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Weekend in the woods

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By Virginia Betz

Arizona maple leaves show their color near Dane Ridge on the Mogollon Rim Ranger District. Photo by Jeannie Gilbertson, Courtesy of Coconino National Forest

Even if you’re not an outdoorsy type, you must occasionally feel that you ought to take advantage of Arizona’s scenic beauty.Why not give yourself and your family a break from the relentless sterility of the urban desert by sleeping in a tent and cooking over an open fire? Besides the opportunity to take in lungsful of fresh air and eyesful of greenery, a camping trip can be a very economical mini-vacation, especially for family groups. You can even convince your kids that chores, like hauling water and collecting trash, are actually forms of entertainment. This Time out is for those readers who have thought about camping as a weekend getaway, but aren’t sure what they’d be getting themselves into. Living without all the comforts of home does involve, as the scouts say, being prepared. LPM offers some recommendations for the relatively inexperienced camper to ensure that your weekend in the woods is stress-reducing rather than stress-inducing. 

Where to go?

Choosing an appropriate campsite is the decision that most profoundly affects the quality of your camping experience. Campgrounds on public lands (national and state parks/forests) cannot be surpassed for the vastness of the natural ambience they provide. Also, they are well-maintained, economical and offer many support services. One such service is the detailed, up-to-date information available online for all developed campgrounds. By visiting recreation.gov, you can enter the name of a town or recreational area and get a listing of all the campgrounds. Descriptions of the facilities, seasons the site is open, fees, vegetation and weather data, nearby attractions and how to get there are included. Reservations can be made on-line, although a few campgrounds operate on a first-come-first-served basis. The cost is usually between $15-$20 per day. 

The character of a “developed” campsite is fairly uniform in national parks and forests: most are accessed by paved roads and have graveled areas for parking your vehicle; most have lavatories (vault-type toilets), showers (cold water only) and water spigots; most have cleared areas for tents and RVs but no gas or electrical hook-ups; most have prepared fire-rings for campfires, but also metal grills and picnic tables.

In the fall, campgrounds start to close, especially those at higher elevations. Nearer the Valley are several open all year round. Novice campers might best enjoy small, tent-only campgrounds, at an easy driving distance from the metro area, with marked hiking trails nearby, as well as other sight-seeing opportunities. 

Two that fit this bill are:

Manazanita Campground, Red Rock Ranger District, Coconino National Forest, part of the Oak Creek Canyon Recreation Area, has space for 18 tents. At five miles from Sedona, the site is close to Slide Rock State Park and the Palutki and Honanki archaeological sites, featuring cliff dwellings and rock art. [info/reservations: 1-877-444-6777; fs.usda.gov/coconino]

General Hitchcock Campground, South Catalina Ranger District, Coronado National Forest, 25 miles east of Tucson, is a heavily wooded campsite that accommodates 10 tents. The campground is convenient for visits to the Saguaro National Park, Colossal Cave and hiking the Green Mountain Trail. [info: fs.usda.gov/recarea/Coronado]

Dispersed, or “on-your-own” camping,” is an option for those who really crave solitude. You can camp almost anywhere on public lands. Nonetheless, there are areas, or corridors, that forest personnel recommend. On-your-owners eschew the modest amenities of developed campgrounds, but are still subject to park/forest regulations. Among them is a prohibition on building campfires, so that other means of cooking and illumination are needed. Go to the fs.usda,gov website and search for “dispersed camping guidelines.”

What to bring?

The rising sun shines through mist in the trees near the Mogollon Rim off Lake Mary Road. Photo by Brady Smith, Courtesy of Coconino National Forest

When it comes to provisions, sleeping and eating are the major camping concerns. If you are transporting your gear by car (and not schlepping it around in a giant backpack), there is no reason to purchase a lot of specialized equipment; you can probably supply most things on the accompanying packing list [see list below] from among your household possessions.

Tents and sleeping bags are the big ticket items that you may not already own. Short trips in areas with temperate weather conditions mean that you can purchase a perfectly serviceable leak-proof tent on the low end of the price scale. A new 4-person tent can be gotten in the $125-150 range and a 6-person tent in the low $200s. Modern tent designs are remarkably easy to assemble, and very compact when disassembled. If you own the “slumber party”-type sleeping bags, you’ll probably need to bring along extra blankets. Bags made from light, high-tech fabrics that are sufficient for sub-freezing temperatures are costly. Also, it is desirable to have some extra cushioning under the bag. 

Renting is an alternative to buying. At REI (a recreational equipment co-op with stores nation-wide) in Tempe, you can get a 4-person tent for a weekend trip (3 days/2 nights) for about $42 or a 6-person tent for about $62. A sleeping bag for the same period runs around $24. Prices cited here are for REI members; the non-member prices (20-30 percent higher per item) are hardly worth mentioning since a one-time fee of $20 gets you a lifetime membership at REI. Check out all the benefits of membership at rei.com/membership.html

Bring along foodstuffs that require minimal or no refrigeration and are simple to prepare. Many food items can just be wrapped in aluminum foil and put under a campfire to bake (albeit at lower temperatures than your home oven).Websites, such as dirtygourmet.com and tasteofhome.com/camping-recipes, among many others, are full of practical suggestions. 

Making your own fire is de rigueur for tent camping, but be sure to familiarize yourself with the protocols for safely doing so at smokeybear.com/campfire-safety.asp

Never leave food or trash outside overnight or when you’re absent from the campsite; lock everything in your car. 

Laundry facilities are unlikely to be available on-site, so bring enough clean clothes for the entire trip. Don’t go overboard, but do consider that it might be colder or wetter than anticipated. You can always find uses for extra flat, plastic tarps.

Camping essentials Checklist

– tent

– sleeping bags

– padding/extra blankets

– flashlights/extra batteries

– small shovel or spade

– combination hatchet/hammer tool

– bucket/water containers

– folding knife (hunting grade)

– rope

– basic first aid kit (if anti-venom for insect/snakebites included, please check expiration dates)

– cooler with dry ice

– drinking water

– cooking utensils (can opener)

– dining utensils (go green; use non-disposables)

– rags, sponges, soap

– toilet paper/sanitation products

– trash bags

– charcoal/safety matches

– cell phone (pre-enter info/emergency numbers for your campsite area)

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