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4. The Camp

A list is a fine thing, and just as equipment and provisions were first reduced to simple lists and then expanded with comment, the routine of camping itself can also be summarized. To the inexperienced, the following suggestions may seem altogether too much of a routine, almost a drill. After all, camping is a sport. One goes to the mountains to escape routine, to forget for a while the efficient monotony of earning a livelihood, to relax the tensions and inhibitions of the struggle for existence, to loaf. Precisely for this reason an order, an economy, of camp making is necessary, unless one wishes to spend most of the time housekeeping. Puttering around can be done just as well at home, there is not much sense in traveling thirty miles from a road, climbing passes and fording creeks, just to get in one’s own way. And unless properly organized, housekeeping, or rather campkeeping, will certainly monopolize many precious hours.

Pick your companions carefully, be sure they can adjust themselves to coordinated group work; examine yourself, be sure you can and do. Nothing will spoil a trip more effectively than someone who bickers and shirks his responsibilities. Then divide up the work, either permanently or in regular rotation. Have a packer and horse wrangler, a cook, a dishwasher, someone responsible for the tents and bedding, someone for wood and water. Be sure the work is equally divided, then stick to the divisions. The ideal camp is a miniature anarchist community, straight out of Kropotkin. Each goes about his appointed task quietly and efficiently, the functions of the group are shared with spontaneous equality, problems are settled by consultation rather than controversy, and whatever leadership exists is based solely on experience and ability. [One of the most famous proponents of a more cooperative social order once attacked the professional patriots in an article entitled “Daniel Boone Belongs to Us.” I believe he was wiser than he knew.] The mountains and glaciers, the forests and streams of America are a heritage shared equally by all the people, and they are not simply “recreation areas,” but training grounds for group living and group sharing. [The commercial “organized camp” has too often, under the guise of “patriotism,” and discipline, fostered totalitarian ways of thinking and doing which are anything but patriotic.] Each group that hikes or rides along the trail by day contented and alert, and makes camp at night “decently and in order” is a sort of test tube or kindergarten of the good life. So don’t forget, when it’s your turn to wash the dishes, the centuries are watching you.

[The three sentences within brackets are crossed out in the MS.]


Making Camp:

water and pasture or picket stock
inspect pasture fences and gates
stow harness
sling pulleys
pitch and ditch tent if stormy, dig hip hole
lay bed before ground gets damp
build or repair cooking fireplace
build or repair campfire place
dig latrine
gather and cut wood for supper and breakfast
cover wood if stormy
lay fires
get grub and utensils ready
fetch water for cooking and night
light cook fire
cook (keep grub and gear together)
wash dishes
stow grub and gear on pulleys or under covers
light campfire
move picketed stock
take a look about

Breaking Camp:

move and water picketed stock
fetch water
spread bed and break tents
light fire
cook, eat
wash dishes
pack, roll bed last
fetch and pack stock
burn refuse
cover latrine
take a last look
extinguish fires thoroughly
take another last look

Excellent campsites are plentiful in the Sierra Nevada and seldom more than four miles apart, usually much closer together. Until late summer most of them have sufficient feed for one animal nearby; large parties with several pack animals should inquire about feed conditions from rangers and packers before starting and plan their stops accordingly. USGS and Forest Service maps show all principal meadows. Three generations of campers have equipped most of the better campsites with tables, benches, bough beds, and fireplaces of a more or less makeshift sort, and recently the Civilian Conservation Corps has constructed a number of solidly built fireplaces and tables, and sometimes latrines and refuse pits, in the more popular areas. It is wisest to use these conveniences where they exist, camping at random along the trail litters the forest and increases the risk of fire.

With or without previously built conveniences, a good campsite should possess the following qualifications: (1) water; (2) wood; (3) drainage; (4) feed for stock; (5) a pool or lake for bathing; (6) an impressive view; (7) freedom from fire hazard; (8) a level spot for the beds, and trees or poles for the tent; (9) a fireplace or rocks to make one; and (10) privacy from other campers.

