There’s nothing like a night in the wilderness, where familiar sounds of civilization get replaced by soft owl hoots and the mysterious creakings of the natural world. A first-timer, however, may think camping will be messy or uncomfortable; they may shudder at the thought of an open-air latrine. But their minds might change once they experience time in the wild.
Utah is a camper’s paradise. They can select from a variety of environments—mountains, deserts, lakes or national parks. There are more than 2,000 state-park campsites alone. Whatever campers choose, a little knowledge will help them have an inspiring experience away from the man-made risks of the city.
There are two main kinds of camping: car camping, where campers carry the comforts of home with them; and backpacking, which is more of a survival experience. Car camping is easiest, and Utah’s campgrounds range from primitive park-your-vehicle sites to numerous KOA franchises that offer friendly attendants, cabins and RV parking, with amenities like swimming and fishing, Wi-Fi and even firewood, for reasonable fees.
The most important question for novice campers, especially backpackers, is: “Is drinkable water available?” Brad Shelburne, manager of Kirkham’s Outdoor Products, says. “It’s not necessary to take a lot of water [with you] unless you’re going to the desert. In the hot season of the desert, you’ll need a lot of water—roughly, a gallon a day for drinking, cooking and cleaning, depending on how hot it is.” He warns against drinking out of a lake or stream, since most watersheds carry dangerous intestinal bacteria. Instead, use a water purifier—whether it’s a simple unit with a filter inside a bottle or a more expensive filter that pumps water.
Shelburne has important advice for backpackers: “If you’re going into the wilderness, always check in with the local ranger. Some areas have a sign-in sheet at the start of a particular trailhead where you can fill in the date, what time you’re supposed to come back and how many [people are] in your party. Plus, always tell someone before you leave, and they should have an exact itinerary of your route.” Remember, cell phones don’t always work in the wilderness.
Backpackers should also check upcoming weather because it can change suddenly. In the deserts, even a brief rainstorm can bring flash flooding, so in that environment, never camp or park your vehicle in a gully or dry streambed. In the high mountains, a thunderstorm can roll in and quickly drop temperatures as much as 25 degrees, which is why it’s good to pack an inexpensive Mylar ”space blanket,” available for a few dollars at any outdoor-gear store.
A high-mountain storm can also be dangerous. Shelburne’s advice: “If there’s thunder or lightning, make yourself very small, crouch down. Get away from anything that could be a conductor, like trees or caves. Rocks are OK, but don’t stand under a tree. Obviously, the best thing to do is to be aware of an approaching storm. If you see clouds [building] and you’re up high or on a ridge, get down to a lower altitude quickly.”
If you don’t own gear like a backpack or tent, you can rent a full array of camping equipment at REI in Salt Lake City or Sandy. The stores also offer an inexpensive membership that gives members a 30 percent discount on rentals. For members, a two-person tent, backpack or sleeping bag rents for $10 for the first day and $8 for every additional day. You’ll also need a pad to put under your sleeping bag if you’ll be using it on the ground or a tent floor.
Craig Whepman, a sales specialist and camping expert at the Sandy REI store, reminds campers that hiking in the dark can be tricky and advises the use of a headlamp, which can be purchased for as little as $20. Whepman also offers advice about bears, which may be more common this summer because of late snow in the higher elevations. “Bring rope so you can hang your food from a high tree branch so a bear can’t get it,” he says. Throw the rope over a branch and hoist the bundled food up. That holds for car campers, too; bears have been known to break vehicle windows to get at those great-smelling potato chips.
When it comes to backpacking your food, measure weight against taste. Freeze-dried food isn’t as heavy as fresh fruits and veggies, but will you enjoy reconstituted peas for dinner as much as a heavier apple or candy bar? Will it be worth carrying the extra weight?
Finally, don’t forget toilet paper and bring plenty of plastic bags. You should bury what comes from your body (always bring a camping shovel), but pack out used toilet tissue. It’s not as disgusting as it sounds; you’ll quickly get used to it. And, remember the basic ethos of the camper: If you pack it in, pack it out—leaveno trace.
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