with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Packing for Camping

graphic luggage on a carWhen we go camping, we often go from desert to mountain conditions in one day. We expect the weather to change frequently and we have to be ready for anything. We also want totstay out in the field as long as possible, to maximize our photographic time, taking advantage of the changing light and situations as they happen. Therefore, to avoid trips into town for food and supplies, we carry our food and kitchen with us, as well as all our accomodations (tent, sleeping bags, etc) and camp as close as possible to our photo location, often with only a short walk or drive so we can arrive well before dawn, ready to go. Brent, an extraordinary cook, prepares all our meals on a single burner Peak One stove and we eat out in the field a lot. What we take with us must be compact and flexible enough for all kinds of weather and terrain.

graphic of a tent and mountainFollowing our packing rules include bringing things which are compact and serve more than one purpose, we’ve come up with some tips to help you concentrate on the photography and not the fuss of camping.

When preparing your camping gear, break it down into three sections: shelter, food and entertainment. Here are some tips and advice about what to bring with you when you go camping.

Must Have Containers

We use film canisters and plastic storage bags by the truck load. They are small and pack well, holding liquids as well as dry materials. Soap, shampoo bottles, food, silverware, wash cloths, laundry soap, powdered milk, and lots of different things are easily stored in plastic bags. By compressing the air out as much as possible, we can roll them to take up little space.

Film canisters make great containers and we prefer Fuji canisters as they are see-through. These are great for storing vitamins, spices, medicine, bandages, sewing kits, spare change, rubber bands, and paper clips.

Shelter: Sleep Comfortably

Due to the variety of weather conditions we experience as we travel as nature photographers, we can’t afford to have one test and sleeping bag for summer and another set for winter. So we’ve found a happy medium that allows us to mix and match (layer) our sleeping accomodations to make it through the most extreme and non-extreme weather conditions we encounter. Our tent, a three season Sierra Design, sleeps the two of us comfortably. We cut a heavy-duty plastic sheet sized a bit bigger than the tent bottom and set the tent on this. We fold the edges under the lip of the tent to keep water from pooling. This protects the bottom of the tent and acts as a moisture barrier against wet or snowy ground.

Just like layering your clothing, we do the same with our sleeping bags. We use a three layer technique with our sleeping bags. The bottom layer is the sleeping pad which insulates your body from the temperature of the ground as well as from moisture and uneven terrain. In the middle layer is the sleeping bag, down-filled and good for temperatures just below freezing. In the middle layer closest to our skin, we use a sleeping bag insert, typically a cotton or flannel sheet which acts like a bedsheet between your body and the blankets. This thin layer is often enough for warm temperatures, allowing the sleeping bag to act like another pad beneath us, or another layer of warmth inside the sleeping bag during cold temperatures.

Let’s look at these layers more specifically:

Sleeping Bags
Down-filled sleeping bags are usually light-weight and pack down to small sizes and provide excellent comfort and warmth for cold temperatures while being light enough for mild nights. We choose regular rectangular sleeping bags instead of mummy bags so we can zip them together to sleep two in a single bag.
Sleeping Bag Inserts
In all weather conditions, we add the inside layer called a "sleeping bag insert" inside the sleeping bag. Campmor sells flannel inserts for sleeping bags. Similar to bed sheets, these fit inside the bag. Instead of washing the whole sleeping bag after a long trip, we just wash the insert. It adds a warm layer during the winter, and acts like a light-weight blanket for the summer when we sleep on the sleeping bags using only the insert for covering, and providing extra warmth during cold temperatures. The best part about it is that we only have to wash the insert and not the sleeping bag during long trips, saving serious cleaning of the sleeping bags after we get home.
Sleeping Support and Comfort
You’ll sleep better and more comfortably if you use a pad of some kind between the sleeping bag and the hard ground. Closed cell foam sleeping pads are very lightweight and pad the ground well providing insulation and padding from the cold ground. Combined with Therm-A-Rest self-inflating pads, it’s almost as good as a real bed. A good night’s rest is important for a clear head for photographing wildlife the next morning.

