piece of wood, something that he could carve with the knife he was already taking. He ended up making a little carving, while I mostly read. We always bring a book that we can read out-loud, or either of us can read.

Beyond just watching the world go by,  beach combing, or exploring your surroundings, making nature art is one of my favorite things to do when camping. If it can be erased by the tide, or a strong wind it's fun and very human to organize rocks and seaweed and branches into shapes and stacks and circles, and oddly satisfying. Like many of the things we do while camping, creating kelp spirals and stacking rocks for hours on end is the kind of thing you only do when faced with an abundance of time, or rather, no sense of it at all.

Wild Life
In spite human-animal interactions being really pretty straight forward, hikers and campers often forget the few basic rules around them, feeding animals, either inadvertently, or on purpose, or disrupting their normal routines with one's touristy antics. Running at, or getting too close to wildlife is never a good idea, but especially not somewhere like the Olympic National Park, where most of the year, there are no people around it's both stupid and dangerous. The animals can actually get pretty close to you, but that's not an invitation to feed them or pet them. Use your zoom. If it doesn't make a good enough picture, don't walk closer for a selfie with an elk. 
Wild Crafting

Beyond what the actual rules of the park may be (Many parks ask you not to wild-craft. We were on the reservation so we picked a few, select, salmonberries.), the same rules always apply to wildcrafting:

-Know what you're eating. If you're not sure, don't eat it. It's a long way to the nearest hospital, or bathroom.
-Don't be greedy. Other's eat salmonberries too. And they don't have trail mix.
-Don't disrupt while you're gathering. If there's cool stuff somewhere where you have to trample cool stuff to get to it, is it really worth it?
-Wild-crafting is a fun way to observe your surroundings, but you can also just take a picture and go home to your trail mix. In fact, having a camera is a great way to identify plants afterwards, if you don't want to lug a guide.

Here's Charlie trying some labrador tea, it tastes like nothing, but can apparently kill you in large doses. Oddly disappointing for a dangerous herbal beverage…so much for living on the edge in the bush.


I have a few tips that are golden for when you finally hike back to "civilization":

-Have a plan for a meal. Whenever we're leaving the Olympic Peninsula, for instance, we always stop at Granny's Cafe for breakfast (local produce and eggs!), chocolate milkshakes (amazing!), or burgers (and to pet the Nubian goats and the miniature donkey and marvel at the many-toed cat!). Something to speed you along the hike home…
-Have a change of clothes. Clean clothes! Like an instant shower.
-Hiding a treat in the car. I can't put into words how good a fully ripe grapefruit tastes after a week of rice and beans.

Alright, I believe that's all of my camping hacks, but I'd love to hear yours because we're already busy planning our next trip and it's a big one! Any help would be priceless. Or just stories about pooping in the woods...


  1. I have only ever car camped, and in Texas and Oklahoma, so a very different climate. It's hoooooooot. My favorite item to bring with me is a sarong. I can use it for so many things! Wear it as a skirt, a dress, a shawl, use it as a blanket, tie it into a bag, or rig it up as a shade cloth. Since I drive in, I usually have an air mattress, which is pretty nice but I ALWAYS but down a heavy blanket between me and the mattress even at Midsummer, then put bedding on top of that, because the air inside the mattress can get really chilly at night. I woke up shivering one morning after forgetting, and swiftly rearranged my bedding!

    Also, always check for burn bans! It's nice to have a campfire, but half the country where I camped the most burned down a couple years ago. Don't be a jerk and light fires in a tinderbox... people lose their lives and homes!

    1. Arg... "PUT down a heavy blanket" and "half the county" not country.

    2. That's a very good point, even in WA. In my county, we always end up having a burn ban in the summer. I don't know if I could handle camping in the heat. My version of your sarong is my Russian wool scarf, I use it for so many things ;D as a pillow, blanket, hood…Thanks for your thoughts, I'd love to hear more about camping in the desert.

    3. I've never camped in the desert, so you'll have to hear about that from someone else. I camp in wooded areas. :D

      I am scared to camp in the desert - snakes are attracted to the body heat of sleepers, and scorpions like to crawl in shoes. Scorpions give me the willies!

  2. Haha, I always pack an extra pair of undies or two as well, no matter what! You just never know.

    Such great tips here - your porridge looks delish!


  3. I haven't been camping for years and years but I always remember one year on a school trip, we were camping in a recently mown meadow and there were clumps of soft hay still scattered over the field. So we gathered up as many as we could find and stuffed them under the groundsheet of our tent like a matress. Next morning everyone else was grumbling about sleeping on the hard ground and we had all had a lovely night's sleep on our hay mattress. My other tip is that dome tents are much easier to put up than ridgepole tents, and often lighter these days as well. Oh, and don't forget some kind of insect repellent.

    1. Oh yeah, good point! I usually bring an essential oil of peppermint that cover insect repellent and opening sinuses and perks you up when you're hiking. And do not even get me started on dome tents. A couple years ago Charlie got this tiny little tent for hiking, that we take instead of our dome tent and it's like this cocoon and you totally cannot hangout in it at all. It's so claustro…Thanks for checking in, happy high summer!

  4. Great post! Better to prepared than to be sorry.

    When I was at Olympic NP two years ago, i seriously didn't want to leave. You had to drag me to the airport.
    Such a wonderful (and beautiful) place to live!


