Friday, December 11, 2020

Can't Go Camping? Plan Your Next Trip!

Rathbun Lake, Iowa

I'm in a bit of a pickle right now. I've sold my tiny standy camper  because the Airstream Basecamp my wife and I have on order is due to arrive . . . but it's not arriving as soon as we expected. First scheduled to arrive in January, the delivery date was then bumped up to November, and here we are in December. As I gaze out of my living room window at the empty spot in my driveway where there should be a camping trailer, and as I gaze at the beautiful prairie field across the road, rich in late-fall russet and blond-bleached grasses, I dream of camping in this mild almost-winter weather. 

Unfortunately, sometimes in my despair, I reach for my phone and begin to doomscroll, just reading headlines on the news apps . . . and too much time in my day just slips away. I've written about doomscrolling before ("Down with Doomscrolling!"), and I know the pitfalls and the strategies to avoid the mindless, zombie-like behavior of spending purposeless time staring at a computer screen, slowly burying my happiness beneath layer after layer of negative reports from the hinterlands. Et tu, Apple?

This is when I realized that unconsciously I was fighting back, and I wasn't even aware of it. It was the Google Maps app on my phone that saved me. I was thinking, "Well, if the Basecamp arrives soon, how far south would I have to drive to find tolerable camping weather--and you have to realize that the current Iowa weather has temperatures ranging from lows in the twenties to highs in the forties. Some folks would say that's too cool for camping, but hey, bundle up and enjoy the lack of chiggers and mosquitoes. I have no problem with venturing out into cold weather as long as I have a warm, snug little camper to return to. 

Campgrounds on Google Maps

How far south would I have to venture in January/February when my local Iowa temperatures can hit below zero numbers? Not too far, it appears. Southern Missouri and Arkansas state parks are cold but not (as my dad would say) damn cold. I could hang out in the wet, cool forests, brave a bit of snow and probably freezing rain, yet be out hiking in nature and not just stranded in my house in Iowa, huddled up to my woodstove. 

And what a wonderful time I had with my smartphone and computer, discovering camping sites, engaging in "virtual exploration," and planning trips! Spending time online engaged in purposeful, positive activity is a key antidote to doomscrolling, and I have found one fun activity that fits this criterion. Here are my usual steps I follow when I want to spend some enjoyable, positive time online planning camping trips. 
  1. My first "dream trip" step utilizes Google Maps, either on my phone or on the computer. Lately I've been typing in "state parks in [name of state]." This provides me with a map of identified state parks that I can research via the reviews and photo options. I can get a pretty good sense of a locale and the camping options from these two sources--verbal and visual information about the locale and the campgrounds. An additional option is to switch from the traditional map view to the satellite view. This can provide more information on the terrain. If I like what I read and see, I'll save the location with a star.
  2. A second step is that most Google posts of parks also include a link to the state park website. These sites usually include a description of the park, its amenities, and of the campground. It's useful to flip back and forth on the computer from the satellite view of the camping area to the campground map on the state's map, which is usually a static graphic image. The state website or the reservation link will also provide availability and price information.
  3. Another purposeful research step is to find a local town (making sure the town is not in a valley and the campground on the top of a mountain) and to search for average temperatures for the time I plan to camp there. This is how I found out how much more mild the temperatures in southern Missouri and Arkansas are in January than in Iowa. Finding a local town can also be a research point for food and gas locations. 
  4. Having determined that a state park might be a good destination, then I utilize the Google directions option to determine route, mileage, and travel time. On a multi-day trip, I prefer to drive no more than 200-300 miles per day, so checking out the route provides me with important information, most especially how many days I want to take for the trip. If a trip will, for instance, take three days, then I need to determine my overnight camping spots.
  5. Zooming in on Google Maps, I try to find towns near the overnight points; for a three-day trip I would need two overnight campgrounds. Maybe there's a state park nearby, but what I've found is the private campsites are usually closer to the highways. Searching on Google Maps "camping near [name of town]" always seems to generate more private campgrounds, and the map will help determine how close a campground is to the travel route. 
  6. If I'm planning on a long, two-week stay, Google Maps provides a great opportunity to search for close-by sources of provisions. Walmarts are usually easy to find and a known business establishment for food, especially if one shops early in the day to avoid a busier store. However, there are also natural food stores available in many towns if one prefers a smaller shopping experience for one's needs. 
  7. Another step that I haven't used much but has been mentioned by others is to use other trip planner resources about campgrounds. Three websites that have been mentioned to me are The Dyrt, Campsite Photos, and Campground Reviews. All three of these websites provided information and reviews of White Oak Lake State Park, for instance. I'm sure there are other campground review websites that I hope folks share.
  8. A last step in trip planning is to create a map and save that map. I don't usually do this because Google Maps are not the basis of my Nissan Pathfinder's navigation system. However, creating a map that provides the best route can be a reference to the tow vehicle's map, ensuring that the route determined when quietly at home is the route followed once on the road. Otherwise, you might experience a GPS adventure!
Montauk State Park, September 2019 (photo, Michael Clynes)