The question of water supply is treated in the chapter on health and first aid; most mountain water is safe. Except above the timberline wood is usually plentiful. Avoid traveling in the wake of an extremely large party, or at least use other campsites than those they have just deserted. Some of the larger clubs will leave the region about a camp exhausted of feed, fuel, and fish for the rest of the season. If you plan to camp above timberline do not neglect to load some firewood at the last trees. The site should be sufficiently elevated above its surroundings to ensure adequate drainage. Never camp in a meadow, which is usually a marsh and always cold and damp, in dense stands of timber, or in a gulley or creek bottom. Avoid dead or leaning trees, they may topple over without the slightest warning; and at high elevations, or if there is the slightest possibility of rain, stay away from very tall ones. Most summer storms in the mountains are accompanied by lightning. The best site is on sandy soil, near a stream or lake, and in an open grove of medium-sized, or at least uniform, timber. Ideally, the camp should be exposed to the first rays of the rising and the last rays of the setting sun. Avoid deep shade, such areas are usually damp, impenetrable by breezes, insect ridden, and littered with fire hazards. Each animal should have approximately 1200 square feet of good grass to feed on during the night, i.e. an area of 60 by 60 feet, or that within the radius of a long picket rope. [60 x 60 is actually 3600 square feet.] With a little practice, the temperature of the water in the deepest mountain lakes can be borne, shallower bodies, particularly moraine ponds, are often quite warm. Streams, on the other hand, are usually too cold for bathing. Never swim alone in a deep cold lake, or in a pool in a large stream. Never try to swim in rough water. The mountains are chock full of magnificent views, arrange the camp to take full advantage of the scenery. Do not camp in an area surrounded by down timber or a thick growth of young trees. Clear all needles, branches, etc., away from the vicinity of the fires.

Most campsites will have an old bed of boughs or pine needles about somewhere, use it if it is at all suitable. Thickly packed needles are often damp, so examine such a bed before spreading the sleeping bags. Try always to pitch the tent to small trees or overhanging limbs. If every camper were to cut tent poles at every campsite all the young growth would soon be destroyed. Use strong dead saplings in preference to living ones. Examine the drainage about the bed or tent carefully, even the smallest gulley can pour a lot of water down your neck in a storm. If you find a fireplace use it, nothing makes an uglier camp than a chaos of ashes, dead coals and blackened rocks. Camp at a discreet distance from other parties; even if you feel very sociable, others may not.

Unpacking is just as much of an art as packing. Don’t sling things around at random. Spread a poncho or ground cloth and arrange the necessary supplies for the night on it. Leave everything else in the pack. (Unpacking and removing the harness from stock is described in the chapter on horses and packing.) Water and pasture your stock before you do anything more. If the animal is to be picketed, lead it to a dusty place to roll. Give the animal plenty of time to drink, trail-broken horses will not founder themselves [i.e. will not overdrink]. Pasture fences and gates, particularly in early summer before repair crews have been through, are likely to be in disrepair. If you are mounted, ride fence. Nothing wastes more time than strayed animals. Stow all harness off the ground, preferably on an overhanging limb, with the saddle blankets exposed to the air. Salty, oily leather is a favorite hors d’oeuvre with mice, rats, porcupine, bear and deer, not the mention the rare but gluttonous wolverine.

Make one pulley and one end of your cache rope fast to an overhanging limb. Run the rope through the other pulley and then through the fast one. With this rig you can raise considerable weights with ease. If the limb is out of reach, the first pulley can be attached to a rope, tossed over and secured with a couple of loops thrown around the limb and twitched until they cross, and the rope tied to the trunk of the tree.

