Let’s Go Camping

After a year like this, we could all use some fresh air.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living Mt. Rogers

Sleeping under the stars at Mount Rogers Recreational Area in Marion.

Imagine making breakfast over a crackling fire under the open sky. Smoky bacon sizzles in a cast-iron frying pan as the morning sun warms your skin. The sound of a rushing creek soothes your senses. Pine branches sway in a gentle breeze. You’re completely disconnected from the incessant activity, chaos, and craziness of daily life. Instead, a feeling of peace and tranquility takes over. It’s a zen moment. Why, you wonder, didn’t I try camping sooner?

Most campers agree that the benefits of camping, like the ability to slow down and savor the beauty of nature, far outweigh the inconveniences, like walking to a bathhouse in the middle of the night or slapping hungry mosquitoes at dusk. Camping, like many outdoor leisure activities, reduces stress, something we all need in the wake of the coronavirus. Let’s explore the options, including the types of camping, equipment needs, location recommendations, and tips for making your foray into the outdoors a success. Whatever your style of camping, there’s a campsite out there with your name on it, so grab your gear and go. You may never want to come back.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living

Hammocking at Cocks Comb.

Ready to Rough It? Backpacking’s for You

Purists believe that camping with just the bare essentials under the night sky is real camping. It sounds simple, right? Load up your backpack with some gear and a few provisions and find a trailhead. In fact, of all the camping types, backpacking requires the most planning and advance prep. Having the right equipment for eating, sleeping, and carrying your gear is crucial, as is carefully weighing everything you intend to put in your pack and only carrying what you need. 

Vince Mier, 39, a veteran backpacker and Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, manages the Harrisonburg location of Walkabout Outfitter, an outdoor apparel and gear retailer with six stores in Virginia. The most important gear you’ll need, says Mier, is a sturdy pair of hiking shoes—or boots if you want more ankle support. “The terrain you’ll encounter on most backpacking trips will be quite different than the places you walk typically,” he says. “Rocks, roots, and elevation changes and carrying a load on your back will change your sense of balance.” 

A reliable tent or hammock system that provides protection from the elements and adverse weather conditions is equally important, says Mier. “A good night’s sleep will have you excited to get up and get hiking!”

Mier suggests wannabe backpackers begin with a day hike—or even shorter—and work up to an overnight hike. “Talk to your local outfitter and find out if they offer classes, hikes, or advice to increase your chances for success,” Mier advises.

Trails for backpacking abound in Virginia. Some are easy and flat, others are steep and rocky. Start out with moderate changes in elevation and work up to more difficult hikes. Campsites range from primitive shelters to backcountry sites (often requiring a permit). If you want some pampering—or a hot shower—look for modern campgrounds near the trail. 

Photo courtesy of Elaine and John Swingle.

The Swingles’ FloydFest setup.

Looking for Budget-Friendly Digs? Try Tent Camping

If you’re not ready for backpacking or are new to camping, you might want to test the waters with tent camping. Small tents are very affordable, and many campgrounds offer level spaces, parking, bathrooms, and picnic tables, so you can simply drive in with as many supplies as you like and make yourself at home. After a few outings, you’ll perfect your packing list and be ready to try a more adventurous excursion or invite friends—tents with multiple rooms can house 16 campers.

Theresa Tibbs, a park ranger at Grayson Highlands State Park in southwest Virginia, says one boon for novice campers is that tents are easier to set up nowadays, thanks to advances in technology. Instead of spending hours assembling heavy poles and stringing ropes, you can pull a lightweight tent out of its bag and pop it into shape in minutes. If even that seems like a challenge, Tibbs recommends trying a yurt at a state park. Like a permanent tent, the yurts have a canvas roof and walls, but feature a door, floor, and basic furniture (bedding, table, and chairs).

With more than 1,800 campsites (and yurts), Virginia State Parks are convenient entryways for campers seeking an escape from urban life. “Camping is about getting out in nature, enjoying the fresh air, and decompressing,” says Tibbs. She has noticed a surge in millennial campers in state parks and says camping is a relaxing change of pace and a great way to spend quality time with family and friends. Social media has impacted the popularity of camping in recent years, too. “People see places on social media and want to go there,” says Tibbs.

