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Fifty Nights in a Tent: The Realities of Long Term Camping

Tonight will mark the 50th consecutive night I have slept in a tent and I felt I should write something to commemorate spending fifty nights on a cheap air mattress. There are many wonderful aspects of long term camping, from breaking away from all semblance of routine to reconnecting with our natural world, but to be honest I have to talk about the less than glamorous side of things, if only because the heavily curated world of social media, Instagram in particular, would lead one to believe that it is possible to hike a mountain in a ball gown. So without further ado, here’s my highly uncurated list of the things I have learned from fifty nights on the road in the Australian outback.

Cheap air mattresses are the devil, spend money on a good one or your back will pay.

We went through the purchase and prepare stage of our road trip very quickly because I had personal things to attend to in the US. We were pushing to get off as soon as possible to beat the winter weather northward and because of this we did not research our small item purchases very well. We assumed that any cheap air mattress would do. This is not the case. When your tent is your house your air mattress is very important; if it leaks throughout the night you will wake up with a sore back and a grumpy boyfriend who has been sleeping on the ground since 2 am. Also, check the pump situation. Our brand of crappy air mattress, Wanderer’s Queen Single High, only works with the crappy Wanderer air mattress pump that eats D batteries like an unsupervised kid in a candy store and is built with all of the sturdiness of a paper airplane. It gave out on us after only two weeks on the road. However, the camping gods that be decided to throw us a bone and we found a discarded hand pump in Exmouth. Our little bit of found genius is a solidly built hard plastic contraption that keeps Kane off the ground at night, reduces our consumption of batteries, and gives us a daily workout. Moral of the story, a good mattress is worth whatever you need to pay to get a decent night’s sleep.

Everything gets dirty and will never be the same again.

You know that favorite white crop top that dresses up any skirt? Ya, don’t bring it, or anything white for that matter. Everything gets dirty when you live outside 24/7 and especially so when you are long term camping in the Australian outback with its tenacious red dirt. No matter how many times we do washing in caravan parks there are certain stains that will be with us for the rest of the trip. We actually bought Kane new socks because I had to put down a pair of his after Karijini, wearing them was making his feet dirtier than going sock-less. Our sheets are another impressive example of our slight vagabondery. They started out this trip as Kane’s mom’s oldest pair and have only deteriorated since then. I spent hours hand stitching arm sized holes in them just to see new holes rip the next night. They were once white, but are now more of a spotted pattern with patches of dirt/sweat stains interspersed with my poor repairs. We probably should replace them, but anything new will just end up destroyed and a new sheet is $12. I’d rather spend that $12 on wine. Camping logic at it’s finest.

Privacy becomes a valuable commodity.

Everyone loves walls so thin they let most light and all sound through, ya? Not so much, but this is a fact of life in a tent. While I do love being serenaded to sleep by the crashing of waves, I’m not as big of a fan of everyone in the caravan park knowing exactly what goes on in our tent. Free camping in remote locations is far better for getting some privacy than the crowds of caravan parks, but everyone has to do laundry eventually so caravan parks are a fact of long term camping life as well. And a hot shower is worth a little loss of privacy sometimes.

Hot showers are heaven, but you learn that dirt don’t hurt.

While I absolutely love the first hot shower after a couple of nights bush camping, long term camping is very good at teaching you to be a little less high maintenance. There is no temperature control in a tent so when it gets hot so do you and people sweat. They also start to smell like dead fish when the activity of the day is fishing. Add sunscreen, salt water, and dirt to the mix and you’ve got the highly sought after perfume of nature. Ah the smell of fish guts in the morning. But seriously, anyone who posts a picture of their perfectly straightened hair and fully made up face popping out of a tent in the morning is lying. Or camping in their backyard. A more realistic picture would be of me stumbling out of the tent, greasy hair sticking up in all directions, face graced by strategically place dirt smears…or is that last night’s dinner?

Your tan will rival long time farmers.

Back home in California I would go to the beach to lie out in a bikini, soaking up all the wonderfully tame solar rays. Down here in the outback there is an ozone hole that fries eggs on the sidewalk in the dead of winter. (It is currently 34 degrees Celsius in the dead of winter and touching anything metal on the car leaves you branded.) The sun is of a different power in Australia and due to this I do not walk around in a bikini. I wear 50+ SPF sunscreen that we buy by the liter, a rash guard while swimming on reefs, and a big floppy hat that has become one with my head. Yet despite these precautions any skin that is exposed to this voracious solar power tans impressively. Thus the farmer’s tan. Most people don’t live their daily lives in skimpy swimwear and when your daily life is all outside your skin tans to the shape of your clothing. You should see my shorts tan line, I look like I should be an excellent sheep shearer.

You will fall in love with nature.

Most of us live our lives very out of touch with the natural environment. We sleep indoors, work indoors, and commute between the two in a car with air conditioning and a heater. If the weather gets bad we simply retreat inside, turn on the TV, and live in little worlds of our own making. That is impossible camping. When you live in a tent you are at the whims of nature. Gale force winds in the morning mean you don’t make toast, because the tiny camp stove can’t handle the wind. A scorching hot midday means you take refuge under a tree and embrace the ways of the kangaroos, lazing about until the heat dissipates.

Nature is an ever changing, often fickle mistress, but once you learn how to handle her moods, you will fall in love all over again with her beauty. She will sing you to sleep with the gentle lapping of ocean waves against rocks of iron ore. She will awe you with the acrobatics of massive humpback whales and curious dolphins. She will teach you that her creatures are to be respected, not feared. My time camping in the Australian outback has given me such an appreciation for the beauty of the world we live in and for the beauty of this wild country. I have always been a nature nerd, an animal lover, and this trip solidifies that. Yes, my back sometimes hurts from our crappy air mattress, and yes, I would love to eat my dinner without the onslaught of bugs that grace any true Australian evening, but I would do it all a thousand times over. I’ve gone bush and I like it. If I don’t come back, you’ll know where to find me. Maybe I’ll start raising joeys rescued from roadkill kangaroos, live on a ranch among the spinifex, and spend my days writing while the young kangaroos bounce around between my legs. (Seriously though, Kane had a patient who did this, she is my hero.)


4 thoughts on “Fifty Nights in a Tent: The Realities of Long Term Camping

  1. We are currently on day 96. Still have day one sheets that came off our bed and cost a little more than $26, and still going strong. Of course, they are black. The white sheet that we had been using for the kid’s bed was tossed some time ago, though, because of the countless stains that turned up on it from general camping. Second set of cheap air mattresses, still cheap, though. We learned that inflating them properly makes a huge difference on their ability to retain air. Bathing is a must, and not really a hard thing to take care of on a regular basis. While at a park, we’ll take regular advantage of the endless hot water. When without, there are answers, though. A solar shower does well if you have sunlight. If you’re camping in the Pacific Northwest like we are, you might have some difficulties with that. Thankfully, there are other options such as portable propane water heaters, or, at the very least, a few baby wipes. Hygiene doesn’t have to suffer, even in the bush.

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