Storms in the mountains west of the Continental Divide usually blow up from the southwest, travel along the main crest, shifting westward along the lateral ridges, and take about three days to accumulate and three days to exhaust themselves in intermittent rainstorms, which usually occur in midmorning and midafternoon, seldom at night. They are always accompanied with lightning and usually with moderately strong winds. [Illegible marginal addition here.] This, however, is only a generalization; if there is any threat of rain, pitch your tent securely and ditch it thoroughly. If you haven’t a tent, rig whatever shelter you can, but stay away from tall trees, you can’t run from lightning bundled in a sleeping bag. Dig the ditches as close to the cloth as you can without cutting it, with the vertical side of the ditch towards the tent and the sloping side out. Don’t pile the dirt against the tent, it will rot the canvas. Run the ditch around all sides and dig runoff ditches at the corners and at the center stakes. Be careful not to undermine the stakes.

Clear the ground under the bed from rocks, branches, and pine cones, lie down and find the most comfortable spot, then dig a hole about three inches deep and a foot in diameter (or large enough to accommodate your posterior) under your hips. If the ground slopes, put the head high. Then spread the bed. The dry needles of the yellow and sugar pines make a fair mattress, red fir and the “short-haired” pines, lodgepole, foxtail and whitebark, make middling fair bough beds, by no means as comfortable as some eastern conifers.

A bough bed is a lot of trouble and is none too good for the trees. It requires an amazing quantity of boughs and the utmost care to be comfortable, and is therefore suited only to semipermanent camps, and is not advised even for them. However, if you insist on making one, you might as well do it right. Cut only a few heavily needled boughs from each tree. Trim them in lengths of less than one foot. Place a small log at the head and two logs along the sides and lay a course of boughs against like shingles, but curved side up and with the butts slanted toward the ground. Continue to lay course after course in this manner, leaving only about three to five inches of the last course exposed, until you reach the bottom. Put another log at the bottom. Spread the sleeping bag or bags and adjust the logs to them. Secure the logs with stakes at the end of each log. Don’t believe the books which tell you that this is more comfortable than the finest mattress, it isn’t.

Once more, don’t build unnecessary fireplaces. The cookfire should be built of flat rocks, piled in two rows about ten inches high, as long as the grill and four inches closer together than its width, or as close as the bottom of your pots if you haven’t a grill, and slightly wider at the front than the rear. Between them, hollow out a trench about three inches deep, sloping up to the rear and widening and deepening to a shallow pit before the fire. Don’t dig it too deep or too near the rocks; granite sands will not support a real trench, and your fireplace will collapse if undermined. Build the fireplace with the rear against a large rock or make a rock wall, higher than the sides, for a back. The sides should be parallel to the wind and the front toward the wind. You can tell which way the wind is blowing by lighting a match. Sweep all refuse away from the fireplace with a pine branch.

All the campfire needs is a space cleared of inflammable needles and other refuse, and a rock or wall of rocks opposite the direction of the wind for a back wall.

Always build a latrine, and be sure everyone knows where it is. A trench one foot deep and two or three feet long is sufficient for a small overnight camp. Heap the dirt along side and cover as used. Gather and bury all refuse any previous campers may have left about.

Firewood is abundant except on the desert ranges. It isn’t of the very finest quality, no western tree can compare with shagbark hickory for cooking purposes, but most of it ignites easily and burns with a fat, hot flame, and due to the aridity of the climate and the well-drained soil, it is usually dry. Pine wood burns with a very sooty flame, and that is why an aluminum tray makes the best stove top. Use only dead wood; green coniferous wood, if it can be ignited at all, soon chars and goes out. In rainy weather squaw wood, that is, the lower dead branches of living trees, should be used to start fires. Don’t disdain the high driftwood left along creeks by the spring floods. If dry it makes excellent firewood. Thick branches of dead brush are good too, in fact manzanita is probably California’s best firewood. Most brush is so twisted that it balks beneath the axe and should be chopped with great care. Here is a list of the commonest woods and their fire-making qualities:


