CAMPING - GEAR
The secrets of happy tent or swag camping are being in the right spot, at the right time of the year, with the right people and the right gear.
We all know what a good temperate-zone camp site looks like: soft grass with plenty of shade in summer and a sunny aspect in winter, protected from the wind, blessed with ample, dry firewood, close to a clear, babbling creek, which empties into a large, mozzie-free swimming hole.
Preferable frills include a clean pit toilet, showers with a donkey heater and formed fireplaces. However, in Australia’s desert regions, that scenario is impossible. Any grass – no matter how inviting it looks – will be as hard as the hobs of hell, with sharp points or invasive burrs. The ideal camp ground in the desert is bare sand or a claypan.
Creeks or waterholes are as rare as restaurants and camping close to water may not be all that wise, because the hundreds of cattle that wander in to drink not only will be curious, but indiscriminate pooers – creating the inevitable population of flies. Thankfully, the flies go to bed at sundown, when you’ll get about five minutes of peace before the mozzies wake up.
In the tropical north, camp sites need to be selected with extreme care, because crocs are reclaiming territory lost during the skinning years. Any site close to water is highly suspect and mangrove fringes are a real worry. It’s a safer proposition to camp away from water and drive down to drop in a line.
It’s a good rule to camp well before darkness falls. We found a beaut campsite on the Simpson’s Rig Road one evening: hard clay ground with clumps of mallee for a wind break. All was fine – no creepy crawlies or mozzies – and we were snoozing away quite happily, when we were awakened by the sound of lapping.
The moon silhouetted a dingo, which was drinking the ‘soup’ in our washing up dish. Next morning, he joined us for breakfast, after which we walked around the mallee clumps behind our campsite: it was a dingo haven, with several sleeping holes and bits of dismembered rabbit all over the place. If we’d camped before sundown, we’d have noticed that ‘our’ campsite was already taken.
On another occasion, we were travelling after dark down the West Australian coast and pulled into a roadhouse, which had camping of sorts ‘out the back’. The joint was pretty well patronised, so we set up our tent about 200 metres away from the amenities block, on some soft grass and turned in. We woke
in the morning to the distinct sound of an aero engine and peered out disbelievingly as the wing tank of a Cessna passed over our tent. We’d avoided the crush all right – we were camped on a grass strip taxiway!
We’ll take you through our – now successful – tent or swag camping essentials.
First item out of the vehicle is the ground sheet. We’ve tried all types of canvas and vinyl materials over the years and we’ve settled on rubberised fabric. It looks odd because it’s full of holes, but the holes allow water and dirt to pass through, so there’s no build up at the tent entrance or around the swag.
If the ground around the swag or tent is very damp we slot a small vinyl groundsheet over the top of the rubber one, just in the area that the swag or tent will occupy. This keeps the underside of the tent or swag dry, with the open-pore groundsheet functioning as a walking area.
Another advantage of the open-pore groundsheet is its ability to lie flat in windy conditions, where a normal groundsheet flails all over the place while you’re trying to lay it down.
Our ideal bush house these days is a camper trailer or slide-on camper. When tenting we use our OzTent Maverick, because it’s the easiest tent we’ve ever used and has a folded length much shorter than the older-style RV OzTents that were roof rack jobs.
The back-up is our Turbo Tent that isn’t as easy to erect and isn’t as waterproof, but also packs into a small vehicle space.
Most tents don’t come with enough pegs and those that are provided are generally too short and too thin. We use MiLite screw-in pegs and you can buy them on this website. When you have to drive your pegs into the surface of a rocky flat, you’ll
You need to be dry and warm, regardless of the conditions, so don’t skimp on the all-important bedding materials. Self-inflating, high-density – the dear stuff – thick foam mattresses are best. Sleeping bags that zip open and can lie flat are more versatile than the ‘coffin’ variety – being too hot is as bad as being too cold.
We use a swag as our bed inside the tent, because it saves us having to worry about packing separate bedding and it gives us the option of a tent-free night under the stars, if we feel like it.
Planning your cooking around gas, rather than firewood, avoids cold meals on occasions when there isn’t any dry wood. Desert wood should be left where it is, to break down slowly and provide scarce nutrients. Fallen wood in the desert is also important in minimising erosion and in providing homes for small creatures.
We use a Coleman LPG unit that can operate with disposable canisters or a traditional gas bottle. The cooker sits on a stand with legs that have been designed to cope well with uneven ground. The feet also have holes that can accept tent pegs, for extra stability.
Our cooker is backed up by a large camp oven, for those blessed times when there’s plenty of dry firewood. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can equal a starlit, camp-oven roast dinner and, for other menus, the oven lid doubles as a frypan.
