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Tips for Tent Camping in Federal and State Campgrounds

Cimarron Canyon State Park is a great place for overnight tent camping in northern New Mexico.
Cimarron Canyon State Park is a great place for overnight tent camping in northern New Mexico.

It’s springtime, and people are dusting off their tents, cleaning out their campers, and getting ready to head into the great outdoors. Last year, my family spent two months on the road tent camping in national parkland in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico. It was fun, but there were stressful moments. During our time at Lake Meredith National Recreation Area we were caught in a nasty thunder storm with winds so strong we spent the night in the restroom, only to find our tent ripped to shreds in the morning. We left after throwing it away and packing up.

If you’re looking for adventure and want a break from the rat race, hiking a trail on national forest land will bring your mind back to what’s important: staying in tune with your body and with our lands. But before you go, you absolutely must prepare yourself. Research your destination. The bears are waking up, the predators will soon follow if they haven’t already. Here in small town New Mexico, I’ve already seen neighbors’ garbage bags ripped open by hungry critters.

The most important thing to remember is that there will not always be WiFi, cellphone or electric connectivity in certain places, so research before you go.

1. Bring a strong insect repellent like Deep Woods Off, or something similar. Even in the mountains, you will encounter some pretty big mosquitoes.

2. Bring at least 100 feet of parachute cord and learn how to tie a tautline hitch.

3. Bring at least one tarp as large as a standard picnic table. IKEA carries them cheaply. They serve as wind breakers, rain covers and privacy walls.

4. Buy a sturdy five-gallon water jug. Don’t ever rely on those cheap collapsible water jugs for your primary water source. They will spring a leak sooner or later. The sturdy jugs by Reliant are great.

5. Collapsible water jugs with an on-off nozzle make good outdoor showers. They usually have a hole you can put the cord through just for that purpose.

6. Don’t get a tent bigger than your needs, and get one that is dome-shaped. Our original tent was rectangular with a large vestibule and it ended up getting ripped apart by strong winds during a storm.

7. Research, research, research. If you’ve never been to a particular place and don’t know anything about the location, check camping forums for information. Another good way to learn more is to contact the closest city’s Chamber of Commerce. They will always have useful information about sites near the city that are good for tent camping.

8. Be sure the campgrounds you’ve chosen are still open and managed. We camped at Deer Lakes near Lake City, Colorado, only to discover the campground had no host, the vault toilets weren’t being cleaned regularly, and volunteers were actually managing it because the National Forest Service nearly closed it due to budget constraints.

9. Never, and I mean NEVER, leave your food out while you’re gone. Whether you’re in bear country or not, it’s simply unwise to leave your cooler on the table, open drinks, pancake syrup, and trash unattended while you’re gone. If you leave food and trash out while you’re gone (or even while asleep), you’re just inviting trouble in the form of bears, raccoons, and any other critters who might enjoy your tasty tidbits.

10. When in bear country, use the bear box. These are metal boxes set out by the managing park service. Close and lock them so bears and other animals can’t get in. If there are no dumpsters in the campground, carry your trash out to the nearest receptacle.

11. Never go to sleep wearing the same clothes you cooked in. If you spill food on yourself while eating, change your clothing and put it in your car or a bear box before going to bed.

12. Do not, I repeat do NOT take or eat food in your tent. Animals will smell it, and they can chew or claw their way through that thin nylon. Seriously, don’t be dumb when it comes to food and wild animals. There have been reports of serious, life-threatening bear attacks on campers in tents in recent years due to camper negligence. In Colorado, a man was actually attacked inside his tent while asleep because he either had food inside his tent, or didn’t take the clothes he cooked with off.

13. Respect other campers. Be sure you observe the quiet hours posted by the campground management. Most campgrounds have quiet hours between 10pm and 6am, but I’ve seen quiet hours that were 11pm to 7am. There is nothing more annoying than campers who rev their engines in the middle of the night, waking up those campers who are already asleep.

14. Please, obey the speed limit within the campgrounds. My daughter was nearly run down by an ATVer because he was not observing the campground speed limit. Remember, campground roads aren’t just for vehicles. They’re also for pedestrians.

15. On a lighter note, make friends with people in RVs. They almost always have leftover food they no longer need and if you’re nice, they might give you their extra food. But don’t ask your new friends if they have any food. That’s just rude.

16. In higher altitudes, bring plenty of water and take a few Tums to help your body acclimate. The water helps to keep your body from getting dehydrated and stay oxygenated in higher altitude, and the Tums (which is an old Air Force trick) helps to bring your body’s pH back to normal.

17. If you have any issues with a fellow camper, let the campground host know. If there is no host to talk to, contact the service that manages the campgrounds.

18. Campers who repeatedly disrespect others and have multiple complaints against them will run the risk of having their possessions confiscated. I’ve read reports by other campers on forums where people who refused to obey campground rules had their tents, food, and other supplies confiscated by the park service rangers. Rangers won’t care about ruining your tent and supplies while confiscating them, so be warned.

19. Take only a few items of clothing, and make sure they are made of fabric that dries quickly.

20. Take some environmentally friendly laundry soap in case you’re stuck somewhere with no laundromat nearby. A Sterlite tub makes a good washtub in a pinch.

21. Bobby pins make a good substitute for clothespins. When drying clothes on a windy day, string up the parachute cord and secure your wet clothes with the bobby pins. You can find bobby pins at the dollar store in a 100-count package.

22. Invest in a sturdy pair of shoes. Keens are excellent for camping. They last a long time, and they’re comfortable, even for women like me who have ridiculously wide feet.

23. Buy perishable food items only when you need them. A cooler is nice, but ice melts, and if you leave something in the cooler for too long, it might go bad before you know it.

24. If you have a campfire, put it out completely before heading to sleep. This means no burning embers glowing in the fire pit. Campgrounds often have designated fire pits. Use them.

25. If you bring your dog, keep it on a leash for its own safety. It doesn’t matter how well-behaved your canine friend is. Most campgrounds and public lands require your pets to be on leashes. Bears, mountain lions, wolves, and other animals can harm your dog if it’s not leashed by attacking it, which can either kill the dog or spread disease. Wild animal feces and decaying dead animals can also pose a risk to unleashed dogs.

Invest in High Quality
Invest in High Quality REBerkeley

Invest in High Quality

Be sure to research everything you need to know before you purchase your tent. It doesn't matter if you're going out on a long-term camping trip, or if you're going out for a few days, spending the extra money on a high quality tent will be worth it.

Enjoy the Views
Enjoy the Views REBerkeley

Enjoy the Views

Enjoy the views, but be safe while doing it. Bring lots of insect repellent. You'd be surprised how many ticks and mosquitos can survive in higher altitudes.

Invest in Good Shoes
Invest in Good Shoes REBerkeley

Invest in Good Shoes

Don't be a Scrooge when it comes to camping shoes. I purchased men's Keens hiking shoes because the women's shoes weren't wide enough for my monstrous feet.

Be Aware of the Weather
Be Aware of the Weather REBerkeley

Be Aware of the Weather

Always keep an eye on the weather and an ear on the radio. In some places your WiFi connection will be sketchy or non-existant. In late spring and early summer, the weather can be upredictable, so never, ever get complacent about those clouds you see in the distance.

Know Your Area
Know Your Area REBerkeley

Know Your Area

Know your area and remember your camp site number. There may be drop boxes where you have to drop your camping fee into, and if you write down the wrong camp site number, you might be left paying more than you owe. Many national and local camp sites accept checks as payments.

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