July 14, 2013

What makes a real camper


---- — Camping in the great outdoors is an American tradition, one that has long thrived in the Adirondack region, with its vast forests and natural wonders.

In North America, camping can trace its roots all the way back to 1492, when Columbus and his Native American guide Sacagawea set up rudimentary tents while discovering 37 of the Adirondack peaks.

For centuries, the activity grew, for both practical and recreational reasons. People enjoyed being out in the fresh air, with the flora and the fauna, and frankly, until Motel 6 came along in the early 1800s, there just weren’t a lot of convenient places for families on a budget to stay.

Camping was a staple of my childhood. I still wax poetic about family treks to various locales in New England and New York, one of which even served as the inspiration for the fun-loving camp-out classic film “Deliverance.”

Increasingly, however, people seem to be enjoying the great outdoors without so much outdoors in it. I firmly believe that nothing brings a family closer than being jammed together in an 8-by-10 tent for six days without soap, but many don’t agree.

Have you loaded up the car and visited one of the Adirondack’s fine campgrounds or state parks yet this summer? Or better yet, hiked out into a remote wilderness location, dug a latrine with your Swiss army knife and foraged for your own food?

If you have a $90,000 recreational vehicle hooked up to sewer and power lines, you’re not really camping. For $90,000, by the way, you could pitch a tent at a campground for roughly 2,647 nights.

If you’re staying at the family cottage, where the hardships are basic cable and running out of hot water when the dishwasher is running at the same time that you’re filling the hot tub, you are not roughing it.

Camping is not a fully loaded cabin at Disney’s Fort Wilderness or a rustic-themed suite at the Great Escape Lodge water park.

It doesn’t count as camping if you have a solid roof over your head. It doesn’t count if you have HBO. It doesn’t count if you have hot and cold running water. It doesn’t count if your cell phone still has three bars. It doesn’t count as camping if your chance of being mauled by a bear is less than 1 percent.

To qualify as actual camping, your trip needs to include at least several hundred angry mosquitoes, immune to any form of spray, cream, coil, candle or harmonic device. Black flies are optional.

For real camping, you have to use a lighting source that could set you on fire if it gets knocked over.

For breakfast, real campers forage for berries … or mix up some powdered eggs or carefully cut one of those tiny cereal boxes into a bowl (preferably pouring on top of it some milk that you just took from an angry wild deer).

For dinner, authentic campers eat beef stew out of a can, or cook anything on a sharpened stick over an open flame: marshmallows, hot dogs, freshly caught fish, chipmunk (sorry Theodore), tree bark. Extra points for trapping a boar and roasting it on a homemade spit.

For dessert, campers have a choice of trail mix, s’mores or one of those freeze-dried ice-cream bars, just like the astronauts eat when they’re camping.

Real campers will sleep in an insulated bag that is never quite the right temperature. They will — at least once during any given trip — be forced to use (poison ivy) leaves for toilet paper and will bravely shrug off the total lack of hand sanitizer.

Real campers will wonder if touching the sides of their tent during a torrential downpour will really cause it to leak, or if that’s just an old wives tale. Real campers will wake up at least one night in a giant puddle.

Real campers will smell like a combination of pine, perspiration and smoke, and will like it.

I realize that it has rained virtually every day this summer, which makes people wary of camping out. Camping, though, is part of who we are as Americans.

Pack your rucksack, roll up your sleeping bag, grab some flint and steel and get out there. It will make you feel better, even if your tent leaks.

Email Steve