The Mobile Base Camp

When I was younger, backpacking seemed like the obvious way to go about seeing what was worth seeing in the out of doors.  Back east, where I grew up, as a generality backpacking was a requirement as well, if you wanted to thin the ranks of the hordes of co-eco-religionists seeking the same Appalachian, Adirondack or White Mountain High.  But beyond this sort of practicality, there has long seemed to be a sort of macho charisma that attaches to backpacking, a sense that there is something inherently righteous about disappearing into the bush with naught to sustain you but what you lug in under your own steam.  

As I've grown older, though, I've realized that lugging fifty pounds of food and equipment (or more) on my back may sometimes be a necessary evil to reach certain objectives, but it is hardly to be considered an end in itself by any sane person.  As a result, car camping has held increasing appeal to me, and my last backpacking excursion is now four years in the past.  At the same time, my time spent hiking has increased rather than diminished.  Better yet, my enjoyment has increased significantly, as has the variety of what I have seen while trekking about in a state of only lightly encumbered bliss.

Is car camping some sort of modern, comfort driven cop out?  Not withstanding the cachet that backpacking still enjoys, I don't think so.  After all, the west was hardly opened by pioneers with ultralight backpacks and high tech tents, but by settlers perfectly happy to sit in Conestoga wagons and let the oxen do the walking, and by prospectors with their donkeys and their mules to tote their gear. Similarly, the way to move your stock up into high meadows in the early summer and back in the fall was on horseback (and in some places, still is), with a packhorse for gear.  In short, until recently no self-respecting westerner would dream of walking if s/he could ride — so why should we, even if packhorses have now become a less available option?

From that perspective, a four-wheel drive car is simply the modern version of a saddle and a packhorse combined.  True, there differences between the two modes of transport, and each has advantages (horses don’t have air conditioning) and disadvantages (horses can go places that even Jeeps cannot) over the other, but otherwise each is capable of fulfilling exactly the same function — getting you closer to where you want to be without having to walk there, or to lug everything you need in order to get there and back.


Using a car also opens up areas that would otherwise be unavailable, especially out west where distances between paved roads are vast, and where much water is available only seasonally.  Water weighs 64 pounds a cubic foot, and you need to down a minimum of a gallon of water a day in the southwest in August when all of those sources have dried up.  And a gallon may be cutting it close.  Unless you know of a certainty that there’s a potable water source along your chosen route, you have no choice but to lug your entire supply along.  The result, of course, is to strictly limit where you can go for more than a couple of days, as well as the route you use to get there. 


In contrast, it only takes a moment to throw four gallons of water into a Jeep, and another four (minimum) against emergencies.  Your car then becomes your mobile base camp, rather than merely your taxi to a predetermined trailhead.  And when you do hike, you need carry no overnight gear at all, and a far more modest supply of water in your pack.  And, of course, you have far greater independence in choosing your route and destinations, limited only by where the many ranching, mining, logging and other dirt roads and Jeep tracks that you find may take you. 


And then there is the ultimate clincher:  cold beer.


The positive effect on morale of enjoying a cold beer after a long and arduous hike in the summer desert is not to be underestimated.  Pity the poor back packers that have only warm water to soothe their dusty spirits.


Of course, cold beer and dirt road driving are not in any other way a natural combination, no matter what the beer ads one sees on TV would have us think.  (Why do so many beer ads feature people bombing around off-road, anyway?  The association the advertisers appear to want you to make is with mindless hedonistic pleasure, which is not exactly the best attitude to have when driving in the outback, with or without beer, on which more tomorrow)


Be that as it may, there are at least three good reasons why beer is best left until the evening: 


First, when driving a typically terrible jeep track, you may suddenly need both hands on the wheel.  The extra seconds it takes to put down a beverage can make a difference between merely jamming on the breaks and a broken axle.


Second, you’ll likely to hit a bump big enough and soon enough to land half your brew in your lap.


And third, one beer tends to lead to another, and when they smell beer on your body when they haul it out of the wreck at the bottom of the gulch, your family may harbor unkind thoughts about you.  And that would be a shame, wouldn’t it?


And, of course, if you haven’t injudicious while driving, at the end of the day there will still be a cold one (or several) waiting for you, as even a cheap Styrofoam cooler will hold ice for two to three full days.  Assuming that you haven’t taken wasted too much room inside keeping nonessentials (e.g., food) cold as well. 


There are other benefits to having a car functioning as a base camp as well.  For $8.50, you can pick up the most basic of solar showers (a heavy black water plastic bag with a spray nozzle), holding a gallon and a half of water.  At the end of the day, open the hatch on the back of your 4X4, set the shower on top to provide gravity flow, and wash off the grime of the day.  Certainly one of the great simple pleasures of outback life. 


