Perspectives on Roughing It and Covert Car Camping, by Jolly

Thursday, Oct 15, 2009

I was a Boy Scout, and later did a fair amount of camping when I toured the US by motorcycle in the late 1980s. My tents started floorless and without mosquito netting; progressed to canvas umbrella tent with both. Later still, I was able to go to ripstop nylon "pup" style tents. Advancing, finally, to modern shock-corded aluminum poles and nylon.

After a long gap of 20+ years, my son is now a scout, and I'm on the "no-other-parent-can-go-and-we'll-have-to-cancel-if-you-don't-volunteer" rotation for his troop.

I just completed my second camp-out, and have noticed a few things that both dismay and encourage me.

Following is a stream-of-consciousness review of my reentry into the roughing-it world. Please bear in mind that emergency preparedness has been on my mind for a couple of years, and I didn't go into this a complete neophyte. That said, I didn't actually do anything other than car-camping since about 1993.

Buy a backpack one size smaller than you think you need. It's amazing how much crap a backpack can hold - inside and out. If you actually physically cannot cram another gizmo into the pack, then you'll have to leave that gadget behind. That will always focus your mind on what's truly important.

The single most important article of clothing you need in an emergency is a hooded rain poncho. Even in mild temperatures, you can lose a lot of body heat when you're wet. A rain poncho will help against wind and rain, and can double as a tarp if necessary. I have found two good sources: Jacks-r-Better and Camping Survival's "GI Plus". You should spray both with silicone to enhance their water repellant properties. Don't rely on cheap plastic or vinyl ponchos. During testing I quickly destroyed both of these varieties.

Second most important article of clothing is hiking boots, followed closely by a full brimmed waterproof hat. I have the Tilley nylon winter hat, with retractable ear muffs.

Craigslist is the best place to get camping gear cheap. To date this year, I have picked up two tents, a backpack, a Coleman stove, camp kitchen, tarp, and several other things. Usually, the price is about 10-25% of retail. In the case of the Coleman stove, it's an older model (1973) and built much better than the modern cr*p (which I also have). A $15 repair kit, and $20 for the stove, and it's in brand-new condition. I got a $300 North Face tent for $75 - and it was brand new with original price tags.

Craigslist is a wonderful resource, but there are some rules you might try. First, look for a solid month before offering to buy anything. That way, when a bargain shows up, you'll know it instantly.

Second, if the item is really hot - don't make any arrangements to pick it up more than a day out. I lost the chance to acquire a pair of Wiggy's brand sleeping bags because I tried to schedule pick up four days away. The lady sold them to somebody else because he offered her a deal she couldn't refuse. That's $1,000 worth of sleeping bags I could've had for $50 and I was too cheap to just pick them up ( about 80 miles away ).

Third, as hinted at above - when purchasing from Craigslist - calculate your time & mileage into the price of the items. A bargain that's 50 miles away becomes much more expensive with gas and driving time tacked on. Ask if the seller can meet you half way.

And fourth - generally low ball an offer on the item unless it's already too-good-to-be-true priced.

Break in your emergency / hiking boots. I have two pair of excellent quality boots that I've had for about eight years. I've worn them on occasion, but never really broken them in. This weekend, I pulled down a pair and used them on this trip. Socks were too thick for one thing - these are Goretex and Thinsulate boots, and a bit thicker as a consequence. My feet were miserable yesterday as the socks were too tight, and I ended up hobbling about like an old man by the end of the day. Today I went without socks (as my second pair of socks were just as thick as the first), and was much better, but had the other problem of rubbing the wrong spots you'd expect to have when going sans socks.

Test your equipment. Every camp-out is a test bed for my equipment. This particular trip I tested a Craigslist-purchased North Face one man tent ( Canyonlands ), and a newer sleeping pad ( Thermalite Prolite Plus ). The tent was wonderful. Bigger than my small nylon tent used when motorcycle camping (though not by much ), and an excellent performer. It's my current favorite. The mattress also was quite nice - and made in USA.

That said, I think I understand the popularity of inflatable camp pillows. My older head and neck didn't appreciate the stuff-sack-filled-with-a-towel-and jacket pillow that worked adequately 20 and 30 years ago. I had a nasty headache when I awoke this morning, and I know I was head higher than feet on the gentle slope. My 18 year old sleeping bag, however, worked well.

