New materials and technology constantly make camping easier, but some old-school ways endure. Here’s a sampling:
• The versatile bandanna is simple and cheap. It’s a timeless piece of cotton that can hold your hair back, protect your neck from deer flies, hold a stash of freshly picked berries, protect cuts or scrapes, offer a quick pot holder and provide a place mat.
• Plastic freezer bags can protect electronics, key fobs and valuables from moisture and dirt if you’re not ready to invest in a dry bag or protective case like a Pelican. Most smartphones fit into Wal-Mart brand portion-control snack bags.
• Helpful items for a day hike in a backpack include a small first-aid kit, bug repellent in a pen-sized spray pump (look for refillable ones), lightweight pocket blanket (such as Matador) that is the size of a deck of cards, pocket knife or multitool, hat, sunscreen and rain coat.
• Quick-drying microfiber towels for bathing and sleeping bag liners for sleeping.
• Headlamps for hands-free midnight trips to the bathroom.
Lisa Meyers McClintick
Prepare on the front end. Weather radios can be compact and inexpensive, and alert campers to the potential for trouble. When setting up, campers shouldn’t pitch a tent beneath a dead or diseased tree, or on top of a root ball, said Dan Shirley, co-owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in Tofte, Minn. In some cases, campers may want to leave their tents. If there’s a strong wind blowing across a lake, heading for the water’s edge and upwind is a good idea because a tree is likely to topple in the wind direction.
Lightning involved? That can be a game-changer. For starters, stay away from water, which can conduct electricity. Shirley’s suggestion: Leave the tent, space yourself from your party so everyone is 10 to 15 feet apart, sit on your sleeping pad, and make yourself small, your feet close together. According to the National Weather Service, if you are stuck outside, first, make sure you aren’t on high ground or near tall trees. Heading deeper into woods can be safer, too — greater chance of lightning hitting another object. Stay low but don’t lie flat.
A general rule in a thunderstorm: If you can hear the thunder, you are in striking distance of lightning. It’s time to move to safer terrain BEFORE lightning is present. If lightning is present, stop moving and get into the low lightning position. Maybe the safest place? Get into your vehicle if it is close.
The newest form of lodging in Minnesota state parks — the yurt — has become one of the most popular. Seven of the insulated canvas tent-like structures, built in 2015, are available for booking in three locations, and they’re already reserved for most weekends this summer. The yurts, available at Afton and Glendalough (in Battle Lake) state parks and the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, have a domed roof with skylight, windows, bunk beds, and a table and chairs or benches, and sleep three to seven people. The sleeping accommodations differ depending on the yurt. The yurts don’t have electricity, but they do have wood stoves for heat. To check availability and get more details, go to bit.ly/yurtminn. Speaking of state park sites, remember reservations are required for all Minnesota state park campsites. The state used to keep about one-third of the sites for arrivals at the parks, first-come, first-served. State parks officials strongly suggest reserving campsites (and park permits) in advance.
You limit your footprint, cleaning up from meals with bio-soap (or none) and using refillable containers for food and drink for starters. That’s just the start of being green in the outdoors. Environmentally friendly gear and products continue to evolve and innovate, from natural products for camper toilets that break down waste and deodorize to solar-powered lanterns. But be wary. Read reviews and blogs, and do some digging. Better yet, talk to the most knowledgeable employees at specialty stores that sell outdoors gear. And, at the least, stick to one of the core Leave No Trace principles: Pack it in, pack it out.
You may catch a glimpse of the International Space Station moving overhead when you are stargazing out in the woods. The third-brightest object in the night sky, the space station is visible to the naked eye and will look like a plane on the move — fast. The orbiting structure is about the size of a football field and weighs almost one million pounds, more than 320 automobiles. Punch in your ZIP code at spotthestation.nasa.gov, or download the SkyView app to find out if it will be observable from your location. A search will kick back possible sighting opportunities, the approximate location in the sky, how long it is visible and the time of day. You can also sign up for alerts.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey
Spacious tent: Opt for a roomy abode that offers standing room height and plenty of space to stretch out.
