Find a Great Campsite

Here are points I like to consider when heading out to camp. First of all, it helps to live close enough to decent campgrounds to visit regularly. Getting to know the drive and the area you’ll be camping in builds your confidence with each trip.

campsite-moon-lhickey
Art by Lisa D. Hickey

RESERVE or GO OUT EARLY

It is not worth anyone’s time to pack the cooler, tents and everything needed into the vehicle, then drive an hour or two or whatever it takes, only to arrive at a sold out campground. It’s worth reserving a spot ahead of time. Some campgrounds are only first come first served so I always arrange time off for driving out mid-week. My week-long camping vacation is Wednesday to Tuesday, and not weekend to weekend. If I had to work, I’d drive out Wednesday evening, set up a tent on the campsite I wanted, and pay for the days until I can return (yes this can be frustrating to those who wing it but it’s the only way to get a site for a Friday arrival in a non-reserve campground, unless you do what I do and head out mid-week). One simply must head out on Wednesday. Thursday is pushing it. I’d never head out on a Friday. There’s enough campers around that for the past couple of years whenever and wherever I go camping, the place is sold out by Friday morning, if not Thursday.

SITE HAS PLENTY OF TREES

Trees are everything camping is about for me and I’m so lucky to live not far from heavily forested areas. I love the look of trees, the sound the wind makes in their branches, the shade they offer, the designs in their trunks. I especially enjoy how they help me create shelter with tarps. Camping is about creating shelter. That’s what we’re doing after all, right? We’re building a ‘home away from home’. And even though the metal fire ring and gravel area are ‘fixed’ there are often several tree trunks to select from for securing tarps for shelter and privacy.

camp-hammock
I love this old hammock!

HAS A GOOD PAIR OF TREES

My ideal campsite will have a well-placed pair of strong trees for my camp hammock. And by ‘well placed’ I mean, among other things, upwind of the fire. A hammock secured between two trees for a midday rest, reading, watching the sky, listening to birds, feeling the breeze, just dozing… it’s like heaven in a campground. The most refreshing short sleeps of my life have taken place in my camp hammock.

KNOW THE SIZE OF YOUR SET-UP

Campsites are all different shapes, sizes, and orientation to the wind and the sun. Working around the fixed firepit and picnic table, it helps with choosing a great site to know sizes of everything you’ll be adding. For me it’s a 17’ SUV (with bike rack), 8×8’ tent, 5×3’ privacy tent, 12×12’ shade shelter, various tarps, the chopping area, woodpile, a couple of folding chairs and a hammock (or two). You can use a cheat sheet with measurements and a tape measure but soon you won’t need that. Every camper who sets up his or her own tents and tarps learns to assess a site. One has to be able to stand in an empty space and visualize the ‘set up’. If it doesn’t feel right, move on and keep looking. Being able to pick and choose from empty campsites until I find the right one is why I head out camping mid-week.

PLACEMENT OF THE ESSENTIALS

BEAR-BINS: How far away are the daily-use bear bins? After the last meal of the day, wrap everything up into a tight garbage bag and take it over. This is part of my daily bike rides, my evening campground trip over to the “bear-bins”, or bear-proof heavy duty metal garbage bins. When it’s getting dark it can feel a bit scary but I have bear spray in my holster, and I know how to use it! Also, I listen carefully and keep alert.

PLAYGROUND: People generally choose nearby if they have kids, or farther for more quiet. Obviously. However, even though my kids are grown and I prefer hearing birds and breezes over boisterous children, I’ll choose to camp near the playground over the bear bins, which are usually at the opposite end of the campground. Some of my camping trips located near playgrounds had hardly any noise, and I’ve been far from the playground and had an RV full of school aged kids park beside me. It’s all good.

A small Mule deer buck
A small Mule deer buck greets me just outside the bathroom.

BATHROOMS: The vault toilets/bathroom building (without plumbing, these well-built concrete structures have very strong hinged doors) is a tricky item to consider at your campground. I often aim for being three to eight sites away. You don’t want to be too far away, but at the same time the closer you are, the more annoying the sounds (I’ve never had an issue with odor). Sure there’s the increase in foot traffic, but worse is the slamming door. The heavy doors are spring-loaded and most people just dash out, letting them slam. I don’t like that sound myself when I’ve had to camp close to the bathroom building, so I’m one who catches the door as it closes. It only takes a second and I walk away from the building quietly, without the door slamming.

WATER: Again, weigh the pros and cons of having to travel farther but having less foot traffic, or the opposite. Water weighs so much that I try to incorporate my bike if possible, or will use my vehicle as a last resort, but mostly I bring enough water from home to last several days. Note, for extra precaution the pump water from campgrounds should be boiled before using.

PHONE: Yes, some of the campgrounds I enjoy are so deep into the mountains that there is no cell service. At these places I trek to the old-school payphone at least once a day to let someone know “Hi! All’s well.” Plus how much longer I’m staying. As a solo camper I prefer sites with service for the safety it helps provide. But at times, when my desire to go camping is stronger than the sites available, I’ll drive farther out and camp anyways. It requires more trust, and confidence. Yet it’s always good to know the site manager has a Satellite phone for emergencies.

campsite-manager
Learn the manager’s site.

MANAGER: Personally, I prefer to be close to the manager’s site. First of all firewood is always available for purchase from their site, in addition to the trucks that come around a couple of times a day. I’ve also found that unruly off-leash dogs and late-night partying tends to not occur in campsites close to where they are. I prefer to be within emergency whistle or air horn hearing distance to them. Usually it’s an older couple living in their gorgeous RV for the summer season, plus the day staff who drive the firewood trucks, are who manage campgrounds. I like to learn their names early in the season. These hard working folks deserve a greeting from appreciative campers like me.

