Camping Karma

Dear Helena,

Last year my husband and I went camping with some friends, and it was kind of rough. We brought good-quality sausages and romaine lettuce and good beer. Their contribution was to go to Costco and stock up on a bunch of junk food and Bud Light in cans. They stayed up really late, getting loudly drunk, and in the morning the entire campsite was trashed with empties filled with cigarette butts, which I proceeded to clean up. My husband felt like I was uptight when I stated unequivocally that I didn’t want to camp with them ever again. But I feel there’s a polite and impolite way to camp with others, and they crossed some lines. What do you think? —Forest Floored

Dear Forest Floored,

When you’re camping, you’re essentially sharing living space with others. So many of the issues that arise are the same as those that crop up in roommate situations, such as noise, food, and cleaning. However, the strategies for dealing with them are a little different.

Shop for groceries together. I once went camping with a friend where we agreed we’d “just buy a bunch of stuff on our own and share it.” He and his girlfriend gobbled up an artisanal loaf of bread I’d brought. When I mentioned it, he assured me that he had a loaf of premade, frozen garlic bread I could eat. I wasn’t too pleased. A good way to minimize potential conflict is to go grocery shopping together beforehand. There will inevitably have to be some compromises (for instance, maybe it’s important to you to have better beer than Tecate, so you agree to pay for your own stash separately), but at least you’ll get this hashed out before you’re stuck in the woods. (Note: Cans of beer are indeed better than bottles, as they’re lighter and the empties are crushable. And—good news for beer snobs—plenty of craft beers now come in cans.)

Keep the campsite clean. Common areas should be kept tidy. Don’t forget to bring trash bags. I like to bring a tablecloth for the picnic table to catch spills and keep ants from gathering; it can be folded up between meals. When you decamp, leave the site cleaner than when you found it. At all costs, do not leave bottles in the fire pit. According to Ranger D. Stephen of Portola Redwoods State Park in California, “They can heat up and explode.”

Secure food from animals. Obviously it would be poor manners to leave food out in the open where animals can get it. But raccoons, bears, and the occasional rodent you may encounter while camping can be very smart. According to Stephen, the wooden storage boxes often provided by campsites have been broken into and should not be depended upon. Nor should most cheap coolers. Some friends of mine once had a raccoon open an unlocked cooler and eat every single one of the items inside, including an entire bunch of grapes. Food is safe from most animals in bear containers, hung from trees, in locking coolers, or in the trunk of your car.

Play folk not rock. People often have very different ideas about music, especially when camping. Some love to have their tunes playing at all times, while others feel recorded music ruins the camping experience. You can ask your friends ahead of time if they mind if you bring an iPod, but most people will politely say they don’t mind even if they do. In my opinion, it’s better to avoid the issue altogether and leave the speakers behind. An acoustic guitar, passed around the campfire for late-night Neil Young sing-alongs, seems less controversial and more fitting somehow.

Provide a surprise. Tammie Dooley, a freelance travel writer in Oklahoma, says her special camping nightcap is Swiss Miss Dark Chocolate Sensation cocoa mix with butterscotch schnapps. My own specialty is bacon toast. You drench a slice of bread with leftover bacon fat and grill it. This might sound gross, but if you have a slight hangover from drinking too many beers around the campfire, it’s the perfect remedy. Also, you might want to think about leaving a small token for strangers, in the interests of camping karma. There’s nothing better than arriving at a campsite and finding that the last inhabitants have left you a stack of firewood.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.