One pick: Nemo Equipment Wagontop 4P LX Camping Tent ($849.95, nemo equipment.com)
High-tech lantern: An extra-bright light with the ability to charge your smartphone is key.
One pick: Black Diamond Equipment Moji Charging Station ($79.95, blackdiamondequiptment.com)
Great coffee: No need to skip your morning cup of Joe just because you’re out in the woods. This silicone, collapsible device holds a No. 4 filter.
One pick: GSI Outdoors JavaDrip ($12.95, gsioutdoors.com)
Comfortable hammock: Many state parks have restrictions on hanging hammocks from trees, so go for the inflatable variety.
One pick: WindPouch GO ($79.95, windpouch.com)
Tricked-out cooler: Don’t risk your food spoiling and your beer getting warm. Plus, this monster can hold your fish limit. Think marine cooler.
One pick: Yeti Tundra 75 ($449.95, yeti.com)
Premium camping stove: Grill, boil and cook to your heart’s desire in the great outdoors.
One pick: BioLite CampStove 2 Bundle ($199.95, bioliteenergy.com)
Mackenzie Lobby Havey
Food & drink
Be sure your little ones are well-fueled from dawn until dusk for a camping trip full of activity. Choose treats that are easily transportable for hiking and canoe trips and stay away from anything that’ll create a big mess and invite the critters into your campsite.
Trail mix: This offers a quick grab-n-go snack with protein and carbs. One suggestion: Mix peanuts, cashews, almonds, raisins and M & M’s.
Beef jerky: A great source of protein, jerky can take the place of lunch if you’re out on the trail.
Granola bars: Any type of bar is a perennial favorite among the little ones. Plus there’s plenty of flavors to choose from to keep everyone happy. If you’re looking for something more substantial, Clif Bars, LÄRABARS and PROBARS are great options.
Dried fruit: Healthy and easy to transport, you can’t beat a quick carb-hit when you’re out on the water or on the trail.
Fruit snacks: If you’ve got a young one who is resistant to the healthier option, this is a good alternative. You’re on vacation, why not splurge?
Carrot sticks: An excellent source of all sorts of nutrients and dietary fiber, carrots are an easy choice.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey
Jo Swanson, volunteer coordinator for the Superior Hiking Trail Association, is on a mission to camp in every one of the trail’s 94 campsites. Here’s what she looks for when setting up camp:
• Examine nearby trees to see if any appear to be dead or dying. If so, stay clear.
• If there is a slope to your tent pad, set up so your head is highest on the slope to keep from feeling you’re falling or rolling.
• On a windy night, you may sleep better if your head is facing the wind as opposed to your tent taking wind from the side.
In an effort to prevent the spread of invasive species such as emerald ash borer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has rules and suggestions around the use of firewood at state parks and forests. Presence of the ash borer was first confirmed in Minnesota in 2009. Minnesota has the largest concentration of ash trees in the country. The No. 1 rule is only DNR-approved firewood may be used or brought onto parks, said Jennifer Teegarden, DNR Forestry outreach specialist. Kiln-dried, unpainted and unstained lumber is allowed. The best bet, Teegarden said, is to buy bundles of firewood upon arrival at the campground. Also, wood-sellers approved by the state are listed online on the DNR website. The state recommends keeping a receipt handy for proof of purchase. Federal lands and private campgrounds also have rules about firewood — campers should be aware of them before embarking on their trip.
Don’t feel bad if you’re confounded when trying to figure out what size tent is right for you. Tent manufacturers have vastly different ideas about what constitutes adequate sleeping space. For example, we found a retailer selling “two-person” tents that ranged from 25- to 38-square feet of floor space — a difference of 52 percent. What to do? Depending on how cozy you want to be, 15-20 square feet per person should be adequate, but that means you may actually want a “three-person” tent for two people. The best advice is to always get in a tent and try it out before you buy.
