First Night Camping Disaster (Learning Through Failure)

It was four years ago today that I embarked on my first solo overnight camping experience. It was (ahem!) an experience all right. This post won’t make you an expert camper, but it will help you avoid many mistakes that I made in my first night camping solo and help ensure that your time in the wild goes better than mine. 

Excited, but not invincible 

I remember how eager I was to go camping on my own. I was only 4 months removed from a heartbreaking broken engagement. Somehow learning about country living and wilderness survival skills seemed to provide an escape of some kind. I remember well the exhilarating feeling of learning how to start a fire using only natural materials and a ferro rod. I reveled in the discovery of good strike anywhere matches (and I did, indeed, strike them just about everywhere).

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I had been watching survival shows like Man vs. Wild and Survivor Man and I was hooked! I sooo wanted to try this camping thing out for myself. And, just like Survivor Man, I was going to do it the hard way. 

Don’t do that. If you don’t know what you are doing, then you are in no position to be solo camping, especially with limited supplies.

Mistake #1: Difficulty Level Greater Than Experience Level

First of all, let me say that if you have no idea what you are doing when it comes to camping, you should take an experienced friend with you for a while until you get the hang of things. Let’s just say that I didn’t do that. I didn’t need no stinkin’ sleeping bag! Proper clothing? That’s for sissies! All I needed for clothing was my cotton “death cloth” khaki pants and my cotton hoodie. No need to pack a jacket either. After all, I had my SUPER-DUPER SPACE BLANKET! And by evening I would have a nice fire going and I would sleep out under the stars! (I also didn’t bring a tent or tarp). Fire starting tender? Why, I would simply harvest what I needed from the island (yes, an island) that I would canoe up to. Rather than camping in the woods (that was too “easy”) I wanted a challenge and that’s exactly what I got camping on the island.

Solutions: 

  1. Take an experienced camper with you when you are just starting out. You will learn a lot and the moral support will go a long way in helping you build confidence.
  2. Allow yourself gear to make your first experiences both comfortable and memorable. There will be plenty of time for cutting down on the gear you carry as you build experience. You don’t need to make it extremely difficult on yourself starting out. Challenging yourself is a good thing, but take it easy when you are just beginning.
  3. Wear proper clothing. Wearing only a hoodie just isn’t going to cut it! As the temperature drops, you will become keenly aware of the heat being sapped from your body by your now wet cotton clothing.
  4. Bring a change of clothes.
  5. Bring a sleeping bag (one that has a fill that won’t lose all of its insulation factor when wet).

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Mistake #2: Underestimating My Environment

It was a poor choice to make a small prairie island my first solo camping destination. Resources were far more scarce than in the near by inland trees. All that was available for wood was a bunch of scraggly looking shrubs that dotted the perimeter of the island. Had I camped inland, I would have had access to plenty of trees for fire building purposes. The lack of trees also made selecting a camp site a bit of a challenge. I couldn’t camp low around the perimeter because that would be too cool and moist. Yet if I camped  up on higher ground I would be more exposed to the wind and other elements.

Solutions: 

  1. Pick an ideal spot for your first few experiences. Pick a spot where you will have some trees to support a shelter and a fire.
  2. Bring a Life Straw instead of filtering your water through a dish cloth.
  3. It’s okay to bring a tarp and/or sleeping bag!
  4. Make it easy on yourself to begin with. This builds confidence and you can gradually ratchet up the difficulty level as you go.
  5. Just being out in the great outdoors rather than trying to imitate everything you see on Survivor Man.

Was there ANYTHING positive about my first experience?

Absolutely! I don’t want you to get the impression that my first experience was a total flop. I learned one method of straining water (through a dish cloth) and purifying it using iodine tablets (a first for me). I also learned that I (still to this day) really don’t like magnesium bars. At the time it was my go to method for (attempting) to start a fire. I didn’t allow myself any matches or lighters for the trip. The striking rod on the magnesium bar proved problematic as the rod on those mag bars just don’t give you much to go on. They are short in length and small in diameter. Things may have gone much better had a brought a 4-6” ferro rod, matches, or a lighter.

So How Did it Go?

Let me put it this way–it was very humid that night and I became very cold. I had been trying to start a fire for well over an hour, but nothing seemed to be working. Either the grass/cattails were too moist to ignite easily and/or I couldn’t get the amount of hot sparks I needed from my mag bar, etc.

What I do remember is having to tear out a few pages of my survival books in order to start a fire (LOL). However, since this island was located on government property, I didn’t want to take the chance of the fire spreading through the surrounding grass (that, and I didn’t have anything for long-term fuel burn).

I remember trying to sleep while wrapped up in one of those garbage bag looking things that had the arms cut off of it. It was better than nothing, but I became increasingly cold and wet as the night went on. The whole island was drenched with dew. This made for a COLD environment to try to sleep in. Eventually I went over to the canoe, hoping I could rig up some kind of shelter with it, but to no avail. I was cold, tired, and uncomfortable.

After fighting the elements for hours and trying to stay warm I gave up and made my way back to the car at about 4 a.m. and made my way back to the shelter of my apartment. My pride was hurt, but I knew this wouldn’t be my last night out. I had learned some valuable lessons from my mistakes and I hope that you have also learned something as well.

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–John Erickson, Christian Country Living

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