By Joshua Simmers
I’ve never considered myself adventurous; like many people in aviation, I just want as much as I can get from my limited trips around the sun. Like all of us, I have my nuanced interests: I’ve always enjoyed sleeping in a tent and as I grew into adulthood, I started camping out of my kayak. It was natural to transfer this habit into my flying hobby. The compact and lightweight approach to my kayaking stuff and my wife’s hiking stuff transferred easily to the baggage compartment, making us the most flexible travelers you’ll ever meet. This article is intended to show you the fun and ease of it with relatively low investment. If you’re already in aviation, I hope by the end of this article you wonder why this would sound novel…
Besides the flexibility to land anywhere, anytime, and having the means to stop for the day, the best part of carrying the camping gear is finding a quiet place to rest. If you travel by car or shuttle, you end up at a fun hotel downtown, with lights, streets, and the accompanying restaurants. But when you land at a remote strip, chances are few people know about the destination and there isn’t a road commonly used to get to it (and food always tastes better when you’re camping anyway.) My favorite is Ryan Airfield (2MT1) near West Glacier, MT. The only noise you’ll hear is maybe another plane, which only draws everyone out to gawk and enjoy.
The second reason these places are quiet is also the second reason why I love flying and camping: the people. Every visit and every campfire has been with truly wonderful folks – and of all ages – adventuring and taking it all in. My parents, whose ages I won’t disclose, started doing this about five years ago (see tip No. 1: get a good air mattress.) Perhaps at your typical campground, people come in after dark bringing stereos, ATVs, and loud late fun. Aviators are not arriving at remote strips after dark and won’t exchange late night rowdiness for smooth morning flying.
Practical Gear Tips:
Your best investment is your air mattress. Find a lightweight model that is easy to blow up. There are some that deflate to a size smaller than a pop-can, and some larger than a shoe box. The little ones are insufficient for me and the big ones seem a waste of space with nothing gained over a quality hiker’s air mattress. Look for one that inflates to about 2-3 inches. We had double-mattresses and found out the singles work best. I like ALPS Mountaineering’s double insulated air mattresses. They’re shaped like a U to keep you centered and save on weight, as the bag acts as the inflation pump.
You’ve noted I prefer the insulated air mattress. Warmth is essential. If it is cool, you can lose a lot of heat to the ground; when it is warm, this mattress is still great. Similarly, as you’ll eventually find yourself in fun and remote destinations by water or mountains, layers are essential. I not only have numerous layers (including a lightweight rain jacket) for dressing, I also have a layered sleeping bag so I can use just the right amount of insulation.
Bring a light, soft, fleece stocking cap. If it is cold at night, it really helps you hold your warmth and aid sleep.
Nothing takes the chill off and starts a perfect day like a cup of coffee. One must always choose their luxuries, and I wouldn’t blame you for making allowance for a small coffee grinder and French press. For those who know what good coffee I savor, please ignore the fact that I use Starbucks instant single serve powdered coffee packets when camping. Either way, a portable stove is essential.
We carry “a kitchen.” It’s a soft sided square bag with a zipper lid, holding the aforementioned stove, an aluminum pot and pan, a knife, a bottle/wine/can opener, reusable plastic plates and bowls to feed six, a tiny bottle of soap with a scrubby, and a single dish towel. My tin coffee cup works for a libation, as well as coffee.
I fly a low wing aircraft. We prefer folding chairs that sit low, so we sit under the shade of the wing. So far, we still have space and weight for two of these chairs (sorry to the kids – they can sit on a log.).
In a group our size, where we have two adults and children in different phases, we’ve also decided to carry multiple lightweight tents, instead of one large enough for the family. This offers us great long-term versatility, in addition to splitting up the family according to needs and bedtimes.
As far as pillows go, we make the kids deal with their little play pillows. They sit with them for comfort and napping during flight. I found an inflatable pillow that I really like by Nemo. I couldn’t ever find a travel pillow that sat right and now I can just inflate this one to my preference, although it took me a couple purchases to get it right.
We sprung for an Otterbox cooler. It doubles as a backpack and is airtight as well as watertight, so it won’t leak in the aircraft. It competes with the infamous soft-sided Yeti in all categories, has twice the interior capacity, and is the only one in that market made in the USA. It perfectly fits the mission.
I can’t find a solar charger that’s worth its price. But I don’t go camping to use electronics. An increasing number of remote strips offer power and if I charge my phone and iPad in flight, I ration my usage and don’t bother with a secondary battery.
While a fluffy towel and robe are great for hotels, I make do with a lightweight hand-towel and hope for enough privacy to finish air drying. The more you camp lightweight, the better you will note what you can do without. As a woman at a fly-in recently broadcasted from her shirt: “Tell me what you need and I’ll tell you how to get along without it.” The only non-negotiables in this hobby are avgas and lift.
A first aid/survival kit is something I won’t fly without. Dr. Justin Reisenauer gave a great presentation on this at the gathering formerly known as The Upper Midwest Aviation Symposium. Bandages, first aid tape, antiseptic, tweezers, salve, sunblock, water tablets, Benadryl, Imodium, duct tape, and a signal mirror are a start and should always be accessible in or while exiting the aircraft.
My headlamp is great. Also bring a knife and matches, ideally water resistant, in a dry container.
If you have a large aircraft or even just a NAvion without kids in the back seat, I recommend the Ooni portable pizza oven. I’ll stop discussion on this here rather than focusing on food for the entire remainder of the article.
