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Six Game-Changing Camping Tips I've Learned From Forty Years of Outdoor Adventures

Updated: Jun 30, 2023


John's old MEC tent and a campfire at dusk. The tent is dug into the snowpack to make it level on the side of a mountain.
A late-winter mountainside campsite.

For me, as a youngster, camping started as most things do when we're inexperienced and naive. A pack of matches, a folded piece of tin foil, a can of beans, my hunting or fishing tools, and not much thought of anything else.

Inside a dark, damp forest. A colourful path of fall foliage leads the way out into a foggy meadow in Sweden.
An inviting path out into a Swedish meadow. Photography level-up makes a big difference!

My camping experiences kept going though, despite my oftentimes severe discomfort through the ordeal. The drive within me to experience hunting, fishing, or foraging for wild food propelled me to adventure after adventure. I also had a sort of attitude that anything worthwhile was worth suffering through...weird thought process, I understand.


"You will never regret doing this, I promise you! Even a few weeks after your trip you will begin to forget the details..."

Then something happened. I began to value my comfort more and more as I grew older. I realized that camping needn't be a grueling test of what I could endure. Even then though, I had the mindset that there were comforts that simply could not be included due to their weight in a backpack, or the space required to carry them in the vehicle. This attitude endured, no matter what type of camping I was participating in. Even though the back of the Suzuki could carry three times more gear, I would simply skimp, and leave stuff at home.


Common sense seemed to elude me until I realized that my comfort in the field had a direct correlation to how successful I was in whatever process I was participating in. Here are the six camping tips I've identified. Old man's advice commencing below. The best game-changing camping tips I've learned over the decades.


 

Six Game-Changing Camping Tips:



Entertainment

Bring something along to read or listen to. Nowadays, our phones are always handy so this one is a no-brainer. Download a few inspirational podcast episodes that have something to do with your activity. There will always be some downtime in camp on any expedition. So, whether you're in your tent at night, or under a tarp waiting out a rain storm, something to do makes all of your time in theatre more enjoyable.

A leather bound journal sits on a cutting board. Scraps of cut leather are in the background.
Leather bound journal. Home made.

The same thing applies when it comes to books. Although, they will take up more weight and space in a backpacking situation.


But, here is an alternative to consider. It is perhaps my best suggestion in this article. How about bringing along a journal and pen?


You will never regret doing this, I promise you! Even a few weeks after your trip, you will begin to forget the details that were perhaps important to you at the time. A few quick sentences of your thoughts and feelings from each day on the trip, a poem, or even a detailed description of a favorite scene unfolding in front of you. These writings will be more valuable to you as time goes on. More than any photo, a journal of each trip or an entire summer of adventures will become treasured heirlooms for you and your family.


Of course, such a valuable piece of kit should be at least a little fancy. Leather-bound and filled with cotton paper fits the bill here...and you can even make these journals yourself!


 
"Having something to look forward to, no matter how small, can really bring morale up on a trip where weather or effort is draining your ambition."
 

comfort food

Bringing along a favorite food is almost always achievable. Even the stingiest, hard-core backpacker can stuff a piece of chocolate or a small package of cookies into their pack. The resistance to this idea completely dissolves when you are moto-camping or getting into the wild with a vehicle.


The point here is to have something to look forward to. Where this tactic comes into play the most is when you aren't alone. If everyone in the group brings something to share, every day of the trip can have a special time for a treat.

pork rinds and an assortment of cheese on a rock.
Special treats in a high alpine backpacking camp. They can be simple...and special at the same time. Photo by Kevin Kossowan

Maybe it is an after-dinner dessert or midnight snack? Having something to look forward to, no matter how small, can really bring morale up on a trip where weather or effort is draining your ambition.


On a recent backpack fly fishing trip, there were four of us trekking along. The weather was hot, the walk was long. We weren't unhappy by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a journey that exhausted us. At some point along the trail, someone would mention "I have pork rinds for happy hour". That is all that it took for our moods to swing for the rest of the day. I'm telling you that this is important. Even if you think it isn't.


 

comfort drink

a whiskey glass on a wood table with candle light shining from behind.
A little shot of something special in a fancy glass is a highlight in any camp.

Basically the same thing as the food idea above. It used to be more of a thing in decades past. I think that in decades past pretty much everyone carried around a flask filled with something to spice up their coffee in the office. That is the only explanation I can come up with to account for all of the fancy ones that occupy shelves in second-hand stores.


At any rate, it won't be difficult to find a flask somewhere. The trick here is to fill it with something good to share. Mix up your favorite cocktail and announce to the group that you will share a few sips with everyone around the campfire that night. Everyone will be smiling. Guaranteed.



 

bedding betrayal

This is perhaps the most important tip I can give you. Do not, under any circumstances, get lazy when it comes to packing proper bedding. Regardless of how busy you will be on your trip, at least one full quarter of your time will be spent trying to sleep.