all pines, timberline trees particularly

LESS SOOTY (in order of cleanness of flame):

big tree
Douglas fir

HOT COALS (in order):

timberline wood
mountain mahogany
wild plum
cedar          (hot but brief)
limber pine      "    "     "
big tree           "     "    "


decayed timberline logs
lodgepole pine (particularly squaw wood)
very dry driftwood
dead manzanita
dry ceanothus and other chaparral
yellow pine
sugar pine
big tree, if very dry
cedar, if very dry
Douglas fir


timberline trees, particularly juniper

As a general rule, the heavier the wood (if it is dry), the more slowly it will burn; the harder the wood, the hotter the coals; the softer the wood, if it be without pitch, the cleaner the flame. Woods rich in pitch will give a fat, quick flame and a bright light. Rotten wood, in the damp, deciduous forest of the East, is poor firewood; it burns slowly, if at all, and makes a punky, smoky fire. Decayed coniferous wood, on the other hand, particularly the firm outer crust of decayed “short-haired” pine logs, makes a fine fire, and the undersides of such logs, if they are clear of the ground, will provide firewood in rainy weather. A small fire, just big enough to do the work required of it, is best. Never build “bonfires” and never build a fire against a tree, log or stump.

If you had an unlimited supply of paper, matches, and time, you could afford to build fires any which way, but since you are not so supplied, it pays to learn how to do it properly. The most difficult fire to build is one in rainy weather. I will describe that and you can simplify the procedure to suit yourself.

Gather an armful of dry branches about as thick, at the butts, as your thumb, from standing timber, another armful of similar branches about two inches to three in diameter and an armful of dry wood chopped from the center or underside of a decayed log. Strip the bark from the branches and split them into four pieces. Take four of the smallest pieces and shave them with your knife, leaving the shavings attached to the stick. Make a little tent of these towards the front of the fireplace with the curls down. If it is raining, shelter them with your hat. Have the rest of the wood piled within reach. Light the shavings, and as the flame catches, add the smallest sticks first, one at a time, adjusting them to the flame and carefully preserving the structure of the tent. Don’t put on too much, give the fire just enough to feed it as it grows. As soon as all the small sticks have caught, add the large ones, crossing them carefully to leave spaces between and beneath them for draught. If you wish to be very precise, you can start the fire in a triangle of medium-sized sticks, each laid with one end on the ground and one end on its neighbor, and add the larger fuel, interlaced in similar fashion, to this base. If you are an inexperienced camper, it is a good idea to build all fires this way, then when you have to you will know how. Take care of your matches, it is practically impossible to strike a hot spark from granite, and a friction-stick fire requires exactly the right wood and lots of experience.

Things are easily lost if strewn haphazardly around camp. Keep everything you are not using packed away, and before dark lay out all the food and utensils for supper with a flashlight on a poncho near the fireplace. Then you will be able to find it after dark. It is best to cook while it is still light, but if you have to cook in the dark, keep everything together and the flashlight handy. Fish are not improved by being stepped in, and you can’t lap up spilled tea. Don’t lay the cooking fork or knife on the fireplace, it is liable to be knocked into the fire, or get hot and burn your fingers. Some camp cooks seem to suffer from an occupational neurosis, they work in a mounting fever of anxiety, verging on hysteria. Keep calm and the supper will taste better.

Mountain trails are dusty and one perspires lavishly in the dry air. It is wise to bathe thoroughly at night and take a short dip every morning. Of course the water is cold, and it is painful at first for some, but it pays to persist, nothing is more refreshing, and if you don’t, you will soon feel muggy and depressed and begin to itch.

Always wash the dishes immediately after eating; the longer you put it off, the more distasteful it becomes, and the harder the dishes are to get clean.

All wild animals are at least inquisitive about your supplies, and bears, wolverines, deer, rats, and even mice, can do sufficient damage to end the trip right there. Stow everything out of reach before you settle down around the campfire for the night. If you are careless, you may spend several nights without anything being harmed, but the fateful night is sure to come, and then it is too late.

