10 Things I Learned While Tent Camping

Across the United States

Article by Stephanie Snow

Photography by Stephanie Snow and Michael Rogers

If traveling were an occupation, my husband and I would be professionals. We met more than twenty years ago and have made it a point to travel the world, experiencing the most that we can while living on an educator's salary.

In 2015 we had the time and opportunity to make a drastic life change and decided to take a year and travel the United States. One year led into two and then into three. For our first few road trips we stayed in hotels, mastered monthly rentals and stayed with family or friends when possible. In year three we wanted to find a way to travel from our base in Florida to Alaska and back, camping as much as possible. We spent months looking at RV's and motor homes but in the end, our budget and desire made us decide to try to tent camp as much as possible.

We set a few ground rules like we would splurge on a hotel room at least once a week. This would give us the opportunity to do laundry and take a great shower (although I soon realized most campgrounds had laundry facilities and decent, although timed, showers). We also decided that if the weather forecast looked like it was going to storm or be really cold, we would find a room.

With a general direction in mind we loaded up our truck and spent the next nine months on the road. Although everyone's specific "must have" list will be different, ours included a tent, a bug screen, a blow up queen mattress, two foam camping sleep pads, two sleeping bags, two regular size pillows (because camping pillows weren't very comfortable), bedsheets, a lantern for the tent at night, two flashlights, a battery operated air mattress inflator, a great cooler, two camping chairs, a Coleman  cooktop, dishes, pots and pans, a Jetboil (because coffee is a necessity), spices for cooking and a few recipes, towels and a very limited amount of clothes (we bought more clothes on the road as needed).

So what did I learn from months of sleeping in a tent?

  1. The terminology for a three season tent which is made suitable for Spring, Summer and Fall, only applies if you camp in the south. We left Florida in April and in late May, while in Sequoia National Park, it was snowing on us.
  2. However many people a tent is rated to sleep, divide it in half. Our first tent was a four person dome tent and our queen air mattress completely filled it up. Our upgraded tent (shown above) is a six person tent, which gives us enough room to move around a little with our air mattress in it.
  3. Find a tent that the tallest person in your group can stand up in. My husband is 6'1" and I'm 5'8" so after spending months hunched over, crawling in and out of a 4 foot dome tent, we were tired of it. Trying to change clothes in a short tent several times a day is more of a challenge than it needs to be.
  4. If you're planning on sleeping in a variety of temperatures, find a tent that you can zip up all the window screens completely, to keep the warm air inside.
  5. Buy a tarp or something to cover the tent for the times you need it. When might that be? When the forecast calls for rain or as you travel north in the summer and the nights stay light. By the time we were in Canada in July, it was still dusky at 2 a.m.
  6. Know when you can spontaneously roll up to a campground and hope to get a site and know when you might have problems. One big lesson we learned is that your best bet to get a campsite in the popular National Parks is to book a reservation months ahead of time! If you know where you actually want to camp, plan it as far ahead as possible.
  7. Talk to other campers. We met some fantastic people while camping. We shared firewood, drinks, stories, and travel tips with others we met along the way. After spending months in the car and tent with someone you love, it's always good to be able to talk to others.

8. Bring your own entertainment. This might sound obvious but I was surprised at how many campsites, including National Parks, don't have wifi service. Fortunately we both enjoy reading books, so always having something to read and our battery operated lantern, was our nightly entertainment. We also brought our bikes along with us. This was our exercise and passion as we traveled across the country. Some people bring games, cards, guitars, or any craft, but fully expect that there might be days when your cell phone actually doesn't get a signal.

9. You'll get some good night's sleep and some bad ones. Our air mattress, sleeping bags and blankets are all good. But on any given night a lot of things can happen. Every time you or your partner get up, you both wake up. Your bed may start deflating in the middle of the night. Sometimes the people around you may keep you up. Sometimes you'll wake swearing that a rogue animal is about to attack the tent (it's usually a squirrel or bunny, not a bear or bobcat). And sometimes, you'll actually sleep seven hours and wake up feeling great.

10. Lastly, the most important thing I learned from sleeping in a tent, is that it is amazing. Falling asleep and waking up breathing fresh air is invigorating. Stargazing after everyone has gone to bed makes me feel like I'm a small part of this universe. All the comforts of home, my possessions, the clothes I don't wear, the junk in the closet that I haven't thrown out, don't mean anything out here. Sleeping under the stars has given me memories and experiences that I'll remember forever. Remembering it now, it makes me long to plan our next trip....where will your trip take you?

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