There is no bigger influencer of attitude on your outdoor adventure than how well you did or did not sleep. I cannot tell you how many times I've gone light on my sleeping arrangements and regretted it.


A headache or sore neck because you forgot a pillow. Spending the night in chilly agony as hour after hour of darkness slips past slowly. Trip killers.

A sleeping bag and inflatable pad in a blue tent.
The Thermarest NeoAir XTherm sleeping pad and cold weather MEC bag on a recent winter camping trip.

Again, backpacking limits you here. However, this is the place where technology and some money can help out. There are some great ultra-lightweight inflatable sleeping pads. I highly recommend the Thermarest NeoAir XTherm. This pad has been a game-changer for me at night. Do not listen to the advice you get about noise either. It is a little crinkly sounding, but once you're on it, providing tension, that sound goes away. I have never been kept awake because of that sound, and I am a light sleeper.


My pillow is a simple foam-filled cotton bag. I like a little thicker pillow, but a simple solution is to open it up and fill it with more foam. Another solution, which admittedly, I have no experience with, are the inflatable pillows that are available. Those strike me as solid solutions if space and weight are issues.


One last level-up I've come up with is a simple fleece liner. I had my Mom sew one up for me after I gave her the dimensions I needed. I was skeptical as to what effect this would have, but wow, what a difference in comfort!


First of all, it provides a soft texture against bare skin or underlayers. As opposed to the harsh nylon of a sleeping bag, fleece is beautiful. Clammy, sweaty legs seem to cease being a thing. Additionally, the liner adds several degrees of comfort to any bag.


I always like to go a little heavier than I think is necessary with my sleep system. Let me put it this way...I have never regretted a minus 20-degree bag in the middle of summer, high in the alpine. The solution to being too hot is easy, unzip the bag. The solution to being too cold is more difficult to manage in the middle of the night in a dark tent.


On my recent turkey hunting expedition into the hills of British Columbia I was afforded the luxury of no space or weight limits. The old half-ton pickup truck had lots of capacity. I packed up my Big Boy sleeping bag, XTherm pad, pillow, and then the trip-saver, my big old bear hide. I was sure I didn't need it, but on a couple of nights during the trip, the temperatures fell below zero. I felt an ever-so-slight chill in the middle of the night, reached beside me in the darkness, pulled the furry hide over top of my sleeping bag, and instantly drifted off to sleep under the extra-comfortable weight of another layer of insulation. It was heaven on earth.


 

crafty level-up

This is another "layer of enjoyment" that I've recently discovered is important in all of my outdoor activities. With all but the most intense hunting situations, there will be downtime in camp. If you've gone through your book, written in your journal, or listened to all of the podcasts, you'll be bored without this next tip.

A trout lays in a fishing net in the stream.
John's Hazel Branch Landing Net

There are myriad ways to participate in the bushcraft culture that is so popular today. Pick something that pertains to where you will be, or maybe it is an ongoing project like painting or drawing. Maybe you could build a pine needle basket? What about a birch bark cup? Build a wild arrow? Whittle a gift for someone. If you collect some wildcraft ingredients from where you are situated in camp, the item you fashion becomes an instant keepsake.


The sky is the limit on this idea.



 

learn photographic basics

Similar to the idea above. Here is a huge tip that I've learned to value in recent years.


Learn how to take good photos! There is more to this than simply pointing a camera at a gorgeous sunrise on distant mountain peaks. Sometimes, without proper knowledge of photography basics, even those landscapes can become uninspiring once you get home and look at your photo files.


Good camera gear helps a lot here actually, but, your phone is perfectly capable of taking decent photos. I've found that my mediocre phone shots are almost always completely due to operator error.

Mark is in focus in the foreground. He has a short white beard. He is wearing a toque and brown plaid wool jacket. A shotgun is across his shoulder. Curtis is behind him in the distance, blurred.
Mark and Curtis Hall on our recent Turkey Hunt

I have had some good photographic improvements after watching YouTube photography lessons. Another fun option would be to take a class.


Learning some of the intricacies of composition or advanced phone or camera picture-taking settings can really take your precious photographic memories to the next level. Here is a great iPhone app that I used regularly prior to getting set up with a nicer DSLR camera.


Setting pro-level, manual settings on your phone camera, and then pairing that with photo-editing software and some knowledge of composition can bring your photos to life in a way that is startling. Honestly, this is such a fun pastime, that an entire trip can become a photographic-focused excursion creating new energy and focus on an otherwise ordinary camping weekend.

 

So there you are. These are a few ideas that I've come up with to pass along. Luckily, most trips into the wild do not need a lot of help to be memorable. But the key takeaway here should be that there is really no limit to the layers of enjoyment that you can stack onto your hunting, fishing, or camping trips. Now go get outside!

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