A quick refresher on some essential outdoors knots is wise, and we’re not talking about the granny. One knot worth practicing is the taut-line, which is useful for attaching guy lines to rainflys and the like. A good backup is the fisherman’s knot, which comes in handy if, say, your guy line snaps and you need to tie together two lengths of rope. Lastly, the bowline is great for tarpaulins, and is another must-know knot. It allows you to pass a rope around a tree or through a ring and tie it off securely. It doesn’t slip, and it’s quick to untie. For some deep knowledge and practice with smartly told and useful diagrams, check your public library for “The Book of Camping Knots” by Peter Owen. You never know when you might need a rope ladder.
Backpacking expert Andrew Skurka uses the term “stupid light” when referring to the bad decisions made in the quest to lighten a pack. Repair items, for example, are so rarely needed you might be tempted to leave them at home. But don’t. For example, the minor weight penalty for carrying these two simple items is well worth it: (1) An adhesive nylon patch to fix a rip in a tent or a tear in a sleeping bag or down jacket, and (2) a splint to use if you break a tent pole, keeping your tent erect instead of collapsing on top of you.
Naturally, food is a strong attractant. While rodents or squirrels are little more than nuisances, larger animals such as bears can cause all sorts of problems. The key is to keep food away from them, said Dan Shirley, co-owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in Tofte, Minn. How? If campers have a vehicle and leave their campsite, they should put all food in the vehicle — and cover it up so it’s not visible. “In years when bears are active, they will try to break into cars if they can see food inside,” he said. Backcountry campers should pack their food in a dedicated pack — Shirley uses a Duluth Pack, which can be lined with a trash bag to keep the contents dry — and hang it at least 100 feet from their campsite. Parachute cord works. Best if the food bag is at least 10 feet off the ground and 6 feet away from a tree, Shirley said.
From Minnesota natives Grace and John Kamman, the founders of Wholesum Food Calculator, the new camping meal planning app:
• How will you’ll be storing food at night and what is your refrigeration/ice situation to insure health and safety?
• How many pounds can you carry and how will you be carrying it?
• Will you bring fresh, frozen or dehydrated meals?
• How do you plan on packing those meals?
• What are the ages, fitness levels and dietary restrictions of the campers in your group?
• How much will you be exerting yourself and how many calories should you and your fellow campers consume?
Don’t forget to have fun! Pack something special, something sweet and/or something spicy. It’s a fantastic surprise to have steak the first night or chocolate after a long 12th day. Every meal is a little bit better when eaten under the stars. More information at wholesumfoodcalc.com.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey
Every year brings new worries about tick- or mosquito-borne disease from Lyme to West Nile and Zika. “[Campers] are going into their habitat,” said Roger Moon, University of Minnesota retired entomologist. “We should anticipate it and protect ourselves.” Good defense includes:
• Dressing with loose, tight-weave light-colored clothing, preferably long pants and sleeves. If you can invest more, brands such as Buzz Off, Bugs Away and Insect Shield are treated with permethrin, a synthetic version of a chemical found in chrysanthemums. It lasts for about 70 washes and can repel flies, ticks and mosquitoes. You can also treat your own clothing, but do not use permethrin on your skin.
• Spray clothing, footwear and exposed skin with repellents containing at least 15 percent DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
• Campsite mosquito repellents (such as Thermacell lanterns) use butane cartridges to activate allethrin, another synthetic copy of natural repellents in chrysanthemum plants. These work best if there isn’t a breeze. The company also has smaller devices that clip onto backpacks for hikes.
• Avoid being outdoors at dusk when mosquito feasting hits its peak.
“The best repellent in the world is the one you’ll use,” said Joe Conlon, technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association.
Lisa Meyers McClintick
OK, most everyone has an idea of wild blueberries and mushrooms (be mindful), but it’s a big world of possibilities. Who knows when they might become necessities. The plant world is robust. The entire dandelion can be steamed, but the best recommendation: Pinch the flower away the stem (and its bitter sap), and enjoy. The cattail plant is edible. The young tips and white stalk can be chopped. A guidebook called “The Happy Camper” by Kevin Callan has some solid advice. Callan suggests using the shoots as a substitute for potatoes in stew. Speaking of complements, the tubers at the end of arrow root can be eaten raw or added to soup, too. The water plant tends to grow along the edges of slow-moving rivers. Many species of pine have edible nuts in the cones in late summer and fall. Foraging for edibles is allowed on many public lands, but regulations vary. Collecting anything other than edible fruit and mushrooms is prohibited in state parks.