Find one quality pair of hiking boots and maximize their use. Vasque makes an affordable waterproof ultra-comfy boot that is narrow for pedal control. Quality wool socks are underestimated and a great asset. I like to couple this with a lightweight pair of sandals to get out of my hiking shoes or to the shower.
I love my hammock.
Other Practical Tips:
It doesn’t always work. While I haven’t gotten caught in the rain with soaking gear to pack in my baggage compartment, it’s only a matter of time. A while ago a buddy and I ended up camping behind a tree to avoid the lights of the airport facilities. We tired of listening to the adjacent highway and opted to fly to a new destination the next night only to hear a nearby carnival and street dance. Lessons learned:
– No. 1: If not at a remote strip, consider proximity to highways and railroads
– No. 2: Sometimes, it just won’t be the best experience
– No. 3: I think sleeping with ear plugs in is no problem. Like I always tell my kids, the risk of trying something new is that it won’t work. The adventure is not knowing!
Sometimes the greatest surprises await like the time we got to swim in crystal clear springs in the Nevada Desert.
The best resource ever is The Recreational Aviation Foundation. Their website is second to none, with information about as complete as you can get, and is available to the public with the offer for you to donate. They offer a map online to help you find the right destinations and rely on local, grassroots efforts and strips. Second to that, many state airport directories let you know which airports allow camping. Check out Minnesota’s directory. Finally, you can always snoop and ask.
Since we are two adults and three kids in a NAvion, we look for destinations with water. We have the purification tablets to use fresh water, but most resources will let you know if there is potable water. We can make it a day with water in our useful load but basically have chosen to limit our camping to places with potable water.
Bring tea bags. They’re light and take almost no space. If you need a warm-up before bed or after a cool spell, you can get something delicious, warm, and caffeine free. TAZO makes a Glazed Lemon Loaf tea that tastes just like its name. How’d they figure out a sugar free calorie free dessert that warms me up?
In the morning, don’t be in a rush. While pilots love the morning air, the sunrise at any airport is about my favorite thing. Let the dew dry from your tent before packing it away, to save airing it out later, and enjoy that cup of coffee.
While I could fill every Quarterly with cooking ideas and tips, you can easily find easy hiking meals at the outdoors store or google ideas. Everything tastes better when camping. Rely on oatmeal, noodles, fresh peppers, and dried items you like to make simple dishes and don’t cook too close to your aircraft. Avoid leftovers, as it’s better to have a little less than you need and be content or eat some nuts or a power bar. Cheese is the easiest ingredient that can survive with little to no refrigeration and can add a lot of flavor and satisfaction to the meal or charcuterie board.
For those new to rugged camping in general, I offer some universal laws to those of us familiar with backcountry camping:
–“Pack it in, pack it out.” I don’t even bring disposable plates, as it is not kosher to burn your garbage in these places. Think about what you’re bringing and how you will transport your used and empty packaging back out. I am not a big fan of wet wipes when camping with water on hand and the responsibility to pack out garbage.
–If bears are not in the area, other rodents are. Keep your food out of your tent and sealed and secured. We put ours back in the baggage compartment every night if the destination doesn’t have designated boxes for food storage. (Bear spray and other pressurized contents are not a significant issue at the altitudes we fly.)
–Airports have toilets, so I’ve never worried about where to dig a hole.
–Bring eco-friendly soap and if there is no designated space for dishes, clean your dishes and hands away from open water, water sources, and camping/sleeping areas.
–If there is no campfire ring, then there is no campfire.
Your plane will work for this; AirVenture is a testament to this. I have seen Cirrus’ and Pilatus’ and Husky’s and all sorts of things on grass strips. Your aircraft doesn’t determine whether you can fly and camp, it only determines where.
If you venture into mountain strips, fly your experience level. Start with simple places. Sparky Imeson’s Mountain Flying Bible is a great introductory resource. Instruction cannot be overvalued.
If camping isn’t your thing, Seely Lake (23S) offers lodges that look pretty sweet. If tenting isn’t your thing, Ryan Airfield offers no-frill cabins for donors only. Cavanaugh Bay (66S) and other places have resorts at the end of the fields. But I still love the feel of waking up next to my plane; it reminds me of waking up next to my dog.
There are great destinations closer than you’d think. We have flown and hiked to camp at Garrison Dam Recreational Airpark (37N) and the International Peace Garden (S28). Kulm (D03) is the happiest airport in North Dakota and on my list for camping.
I reiterate The RAF.org to find the best places. Ryan Airfield is their flagship, but they also tipped me off to West Yellowstone (KWYS) which offers a campground and bikes for pilots at no charge. Bozeman (BZN) even offers showers! The list is endless.
Cavanaugh Bay (66S) is the only place I’ve been that potentially surpasses Ryan Airfield. The strip is as smooth as a dream and you can swim if you can bear the water temperature. Make sure you refuel at Boundary County (65S ) - they have ice cream.
Speaking of ice cream, Ephraim/Gibraltar (aka Door County, WI, 3D2) has a shuttle car to ice cream and just put in campfire rings. Just north of them is Washington Island (2P2), which is gorgeous to fly into and quiet as can be.
If the resources I mentioned are lacking, ask. Last summer, we held the Midwest NAvioneer convention at Poplar Grove (C77), a user-friendly privately-owned airport in Illinois. Lacking information, I asked and received permission to camp and woke up next to, not one, but a row of iconic NAvions gleaming in the morning sun! (There have been other times when I admit, I have not asked…) There are also several private strips around; there’s nothing wrong with asking the owner for permission. I find I meet good people wherever I go.
Let’s face it: you love flying, and you love aircraft, waking up under your wing is about the best way to start your day. See you out there!