Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Into the wilderness: How to enjoy a camping trip in your own garden

We may not be allowed to go on a staycation just yet, but there’s nothing stopping you from pitching up a tent out back, writes Melanie D G Kaplan

Sunday 31 May 2020 05:55 BST
Whether you're a glamper or prefer living off the land, outdoor camping is a wonderful way to ease the boredom of lockdown
Whether you're a glamper or prefer living off the land, outdoor camping is a wonderful way to ease the boredom of lockdown (Getty)

“I’m headed into the wilderness,” I say. I look at Hammy, who, the previous day, I’d discovered halfway submerged in a bag of flour, looking like Casper the Friendly Beagle; Georgie, a young foster bunny who has recently eaten my third-to-last piece of fresh fruit; and James, the human I’d invited to be my quarantine (Dan Savage wittily rhymes it with “valentine”). “There’s no signal. No texting.”

“When will you be back from your trip?” James asks, playing along.

I shrug. “Maybe never,” I say, smiling impishly. Then I slip on my flip-flops, pick up my pillow and canvas bag, and open the back door. With the house and monotonous quarantine life in my wake, I take a deep breath, scan my surroundings and head into the wilds of my 11ft-wide back garden.

Until I began planning a camping trip behind my house, an acceptable loophole to stay-home orders, I didn’t realise the extent of my longing for a trip – and for the excitement that comes with its anticipation. Until I made the decision to camp solo, I didn’t understand how much I was craving alone time.

Isolation isn’t exactly what most people are hungry for during this pandemic, but if you’ve spent the past couple of months sheltering with other people, well, that’s a lot of together time. I figure I’ve spent more hours this spring with James, my partner, than I’ve spent with any other human in a single season since childhood. Cooking together. Cleaning together. Walking together. Video conferencing together. My introvert warning system alerts me to impending unrest. Must. Be. Alone.

I share my camping plan with a friend, who understood my need for creative space and the importance of solitude. “It’s the opposite of a man cave,” she says. But it’s not a she-shed. It’s a she-tent.”

When I last slept in my garden, I was a kid in the suburbs. I remember the delight of getting cosy in the pop-up trailer with my sister or a friend and the thrill of having a little space all our own. (I also remember being paralysed with fear, during truth or dare, when I was challenged to walk to the end of the dark driveway. I chose truth.)

So on day 44 of the District of Columbia’s stay-home order, I bust out. The garden felt different immediately. For years, I’ve known the space as an extension of my house. Now, it is a destination. Twinkly lights peep out from a climbing hydrangea, and branches of cherry and red maple trees sway in the breeze, softening the voices of neighbours in their gardens.

After setting up my tent in a small patch between the blooming irises and the motorcycle, I light a fire in the fire pit. Before dinner (a precious box of Annie’s mac and cheese a guest had left in March – which I’ve abstained from in my plant-based kitchen), I forage for edible plants to garnish my feast. Cilantro! Oregano! Basil! Chives! My campsite is lush and green and plentiful.

Birds cheep loudly as I sit in front of the hissing fire, stabbing macaroni with my spork. For the first time, I find the space to grieve for my 99-year-old grandmother, who died alone in April. I wish I can call and tell her about this adventure. She would have loved it – and wanted to join.

Make your tent as comfortable as you want – there’s no point roughing it out for no reason (Getty/iStock)

Well before sunset, I crawl into my tent and change into pyjamas, feeling more freedom and glee than I’ve felt in months. I consider my fortune during this time: I have my health, a pantry full of food, almost enough work, a human and dog I love sharing my life with, and friends who drop off fresh-baked bread or cutout hearts that say “Stay strog” [sic] in marker. And now, I even had a holiday – what a luxury. I give myself permission, for the evening, to stop thinking about friends who are sick, family members at risk, people out of work, food management in my kitchen, the teddy bear on my windowsill.

Once, I tensed after hearing an unidentifiable sound, a frightening moment that somehow made my camping adventure feel authentic

A siren wails in the distance, a motorcycle engine revs nearby, and dogs bark next door. Zipped away from the rest of the world, I could transport myself anywhere. I think about solo camping trips in the olden days: in Colorado, when I left my tent before sunrise to hike the largest sand dune in North America; and in Baja California, Mexico, when a coyote stole a bag of water from my kayak as I slept.