Every time I go camping it’s in the perfect site! But some locations have been better than others. These tips help me in my quest for the most comfy, cozy site. I hope they can help you too. Keep clean campsites, never feed the animals, and let’s all be safe. Enjoy!

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[Copyright © 2017 Gina~Inga, Front Yard to Backcountry]

Our Urban Trees

When I moved into my last home, one April day many years ago, I immediately noticed that the old apple tree looked half dead. On that 30-foot tree, the top third was completely bare. No foliation – no blooms – no leaves. Instead, there was what appeared to be dead sticks shooting out above the foliage for ten feet. I learned and experienced something very easy for helping urban trees to recover, and I want to share it with you.

half dead treeNow I am no arborist but I adore nature and plants, and I enjoy research and study. Some people think the die-off of the top of a deciduous tree is acid-rain burn. What is actually happening is smog and pollution falling to the ground and leaching nutrients out of the soil. The top of the tree is the first area to display the tree’s stress. It’s basically like witnessing a tree starving to death.

Knowing this, I immediately got to work. I went to my local garden store and purchased the appropriate type of fertilizer for an apple tree. I came home and pounded those fertilizer stakes into the ground all around the drip-line of the tree (the outer edge of the branches), following the manufacturer’s directions. There was an area where the tree hung over my neighbor’s fence and I did not address that area of drip-line fertilizing, however I knew that the majority (three-quarters) of area that I could fertilize would help the tree. After pounding in the spikes, I set the water-sprinkler to a low rate and slowly, deeply soaked the ground all around the drip-line, especially where the fertilizer stakes were. I also carefully pruned out the inner dead wood and overlapping branches. Then I crossed my fingers! Ok, in all honesty (being who I am) I told the tree I loved it and hoped it would want to stay and get healthier (yes, I am a tree-hugger and would wear a t-shirt announcing it if I had one).

apple treeIn one year I was delighted to notice the length of those bare branches atop the tree had shrunk by half. The tree definitely looked fuller and was producing new branches and abundant apples. I repeated the fertilizer-stakes applications in both spring and fall, as I had the first year, along with supplemental watering. In the third spring, after only two years of some care and attention, that old neglected apple tree regained full foliation! I have witnessed it and I know it can be done. Those branches on top of a tree that appear dead can revive and fully leaf-out with a little human assistance.

In our current home, we inherited some huge spruce trees in the front yard, each over 50 feet tall. While many people think ‘you can’t kill a spruce tree’ I know that’s not true. They may not show their stress as obviously as a deciduous tree with those top-bare branches, but evergreen trees can lose needles and start to over-produce pinecones when stressed. Although incredibly hardy, there are a couple of things that can really harm a spruce – or any tree – and a couple of easy steps that can help bring back shine and vigor to your old trees.

First of all, I certainly don’t go digging out roots. My gardens have been developed just beyond the drip-line. As well, I know that their long shallow roots travel much farther than the drip-line, so the small young perennials and shrubs that I have added are placed in carefully dug holes, working around the tree roots. A small amount of thin fibrous roots can be removed here and there, but we do not damage those big ones. Those roots that look like underground branches stay right where they are and I move the placement of the hole when I discover them. By choosing very hardy, drought-tolerant plants, I am doing what I can for these additions to live alongside thirsty tree roots.

Another thing I would never do to any tree, is build up the soil over their roots (more than 1 or, at most, 2 inches). That’s a sure-fire way to kill a tree. It may take a few years but trees will perish if too much soil is added over their roots. They essentially suffocate. While a partial garden built up over a small section under your tree’s canopy may not seriously harm it, especially if the tree is additionally cared for with nutrients and supplemental watering, failing to understand this concept and building up the soil all over the roots of a tree to add flowers and height to the garden will as surely kill a tree as if you took a chainsaw to it. Only suffocation takes much longer.

So those are a couple of things I wouldn’t do. A couple of things I would do to add to the health of a tree is to give it some food. As mentioned earlier, fertilizer spikes are incredibly easy to apply and are very beneficial for trees, especially long-neglected, nutrient-deficient urban trees. Just be sure to give it lots of water after fertilizing (or better yet! ~time it with regular rainfall in your area). And read the manufacturers directions. Trees only need one or two feedings a year.

In the top left of this pic, note a tree suffering from top die-off. The home-owners refuse to do anything because they’re convinced it’s too late. If there is ANY green left on your tree, it’s not too late to try.

Even mature, tough trees such as spruce can do with a bit of supplemental watering. Of course, if rain has been frequent every other week or so, no watering is needed. But if it has been more than a month, and there are no water-restrictions in your municipality, by all means offer your old trees a drink. One good solid drink every other month is all that is needed with established drought-tolerant trees such as spruce. Fruit-bearing trees benefit from additional watering if dry weather requires it.

Head out early in the morning before it gets too hot, on a windless day, and set the sprinkler to low. Place it under the tree at about the drip-line and move it a few feet around the circle every 20 minutes or so. You are giving the tree a really good soaking! This is not required frequently, but it definitely helps add to the health of your trees during dry times.

The trees in my yard offer shade and shelter, protecting us from heat in summer and winds in winter. If I can give them a few tools to add to their strength to help withstand the winter winds and urban pollution, then I know I am doing my part in this symbiotic partnership.

There you go. A bit of fertilizer and a bit of water. For the price of a dinner or a movie with a friend, you can add so much health to the trees in your yard.