Flash back to spring of 1985. Me and my dad went on a church father-son camping trip to Lake Tenkiller. We got to the campsite and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Showers. Concrete pads for RVs. Electrical hookups.
I was mortified. This wasn’t camping!
Or at least it wasn’t in my own experience. I grew up in Colorado, where a campsite with an outhouse was considered first-rate. Most of the stuff I’d done to that point was driving to a clear patch and pitching a tent. No amenities, except for the fact that you could drive up to the spot where you wanted to camp. Most of the camping I’ve done since then has been even less “user friendly.”
As the years have gone by, I’ve pushed myself to find more remote, more primitive sites to camp. But I totally understand the need for campsites that have a few more perks. So how do you choose a campsite?
It depends on a couple of key factors. So ask yourself two questions: First: What type of outdoor experience do you want? Second: What kind of outdoor experience can you handle? Answers to these questions will determine if you want to camp at a primitive campsite or an improved campsite.
I can’t say what the official definition of these terms is, but here’s how I’d define them: Primitive sites offer no amenities outside of a flat place to pitch a tent and maybe a fire ring. Improved sites may have outhouses, electrical outlets, barbecue grills, showers and toilets. So the easiest way for me to tackle this is to lay out the kind of camping experience you’re looking at, what you can expect and what you’ll be lacking.
— The family lake outing. Fishing, water skiing, boating, etc. This all revolves around being at a lake (most likely man-made). The focus is on the boat. So you’ll need to go to a place that has a ramp, a place to park your rig and enough room to set up camp. Some kids might be up for “roughing it,” but some may not. A large family tent or a camper would be desired, and maybe a campsite that would allow you to clean up at the end of the day, use the restroom and hook up a TV and DVD player. This is more about the activities and family togetherness than it is about nature. Make sure you’re at a lake with improved campsites. You’ll find these places at state parks and lakes.
— Weekend hunting/fishing trip with your buddies. It’s dudes here (and maybe a few hardy ladies), so the niceties needed for kids don’t apply. Provided you’re not staying at a lodge or a family cabin, this experience is about the hunt, the fellowship and, to varying degrees, being outside. You could go either way here. But many of the hunting seasons are in cold weather environments, and popular hunting/fishing grounds are either day trips where you don’t need to camp or in remote areas without access to nicer camp facilities. Be prepared to go primitive (though I know many hunters haul in as much gear as their ATVs or SUVs can hold, making even a bare patch of ground more luxurious than some of the better lakeside campsites. Yeah, you know who I’m talking about). Such campsites are found anywhere there’s game or decent fishing.
— Camping with friends. This usually falls in the category of car camping. What’s car camping? Camping at a place where your campsite is right next to the place where you park your rig. You could go either way here. It all depends on how comfortable your friends are with things like, oh, digging a cathole to do No. 2. If they’re all about enjoying nature, long talks around the campfire and are totally OK without a man-made latrine, options are limitless. If you’re with a group that needs to charge their electronics, shower every day and blast “Freebird” over a beer or five, you might need something more established — if for no other reason, to steer clear of the folks who want to hear natural, not man-made, noises. In any case, this is about fellowship with friends. The type of friends you camp with will determine where you camp. A good option: the Illinois River near Tahlequah.
— Backpacking. It’s a rare breed of folks who truly enjoy backpacking and all of the hardships that come with it. Bushwhacking for days at a time, camping miles and miles away from civilization, possibly not seeing other people at all for days at a time. Needless to say, there aren’t improved campsites where these folks go. Backpacking is, in my opinion, the purest, best way to experience nature. But it’s not for everyone. Hauling around everything you need to survive and living in the bush ain’t easy, and it’s not something you should do without proper preparation, fitness and knowledge. Unlike the other camp experiences listed here, backpacking involves risk (Note to backpackers: Refrain from looking down on people who can’t/won’t do what you do. It’s annoying.). Backpacking usually means wilderness or something close to it. Check out the Kiamichis or Charon’s Garden in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
At some point, I’ll write more about backpacking and primitive camping. Until then, explore and enjoy, folks!