Food: The Mobile Kitchen

Graphic of a road sign for a picnic benchWe live cheaply on the road. We do all our own cooking, eating out only on long drives and special occasions. It brings the costs down, but more importantly, it allows us to eat anywhere, even in the field, so we can spend more time behind our camera.

While everyone has their own food and cooking habits, we’ve pruned our mobile kitchen down to the basics, keeping in mind that everything must have at least two uses.

Reuse Plastic Bottles
We save small plastic squeezable bottles like ketchup, mustard and salad dressings to store liquids in for camping. We keep dish soap, bleach, liquid laundry soap, body soap, and even baking supplies like flour and cornstarch in them. We like using bright yellow mustard bottles for dish soap and important liquid items, as they are hard to miss among the clutter.
Real plates
Nothing gives food a more appealing presentation than being served on a real plate while camping. We use durable plastic plates and bowls, washing and reusing them as we go. Paper and disposable plastic only clutters the environment and needs to be carried out of the wilderness.
Plastic Buckets or Bins
We carry kitchen gear in plastic bins specially sized for our requirements, holding all of our dishes, stove, silverware and pots all in one place. We use the lids to sit on, and as carrying trays or small tables. We store all the cooking and food products in heavy duty resealable plastic freezer bags. Cooking gear can get messy and greasy, so keeping it in its own bag all the time keeps everything else in the box from getting dirty.
Towels for a Greener Earth
As nature photographers, we honor nature by not using disposable paper or plastic products except for napkins and the occasional paper towel, primarily for greasy substances between cleanings. We use cloth towels which are washed by hand after dinner and hung out to dry. It’s our little part to keep this planet green.
Haul Them Until You Can Clean Them
Water and sinks aren’t always readily available, so we carry large plastic bags to store the dirty dishes and pots until we can clean them.
Haul It Until You Can Dump It
We carry a lot of extra grocery bags to stuff garbage in and carry it with us until we find a proper trash disposal unit. Wild animals are exceptionally attracted to the smell of food and rotting food smells carry far with the wind. Animals who learn that humans represent food present a problem both to the humans and the wildlife. Haul it and dump it appropriately to save everyone.

Eating Well

Graphic road sign of a rest areaCamping is not always about eating hot dogs and hamburgers. Stir-fries are easy to make by just tossing seafood or meats and vegetables into the skillet with some seasoning, and serving it over instant rice. Pasta is always easy to make with cans of ready-made pasta sauce easily stored without refrigeration until open. Try some Fettucini Alfredo or use an Alfredo sauce, either home-made or packaged, over grilled chicken or fish. Frozen vegetables will thaw in an ice chest over time, but they will last through a whole weekend and can be used as a side dish or mixed in with the main meal. Fresh fruit travels well when protected from bumps and bruises, and are easy, portable food.

Sandwiches are a perennial favorite for traveling. They can be eaten anywhere and are self-contained meals. Sandwiches made with mayonnaise or other perishables need to be kept cold, but there are many other combinations that don’t require refrigeration. We usually add fresh turkey slices to our ice chest while traveling, with some cheddar and other cheeses for easy sandwiches and a good source of protein. Here is a special favorite of ours: Mix a can tuna with a little mayonnaise and add about a teaspoon of fennel seed to the mix. The added crunch to the tuna is a treat, but the fennel taste is magical.

Whenever possible, we stick to the freshest food, salads, fruit, vegetables, and meats. We carry items requiring refrigeration in a hard-sided ice chest. Among our dry goods, we carry all our seasonings in film canisters, labeled with indelible ink and covered with scotch tape. Food can have double-duty service, too. Cornmeal makes a good abrasive for cleaning the bugs off the front of the car or the windshield. It’s also good for dipping fish in before frying.

Use your imagination. Great meals can be made quickly and easily while traveling, saving money, too. For us, meal time on the road is a chance to slow down and catch up on what we’ve seen and done, and to look ahead to what is next. It is our time to share and be together, an important reason for taking the trip.


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