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Style Magazine

Camping 101

Mar 31, 2009 05:00PM ● By Super Admin

Referring to his limited camping experience, a good friend once said, “Man spent 25,000 years perfecting shelter, who am I to turn my back on it?” But even he has been known to occasionally rough it in the wilderness (or, in his case, the state campground with showers). And he does it for the same reason as the rest of us: fresh air, tranquility, s’mores. Most of us really do get a sense of reconnecting to our past on some primal, subconscious level once the tent is up, the campfire has been stoked and the stars come out. And when we wake in the morning, all kinked up because the foam sleeping pad didn’t quite perform as advertised, we renew our appreciation for the aforementioned shelter our ancestors worked so hard to perfect. 

There is no question that camping is a lot of work, especially with kids. In fact, my wife and I cut back when our kids were younger because we realized that all the packing, unpacking, and packing up again was being done by us, while they seemed to spend most of their time running around the campground stomping in poison oak, complaining about the potties or getting stung. They’re older now and we’ve eased back into it, but when it comes to camping with young kids, it can be a lot of work and part of you really has to want it. But want it you should, because in the Sierra, within easy reach of the 80 and 50 Corridors, are quite simply some of the best places to camp in America.

“Roughing it” is a relative term, and a lot of camping hassles can be mitigated with one word: planning. The first order of business is to only pack what you truly need. Check the forecast, toss in an extra blanket or two if it looks particularly chilly – but leave the comforters at home. A good sleeping bag should be enough for most summertime conditions in the Sierra, especially if your SUV is parked five feet away. Clothing is another over-packed item. This isn’t a business trip. A change of clothes is fine but for the most part, it’s okay to wear the same hoodie a few days in a row. And plan out the menu ahead of time, you can get as fancy as you want – and plenty of people do – but know going in what your meals will be, so that you’ve used most of it up by the time you’re heading out.

Cooking gear is another facet that is easy to overdo. Again, there are people who take their great outdoors gastronomy very seriously, and truly, I hope to camp next to them. But most of us don’t really need titanium-lined Dutch ovens or battery-operated margarita makers. Generally speaking, a small propane stove, a pan, a pot, a few cups and some simple utensils are fine. As for any rum drinks, serve them on the rocks. You’re already surrounded by them anyway, so it kind of fits with the theme.
As for the rest of your gear, the world of camping equipment can be as humbling as the wilderness itself. So, if the only sleeping bag you have is the one with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle lining that you took to camp back in ‘87, your next step is to find the right gear. To do that, don’t rush out to the local big box discount store the night before and buy up everything in aisle 344. You want quality, and the first time your waterproof tent is hammered by a cloudburst that the forecast didn’t call for, you’ll thank yourself. Of course, costs for quality can rise up faster than a Sierra thunderhead, so consider renting at first, rather than buying. Places like REI, Sports Chalet and locally-owned outdoorsy shops in the high country should have all the gear you need, and the rates are often quite reasonable. After a few trips you should have a pretty good idea of what works for you and what doesn’t. And by that time, it’s the off-season and the prices are lower! 

So let’s say you’ve got all that taken care of. Now comes the fun part: where to go. Within a few hours of Roseville or Folsom there are literally more places than you could visit in a lifetime: Crystal Basin and Desolation Wildernesses, the American River Canyon, the Alp-like Sierra can quickly get confusing, so do a little research. The Forest Service and State Parks have invaluable resources online and links to still others. There are a lot of good books too, one of the best is by Tom Stienstra, an outdoors writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. His book, California Camping, is by far the most useful I’ve found on the subject. Granted, he lists a lot more than just places to camp in the greater Placer/El Dorado region, but from primitive to lavish, he reviews them all in plain, succinct detail. 

One of things Stienstra mentions is the five percent rule, and it’s a good one to remember. One of the reasons we get away is to...get away. But we’re like-minded creatures, and that means we can end up trying to get away from it all, together. And that kind of defeats the purpose. The five percent rule, Stienstra writes, is “Ninety-five percent of vacationers use only five percent of the available recreation areas.” Most are heavily visited because of their convenience – either to the valley or to destinations like Lake Tahoe – or because of their amenities like flush toilets and showers. If you can forego either, you automatically increase your odds of enjoying a little solitude. Just be sure to choose from campsites up-wind of any pit toilets, if you can.   

 If you don’t mind crowds or are the impulsive, last-minute type, you should know that the most popular campgrounds fill up months in advance via a reservation system like Reserve America ( or, which is for campgrounds on federal land. Reserving a spot in January for a weekend in July is usually necessary. Most public campgrounds, state or federal, designate a certain number of campsites as first come, first served. And plenty don’t take reservations at all: PG&E operates a good number of campgrounds and according to their Web site pg& – nearly all of their sites are first come, first served, with the exception of group facilities. But it is wise to check ahead, nonetheless. And for backcountry hiking, always check in advance about backcountry permits, which may be required.

Of course, the biggest factor in deciding where to go is you. Wide open vistas or tranquil mountain forests? Fishing? Hiking? A pizza joint within delivery distance? Ask yourself and your family what sort of outdoor experience it is you’re looking for and narrow it down from there.

Speaking of outdoor experience, one last thing: can you spot poison oak before it spots you? Do you know where rattlesnakes like to hide or where ticks look to hitch a ride? Do you know how to keep bears from getting at your food? Brush up on your knowledge of such things to minimize your chances of such things brushing up against you.  

Whether you’re looking for something simple with a picnic table and fire ring you can drive to, or you want to go all-John Muir and escape into the backcountry with just a pack and a journal, there are a thousand places in our region that can be reached within a few hours and easily enjoyed over the course of a weekend, if not a lifetime. It undoubtedly takes work, but the pull of nature tugs at most of us, maybe more vigorously now in these tough economic times. So give in. Get out. Roughing it is relative, and you’re the one who defines it.

For more helpful Camping tips and insight, be sure to pick up this month's copy of FoothillStyle. Click on the "Get Your Copy" link on the bottom of this page for some of our newsstand locations. Or, to order a copy of this issue, please email  [email protected], or call 916-988-9888.