Happy Camper Photo by: Claire Bilderback

Happy Camper

This summer, pack up your dump dinner, grab your mess kit and head for the hills.

By Leslie Bilderback 06/01/2011

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I love sleeping under the stars and the smell of a campfire on a quiet wilderness morning. I also love stupid campfire skits and the thrill of walking alone through the woods to the latrine in the middle of the night. (It’s better than any haunted house.)  
I don’t really understand non-campers. I knew a woman who camped with a generator so she could power her make-up mirror and hot rollers. People, the campsite is not an extension of your suburban home! John Muir rolls over in his grave every time someone plugs a TV into the car’s cigarette lighter.  
As far as I’m concerned, trailers, campers and RV’s are for wimps. I can set up a tent in nine minutes and 23 seconds, which is, I think, one of the qualities that first attracted my husband. Come to think of it, camping played a vital role in our courtship. I seduced him with my Sacajawean skills, and he has never left. Once I wanted to climb Mount Lassen, and though he really should have stayed home to study for the bar exam, he brought his books and studied at the campsite while I hit the summit. He celebrated our marriage by taking his buddies camping for his bachelor party. (I’m not sure how the strippers felt about that.) A few years later I announced our impending parenthood on a trip to Crystal Lake. Of course, the kids became campers too. (Possibly against their will.)
Camping is a great place for learning. My girls learned that fire is hot, and so is the propane lantern. They learned to shoot a bow and arrow, huck a tomahawk and bait a fishhook.  They learned the proper way to suck the venom out of a snake bite: (Pocket knife: $9.99; the look on their faces as you explain how to slice an “X” into your own skin to access venom: priceless.) They learned that leaves can be nature’s toilet paper --- as long as they are not reddish and grouped in threes.  
Camping is a time for discovery. We discovered that water poured from your canteen on each side of the Continental Divide will evaporate before it can flow into either ocean. We discovered that the majesty of the Grand Canyon cannot compete with giant fossilized worm poop. We discovered that if mommy doesn’t drink water on the hike, she gets very, very grumpy, and you should probably quit bugging her, especially about how she should probably drink some water.  We discovered that the concept of petrified wood is difficult for a 7-year-old to grasp. (“How can it be a log? I can see that it’s a rock. I am not stupid.”)  
Camping has also been a time of loss. We’ve said goodbye to flip-flops in rivers, teeth in grassy fields, various poorly secured items from the top of the car and my husband’s wedding ring, which sits somewhere at the bottom of the Colorado River, waiting to become “precious” to some Anasazi version of Gollum.
Camping is better than any zoo for animal encounters. We once woke up to a campground full of elk. If you want your family to get up quick, tell them there is a herd of elk moving toward breakfast. The threat of a mauling can also get people moving.  At Sequoia we saw an idiot get way too close to a bear, hunkering down low and snapping lots of pictures, which I can only imagine looked to the bear like an annoying and easy-to-capture snack. As the bear charged him, my only thought was how I could possibly turn his blood-soaked death into a learning experience for the six kids we had in tow. Luckily, that dude was quick.  
In nature, surprisingly small animals can also set people in motion. I have seen grown men run screaming like little girls at the appearance of a larger-than-normal insect. (It was not, as they claimed, the size of a small flying dog.) And then there are the meat bees that chased after our bacon until we gave in and ate breakfast in the car.
Hiking is a key element of camping. For a successful hike, bring plenty of water and some tasty trail mix for energy. Pack a lunch to enjoy at your destination, and don’t forget to leave a snack and a drink back at camp for recovery. If you plan it right, you can actually gain weight on your hike.    
Yes, food is the essential ingredient of a happy campout.  Luckily, the best camp food is idiot-proof. You’ve got to be a real nimrod to mess up wieners on a stick. Many campers are partial to the Dutch oven, while others favor “dump” recipes, in which various fresh, canned and boxed foods are opened and dumped into the pot for recipes like stew, chili, soup and even dessert. (Cake mix + 7Up + fruit cocktail = food of the gods.)  Lots of camp recipes involve cooking something in something else: omelette in a bag, meat loaf in an onion, chocolate in a banana and just about anything in foil (a.k.a. Hobo Packs. Why the term “hobo” has become so endearing is a mystery, although I guess no one would be tempted by a dish called “itinerant packs.”).
Some camp cooks go all out, with fancy stoves, special outdoor cookware and elaborate recipes to gourmet up their outdoor experience. But for me, camping is about roughing it. If you’re eating coq au vin out of a mess kit, you’re missing the point. I want food that will not be spoiled but, rather, enhanced by camp dirt, soot and the occasional bug. Camp cooking should be easy and quick so we can clean up fast and get straight to the ghost stories.

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and  cookbook author. A South Pasadena resident, she teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

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