There is a host of folding chair choices in camping goods stores and the favourites these days are the ones with armrests that have inbuilt drink holders, or folding table edges. We’ve checked out expensive ones and cheap ones and found little longevity and comfort differences between them.
Avoid camping chairs with plastic feet. These mouldings are connected to the aluminium tube legs by rivets and suffer from cracking or from lost rivets.
We choose from two different folding tables – a lightweight aluminium one and a robust moulded plastic one. For most trips we take the aluminium one, but if there’s a mob coming the big plasso one gets packed.
The aluminium table top is made of linked slats, like a venetian blind, and folds up into a bundle the same size as a camping chair, so it’s very easy to pack. The table has the same leg arrangement as the stove stand, to handle uneven ground without rocking, plus the ability to be pegged in place.
We’ve used every different light setup we can find and have now standardised on USB-rechargeable-battery LED lights. Yes, we know that gas lanterns put out brilliant light, but we’ve tired of replacing mantles.
Fuel lamps also put out amazing light, but the mantle bogey remains.
We back up our rechargeable lights with a pair of LED-globe head torches. These come with headbands that can also be fitted over Akubras.
We use a set of Teflon-coated saucepans that fit into a compact storage bag that also holds stainless bowls, plates, cutlery and mugs. The mugs are double-walled items that keep their contents hotter or colder than normal mugs and don’t give you a burnt lip if you’re drinking soup out of them.
The saucepan bag stows inside our camp oven,
so it’s easily packed away.
We also have folding silicon bowls, kettle, saucepans and a washing up dish.
We use long-handled tongs, because they’re more useful than short ones around a campfire.
We’ve tried many different bread toasters and settled on the single-slice mesh job that sits on top of the stove. The four-at-a-time toasters take too long and use too much gas.
We pack all our cooking gear in large plastic boxes and, after each trip, we check and clean everything before we repack the box. That way, we know everything’s intact for the next jaunt.
Water requirements range from two to five litres per person per day, depending on where you are and at what time of the year. It’s essential to carry water, even on day trips, because you never know when you’ll get stuck.
Because we’re often out camping in road test vehicles we can’t set up these 4WDs the way we’d like them. The ideal situation is a built-in water tank with an easily-reached tap, but our compromise is as many 10-litre spring-water cardboard containers as we need. When we set up camp we position the container on a ute tray or on the folded-down tailgate of a wagon and slide our hand-washing basin underneath the tap. That way any spilt water isn’t wasted.
Keeping clean is vital for comfort and hygiene. If you can’t wash, you can’t keep clean and then illness is a matter of course. The ideal is a gas, diesel or engine-heated shower, if there’s plenty of water available, but you can wash quite thoroughly in a bucket of water.
If water is really scarce, as it is on any long desert run, don’t wash with water but use alcohol gel and thick baby wipes instead. It’s surprising how refreshing a ‘baby wipe wash’ can be.
We stab our toilet shovel into the ground, with the ‘toilet duty’ bag hooked over the top of it. The duty bag contains a date roll, baby wipes, alcohol gel, matches for burning ‘loo paper and a snake-bite compression bandage. No-one wants to get bitten on the foot by a passing snake, but you never
The golden rule for successful eating
when camping is not to take anything you wouldn’t eat at home. If you couldn’t face tinned sausages or stew on a Saturday night in front of the telly,
why would you expect to enjoy them in the bush?
That said, camping imposes some eating restrictions, because Domino’s doesn’t make house calls Outback. We love eating fresh eggs in the scrub, but packing them can be tricky. We’ve found that egg cartons work fine, provided they’re kept secure with rubber bands.
If we have space we pack spuds, because there’s nothing nicer than ‘chromed’ spuds – potatoes wrapped in foil – cooked in campfire coals.
Cryovac meat is a godsend, if you have a car fridge, because meat will keep for weeks if the bags remain intact. A trick is to pack all the cryovac stuff inside hard plastic containers, so other fridge freight can’t tear the bags.
Beer cans are more fragile than you think and can rub through while you’re travelling over corrugated roads, so pop them in stubby holders, or wrap them in paper. Glass is more durable, strangely, but makes for more rubbish volume you’ll have to carry with you out of remote areas. We take top-shelf cask plonk, but some of our wine-buff mates pack bottles very carefully.
We use small packs of UHT skim milk, because there’s no left-over milk to pack into the fridge. Alternatives are milk in screw-top plastic bottles and milk powder.
We constantly hear of camping horror stories, but if you practice on short trips before you attempt the Big One and select the right place, the right time, the right company and the gear that works for you, every trip will be sensational. See you Outback.