Once you’ve chosen your walls, you’ll need a sleeping bag. Sleeping in a tent can be basic—just you, a sleeping bag, and maybe a pad or pillow—or, with a few amenities, just as comfortable as staying in an RV. Most tent campers sleep better if they have a cot or air mattress to lie on. Choose your sleeping bag based on how and where you plan to use it. Are you planning to camp in winter? Choose one rated for below-freezing temperatures. Summer bags, on the other hand, are lighter and better suited for temperatures above 50 degrees. There are also many bag shapes, like rectangle and mummy. What you choose depends on how much space you want.

Cooking and eating outdoors can be one of the best parts of camping, but admittedly it’s more challenging than eating at home. If you’re parking at your campsite, weight and efficiency aren’t issues, so pack a kitchen set-up—cook stove or hibachi, cooler, pans, dishes, and utensils—to make cooking easier and more fun. Avid campers often build or purchase a foldable camp kitchen featuring a table, stove, and a sink, but you can make do with a picnic table, a cooler, and something to cook on. Many campgrounds provide water, grills, and fire pits, but others don’t have spigots or allow open fires, so do your research.

You’ll want to create a menu and prep some dishes at home. In addition to the traditional hot dogs and hamburgers, foil packets of meat and vegetables are popular and easy to cook over an open fire. Make sure you plan a hearty breakfast each morning. Eggs and pancakes are especially delicious when cooked outside, and you’ll be surprised how hungry being out in the fresh air makes you. 

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living

Enjoying the #vanlife on Skyline Drive.

Need More Comfort? Consider an RV or Trailer.

Having a solid roof over your head ensures that you stay warm and dry, no matter where you go or what weather you find there. RVs come in many sizes and shapes. Some are towable, and others are motorized. Prices range from a few thousand dollars to more than $300,000. 

While its roof isn’t quite solid, a folding camping trailer, also known as a pop-up, is an entry-level option. As its nickname implies, a roomy tent pops out of a lightweight, easy-to-tow trailer, giving you a solid floor and raised sleeping areas, plus a basic kitchen and dining area. Some pop-ups also come with a toilet and shower. 

If you own a pickup truck, truck campers (also called camper shells or cab-over campers) can also be budget-friendly options. Like pop-ups, basic truck campers are equipped with eating, sleeping, and cooking areas, and the more advanced units also have toilets and even showers. Truck campers have solid walls, which can be comforting in a storm. You can “dismount” the camper and leave it at your site if you want to go exploring. 

Travel trailers, which include conventional, fifth-wheel, and expandable units, are the next logical progression, comfort- and price-wise. Basic trailers start at $8,000, but if you want lots of bells and whistles, you can easily pay more than $100,000. Of course you need a vehicle that can pull the trailer, and you have to be comfortable towing. When my family camped for six months in Europe, we towed a 30-foot trailer behind our Suburban. As a family of five—plus an au pair—we needed lots of room. We followed good weather, so except for a surprise spring snowstorm in Italy, we spent most of our time cooking and relaxing outside, and used the camper mainly for sleeping. I like travel trailers because you don’t have to worry about engine problems or driving a big RV on narrow streets; you just unhook the trailer at your campsite and, voila, you have a new second home surrounded by nature. 

You may be familiar with motorhomes from seeing gleaming bus-sized examples on the highway. Those “Class A” motorhomes are the largest, most luxurious, and most expensive—six-figure price tags are common—while Class B and C motorhomes are smaller and somewhat less expensive. All of them offer comfortable sleeping, eating, and cooking facilities, bathrooms, and climate control. Learning to drive a vehicle that size takes time (dealers often offer or can refer you to training classes), and you may need to tow a separate vehicle for getting around. Motorhomes can offer freedom and comfort for families committed to a camping lifestyle, but consider renting before you buy to be sure it’s the right option for you.

Once you’ve chosen your rig, you’ll need to find a destination. Barb Stachurski, marketing manager at the Virginia Beach KOA (Kampgrounds of America), says families tend to prefer campgrounds with amenities like pools, waterslides, and family activities. Hanging out around the campfire and making s’mores is a favorite of guests at the KOA. 

In recent years, she’s noticed higher levels of stress among her guests. “Most of us are experiencing nature-deficit disorder. We are starved for time in the great outdoors,” she notes. “It’s amazing to see how people come in kind of uptight, but after a while become noticeably calmer when they’ve had a chance to slow down, breathe some fresh air, and spend time outdoors.”

