In a year defined by social distancing, many city-goers are trying camping for the first time – only to find out it’s a whole lot “harder and dirtier” than they expected.
“They’re amazed by the amount of bugs that they see and the variety… and how big they can get,” Rafael Lopez starts off. Lopez is the creator of – and still runs – the NYC Hiking and Backpacking Group on Facebook. As 2020 ticks on with no end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, Lopez is seeing an increase in membership for his group. About 15 or so more New Yorkers join the outdoors group daily now, and with fall finally here – that number is almost guaranteed to double.
It doesn’t surprise Lopez that city-slickers are returning to the great outdoors. Nature is, after all, the original social distancer. Instead, what surprises him is how utterly unprepared city-dwellers are. For everything about it.
“The lack of bathrooms is what scares people,” adds Lopez. “And when you do have a bathroom, it’s the surprise of how dirty they are.”
Some first-time NYC campers can’t cope
Then there are the testimonies from other group members. The hopeful outdoorsmen and women prepare with a few days of googling – some must-have gear purchasing – and then set out into the great wilderness. One such hopeful is Chelsea Janke. Her profession has her feeling quite prepared for anything. She may have been wrong.
“I’m a stage manager, which means I’m prepared for every emergency,” states the 25-year-old from Washington Heights.
Her first camping trip – to Lake George – takes place with her partner, Jason McGuire. She’s got a backpack all ready to rock: it’s stuffed to the brim with “essentials”. Included are: a book, Band-aids, water bottles, washcloths, “medicine”… and an umbrella.
The resulting bag was… enormous. Jason would insist on helping with its weight, only to become absolutely shocked by it. “Jason insisted on carrying it and it would get really heavy, and he’d be like, ‘Jesus, what did you pack?’” Janke laughs.
She found out really fast later that night, however, that she forgot something crucial. Amid all those Band-aids and books were no extra jackets, switchable layers, or anything for temperature regulation. So Jason ends up sweatpants-less their first night so she can sleep.
Others were born to be wild
The group is littered with similar instances from other would-be campers. The New Yorkers are – respectably – giving camping the ol’ college try. And some, like Natalie Compton, end up in better shape than Janke and her boyfriend.
Compton, a travel writer, has been camping before. Camping entirely on her own, however, is an entirely different story.
“I had never been in charge of the logistics,” she clarifies. “I was never the one packing the food and packing the tent.”
The 29-year-old is game to learn how, too. Her profession is a perfect fit for a few camping adventures. After a lot of trial and error, including leaving her tent open overnight and waking up feeling “like a tea bag, dipped in a cup of tea”, she’s got the basics nailed down.
Firstly: zip up your tent. Always.
Secondly: bring a sleeping pad. “It felt like I woke up and was hit by a bus,” she says of her experiences without one.
Thirdly: If you bring a portable charger for emergencies, be sure to charge it at home first.
Since rediscovering camping, Compton says her life has completely changed. As a result, she’s done overnights in the wilds of Connecticut, the Catskills, and a few famed spots in the Virginia outdoors. Being able to chronicle her adventures for the Washington Post, too, has been a huge bonus for her.
The biggest bonus of all, though? Peering up at a night sky full of brilliant stars. It was, as the camper says, “one of the most breathtaking moments of my life.”