Sitting down is the main problem for old knees and feet - especially in the rain. I don't want to sound like a whiner, but it gets tiresome standing around with a coffee cup because the ground is too wet to sit, and there aren't any rocks nearby. I'm open to suggestions to fix that. On my first trip, I had cut a section of the closed-cell Thermarest pad ( they're green and purple, and do not compress well at all). It helped a lot placed on a rock. This time, I didn't have that, as I was using a different ( more comfortable )pad.

Erect a tarp so you have a dry place to work. Tarps are cheap, light, small to pack, and generally easy to erect. If it's raining, put up your tarp first so you can unpack necessities where it's dry. You might even need to erect your tent under one. Later, you can cook under it, and generally live under it until bedtime.

Put lanyards on everything. A recent fetish of mine is parachute cord. I get mine from Supply Captain in 100-foot lengths. I put lanyards on my pack zippers, multi-tool, flashlights, LED lanterns, etc. I use different colors and locations to help me know which of the myriad zippers it's attached to. For example, to get to my emergency whistle, I can tug on the blue & yellow one. For my tactical light - the olive drab. Multi-tool is black, et cetera.

There are different sizes of nylon cord. Get the smaller stuff for many jobs. If I wish to erect a tarp, use a 100 lb test cord instead of the 550 paracord. It's far smaller, lighter, and easier to work with.

There's a tension when purchasing emergency equipment. Bright-and-visible vs camouflage. Bright orange equipment, or ACU digital camo? Or something in between? Currently, I've been getting innocuous black or green equipment. If I need to be seen - I can always whip out mylar space blanket, or build three fires, or use the whistle, etc..

Anybody who thinks that anything more than bare-bones survival is feasible with a shiny space blanket hasn't actually used one in the woods. I'm very ambivalent about these things. I can see a use for them, I guess, to help reduce heat loss, but can't imagine they're effective in most situations I'm likely to encounter, with one exception.

That exception would be as a blanket put on a injury victim to prevent or mitigate shock. Any animated person is going to tear the damn things or find they're too small to really do anything well. They really are just barely useful. Especially for big people such as myself.

I'm going to experiment with a sleeping bag version put out by Adventure Medical called a "Heat Sheet." I probably should've tried it last night, but I had too many other tests going on, and didn't want any more variables. The next trip is early November, and might already be too cold for a decent test. I hope to have my Wiggy's winter bags by that time.

The Heat Sheet is interesting because it's a full sleeping bag and you don't have to worry about coverage. I'm a big guy and coverage is important. I've heard it's warm but keeps moisture trapped inside.

Lower that pack weight! Did I mention that people try to carry too much crap? One of the younger scouts packed two tents (actually a Hennessey Hammock and a Sierra Designs Tengu 3!), plus one of those nylon full-sized camp chairs. His pack weighed a ton.

One patrol had so much stuff, they used a child's wagon to carry what wouldn't fit in their ( giant ) packs. Part of this is not their fault - the Scouts don't allow liquid fuel stoves, and therefore, the scouts have to use propane. Of course when I was a kid, we used only wood. But, many camping areas do not allow campfires any more.

Carry only one extra set of clothing, except, maybe, socks. In addition, carry two layers, or more for winter. If you get one set of clothes dirty or wet, then just clean and dry them while wearing the other set. I prefer nylon and polyester. Believe it or not, Boy Scout pants and shirts are among the best I've found, for a decent price. They come in sizes up to XXXXL, too. Just ensure that you have very high quality and tough clothes.

Don't take any mess kits made out of plastic. Use only metal so it can double as cooking equipment. I hate to say this - I bought the entire family colorful mess kits. Each had their own color, and they come with plate, bowls, spork, cup, etc. And for car camping, they're great! But, for hiking / camping, they can't do double duty as cooking equipment, so they're leaving my pack. I'm replacing the set with a stainless steel mug of 20 oz, and a lidded 600 ml pot that can be used as plate and bowl. Less equipment = less weight.

Did you know that you can take a prophylactic dose of Ibuprofen to minimize swelling when you know you're going to hit the trail [on an arduous hike]? I learned this from a doctor at an Appleseed event. It's very effective, but don't drink alcohol 48 hours before or after the dose. Ask your doctor for specifics.

Take a hike with a full pack. I'm good for about three miles before I worry about getting an infarction. Part of the problem are the shoes, but general lack of fitness is kicking my butt. I used to ride a bicycle 300 miles a week in the 1980s, but the last twenty years I've been a software engineer and my fitness has plummeted.

How are you going to cook food? Planning for an emergency, you have to ask yourself questions such as, "What will I be cooking? How long in the woods? How many people? Car camping? And so on.