The sun dips, and I begin rereading a John Irving book by headlamp, dozing and wakening. I scribble ideas in my notebook and watch tiny bugs on the roof of the tent. They scurry around, making circles on the thin netting, blissfully ignorant of the world’s woes.

During the night, I wake several times and listen to the crinkle of the tent in the wind. Once, I tense after hearing an unidentifiable sound, a frightening moment that somehow made my camping adventure feel authentic. Another time, I wake up and I'm surprised that the night is devoid of bird sounds, as though someone, at a prescribed hour, has flipped off the bird switch.

Bring a furry friend along too (Getty/iStock)

Just before sunrise, I wake up to someone rolling a rubbish bin in the alley. The birds stir and begin staggering their songs, like an orchestra warming up by section.

I slither out of my bag and look for my jar of overnight oats. My back is a little stiff, but I feel relaxed, even recharged. And then, as my trip nears its conclusion, I feel something curious, a fleeting sentiment that I haven’t experienced since the Time Before. Without warning, I find myself missing Hammy and James.

Later, I ask them to join me for breakfast in the tent, and I invite them to camp with me a few days hence. But in that moment, I sit alone, my imagination carrying me away and the morning sounds of DC bringing me back. Outside, the tall irises lean in the breeze, and a few petals drop to the ground. I smooth out my sleeping bag and tidy up my little place of refuge. Then I unzip the tent and tiptoed into the quiet house.

If your outdoor space isn’t practical or safe for camping, set up in your living room or basement. Hang a string of lights, load a virtual crackling fire on your device

The same week I camp, I ask some friends to do the same and report back with tips. My friend in Maine camped with her 4-year-old daughter, Alice, and says it was probably the best thing they could have done during quarantine. Alice was crawling in and out of the tent all day and was fascinated with the sleeping-bag zipper. She was “over the moon,” her mom says, and they’ve now made backyard camping a regular activity. Below are 10 tips for making your own adventure a stellar one:

1. Practice: Set up your tent inside first, especially if borrowing one you haven’t used before. Outdoors, use a ground sheet or tarp to protect your tent.

2. Bring an overnight bag: Nothing says “I’m going on a trip” like a packed bag by the door. Toss in your PJs, toothbrush, water bottle and a book. If you forget something, hike back to the house.

3. Set realistic expectations: Understand, especially with wee campers, that you might not make it till morning – and that’s OK. If the night sounds are too scary or the bugs too pesky, simply head inside. With kids, know that bedtime might be later than normal. That’s OK, too.

Bring marshmallows, the quintessential camping snack (Getty)

4. Pack light: After sunset, bust out the fun lights. If you have a headlamp, you’ll look like a pro, but just as useful is a lantern, flashlight or book light. REI sells cool solar-powered lanterns and string lights.

5. Make it extra special: Bring a telescope, board game, ukulele, podcast, tunes or scary movie – whatever makes you happy. Remember ear buds to keep your neighbours happy.

6. Marshmallows, of course: Fire pits have never seemed so essential. Pack chocolate, marshmallows and Digestives, plus whatever other snacks or breakfast you’ll want to enjoy in your tent. Keep food in sealed containers so you’re not feeding critters outside your family.

7. Be comfy: Winning at garden camping doesn’t mean roughing it to the point of discomfort. Set up a couple of camp chairs or a hammock if you have them. Each camper needs a sleeping pad, which provides an important layer of insulation (indoor blowup mattresses are not recommended). Use a sleeping bag that’s rated for the weather. Expert tip: Fill a water bottle with warm water and slip it into the bottom of your bag before you zip in. Don’t forget to pilfer a plush pillow from your bedroom.

8. Canines love camping, too: Invite your pup to join the fun, and make sure he has his own water bowl, snacks, and pad or blanket. Dogs, watch those nails on the tent floor.

9. Go early, stay late: If your schedule allows, set up the tent early in the day so kids can play inside; don’t rush to take it down the next day. Remember to let your tent and sleeping bags dry completely before storing, to prevent mildew.

10. Try the great indoors: If your outdoor space isn’t practical or safe for camping, set up in your living room or basement. Hang a string of lights, load a virtual crackling fire on your device, and set a few plants outside the tent door. No tent? Grab some sheets, blankets and brooms, and dust off your fort-making skills.

© The Washington Post

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in