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Entry Level Camping: It’s Okay to be Cheap

I love camping, so from time to time, I will visit a RV (recreational vehicle) dealership to look at the new popup campers, fifth-wheel campers, and travel trailers. I go primarily to look and dream a little, and I prefer to look on my own without being bothered by a sales person. However, during a recent visit to a RV dealer, I was met by a very energetic and aggressive young salesman who would not leave me alone, but hey, he was doing his job. The guy was very friendly and helpful and provided a lot of useful information about the different camper models on display. Everything was going smoothly until he asked me if I owned a camper and what kind it was. My present camper, a twenty-six foot travel trailer is a year old, and although it is rather plain, my wife and I are very proud of it, so I quickly spouted out the manufacturer, model, and dimensions. I wasn’t expecting the salesman’s jaw to drop in awe, but I certainly wasn’t expecting him to be totally unimpressed either. Unimpressed is an understatement, he sadly shook his head and said, “Yeah, that is a good entry level model.” I am sure he did not intend his “entry level” comment to be a put down, but for me, the only way his words could have been a bigger insult and turn-off would have been for him to begin or end his comment with “bless your heart.” As a salesman, he probably knew a lot about campers, but it was apparent, he knew very little about camping. I have been an “entry level” camper for over forty years, and I am not ashamed to say so!

Anyone who camps is at some point an “entry level” camper. They start camping with something that is affordable such as a tent, so they can see if they like camping before they drop a lot of money into it. That makes perfect sense, and that is exactly how I would encourage anyone to start as a camper. My “entry level” into camping was with the Boy Scouts when I was eleven years old. The old military tent my Scoutmaster borrowed from Camp Shelby did not have a floor, and the roof leaked profusely when it rained that first night at Camp TIAK. In spite of the rain, I was hooked on camping. Years later, I was lucky enough to marry a lady who enjoyed camping as much as I did, or at least she was willing to give it a try. We went on family vacations and weekend trips to the lake with our three children in a tent for years. My wife would have preferred a little more comfort, but she never complained. My daughter went camping because she had no choice, and my two boys would eventually become Eagle Scouts, so they enjoyed tent camping as much if not more than I did. When the boys and I went camping on Boy Scout outings, we often slept under nothing more than a tarp stretched to form an “A” frame between two trees or between a walking staff at one end and a tent stake hammered into the ground at the other end. We spent many nights during the heat of summer and the frigid cold of winter under nothing more than a blue polyethylene tarp shelter. Although I now find the ground more compacted and harder than it was when I was younger, sleeping under a tarp in the open air is still my favorite style of camping. Other than lying on the ground naked under the stars, you can’t get much more “entry level” than a tarp shelter. In fact, there was a time in my life when I looked at tent camping as an unnecessary luxury.

Now, I am not going to lie to you, tent camping is a robust style of “entry level” camping that is not for everyone. During those early years, my wife would have preferred to walk through a real door than crawl through a tent door, and she would have rather crawled into a bed than wiggle into a sleeping bag. Sweating and suffocating in a tent during the summer because the door flap could not be tied open to let in a cool breeze due to swarming mosquitoes was not her idea of having fun, nor was stumbling in the dark to get to the bathhouse toilet something she looked forward to in the middle of the night. My daughter never bought into the romance of camping. Spending time with “yucky” bugs, no air conditioning, no mirrors, sharing a bathhouse with strangers, and the absence of a telephone (there were no cell phones in the early 90s) did not equate to a good time for her. So why did we tent camp? Was it because it was “the man thing to do” or that I was a male chauvinist and the guys ruled the roost? Nope, not at all! We tent camped because I was cheap, and the only reason I got away with it was because my wife was even cheaper.

After twenty-two years of marriage and tent camping, we finally upgraded to a popup camper, which is considered to be “entry level” to travel trailers. We loved that popup camper (Note: Any time I say “we loved,” please understand I am excluding my daughter). For the first time in our camping lives, we had air conditioning, running water, light that did not come from a flame, and although it was not much softer than the ground we had slept on for years, we had a bed off the ground. For the first time, we did not have to worry about a squirrel or skunk gnawing a hole in the side of the tent to get at the potato chips one of the kids had left on the tent floor. We actually had a place we could plug in a small heater during colder months without fear of waking up in flames in the middle of the night. There was still no indoor bathroom, but by this time in our camping careers, we were accustomed to the community spirit and camaraderie of showering and dressing in the presence of strangers in spider web infested bath houses, so all was good. That is until Hurricane Katrina came along and sucked the life out of our beautiful little Coleman popup camper. After that it was back to tent camping, or so I thought. Unfortunately, my wife had been spoiled by the good life in the popup camper and laid down the law that she would never ever set foot in a tent again in her lifetime. My daughter was so proud of her mom, but she had sworn off camping forever a couple of years earlier, so I didn’t think she should have anything to say about the matter – she and her mom proved me wrong. Even the boys, my camping buddies, were more into music, sports, friends, and girls by this time, so the decision to return to tent camping was decided between me and my wife with undue influence from my meddling daughter – I lost.

