Nomadic camping is basically the technique of using tents and overnight camping to cover great distances relatively inexpensively. The technique requires a little bit of a different philosophy than traditional camping, mostly because you have to be geared towards setting up and tearing down camp every day. It’s easy for an RV or a camper to button down all the hatches and head out on the road. For tent campers, though, there are some additional challenges that come with the task and there’s some pointers we can pass on.
Although we throw in a few Alaska road trip focused information here, the techniques involved could be used for almost any road trip at all. There are many people who use camping as a means of reducing travel costs across the US and it’s great fun doing it. You have opportunities to stay in some really cool parks and spend some time around nice, beautiful things of this earth.
There are certain priorities involved with making a temporary camp to serve you one night. Most involve securing your location and gear, making a hospitable camp and meeting creature comforts that help sustain your spirit along the way. Some of it is resisting the urge to settle in and establish a long term camp.
Step One – Start The Day Right
There’s a certain joy to maximizing a day when you’re gallivanting through some of the world’s most extreme and beautiful terrain with opportunities abound. We’ve personally found it best to rise early and settle down when you feel like it, adjusting each day for the goal of maximizing your time and meeting your needs for sleep.
We’re not morning people, it’s just not in our nature to be casually up at 6AM or earlier most days and it takes an effort to press on for early mornings. That said, the alarm clock is a welcome addition in our tent as is a push to get up between 5:00AM and 6:00AM. It can be made more difficult when you realize you often can’t just take a hot shower, you have to break out your camp kitchen from your vehicle to even make coffee and you have to break down camp shortly thereafter so you can move to your next location. But, it’s totally worth it.
You’d be surprised what getting a jump on the road affords you. Early morning can be some of the most beautiful time, you can experience some of the most incredible beauty before the sun has had a chance to warm everything up. Wildlife tend to be more active in the morning hours, too. It’s also about gaining the time in the day to take in an impromptu picnic, maybe do a short hike or time to stop and see something you didn’t know you wanted to see until you got there. It could be extra time to cook a really good dinner, visit a place you might not otherwise have time for or an opportunity to take a dip in a lake in the hot afternoon sun.
Early rising makes for an incredibly fulfilling experience and in hindsight you’ll appreciate the diligence. Some mornings you just might not be able to muster it and you might want to sit and enjoy your coffee just a little bit more. That’s OK, too. But getting a good, early start will help you maximize your road trip and experience by quite a bit.
Step Two – Find Camp
Generally speaking if you don’t have reservations and an absolute planned path, you might want to consider stopping to make camp somewhere in the mid to late afternoon. There’s a lot of reasons for this including opportunities to recreate in the evening, prime camping location choices in campgrounds and time to take in a shower or tend to other necessities. More importantly, though, it’s entirely possible a camp could be closed or in rare cases full, forcing alternate choices that you’ll want time to deal with if they arise. It’s really just about making each day actually feel like a vacation. Then again, if you’ve dilly dallied a bit too much and need to make up some time with a long drive, it will be OK to push it a little bit, just maybe a little less enjoyable.
The opportune time to plan your next camp is usually the night before. Using your planning resources and general itinerary, you can get an idea of how far you need to travel the next day and some potential options where you might want to stay. If you just kind of want to wing it, figuring these things out around lunch time is usually adequate as well since you’re easily within 60 to 250 miles of a potential campground destination and that range typically provides a wealth of potential options.
Be very aware of any signs that prohibit tents in the campground of your choice. It will explicitly tell you that tents are not allowed, not just a sign that states bears are in the area. Some campgrounds are closed to tenters due to wild animal dangers and it’s usually sage advice to follow. (If you do see bear warnings, step up your safety game, but don’t let it deter you from enjoying a camp!) You will likely see signs posted on either the campground sign, on your way into the camp or at the visitor area/sign. You’ll usually want to stop at the visitor area for a payment envelope and to review the rates, anyway. Don’t worry if you don’t see other tents in the campground, that’s not an indicator of safety, it’s just that using an RV along this trek is very, very popular.
It’s probably most important to realize that when you’re camping along a route, not all camp destinations will be the perfect, forested and lush private campsites most campers seek. This is particularly true in Alberta on your way to the Alcan, but also sometimes when you want to be near a town for service reasons. Just take it as it rolls and if a camp isn’t to your liking, find something else to do and just crash there when you’re tired. We’ve stayed in small town city parks, roadside campgrounds and other “less than desirable” locations just for convenience and in hindsight, it wasn’t that bad.