Part of my fun research on possible campgrounds for this winter led me to a campground in Missouri, Montauk State Park. At the headwaters of the Current River, the state park provides great hiking trails along the river. A little over three hundred miles south of my home, the winter weathers are a bit warmer, although in January I would expect temperatures even in the teens. 

White Oak State Park, Arkansas

A campground further south might be better for January, though, such as White Oak Lake State Park in Arkansas. A bit over 350 miles further south than Montauk SP, White Oak would definitely be warmer in the winter than SE Iowa. High and low temperatures range from about fifty to thirty degrees, much warmer! The reviews for this campground frequently include the word "quiet." 

Truth be told, though, this January I'll probably be camping in my driveway or locally with my soon-to-arrive Airstream Basecamp. The pandemic is expected to be at its worst this winter, so I can learn about the Basecamp's heating systems and sleeping options from my driveway and still be available to my family. If a couple of days with manageable temperatures pop up in January, I can camp locally and familiarize myself with towing the new rig. The covid reality in no way dampens the joy of researching new campsites, though. In some ways, the need to stay close to home even whets my appetite for research.

Camping should be one of the most positive experiences in our lives. We aren't forced to camp; it's not like a job that, although we aren't really happy about it, we still show up for money to pay the bills. Camping provides an opportunity to enjoy the natural world, to engage in more outdoor activities, and to align ourselves more with the rhythms of nature. Although we have now to attend to dealing with the dangers of the pandemic, we can limit the amount of doom we allow into our lives. We can make a choice, once we have attended to our business, to maximize the positive in our lives. Camping and spending time with our cherished ones around a campfire or hiking or kayaking--these activities are worth the planning time. Isn't it great that we have the means to do this with our smartphones . . . and that by planning our next trip or actively planning a dream trip, we can avoid doting on the doom and gloom of the world. All things in balance, but if we must err in our balancing point, let us error on the side of quietly and safely camping.

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  1. It is so difficult for us these days. Our teardrop is in the garage and, being in Northern Minnesota, we are quite distant from a “warm” campsite.

    1. Right now I'm next to my woodstove in my house. That's my warm campsite. I hear what you're saying. The high temperature today will be twenty-six degrees (F), which is still pretty warm considering possibilities--but not my definition of a warm campsite!

  2. Difficult with our teardrop in the garage, the pandemic raging and our homestead in extreme northern Minnesota.

    1. You can still dream and plan, though! Maybe it's the retired English teacher in me, but I enjoy researching. Be safe!

  3. I think planning is part of the fun. Even if I don't get to go on the trip. This was inspirational, I have two reservations for upnorth Michigan for May and June, but I'm trying to get to Alabama once it's safe to do that. Would be fun to plan a camping trip in that direction even if I probably won't be able to do it this winter. In a tent I have less tolerance of cold, but if you pick the right time there's windows of opportunity!

  4. If Iowa were to be one of your way-stops for an overnighter, I can recommend some good campgrounds. Even if you just plan the trip for fun, keep me in the loop!