Over time, bad or unpleasant memories can often be replaced by the romance of nostalgia, so after three, maybe four years, I was able to nurse my wife’s feelings about camping back to health. On Sunday afternoons, we would go for a drive and as luck would have it, we almost always found a campground to drive through. Driving around the campsites, we saw campers riding bicycles, cooking burgers on the grill, taking leisurely walks, or reclining in a lounge chair reading. The sight of this easy-going lifestyle began to beacon to my wife once again. By this time, she was far enough removed from camping that her memories of mosquitoes as big as a quarter, food blanketed by flies, sweat burning our eyes as we set up camp during a summer heat wave, and me losing my religion trying to back a camper onto a camping pad were cloaked by the passion of the moment. When it became her idea to take leisurely Sunday drives through nearby campgrounds, I started looking at tents in Walmart. I should have known better. There was not enough time left in the universe to heal my wife’s aversion to tent camping, so she gave me a choice – upgrade to our first “entry level” travel trailer or forget camping ever again.

We bought a small travel trailer thinking it would be perfect for just the two of us when we retired. It was perfect! It had a full kitchen, a queen size bed, a dinette table that dropped down to make an extra bed if needed, and a full bath with a shower that had hot water. However, we quickly learned that rarely would it be just the two of us camping. All six grandchildren decided they wanted to go camping! As much as we were thrilled the grandkids wanted to camp with us, we realized two things quickly: first, there was barely enough room in our small travel trailer for us, much less six extra little energetic bodies, and second, there was no way in Hades that we were going to be trapped in a tin can with six wild Indians. We upgraded again! Because we were still cheap, we bought another “entry level” travel trailer, but at least this time it was longer and had bunk beds. We also decided for our sanity that we would take no more than two grandchildren on any camping trip. However, shortly after getting the new camper, we caved in and took three of the mud-slugs with us camping, and thereby, shot that resolution to hell. But, that’s really a good thing. Camping is a lot like Disney World; it’s the smile on children’s faces that make it so special, especially if the faces belong to your grandchildren.

This past weekend, with the possibility of another upgrade in mind, I went camper gawking again. I looked at a few fifth-wheel campers and some travel trailers longer than my house. Compared to my house, the interiors of these mammoth beasts were slicker than a Persian harem. They had everything: central heat and air, a vacuum system built into the walls, refrigerators bigger than my truck, the latest sound and television systems complete with satellite cable and Internet, Lazy Boy recliners and sofas, full luxury bathrooms, and master bedrooms that made the master bedroom in my house look like Hotel 6. Basically, when you drove or pulled one of these beauties down the highway, you were pulling a luxury condo on wheels. It would have been nice to experience such comfort and luxury, but the condo like price tag that accompanied these RVs placed them way out of my league. However, I gained a new respect for the folks who own such monsters. I walked away with the same awe and admiration for them that I feel for professional truck drivers driving and maneuvering their huge rigs down the interstate. I can’t imagine how a normal person can possibly feel comfortable driving or pulling a forty to sixty foot RV down a crowded highway much less maneuver it through narrow campgrounds. To be honest, I would probably wet my pants if I knew I had to drive something that big out the dealer’s front gate much less in traffic. Since I don’t wish to embarrass myself or wear adult diapers, I left those mega-beasts sitting at the dealership for someone a lot braver than I am. I walked away without upgrading, but I have never felt so at peace or thankful that my wife and I are both cheap.

My wife and I are comfortable being cheap, and our grandchildren could care less what kind of camper we have as long as we invite them to go camping. Besides, I did not buy a camper to sit inside in a Lazy Boy recliner and watch television; if that is what I wanted to do, I would stay at home. We bought our camper to have a place to comfortably sleep at night, so we can rest and be ready the next day to get outdoors and enjoy nature, reading, hiking, visiting, and playing with the grandkids. That is the beauty of camping; you can go “entry level” or you can bring your own condo if you prefer; it’s really a personal preference. In all our years of camping, we have never met another camper who looked down on us because our tent, popup, or travel trailer was less expensive or less luxurious than their RV. That is not what camping is about. With camping, the main thing is to get out of the house and enjoy life. The television and telephone will be there when you get back, so turn them off and disconnect yourself from the world and reconnect with family and friends. Like camping, every family and friendship begin at the “entry level” with room to upgrade. To upgrade your connection with those you love, all you need is more quality time together, and camping is the perfect place to find and nurture that quality time.

Let’s go camping!

JL

©Jack Linton, PhD January 15, 2016

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