  5. Great post! One of my favorite camping items is my head lamp or head flashlight thingy. Being hands free at night and able to see where you're going is wonderful.

  6. I'm just so envious of your climate! Not having to lug warm sleeping bags and tents just opens up so many more multi-day hiking possibilities.

  7. And if you're going to hide a treat in the car, HIDE IT WELL! On one backpacking trip in the Trinity Mountains, we left some food in the car, thinking we'd come back soon for it (granted, it was much more than a grapefruit). I came back to find the car window shattered and looked up to see a bear staring me down from like 20 yards away. We actually left right after that, realizing we were wayyyy too deep into bear country.

    Oh and also, use up to date maps! Old maps have gotten my family into serious pickles ("oh look, it says on this ten year old map that a shortcut was supposed to be built right here, I'm sure they've built it by now LET'S TAKE IT" *end up stuck at the top of a double black diamond ski run in the summer*).

    Love this list, and I'd love to know where you're going for this big trip of yours!

    1. ALSO, leave car windows a tiny crack open. It's what saved the rest of our car-- the bear just pulled out the window instead of resorting to more extreme methods :)

  8. Nice tips! I've done a lot of backpacking in my day and agree with you about much you've mentioned. I would add to bring a headlamp, and I also always bring my beloved little candle lantern. I love reading with it in the tent at night. (Which is probably a fire hazard, but I do it anyway.) Tinned fish is also a nice, high protein food to have on the hiking days. The other funny thing that I always am glad to have is a washcloth... one that is light and will dry quickly. There is nothing better and more refreshing after a long, sweaty hike than washing your face (and armpits)! Generally though, less is more. If your pack is too heavy you may not be able to enjoy the hike. I wear the same things over and over and save my clean clothes in the car. Great photos, by the way, is this at second beach? Have you guys ever been out to Shi Shi?

  9. p.s. Thimbleberry leaves make excellent natural TP!

  10. I love this post, having found out many of these ideas myself on previous backpacking trips. I used kale leaves as mini salads for the four days we were in grand canyon, so nice to have something fresh to chew on, also a couple carrots I ate sparingly. I just read Wild and my brother was bemused at my enthusiasm for it. I know it's so trendy right now, and he was all worried (being a true outdoorsman) about the PCT getting too popular, but how many people really want to pull that off? It's too much work for most! That's the nice thing about wilderness, I think for the most part those you meet out in it are really pretty in love with nature and doing their best to keep it clean and sacred. Not so much with car camping, haha! Although I love that too. Especially now with the babes. I think it will be a few years before we venture out for some backpacking again. We did an overnighter up in Glacier NP when my nephew Orion was 3. I didn't know then how brave my brother and his wife were being! With a six and seven year old as well! In the rain!

    I've never had to pack warm stuff because we only go in summer and the nights get cool but not all that cold. Or else I'm just extremely warm blooded. Your needs change when you're truly out in nature too, I feel like I don't need a pad for my sleeping bag or a pillow (yep, that bandana works wonders) and a chunk of bread with peanut butter tastes like manna!

    This was such a fun post to read. I love to see your little camp with Charlie's cozy touches. It's hard to keep it neat and homey with these two babes! I try hard though, it's so worth it to have a peaceful little spot that feels like home for awhile. They love it too. Who knew babies would have so much fun sleeping in tents? Mine literally giggle with delight when we go inside!

  11. What a wonderful trip and your photos are gorgeous. I'd love to see the Oregon coast someday...Good morning from Pennsylvania!

  12. I enjoy this post so much! It would certainly have been both truly useful and exciting when I was preparing for a solo hiking trip in Norway as a young student (with no previous experience of camping), which was supposed to take place one September after a summer of barely gathering the money for it as an au pair in England, except instead I unexpectedly got accepted into a literary translations' Master program in Paris.

    (When I did get some free time again between jobs, I took a plane to Montréal and ended up staying there for good ;o)

    Had I known that it was possible to actually camp on a beach, particularly such majestic ones, I would have been overwhelmed with awe. This old sail/driftwood shelter is indeed wonderful! You look so great in it :o)

    A notebook and a few coloured pencils can keep me entertained for hours (don't forget the eraser and pencil sharpener, though ;o). Some of my favourite drawings were made during a solo camping week in Parc Forillon, at the very tip of Gaspésie, in Quebec. I didn't have a digital camera at the time, so these precise and fluid sketches carry the whole spirit of this amazing place and my deep happiness at the time.

  13. Aah, I'm so bookmarking this post! It'll be super helpful on some of our upcoming outdoor adventures. Thanks!

  14. Ha, ha, pooping in the woods! It seems like it would be so obvious. Dig a deep hole. Cover it up. You guys are great. No, really. I strive to be more like you, and this post was just absolutely fantastic- funny and practical and left me yearning for the wilderness. As usual.

  15. Wonderful post! I grew up in the city and went on some camping trips as a kid that were NOT well prepared for, aka not fun! In my early 20s I gained a friend who is so good at all the things you describe, making things cozy, knowing what to do. She took me camping and woke me up in the morning with a cup of coffee, and camping was changed for me forever! I'll still go anywhere/do anything with her, she earned my trust forever!