Cooking over a hot flame on a chilly night. Sleeping under an ink-black sky with a million stars all around. Waking to a cool breeze crossing a foggy meadow in dawn’s early light. Is there any experience that compares to the joy, the thrill, the simple economy of camping out?
Humans have a prehistoric connection to living out in nature. But many of us have forgotten it in our modern lives. Camping in retirement — whether RV’ing, car camping, or backpacking — is the perfect way to reclaim that connection. Camping combines travel, adventure, and frugality in one fun package.
You can visit the most beautiful spots in the country with less overhead, less hassle, and less expense by camping. The U.S. National Park Service administers over 400 Parks and related sites. And the National Recreation Reservation Service reportedly offers over 45,000 reservable facilities at over 1,700 locations!
Sleeping, eating, and living in new places under the open skies is great adventure. The minor inconveniences are more than compensated for by the feelings of self-sufficiency and freedom. Not to mention the connection to nature, and the sheer tranquility of living simply in beautiful scenery.
Lastly, camping can be really cheap — an essential component of an early or secure retirement. You can start camping for a night or two with just a few well-chosen pieces of gear, plus things that are already available around your home. Even if you go all-in on the latest gear for car camping or backpacking, you’ll be hard pressed to spend more than a few thousand dollars for your complete setup. And, though the expense of owning a small RV is much higher, amortized over the years of adventures and extended range such a vehicle makes possible, your investment can still be very reasonable.
I’ve spent many hundreds of nights camping, in all its forms. And I expect to keep it up as long as I live. In this article, I’ll touch on three ways to camp, at least one of which should suit just about any retiree. Rather than attempt a full tutorial on any one way (there are books for that), I’ll just offer a few thoughts on each style of camping, and point you to a sampling of my favorite relevant gear and resources.
Whether you haven’t camped since childhood and are thinking of going out again in retirement, or you’re a seasoned outdoorsperson who’s never passed a year without sleeping out, you’ll probably find some useful links below….
I’ve written extensively about buying, outfitting, and traveling in our small RV on this blog already. These are some of the most popular posts on this site, and I’ll just link to the content here:
If you’re interested in an overview of RV living, check out One Solution for Cheaper Retirement Travel: A Small RV. If you get serious about buying your own rig, be sure to read Choosing a Compact RV or Camper for Retirement Travel to get some of my lessons-learned before plunking down your cash. Living and traveling in an RV is a little different than conventional vacation homes. To see all my best tips for getting the most out of your home on the road, be sure to check out Living Efficiently in a Small RV and Traveling in a Small RV.
This year, we enter our ninth summer of owning a small RV. We’ve put over 70,000 miles on it camping in every corner of this country and many places in between. (As I write this we’re just back from a week-long trip to National Parks in Utah.) And we love our Class B as much as ever. There is simply no better way for us to take a week- to month-long road trip.
With the RV, we can go when and where we want, without a lot of advance planning, because we are fully self-contained. We can prepare and eat our own food, and sleep in our own beds. We can have a critical subset of our “stuff” with us so it feels like home, and we can keep up with our lives. We have enough living space to be comfortable for a few weeks, without so much bulk that the driving itself is burdensome.
That’s why I’m a fan of the smaller Class B and Class C RVs. They don’t get in the way of the adventure. The larger your rig gets, the less it’s like camping, and the more it’s like living out of a mobile home. (Nothing wrong with that, especially for snowbirds, it’s just not the topic here, nor the focus of our own retirement.) My analyses don’t always show that RV living is cheaper — it depends on your style of travel — but, it can be. Yet I still strongly prefer RV living to flying, renting vehicles, and living out of hotels. For me, there is something more satisfying about traveling in your own home on the road, rather than spending a lot to drop in and out of some remote location at a moment’s notice. Retirees can generally afford the time for a more relaxed pace of travel, so why not take advantage of it?
However, despite the generally good value, the expense and overhead of RV’ing won’t be for everybody. And RV travel isn’t even for me, all the time. I still enjoy some simpler ways to go camping….
Car Camping in Retirement
Many a Friday night in my 20’s saw me tossing a sleeping bag, a cooler, a box of cooking gear, and maybe a tent into the car and hitting the road for the weekend. This was our preferred mode of travel for rock-climbing adventures. All we needed was the minimum of camping gear for a hot meal and decent night’s sleep, so we could get up and climb all day.
