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Camping Tricks of the Trade

Levi Wilson enjoys camping with friends and family, but one guest wasn’t so welcome. “After breakfast, we were in a hurry to get out hiking. My wife, Shannon, put the milk and syrup in the beer cooler and not the food one we had in the car,” he said.

When the Wilsons returned to camp a few hours later, the cooler was open and beverages were everywhere—and the syrup and milk were gone. “Another camper came over and showed us the video of a bear visiting. Needless to say, our pancakes were drier for the rest of the trip,” he said.

Bear-proofing your camp is just one suggestion that Wilson offers for those wanting to camp. He and Shannon and their two children, Trent, 12, and Cora, 11, often car-camp with a tent. Like many veteran campers, Wilson recommends doing food preparation at home.

“Freeze all of the meat that you aren’t going to use in the first two days. I also use food saver bags to seal in the meat; to keep sticks of butter from getting wet and to protect different foods from melting ice,” he said.

Wilson also suggested freezing bottles full of water. “They can serve to keep other items cool, and then you can drink the water bottles after they thaw.”

Since the Wilsons enjoy campfires at night, they often pack some of their own heat-treated wood in case it’s hard to find a place to purchase wood nearby. “Sometimes I make my own fire starters with cardboard egg carton or toilet paper tubes stuffed with dryer lint; I pour melted wax over the top from old candles or broken crayons from the kids,” Wilson said.

Wilson also packs a lighter or waterproof matches, and packs a tarp to protect the firewood and tiki torches with citronella oil to light up the border of the camp and keep insects at bay. His must-haves include bug spray, a pack of cards, a cast iron skillet, a coffee maker, a good, strong head lamp, and solar panels. “And I always need a nice hat and flannel to be comfy around the fire,” he said.

With 40 years of camping in various formats including backpacking, kayaking, and car camping, John Hinderliter also has a few camping tips.

“Make sure you have a ground cloth under your tent to protect it from abrasion, but make sure the ground cloth doesn’t extend out from under the tent or it will create a pool of water under your floor,” he shared. As a tall guy himself, he added that if you are car camping, don’t skimp on size.

“Get big stuff. A tent you can stand up in, a big air mattress or cot, and a chair,” Hinderliter said.

Coffee is also important to Hinderliter. “Take a camp stove. Nobody wants to wait around for a fire to get going to have their coffee in the morning,” he said.

And prepare in advance—check the stove for fuel before heading off. “Double check the camp stove fuel before heading out. Nothing like being in the middle of nowhere and unable to make coffee or cook food,” he said. And don’t forget to throw in the extra batteries for flashlights.

Hinderliter’s must-pack list includes coffee, a tarp, bungee cords, and a roll of paracord. “Paracord can save your trip,” the Bethel Park resident said.

Sarah Carr is a double camping expert. Not only does she camp herself, but she is also an assistant manager at 3 Rivers Outdoor Company, an outdoor store. Carr enjoys car camping with a tent and backpacking.

“Car camping is great because you can take a lot of things to really be comfortable like a larger tent, camp chairs, and bigger sleeping bags,” she said.

Camping in western Pennsylvania, Carr said that you need to prepare for “less than ideal” weather conditions. “You may want to take raingear and don’t forget to pack layers to wear. And make sure that all of your gear is in working condition before you go out.”

Advance preparation is key, Carr said.

“There is a saying, ‘Two is one and one is none—that means have a backup. For example, have more than one lighter so if one fails, you have a backup,” she explained.

Campfires are important to Carr, who suggested using fire starters to get an ideal fire for marshmallows and s’mores. “I’ve started more fires in the rain or after a rain—fire starters really help.”

Carr suggests going to an outdoor store and asking experts what they recommend, but also asking other, more experienced campers for the brands that they like and looking for used gear as well. If possible, see tents actually standing to get an idea of the size as descriptions can be misleading. And do a trial run, maybe several times, putting the tent up prior to the actual camping trip.

Shawn Betts and her husband, Ken, are new RV campers. The West Deer couple had planned to purchase an RV after they retired to travel more, but a bargain came their way in 2020. “We love our new life,” Betts said. The couple camps mostly from April though November, often with their grandchildren, Nolan and Nora. They have also taken advantage of the 36-foot motorhome to have guy and girl trips with friends and family.

“We’ve basically been learning as we go, but there are things that we always have in our bus,” she said. Those must-have items for Betts include a Blackstone griddle for breakfasts, mountain pie makers for the all-important campfires and of course, lots of food and beverages.

“We are very fortunate that The Waymaker is like a house on wheels so we are always fully loaded with clothes and food and basically we just need to jump in and go,” Betts said, referring to her vehicle’s nickname.

Although the bargain for their motorhome was unexpected, Betts said that they had researched RVs for a few years and attended RV shows to learn more. “If you’ve thought about camping, do it, because it truly is a great life,” said Betts. “We have made so many great memories in two short camping seasons. I can’t wait for April.”

Camping Tips from the Experts

People who love to camp often have good advice to give, so North Hills Monthly polled fellow campers to come up with a few tips and tricks to make your next camping trip a bit easier and more fun.

  • You don’t have to travel far to have fun. “In the Pittsburgh region, there are plenty of private and state campgrounds within a 2.5-hour radius of Pittsburgh,” said Luci-Jo DiMaggio of Moon Township. Levi Wilson and his family often camp in nearby Scarlett Knob in Ohiopyle and Chestnut Creek Campground in New River Gorge, WV.

  • Going beach camping? Make sure you purchase tent pegs geared for the sand or your regular tent pegs will come loose on the first big breeze—and there will be big breezes.

  • If your travels are going to take you to a couple of national parks, think about purchasing a park pass. Some states have them for their state parks as well. And many places offer senior discounts.

  • Use camping as family time. “Make camping a no-tech zone. Phones are to be used as cameras or for music and that is it. It’s as good for adults as it is for kids,” said DiMaggio. Many campgrounds also have noise restrictions and quiet hours so watch how loud and when you play your music.

  • Advance food preparation can save time, unnecessary expense and food waste. “It’s a great time to let the kids cook. Don’t tell yourself, ‘It’s a fire, the kids need to stay away!’ It’s a perfect opportunity to not only teach kids how to build a fire and fire safety, but how to cook some fun things over it as well,” DiMaggio said.

  • You can often use regular cookware and extra dishes instead of investing in camping cookware until you decide that camping is for you. While the cookware is nice, you can make do with what you have on hand.

  • Try a meal using one of the many dehydrated food products available for campers. “You just add water and are ready to go. Kids love it and it is great to learn skills that can be later used for backpacking,” said Sarah Carr, the assistant manager at 3 Rivers Outdoor Company.

  • Prepare for inclement weather. “Bring rain gear and don’t let the rain totally ruin your plans—especially with little ones. Play in the rain!” said DiMaggio.

  • A lot of campers like to sleep up off the ground, either in a camping cot or on an air mattress. Invest in a good, quality weather appropriate sleeping bag. “My sleeping bag is dependent on my trip. With car camping, I have a heavier, Slumberjack bag that I love,” Carr said.

  • Research ahead on the area for hiking trails, things to do and weather. “We like to camp near water to double the fun,” DiMaggio said. John Hinderliter agreed. “Camping near a stream or river gives you nice white noise to sleep to,” he said.

  • If you pack your own wood, Wilson said to make sure it is heat treated to avoid transporting invasive bugs to another area.

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