Here at Adventure Afrika, we believe that camping is always the answer – regardless of the question. But there is no reason it should be a schlepp! With the help of our readers and online audience we put some top tips and hacks together, suitable for novice and experienced campers.
Camping is the ideal getaway because you can tailor your trip to fit your budget, needs, wants and experience. The best way to learn to camp is to jump right in and give it a good try. However, as with many things in life, everything does not go according to plan and it’s important to have a flexible attitude and sense of humour when you go camping. Even experienced campers with all the kit will, at some point, have to deal with harsh weather, forgotten items and locations that don’t quite match what appeared on the website. However, as long as you know the camping basics, the rest will become memories and experiences.
Know before you go
Picking the perfect camping location can be challenging. Is it going to be close by or a long drive, basic or luxury, and what do you hope to see and do on your trip? As a good starting point, check on the following as it will impact all further decisions in terms of what to pack and even which vehicle is suitable.
• Are you staying at a campsite with running water and electricity?
• Will there be ablution facilities?
• Are you camping near your vehicle, or will you need to hike with your gear?
• Are you camping near water, in the bush (in this case, fenced or wild?), on rocky terrain or on sand?
• Is there help nearby should you need assistance (in case of a medical emergency, for example)?
• Do you need to take all your food with you, or will there be a place to buy food and braai necessities?
• Which time of year are you planning to camp? Be sure the predicted temperatures and weather conditions for your time away – camping in gale force winds is not much fun.
• Will your camping crew be on board regarding skill levels if you plan a serious mountain hike, for example? Will they all have the right gear? Make sure to check first.
Campsites closer to home are best when starting out, as it’s obviously much easier to head back home if the weather turns bad. It also requires less planning, and travel arrangements will be much simpler. Plus, having a great local escape that does not take a lot of time and money to get to is a bonus.
Packing pains and gains
Knowing what to bring comes with experience. Some things are essential (like a tent, groundsheet and sleeping bag), and others are just nice to have. What you decide to add to your checklist will depend on the facilities – is there electricity so you can bring along electrical goods and plug-in lights. Will you need to bring lamps and torches?
Develop a checklist covering sleeping gear, cooking gear and food (including both non-perishable goods and items that must be kept cold) and keep adding to it as you gain experience on camping trips. Be sure you have a good tent, a groundsheet and the tools necessary to make setting up easy. Will you need camping chairs and tables, or will you get back to basics and use what you find? Get the gear out before you go, and ensure you have all the vitals, from clothes suitable for cold and warm conditions to that ‘white gold’ (yes, toilet paper) you don’t want to leave behind.
Keep a ‘camp box’, packed with essentials like matches, paper plates, kitchen towels, batteries, plugs and electrical cords, basic condiments and such and replenish it as you return home so that you don’t forget it for the next camping trip.
Know your gear
Besides remembering to pack all the necessary camping gear and other essentials, it is important that you know how to use each item you are taking with you on your trip.
Whether a beginner or an experienced camper, you should always test new gear at home first. Assemble your kit and equipment in the yard for practice and to ensure everything is included (such as tent pegs, for example) and works correctly. The practice will also make assembling easier when you get to the campsite.
Ensure your sleeping bag is comfortable (and you fit in it!) and that all flashlights, headlamps, and lanterns work, too. Pack extra batteries, just in case. If you plan to use a portable cooking stove or grill, give it a test run. Also, ensure all hiking backpacks or day packs fit securely on your back and make adjustments before you head out into nature.
Before buying brand-new camping gear, consider renting or borrowing from your camping friends. This way, you can try out different options before making this (rather significant) investment in this great lifestyle. Never buy a tent online without physically checking it out – you may not get what you expect!
Home away from home
When someone pictures camping, they inevitably picture a tent and sleeping bags. For both these items, you must do your homework and buy the right gear for your needs. As such, a tent for a hiking trip should be much lighter (consider a nylon option here as it packs small) than your standard canvas tent used when camping stationary. The insulation and temperature control also differ vastly between nylon and canvas (with the latter taking the crown when it comes to better shelter in cold conditions). And then, we have yet to start the debate on a rooftop tent versus a ground tent (check out our monthly question on this in our community section on page 6).
Make sure there’s enough space in the tent for your needs. Not all ‘four-man’ tents are made the same. Smaller children can quickly take up an astounding amount of space once you put them in a tent, so make sure you’ve got an adequate size. You’ll likely be storing some gear in the tent as well, so keep that in mind. Things like whether the window can be closed and opened from the inside impact convenience.
Similar to tents, your choice of sleeping is also largely based on temperature ratings and size. Its primary function is to keep you warm and comfortable for that all-important beauty sleep. Whether a beginner or an experienced camper, it’s important to understand the temperature ratings for sleeping bags. In the 1980’s, sleeping bag temperature ratings mostly referred to the seasons – anything from a ‘summer’ bag to ’all season‘ bags. Nowadays, it is more specific and scientific, with reputable manufacturers publishing the actual temperatures at which their sleeping bags can function for an ’average‘ person.
There have been some attempts to standardise the ratings, this comes with it‘s own challenges as ratings need to be more realistic. The applicability of ratings will also be influenced by personal biological factors such as size, circulation, metabolism and energy levels. Two types of ratings are usually shown, being the ‘comfort’ and ‘extreme’ temperatures, with some manufacturers also showing a ‘transition’ or ‘limit’ rating.