As a young family, too, we did our share of car camping. It was a convenient and cheap way to organize a road trip, before we had the money for a dedicated camping vehicle.
Now, in retirement, even though we own a very comfortable RV, I find myself drawn back to car camping for shorter trips. It’s simple and adventurous, and requires less prep time than loading the RV plus cleaning/dumping it afterwards. Nowadays, I have the back of my old Forester set up with all the essential gear, so I only need to add food and clothing, and I’m good for a few nights.
Car camping for me is a fair-weather activity. I have no appetite for trying to stay comfortable outdoors overnight in wet or below-freezing conditions. One of the essential, simple pleasures in life — the campfire — comes into its own for car camping. Throw an armful of firewood in the trunk and you have heat and good cheer for an evening under the stars. Staring into a campfire for a few hours on a crisp evening is a magical balm for most of the pains of growing older….
You don’t need much special or any high-tech gear for a good car camping trip. Still, I’ve developed some favorites:
The essence of car camping is cooking up a hearty meal outdoors. Campfires are OK for a limited menu, but for the most flexibility, you’ll want a stove along too. Having spent years fiddling with various liquid-fueled models, I’ve settled on the simple one-burner GAS ONE butane-fired stove for my modest cooking needs. It’s like bringing your gas range from home into the wilderness. Slide the stove out of its case, click the built-in igniter, and you’re cooking, with perfect heat control. If I was feeding a large group, I might want multiple burners and more fuel capacity, but this unit does the trick for me.
The demands of car camping cuisine are a little different from home. Yes, you can cook almost anything outdoors, and it will taste good. But if you design your recipes for easier prep and cleanup you’ll probably enjoy camping more. See the delicious Fresh Off the Grid for some ideas.
What would car camping be without a good comfortable chair to sit by the fire and watch the sunset? I always value lightweight, compact gear, even if I have more storage room, so I chose the Odyssey Trek Portable Lounger. There are a number of competing designs, and you can pay more for a bit more comfort, but I’m happy with my Lounger for now.
A recent addition to my camping toolkit has quickly become a favorite — the MPOWERD Luci Outdoor 2.0 Inflatable Solar Lantern. This clever combination of modern technology with old-school design is an amazingly functional lantern, that never needs batteries! I was impressed the first time I flicked it on, after a few hours of charging in the sun on my dashboard, to watch it burn far into the night with enough light for cooking or light reading.
At home or in the woods, you’ve got to have a good night’s sleep to enjoy the next day. That means a comfortable bed. Tastes differ. Some will use air mattresses and cots for car camping. But the Thermarest self-inflating pads have been my choice for decades. I like the firm feel of the combination of foam and air. Their LuxuryMap Mattress delivers all those benefits in a larger footprint that feels almost like my bed at home, yet rolls up for compact transport.
No matter how experienced an outdoorsperson, answering the call of nature, in nature, is probably the low point of any camping trip. If you camp in remote areas or aren’t a fan of campground pit toilets, check out the clever Turbo Toilet. This simple, compact solution can make camping life more pleasant.
Finally, you can’t camp without a campground or campsite. There are thousands of good ones all over the country, and Bearfoot Theory offers a handy “directory of directories” to some of the best and cheapest….
Granted, the majority of retirees are probably about as interested in strapping on a backpack and hiking into the wilderness for a night, as they would be in jumping out of an airplane with a parachute on their back. Personally, I have no interest in sky-diving, but I do like to backpack. I love the simplicity and the freedom of living with only what you can carry. Backpacking helps you to discover the absolute minimum you need to be reasonably happy and comfortable. Turns out, it’s not very much.
Before you dismiss the idea out of hand, hear me out. Especially if you did some backpacking in your younger days and liked it. Modern technology has revolutionized the sport and made it more accessible to an older crowd than ever.
Why? Because modern gear and techniques are more comfortable and one-half the weight or less of what I used in my Scouting days back in the 1970’s. We carried 40+ pound packs back then that would crush my 50-something joints now and make walking a misery. But today, with fully modern gear and a bit of fine-tuning, I can get out the door and onto the trail with only about 18 pounds on my back, plus food and water.