Another is the spread of satellite radio in rental cars.  Even if 90% of what’s supplied is not to your taste, there will still be a good handful of stations to your liking, all available all the time.  Until now, the alternative form of enjoyment when far from town was to hit the “seek” button and watch the digital numbers cycle endlessly through the transmission bands, finding no station strong enough to latch on to. 


With a satellite radio service, you’ve got your pick.  XM Radio, for example has a New Age-y station called Audio Visions that’s just right for watching sunsets by.  Last night, I listened to an hour of “ambient” music featuring American Indian flutes as the lead instrument in the ensemble  (how apropos can you get?)  Helpful hint:  Do not become so blessed out on beer and ambient music that you fail to keep an eye on your battery gauge.


Here is another luxury enjoyed by car campers that is unavailable to backpackers, unless they’re willing to carry it along: after picking up my rental car, I always drop into the nearest Wal-Mart and buy a $7.99 folding chair, which is always available in at least two equally hideous fluorescent colors.  As anyone knows who has spent any time hiking, a comfortable place to sit becomes something to dream about after a few days of sitting on the ground.


That’s not to say that having a car should be an invitation to excess.  Despite what the purveyors of modern gear would have you think, camping life can be both simple and comfortable with very by way of equipment at all.  In many places out west, there is virtually no need for a tent, as there is little likelihood of rain, and no bugs to pester you (I elect to not think about the possibility of scorpions and the like deciding to visit during the night, but do tap out my shoes in the morning before putting them on).  At the end of a typical day without prospect of night time rain, I simply toss down a six by nine tarp, haul Big Agnes  out of the car and give the air mattress in its sleeve a couple of extra puffs of air, and voila —my boudoir is complete.  In the morning, no more is needed than to release the same dose of air, fold Big Agnes in half, and toss her back into the car.  And off I go.


There is one piece of high tech gear that I do commend to your attention, if you haven’t camped in awhile.  I tend to have little or no appetite when hiking, so I stock up only on cold foods and skip the nuisance of cleaning up cookware after making a meal.  But a camping trip with cold beer in the evening and no hot coffee in the morning would be only half a victory.


I’ve had a number of cook stoves over the years, but my hat goes off to the JetBoil® system.  When stowed, it looks like no more than a largish coffee mug.  But nested inside are a burner and its fuel canister.  Remove them and screw them together in the logical order to the bottom of the outer shell (the cook pot, of course), and you can boil 16 ounces of water in a minute.  Pour a few teaspoons full of your favorite ground coffee into a small filter basket (purchased separately) and place it in the Styrofoam cup that held the last cup of coffee you bought at a filling station.  Pour the heated water over the filter, and (once again) voila — a perfect large size cup to start the day.  Tap out the grounds from the filter and pour some water on it to rinse, and you’re done.


In truth, the JetBoil system is simply an updated version of the old Svea/Sigg combo that I bought many years ago when I first began backpacking, but without the need to carry white fuel, to keep gaskets fresh (I once cut some out of my sneakers when I discovered the factory one had dried out), clean fuel feed nipples, and so on.  As a lover of simplicity, I bless the good folks at JetBoil every morning for their wonderful design.  Helpful Hint:  Glazed donuts lose their charm overnight, but plain donuts bought in the deli section of any large supermarket seem to last indefinitely if kept in a Ziploc bag.  And they’re the best for dunking anyway. 


But the real payoff of car camping is the spontaneity that it can bring to enjoying the out of doors.  Backpacking inevitably requires a degree of planning, and tends to force you onto trails where you will have lots of company and to use campsites that may be full when you get there.  More seriously (to me, at least), it also  imposes constraints that limit you to following a preconceived game plan that includes calculating how far you can go in a day, where you can find water, how you will get picked up at the other end (or else forcing you to return to your starting point, sometimes over the same route you’ve already enjoyed once), and so on.  When cruising the outback by car, whenever a vista appeals, simply stop, throw a few necessities into a daypack, and follow your whim.  It’s a wonderful way to enjoy hiking with a degree of freedom, and in areas of remoteness, that would be impossible to enjoy any other way.


If you want to give it a try, note well the following:  The words “Public Lands” don’t necessarily mean what you would expect.  Virtually every acre of land outside of National Parks is subject to ranching leases.  Extraction rights may also have been granted to mining and/or logging concerns as well.  I assume primarily for historical reasons, access rules (customs may be a better word) relating to public lands, and particularly Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, vary widely by location.  Lands of the same status in one place can be used without permission of the rancher with leasing rights (please be a good visitor, however — leave gates as you found them — open or closed).  In other areas, you will be asked to leave if you are noticed — sometimes more vigorously than you might think appropriate.  For flavor, here’s a sign I saw in northwestern New Mexico:  It’s not worth your life to see what’s at the end of this road. 


Best to check with the local government office with authority over the areas you wish to explore (BLM, Forest Service, etc.).  You can find their numbers, among other places, in the front of DeLorme map books.

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