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Tent economics

Back in the old days, way before we owned an Airstream or produced a child, Eleanor and I were backpackers and frequent tent travelers. We had a well-honed system for cheap national travel. We’d find a discount air fare to some place with good weather, and fly there with a giant six-foot duffel bag stuffed with camping equipment. The black duffel bag always looked like we were transporting a dead body, but in those pre-9/11 days nobody really took much notice of it.

Once we landed, we’d rent an economy car and drive to the nearest national park for a few days of tent camping. We visited the Everglades, Big Bend, Death Valley, and Great Smokies national parks this way, plus Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We also drove to northeast destinations for tent camping, including many trips to New Hampshire, plus a few to Acadia National Park in Maine and one really memorable trip to Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland.

In recent times I’ve pulled the tent out of storage and used it, on average, once a year. Last year I used it three times: to attend the Region 1 Rally in Bondville VT, on the way back from the International Rally in Perry GA, and once here in Vermont on the lawn. Each time I set up the tent I’m filled with nostalgia for all those great trips we took in the 1990s. I love the gear that goes with tenting like sleeping bags and camp stoves; the gas lantern hissing and the sounds of the nighttime forest; even the smells of slightly musty tent, burned-out campfire, and leftover bug spray.

When we travel in the Airstream we travel luxuriously by any standard. We sleep on comfortable beds, cook in a full kitchen, shower in hot water, and have everything with us that we ever need. With all those luxuries it’s a novelty to get back to the basics — a novelty I know a lot of RV’ers never want to experience again. But I do.

What a paradox it is that when we have very little we want more, and when we have it all we seek the simplicity of having less. In our 30-foot home we have parked in every conceivable environment in North America (desert, rain forest, beach, tall mountains, low valleys, urban parking lots, rural fields, etc), and usually the aluminum walls keep us appropriately insulated from the environment in a way designed to ensure our comfort. Yet there are times when I want to hear the rustle of trees whispering in a light summer breeze at night, and when I want nothing more than a few microns of coated nylon taffeta and a screen between me and the morning dew.

Last year we traveled around the mid-section of Arizona, and I was struck by the beauty of the national forests in the higher altitudes around there. It was then that I started to think about keeping a minimal set of tent camping gear in the Airstream, so that on occasion we could hike off into the woods and spend a night or two far from any campground.

The spike in fuel prices lately has given me cause to get more serious about that mission. We are revising our travel plans, as are many other people. This fall we plan to take a few weekend trips with tents only, in the little Honda, and save the Airstream for the longer trips. This should allow us to travel as much as we want around the southwest, while cutting our fuel expense.

I also have some plans to tent camp around the northeast while we are parked at home base. I’d like to revisit some of the places Eleanor and I traveled ten or fifteen years ago. But we have faced two practical problems. First, our storage space in the Airstream is completely taken up with other things, and second, neither of the two tents we own are large enough for a family of three. So I’ve been shopping for a family tent that isn’t enormous when packed, and I’ve been reconsidering some of the things I carry around in our storage compartments.

There are some things that are sacred in any RV. In our case, Eleanor’s kitchen is untouchable, as is my office (not that it takes up much space), my ukulele, and our snorkel gear. Still, that leaves a considerable number of bulky things that might get jettisoned, including various spare parts, boxes of magazines, and extra clothing that never seems to get worn. If I repack the side storage compartment I think I can scrape up just enough space for a tent, sleeping bags, and a couple of toys like the camp stove.

So on Sunday I took a trip over the local outdoor sporting goods store, and got a good case of sticker shock. At today’s prices, the camping gear we left in our storage unit (“house”) in Tucson is worth nearly as much as the house. I may have to go back and move it to a bank vault for safekeeping. The short list of equipment I had in mind added up to nearly $1,000 at this specialty store. True, this stuff is of higher quality than the Wal-Mart variety, and if my other gear is any guide, it will last for many years with proper care, but still I had to go home for an iced tea and a good think before proceeding.

When in doubt, head to the Internet for extra info. I dug up my ancient REI member card, checked online at REI-OUTLET.COM and found a good tent on clearance. It’s the same quality as the high-priced stuff but “last year’s model,” and reasonably priced at $99 after all the discounts piled upon discounts. Plus it will fit easily in the side compartment, just behind the water heater.

I also ordered a few other things, such as a pair of Therma-a-rest sleeping pads for Eleanor and I. The rest of the camping gear will come from our storage unit in Arizona, and in the meantime we can cobble enough together from family to go on a car camping trip here in the northeast.

Some people see having a tent as a contradiction to the mission of the Airstream, but I see it as an extension of the mission. To me, having tenting gear in the Airstream makes it a stronger platform for adventure. People carry kayaks, bikes, watersports gear, camera equipment, hiking boots, etc., because they want to experience the world beyond the campground. Having a tent is like carrying around a mini-sub on a cruise ship: now you can see the rest of the ocean. I can’t wait to launch it for the first time.

One Response to “Tent economics”

  1. Jill Says:

    I LOVE love love musty tent smell!