My cooking plans are pretty extensive. If I'm staying put in my house, the main plan includes a Coleman stove. My wife actually prefers cooking on one of those to our electric range. It's also useful for car camping. One gallon of Coleman fuel will last an amazingly long time. Refills are available at most gas stations with yellow-bottle Heet. A single burner camp stove is great for motorcycle camping.

Next tier down is wilderness camping - for that I prefer alcohol burners / stoves. There are myriad choices, and I won't go into all of them. I even tried to invent my own and found that I couldn't do a better job of it than a dozen others I've purchased. The best, in my opinion, is the Trangia "Spirit Burner" from Sweden. Not pressurized, no moving parts. Built like a tank, but pretty light to carry, too. About $10.

My own system marries a "Sterno" stove with a Trangia burner, and I get a full-sized pot and pan platform with a windscreen for about half a pound. I use two of these side by side for two burners to cook most anything. Total cost for both is about $35. Buy some denatured alcohol and cook some meals on your porch to get the hang of it. That is part of fully testing your equipment. Please note that there are two kinds of Trangia burners. The military surplus version fits the Sterno stove perfectly. The civilian version requires support. I use a tuna can. If you invert the tuna can, the burner is closer to the pot. I don't do that myself, and have found the heat transfer to be completely adequate. You can also just use a Sterno can, obviously.

A lot of people prefer "canister" stoves - using butane, propane, isobutane, or other variants. Yes, these are great. They work anywhere. But, they are expensive to fuel and it's harder to find refills. Also, most butane systems have tiny pot stands, making them very easy to knock over. And if you're cooking with large pots or pans - they're almost unusable.

Whatever you decide upon - stock up on fuel, and place that fuel in several caches, both cars, bug-out bags, etc. If you're using volatile fuel, such as white gas, ensure you insulate the can against high heat. In cold weather, keep a 4 oz bottle of alcohol inside your jacket to ensure easy lighting.

Buy a windup radio that charges cell phones. These are down under $50 and will give you two types of communication. I have the Eton FR360. These also charge any USB device, including iPods and most music players. This weekend I used it to keep my iPhone charged, and while a bit tedious - it worked.

How to Covertly Sleep in Your Car
I'm fairly frugal. Several times I have worked out of state. I hated giving upwards of $100 / per night to hotels so I developed a system for sleeping in my car that ensures that I would not be noticed. The first vehicle I used was a pickup truck with a bed camper top - not a real camper, just a top with windows on the side. The second vehicle was Chevy Suburban. Both vehicles were reputable looking, and not too new or old - completely innocuous.

Cover all the windows on the inside with large sheets of butcher paper (white) or brown wrapping paper. Both can be found for cheap at Wal-Mart. It's important to do a neat job of it so there are no wrinkles, holes, or other damage. I use clear wrapping tape, and cut to fit. On both vehicles, the windows covered were tinted, and only a close look would you even notice they were blocked off. They just look - blank.

On the Suburban, I bought a bungee cord and tan curtains for $10 - again from Wal-Mart. String the curtains on the bungee cord. Then, attach the cord to the coat hanger hooks behind the driver's and passenger seats. Make sure they hang straight and neat. There will be a gap at the top of the curved roof, but it's nothing to worry about.

The last step is to turn off your car's interior light if you can. On many newer cars, this is done with a switch on the driver's console. Other cars have a switch on the light itself to prevent the light coming on with an open door. If all else fails - disconnect the light bulb.

The hard part is finding a place to sleep. Here is one time when you cannot sleep in Wal-Mart's parking lot. You're not driving an RV, just a car. And "empty" cars will be scrutinized by flashlight-wielding security or police.

In a large metropolitan area, the best places are large apartment complexes, preferably straddling a street. Park in the street right behind another car already there. I did this for well over a year without any problems at all.

In the drive-in apartment complexes, ensure there's a lot of extra spots, and that the one you pick is not marked in any way. Usually, I try to pick a spot that the front of the car faces a wall, or the garbage dump area. You don't want to face a park or sidewalk. You want your car to be one among many. Don't park way off to one side - dog walkers may be too common and wonder about the car with curtains.

Small office parks are another good choice. Here, the opposite of apartment complexes is wanted. Park the car as far from the building entrances as possible. Here it's easier to face a wall or line of bushes. People will do anything to shorten their walk to work.

Going to sleep is not normally a problem - I usually went to sleep well after midnight. Whatever you do, don't dawdle when entering your sleep area. There may be people that notice a slow-moving car driving slowly through a parking lot more than once. Scope several places in advance, and have a primary and secondary location for the night.