When it comes to introducing camping to young children, start slowly and simply. Try a backyard overnighter or pick a place within 60 miles of home. Families can find many campgrounds within an hour’s drive of the Twin Cities, making it easy enjoy life outdoors without straying too far from conveniences or emergency supplies. Here are some good starter campgrounds:
• Ham Lake Campground, Ham Lake
• Frontenac State Park, Frontenac
• Baker Park Reserve, Maple Plain
• Bunker Hills Regional Park, Coon Rapids
• Willow River State Park, Hudson, Wis.
• Sakatah Lake State Park, Faribault.
• Lebanon Hills Regional Park, Eagan
• Lake Maria State Park, Monticello
• Wisconsin Interstate State Park, near Taylors Falls
• William O’Brien State Park, Marine on St. Croix
Lisa Meyers McClintick
If you don’t have much camping gear, or just like a roof over your head, nearly half Minnesota’s state parks have camper cabins — rustic 12-by-16 structures with bunk beds, mattresses, a table and benches. About 90 cabins are available for rent throughout the park system, some with heating that are open year-round, others without heat that are available only in warmer months. All offer picnic tables and fire rings, and most, but not all, have electricity and screen porches. Restrooms or vault toilets are near each cabin. The cabins have proved popular, especially on weekends, so book early.
Food & drink
Some camping adults refine their “essentials” list over time. Take adult beverages. “My camping beers used to be an afterthought. But with a myriad of great local breweries all over the state, it’s easier than ever to find your perfect camping companion in the land of 10,000 beers,” said Joseph Alton, editor of The Growler, a Minnesota magazine. Some of his favorites:
Bent Paddle 14° ESB: A strong bitter with malt and hops in proper harmony. It also won multiple medals at the Great American Beer Festival. (ABV: 5.6 percent, year-round, brewed in Duluth)
Utepils Pils: An impressive early offering from the new kids on the block. Utelpils is Norwegian for outdoors lager, by the way. (ABV: 5 percent, year-round, Minneapolis)
Castle Danger Ode IPA: It features Citra, Azacca, Amarillo and Centennial hops, a sonnet to the style of India pale ale. (ABV: 7 percent, year-round, Two Harbors)
Forager Sherpa’s Survival Kit: A smooth, complex stout with its notes of cocoa, coffee, and a rich array of specialty malts. Pairs well with a campfire. (ABV: 9.3 percent, Rochester)
Modist Brewing First Call: It wouldn’t be camping without coffee — or morning beers. Described as “a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, inside a coffee bean, inside a lager,” this beer is as weird as the guys who make it. (ABV: 6.5 percent, year-round, Minneapolis)
Mackenzie Lobby Havey
When the sun sets and kids are still full of energy, try these after-dark activities:
• Look for fireflies. Study captured fireflies in a jar (with a vented lid) or screen cage, and let them go in the morning.
• Take a short hike. Use headlamps to light the way, and try to identify sounds in the dark.
• Play catch with glow-in-the-dark balls or Frisbees, but keep them away from the campfire.
• Play an old-fashioned game of cards. (Waterproof decks are helpful.)
• Amp-up campfire fun with alternative s’mores (sandwich marshmallows between cookies or peanut butter slathered apple slices and bananas), make fruity or cheesy pocket sandwiches with pie irons, or try changing the look of your flames with additives. Be safe.
Lisa Meyers McClintick
What to cook while camping is a matter of preference, but there are basic items necessary to make it a positive experience. A cooler with ice is helpful, but may not be realistic in all settings. Water and a container (or multiple containers) for holding it are vital for cooking, cleaning and drinking. Cook food in pots and pans, or use roasting sticks for foods such as hot dogs and marshmallows. Pack along plates and/or bowls, as well as utensils. Too often, people forget trash bags and tinfoil, which can be used to cook food or store leftovers.