Step Three – Make Camp:
When you arrive at your destination, the first order is to identify your camp. Different people seek different things from a camp. Some might want to be right on the waterfront if there’s a lake at the camp, others might prefer something a little more secluded. Figure out where you want to be and unload your overnight gear.
Figure out where you want to place your tent and if you’re under threat of rain, a location where you can string up a tarp. If it is raining, set up the tarp first and then the tent, you’ll appreciate a refuge if the rain picks up to being unpleasant. Once you get your tent established, go ahead and use the opportunity to prepare the inside as well. Lay out your tent blanket, your sleeping pads and your bags. If you opt to keep anything else in the tent (not food, of course), then go ahead and take care of that. This will give you the comfort of knowing you can just go to sleep when you like, things get more difficult once darkness hits.
If you need to reconcile any payments for a campground, this would be next step. Remember, most camps are cash only, so you need to make sure you have a decent supply of cash available. If you do see any explicit rules that say, “Pay before you set up camp,” then it’s probably best to follow the rules. Most camps don’t mind if you set up and then pay shortly thereafter. Payment might be a box where you put an envelope with money, some even have a camp host come around for payment collection. You might find yourself in a camp where payment is not required.
If you need to acquire firewood, this is a good next step. Fire restrictions are typically posted or you’ll be informed by your camp host. Some camps will have firewood available, some will require some effort to get a sufficient amount. If wood is in limited supply, don’t worry too much about having a small fire. It’s better than nothing and will probably encourage you to hit the hay early anyway.
Some additional tasks may be desirable to make a decent nomadic camp, but try to resist the urge to set up a more elaborate camp. Remember, what you put up will have to be taken down the next morning, so saving some time by putting things away after they’re used is usually best. But, if it’s desirable to put up another tarp for rain protection, it will likely be worth it in the long run. If you need to dry out any gear, take this opportunity to do so.
Step Four – Recreate, Take Care Of Necessities, Eat and Sleep:
Depending on where you’re at, the late afternoon and early evening is a usually a fine time to get a little something done. This might be a walk down to a body of water, a walk around the campground or even something more substantial. We enjoy spending our evenings in camp, too, just having a beer or two, planning out our next day and eating up a fine camp cooked meal. Of course if there are natural beauties around your area, you might want to make the effort to check them out in the evening, which will save you time the next day.
If you have the option for a shower nearby, take it, since it’s an optimal use of your travel time to do them in the evenings. Not all campgrounds have showers and your next camp might not have one, so seize the moment when you need it and it’s available! If you have RV campgrounds or private campgrounds, many will offer a hot shower for a few dollars. It’s also a great idea to prepare a warm water bath on your stove and use a kitchen or bath towel to wipe down. It may not be ideal or as pleasant as a nice, hot shower, but it’s a good alternative if you’re trying to save money and get on down the road. You can also choose to embrace your inner hippie, whatever works for you.
When the time comes, prepare your meal or if you’re outside a town, you may want to check out the local fare. Clean up camp and settle in for a good night’s rest. Tomorrow morning will come sooner than you like!
Step Five – Tear Down Camp and Repeat:
As mentioned in step one, hopefully you’ve risen early and are getting a jump start on the day. Some mornings you might just need a little extra rest, certainly listen to your body, but also do push things a little bit in the interest of having big days with lots of experience.
We usually split up our tear down duties, mostly because it’s not nearly as enjoyable as setting up in a new camp. One of us will make coffee, prepare the vehicle and make breakfast, while the other will tear down the sleeping quarters and tent and prepare the gear for storage. Splitting the duties really does save a lot of time and sometimes, if we really push it, we can be on the road with a thermos full of coffee and breakfast for the road in 45 minutes after we wake. On average, closing up a camp and preparing to get on the road takes us an hour or so.
Most days, we like to make sure that the vehicle is well organized, simply because things can get a little off kilter from the night before. This might mean pulling everything out of the vehicle and repacking the gear completely. It’s helpful to have a system and a known packing method, simply because this will help every time you have to do this and you’ll know where everything goes. If you acquired any goodies like souvenirs or travel guides, make sure these go into their appropriate storage places. If you have any garbage to deal with, either store it in your vehicle or find where you can place your refuse.