Experts anticipate the coronavirus crisis will result in an increased interest in camping, Stachurski says. “There will definitely be a rise in RV and tent camping because these are self-contained units, and camping has always been the ultimate ‘self-isolating’ activity anyway!” Like Ranger Tibbs, Stachurski has seen a rise in the number of millennials camping. “Now, I think we’re going to see people of all ages trying camping,” she says.

Advice for new campers? “Be flexible. Camping is an outdoor experience, so it will not be as perfect as home,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of rain or a little dirt, or even a few insects. Some of our family’s best camping memories happened in the rain, and we still laugh about them today.”

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living

Vince Mier and Suzanne Mayerchak on North Mountain Trail.

Prefer Walls With Your Nature? You’re a Cabin Camper.

Cabins range from simple, rustic structures to lavish hideaways with every possible amenity. Just within Virginia State Parks, you’ll find basic cabins with cots, cabins equipped with linens and kitchen appliances, and multi-family lodges perfect for family reunions. Most cabins don’t have TV or Wi-Fi, but the whole purpose of camping is to get away from the constant chatter of today’s world. 

Depending on the level of luxury you choose, packing for your cabin getaway can be similar to tent camping—or a lot less complicated. For a weekend at a well-appointed cabin, you’ll need to take food, clothing, and recreational items like bikes, sports equipment, cards, puzzles, etc. Remember, though, that the main reason you’re spending time at a cabin in the woods is to commune with nature. Go hiking, walk along the beach, grab a fishing pole, take a bike ride. It’s all about being in the moment with your senses sharpened by smells and sounds, not dulled by distractions.

Among my favorite places to rent a cabin is Claytor Lake State Park, which offers well-equipped cabins overlooking the lake with fire pits, screened porches, and lots of room to roam. In summer you can bring your swimsuit or your boat and enjoy the lake. The spacious family lodges set among the sand dunes at Kiptopeke State Park sleep up to 16 and have a fabulous open kitchen and a cozy great room. If you’re going with extended family, let everyone plan and prepare one or two meals; it keeps things sane. If you like horseback riding, check out the family-friendly Shangrila Guest Ranch. It offers rustic cabins, a cute cottage, and gentle horses to ride through the rolling hills of southern Virginia.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living Sandy River Outdoor Adventures

Interior of a tipi at Sandy River Outdoor Adventures near Farmville.

The Sky’s the Limit? Let’s Talk Glamping. 

Glamour + camping = glamping, and it’s all the rage nowadays. (Just check Instagram.) The idea is to start with a tent and then add every modern comfort you can think of: fancy bedding, fine furniture, chill music, cocktails, gourmet meals—you get the idea. 

At Sandy River Outdoor Adventures near Farmville, you’ll find glamp-ready tipis that even have bathrooms, heat, and air conditioning. Furnished with comfy sofas, plush beds, and unique carved tables, they also feature kitchenettes, TVs (connected to Netflix, naturally), and Wi-Fi. Or, if you want to be pampered beyond your dreams, book a romantic getaway in one of Primland’s amazing treehouses. The well-appointed cottages are truly nestled in the branches of trees at the resort in Meadows of Dan. My favorite is Cooper’s Hawk, which has a huge deck overlooking sweeping mountain views. If you crave nature but don’t enjoy roughing it, glamping is definitely for you.

Festival camping, which can be similar to glamping, is popular among the fans who attend Virginia’s many music festivals. Elaine and John Swingle of Virginia Beach are regulars at FloydFest, a multi-day musical event held each summer in Floyd. They lug a mattress to their campsite because, according to John, “Sleeping is big!” They often share a site with another couple and create a living room of sorts, protected from the sun by a shade cloth. Here they relax and nap while waiting for the next band to play. It’s also where John and Elaine prepare tasty meals, from gourmet cuisine to simple hot dogs cooked over an open fire.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living Sandy River Outdoor Adventures

Tipis at Sandy River Outdoor Adventures near Farmville.

Besides a swanky campsite and good food, festival camping is all about the music. John, who’s a self-described music freak, says he spends 100 hours listening to bands during the five-day Floyd-Fest. “It’s kind of tribal,” he says, “with your friends and your family and the people you meet. It’s about escaping the norm.”

“Every campsite is a new adventure,” says Elaine, who caught the festival camping bug from John. She loves having “everything you want and need in one spot.” Elaine says it’s important not to worry too much about your appearance while camping. Instead, focus on your surroundings. “Unplugging from daily life is the key.” 

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