Determine where to build the fire. Many campsites have specific spots — inside grates or rings, for example. If there isn’t a predetermined spot, build it in an area without brush or low-hanging branches. Collect tinder (dry leaves, forest duff or small twigs), kindling (small sticks) and larger pieces of wood. Place a handful of tinder in the center of the spot, then use kindling to build a teepee around the tinder. Light the tinder with a match or lighter. Add progressively larger pieces of kindling to the teepee. Once the kindling burns consistently, add larger pieces of firewood to the teepee. Damp weather a challenge? Cotton balls soaked in Vaseline or dryer lint make good fire starters in a pinch.
Many a camper has been soured on the activity by inconsiderate (read: noisy) neighbors. Remember that many people head to the woods for piece and quiet. When you camp, observe quiet hours (10 p.m. to 8 a.m. in Minnesota state parks). Pets along? At state parks, they must be on a leash six feet or shorter, and never left alone. Here are three more camp-friendly tips:
• If you arrive at your campsite late at night, unload your gear without slamming car doors.
• A “Kumbaya” singalong around the campfire is just fine, as long as it’s not at midnight.
• Minnesota parks prohibit alcohol in part because drinking campers often turn into loud campers (but don’t expect to get hassled over a beer if you’re quiet).
A third of Minnesota’s state parks offer backpacking campsites, generally just a short jaunt from car to campsite. They’re perfect if you’re trying to figure out if backpacking is for you, or if you just like a little more solitude than car camping affords. Two state parks near the Twin Cities — Lake Maria in Monticello and Afton — have only backpack sites. If you don’t have a pack for your gear, 10 state parks have what are called cart-in campsites — just load your stuff in a provided two-wheeled wagon and off you go. For an interactive map that shows where backpack or cart-in sites are available, go online to bit.ly/MNback.
Going outdoors is a good time to unplug, but there are ways smartphones can make it more educational and more lightweight than a dozen guidebooks. Consider these downloads:
• Geocaching to find hidden treasures across the state.
• Map and trail programs such as AllTrails for gentle hikes, adventurous bike trails and scenic climbs.
• Nature guides such as Audubon Birds help identifying birds, animals, trees and plants.
• Night sky maps such as SkyView and northern lights forecasts.
• Weather.com for early warnings when storms threaten safety.
• Minnesota Department of Natural Resources apps for finding lakes, recreation areas, and buying hunting and fishing licenses.
• First aid (American Red Cross) for emergencies.
Lisa Meyers McClintick
It’s difficult to think of a wilderness guide book with a camping bent that Cliff Jacobson hasn’t written. His Falcon Guide titles cover cooking, canoeing, best knots, orienteering and on. There are videos to be had, too, for other means into his vast knowledge. He suggested “Top Secrets” as a worthy compendium of his guides. “It’s an A to Z lexicon of all those tips and tricks,” said Jacobson, a retired environmental sciences teacher from River Falls, Wis. Tents get their fair share, a topic he was happy to take up in a conversation. His five tips:
• Make sure your tent comes with a fly. Better still, a tent with the fly permanently attached. European tents are the standard. Generally, seam tape fails over time. “If you have even a pinhole on the a portion of the tent not covered by a fly, you have water coming in.” U.S. tent-makers, in general, include a fly separately, meaning you’re tent is going to get wet if set up in the rain.
• Just say no to fiberglass poles. “There is no such thing as a good fiberglass pole. Period.”
• Consider the weight and bulk. For a backpacker, weight is an issue. For a canoeist, not so much — but bulk is.
• Setup time is really important. A good tent should set up in under three minutes.
• Avoid tents with “cutesy things.” Jacobson isn’t a fan of tents with plastic windows or LED light strands, for example. They’ll fail, he said.
Learn more about Jacobson online at cliff-jacobson.com.