The two most observable times will be going to sleep and getting up. Usually, you'll be more visible during daytime, obviously. But, getting noticed depends on what time you're leaving and where you parked.

If you can wiggle into your driver's seat without getting out of the vehicle - you have it made. Neither time was I able to do that. I had to leave the car to get into the driver's seat.

I left small flaps in the paper on both cars and would open them to look in all directions (as necessary) for pedestrians and security vehicles. When you're sure you're clear - make a very fast exit, and get your feet on the ground. After that, if required, you can pretend you're retrieving something, and take a leisurely pace. Unless somebody was looking directly at your car when you exited, they will almost assuredly assume you just opened the door, rather than popped out of it.

In an office park, ensure your exit is on the opposite side from the office buildings. Imagine a bored secretary staring dazedly out the window. Suddenly - a scruffy looking man with wild hair pops out of a car door, walks quickly around the hood and drives off. Not good. In my favorite park, I was between a wall and a tree break. Though I finally got noticed after six months, and had to use backup.

Do not stretch, or scratch your head, or hang around at all at this time. Get into your car seat. Start it, and leave at a normal pace. I don't know about you, but it you're like me - you'll be way too scary an apparition for most people. You should have also designated a place to go in the morning to do the ritual wake-up duties such as bathroom, teeth, hair brushing, etc. I usually use McDonald's. I then repaid them for their facilities by buying breakfast.

Other items to remember are ventilation and security. The pickup was no problem - I just left the windows open a crack, including the back panel. This allowed me to hear my surroundings pretty well, too. On the Suburban, it was more problematic. One inch on each window was left open at the top, and I didn't leave the back open. I also engaged the car alarm.

Unfortunately, one morning I forgot about the car alarm, and opened the door causing it to go off. I had the key in my hand, and stopped it very quickly, and I was sure the whole world had noticed my faux pas. Alas, nobody even hears car alarms anymore, and I didn't have to abandon that spot.

Never, ever go to rest stops on the interstate to sleep. While traveling, if I couldn't find an apartment complex or office park, or other suitable location, I'd park on the onramp of a highway - many times between trucks doing the same. I got rousted three times by cops over the years. Technically, it's illegal to park there. Each time I told the truth - I was very tired, and unsure I could proceed to the next motel location. Two of the three times, the cop said that's fine, and go ahead and stay. The third time, he helpfully noted that the very next exit had a motel.

If you have a regular route, other considerations might come into play. For me, sleeping in a tiny Honda Civic, I would have problems with biting insects - and very warm nights. Both problems were solved with an onramp location in an extremely windy spot next to San Francisco bay. (Parish Road off of I-680 in case you're wondering ). My pattern was to arrive about 2 am on a Sunday night and sleep until 7am Monday morning. I then proceeded across the bridge and went to a Burger King in Walnut Creek. I was rousted twice in a six month period.

I have less experience in rural areas. Though extreme familiarity with a route can help by allowing you to identify good spots during the daytime for possible use on another trip. For example, I used to drive between Oregon and Pahrump quite often (on my way to attend training at Front Sight). I spent one whole day identifying likely spots for impromptu camp spots.

One spot, south of Tonopah was a short road that led to some kind of a relay station. I'm pretty sure it was a microwave station, but it doesn't matter. The small fenced-in building was partially hidden behind a hill from the main road, and clearly was not visited very often. The road leading to it went further around the hill, leaving a nice void hidden from the station itself.

Between Tonopah and Hawthorne, I identified two spots very similar to the first, though both were very windy. North of Hawthorne, Walker Lake had parking spots that I felt comfortable enough to use without hiding.

Rural terrain will dictate your choices, too. In South Carolina, I identified two spots on US-25 north of Greenville that looked pretty good. Their characteristic? They were both old houses that had been completely covered in kudzu! I could literally drive under a canopy of kudzu and hide the entire car.

Finally, etiquette inside the car. I always wore gym shorts and T-shirt in a sleeping bag. Never anything resembling underwear. I never used a flashlight or listened to the radio. I was there strictly for sleeping. I didn't eat, cook, brush teeth, or anything else except sleep. The human eye is especially tuned to see movement. Even with covered windows, a brief movement might catch a dog-walker's attention enough to wander over and look at the car. Not a good thing.

I estimate I've saved more than $10,000 in motel bills over the years.

The main thing is to have people assume the car is empty, and belongs to somebody nearby. Obviously, in a serious crisis, extra thought may be necessary to keep below the radar of both security and nosy people.

Copyright 2005-2012 James Wesley, Rawles - All Rights Reserved