• Comfort and transition/limit rating: The comfort temperature is the one at which one should have a cosy night’s sleep in the bag and is the temperature that should align with the expected low temperatures on your adventure. The transition rating is the temperature at which one will still be fine, but you are transitioning into temperatures where you will start to feel cold and will have to use additional insulation (like warm clothes) – as a guideline, this should align with the coldest temperatures at which you expect to use the sleeping bag. As a guide, if a transition/limit rating is not shown, the coldest practical rating for a bag is generally around 4 to 6 degrees below its comfort rating.
• Extreme rating: The extreme rating is, in theory, the coldest temperature at which one might survive. This has little practical application, though, as it could mean that you will lose all your fingers and toes, but just not die (but wish you would due to the cold!). The best thing you can do with the extreme rating is to ignore it, as it might give you a false idea of what the sleeping bag is suitable for.
Invest in a proper camping mat/mattress – even if you are camping in what looks like a soft, grassy field, it gets hard and uncomfortable really quickly! As a bonus, a durable camping mat/ mattress can double up as picnic-style seating during the day!
Setting up camp
Once you’ve arrived at the location, finding the ideal spot to pitch your tent or set up camp is important. This can be hard during summertime when popular camping sites are buzzing, so arrive early or go on weekdays. When setting up camp, keep the following in mind:
• You need to set up camp upwind from neighbouring campers so that their campfire smoke doesn’t blow directly into your camp. You will also want to pitch your tent upwind from your own fire to avoid the smoke.
• Ideally, you will want to be out of the sun as much as possible during the day – so try to find a shady spot with a good view of the sunset.
• If you plan to camp without a camping mat, mattress or stretcher, look for a grassy area – otherwise, you’ll struggle to sleep comfortably through the night. However, it is also important to remember that bushy or swampy areas breed spiders, mosquitos, and other creepy crawlies.
Always practice good camping etiquette. If the campsite is busy and you need to camp near others, leave enough space between yourself and the next camper’s set-up. It also means not being too loud or playing music at any volume. Switch electronic sounds off and rather listen to the night sounds. Keep a lid on things in the early morning. Remember not to shine flashlights toward other people’s campsites. You should also practice the Leave No Trace principle by cleaning up after yourself and leaving your campsite better than you found it.
When packing and setting up your kitchen area, keep things logical and think about the order of using it. Also, ‘spy’ on your neighbours to see how they set things up, chat with them about their experience and ask for tips from those who seemingly set up a palace – they are generally very welcoming and proud to share their tips.
Enjoy the experience
Now all that is left to do is enjoy your time outdoors! If you have forgotten something, don’t let it spoil your trip – instead, try and improvise or live without it. Embrace what the wilderness has to offer. It’s a chance to gaze into the fire, look up at the stars and wind down from your busy life. Get active during the day and explore the area by foot, bike or vehicle (make sure you know where you are allowed to go beforehand!). Very few things come close to enjoying time in nature!
No matter where or how ‘rough’ your camping trip is, you will always need the following:
• Torches for getting around camp.
• Standing lights that can be placed around the campsite or inside the tent.
• Headlamps for when you have misplaced all the aforementioned lights and are now crawling around looking for them. Or if you want to be able to read comfortably.
• Batteries for all of the lights/torches. If you opt for solar, make sure your set-up works properly and that you’ll have enough time to charge your panels during the day.
• Camp chairs will greatly affect how much you enjoy your trip. If you have space, always take camp chairs.
• Wet wipes, which every experienced camper will tell you, are essential. They are used for everything from cleaning yourself to wiping mud off dropped cutlery. Go the extra mile and get biodegradable ones.
• A rubbish plan is needed, whether in the vehicle, at the campsite or along the trail. Make use of eco-friendly plastic bags but remember, just because the bags are eco-friendly doesn’t mean all the wrappers and other trash are as well. That’s why you need to plan ahead and ensure you know when and where you’ll be able to dispose of any trash.
• Power banks in case you need to keep phones charged. Throw in a few additional charging cables too.
• A long piece of rope will always come in handy, most likely as a makeshift washing line.
• Bug spray/nets, of which there are hundreds of products to choose from, many of them also eco-friendly. Make sure you pack more than enough to spray yourself, your tent, your shoes, and your vehicle, especially if you’re going to a malaria zone.
• A first aid kit is a must even if you’re going on a short trip/hike. Make sure you know if anyone has any specific allergies (such as bees), and ensure your medical kit has everything you’ll need in an emergency. If you’re camping or hiking far from where emergency services can reach you, you should invest in a first aid kit that is equipped to stabilise serious injuries or allergy attacks until help arrives.
A big part of the camping and adventure lifestyle is your choice of vehicle and its accessories. But don’t worry if you don’t have the ‘right’ vehicle! Plenty of campgrounds and camping options don’t require off-road capability. Just make sure to check in advance. If you have an off-road vehicle there are some fantastic accessories to consider.
• Roof rack/load bars: super handy for extra packing space. Just remember check your vehicle’s weight capacity and the impact of additional weight on safety!
• Rear ladder: if you are storing stuff on the roof, the ladder is handy. Vehicle bars and ladders are also super hand to hang towels and clothing when camping!
• Cargo trays: various shapes and sizes are available, depending on your vehicle brand. As a bonus, some cargo trays can be removed and used around the campsite for various purposes.
• Cargo partition: If you’re stacking your vehicle or load bin like a Tetris champ, a partition net will help keep everything in place.