Most reasonably fit retirees, who don’t have a prohibitive health condition, would have no trouble walking some miles with that kind of load. And, by carrying everything you need on your back, you can go places that you simply can’t get to any other way. The ability to hike a few miles and spend the night opens up a vast acreage of beautiful terrain in our parks and forests that you can’t see by car or bike. Even if you’re already a day hiker, the ability to spend the night on the trail increases your range and lets you tackle destinations that would be too ambitious otherwise.
But not every backpack outing has to be ambitious. The majority of my trips in recent years have been less than 5 miles/day. A number have taken me to beautiful destinations — pristine meadows, sparkling alpine lakes — only a few miles from the road, but leagues away from the crowds.
Admittedly, modern lightweight backpacking is a geek’s paradise. There are web sites and books galore devoted to the topic of how to shave ounces and walk further. For my purposes, I’ve found a “sweet spot” of not-quite-top-of-the-line gear that achieves a dramatic weight savings, without savaging my pocketbook. So here are some of my favorite manufacturers, items, and resources:
Zpacks specializes in working with the space-age cuben fiber fabric (originally developed for racing sails). They make ultralightweight though pricey shelters, as well as packs, sleeping bags, and other items. I like the price/weight point on their tarps, and their burly, lightweight, and relatively cheap accessories.
Six Moon Designs makes really clever hybrid double-wall tents at seriously affordable price points — if you pick the silicone nylon versions rather than the cuben fiber. I’ve spent a number of cozy nights in my Skyscape Trekker.
Enlightened Equipment makes elegantly beautiful down quilts fully customized to your specifications, at very reasonable prices. (A backpacking quilt is an open sleeping system, with a footbox but no zipper, that many find more comfortable and flexible than a conventional sleeping bag.) The high-tech website walks you through all the options, and a month or two later, depending on their backlog, a gorgeously hand-crafted quilt shows up at your door.
Trail Designs makes clever and incredibly lightweight alcohol-fueled stoves and accessories. Hard to believe, but a modern backpacking “kitchen” can weigh in at well under a pound!
Sadly, water pollution has reached to the farthest corners of our globe. Most experts agree that treating backcountry water sources is a must these days. There are a host of viable solutions, but I carry the SteriPEN Ultra as my primary water purification tool, with Aquamira Water Treatment Drops as a backup. These are quick, reliable solutions that have never failed me in the field.
Backpacking food used to be barely edible glop. Things have improved. If you want a pre-packaged solution with truly excellent, chef-prepared recipes, check out Good To-Go. Many people, especially if doing longer trips, will prefer to prepare their own lightweight meals. For great ideas on backpacking recipes, see Backpackers’ Ultra Food, and the recipes here, and here. And a do-it-yourself option that sacrifices some elegance while greatly simplifying food portioning, prep, and cleanup is freezer-bag cooking.
Face it, walking in the wilderness, especially if you do solo trips, is not 100% safe. Experience and good judgment can mitigate most of the risks. But carrying a lightweight satellite messenger has given me the confidence to venture farther afield. There are several models available, but I settled on the DeLorme inReach SE as having the best mix of features for the price. For a few hundred dollars, and a small monthly charge, you can communicate from anywhere on the planet, regardless of whether there is cell service nearby.
Modern gear is great, but the balance of success in lightweight backpacking is in technique. Some knowledge is required to travel safely and comfortably in the wilderness with very little weight on your back. My introduction to the key concepts was the wonderfully fun and easy-to-read Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips. It starts with making a checklist and getting a postal scale to help you shave pounds from your kit.
Going further, I’ve enjoyed reading Andrew Skurka and Adventure Alan — authoritative blogs on lightweight backpacking techniques. Thanks to ultralight gear and superb conditioning, these guys think nothing of covering 30+ miles of backcountry in a day. Far, far out of my range, but fun reading!
Last but not least, kudos to the iconoclastic and innovative Ray Jardine, who revolutionized several outdoor sports. His book Trail Life is the original bible of lightweight backpacking. And his web site offers pages of valuable information, plus fascinating tales of real adventure all over the globe. Finally, if you know your way around a sewing machine, check out Ray’s innovative kits for constructing lightweight gear of your own.
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