Before you go to bed, move any animals you may have picketed away from the cold bottom of the meadow. Drive the stake in the meadow, less than the picket rope’s length from the dry ground at the edge of the trees. Once they have eaten all they want, that is where the stock will spend the night. Horses should never be picketed if it can be avoided, and mules only if there is plenty of feed. Either a pair of hobbles, or a bell, or both, is a lot better for the animal. Most burros will feed contentedly on a picket rope, and few will permit themselves to be hobbled.

Finally, before retiring, take a look around with the flashlight. Camp gear is elusive, and sometimes gets left out at night in even the most orderly camps.

There is a tradition, fostered by “The Boy Scouts and the Yellow Men of Antares” type of fiction, and perpetuated by a few sadistic camp directors, that the best way to begin the day is to rush from a warm bed at dawn and plunge headlong into the nearest body of cold water, the colder, the better. This is supposed to be toughening and invigorating. Maybe it is, in a way, but you can get too tough and vigorous with your heart, and when you do, it is liable to stop beating. Get up as early as you can, camping is a daylight occupation, but wait a few minutes before bathing. Go out and look at your pack animals; if picketed, they have probably twisted themselves up in their ropes; water them and stake them out again in a patch of good feed. In California, “shorthair grass,” in the Rockies, “bunchgrass,” growing on dry ground is good. Then bathe.

If you are traveling continuously, your bedding will need all the airing it can get. Spread it in the sunlight, off the ground, on bushes or a rope, and break the tents. Air mattresses are rotted by sun, if they are damp, hang them in the shade to dry.

After breakfast, arrange the supplies on a poncho, take an inventory to see that nothing is missing, and pack the knapsack or kyacks. [Kyacks, not to be confused with kayak boats, are the packsacks that hang on either side of a pack animal.] Pack carefully and systematically, bacon deep in the pack where it will keep cool, butter with the meal and flour sacks around it, soft stuff around the cook kit and other things that dent or smash easily, and the lunch, first aid kit, rope, machete, and flashlight on top. It is wise to put up each day’s lunch in the morning in a separate oiled silk bag, and carry it in a knapsack or at the rear top corner of the left kyack where it can be got out easily. Of course if the party plans to separate, individual lunches should be carried in knapsacks. Each knapsack always should contain, if nothing else, a sweater, some prepared bandage strips, a clean razor blade, some rope, and an oiled silk package of “iron rations,” a few matches, a piece of chocolate, a handful of raisons, a handful of nuts and some flat bread or hardtack.

After the kyacks are ready, bring the stock to the edge of, but not into, the camp, and load up, leaving the roll of bedding to the last so that it can get plenty of airing. Then bury all the refuse you couldn’t burn, cover the latrine, put out the fire with plenty of water and dirt (feel of it to be sure), look around to see if anything has been left, and you are ready to go.

Make it a rule to leave the campsite neat and shipshape, in better condition than you found it. Clean up all bits of paper and burn them, bury all cans and rags, leave the fireplace ready for the next comer, and never destroy homemade furniture or other conveniences. If there should happen to be any boards or boxes about, don’t use them for firewood, others may have use for them.

Never, under any circumstances, short of immediate danger of starvation, disturb a cache or break into a cabin. If you should happen to get waylaid in the mountains in winter and find it necessary to use someone else’s supplies, report it as soon as you reach a telephone. Government tool caches are for use in firefighting, most cabin caches are for the winter use of trappers and snow measurers. Even if nothing is taken, tampering may expose them to later vandals, human or animal, and lead to a serious forest fire or a death from starvation. Incidentally, the violation of a cache is justly punished with the full severity of the law.

Never throw refuse of any sort into a stream. Clean fish a short distance away from camp with a pan of water, and burn the offal. And don’t throw dishwater on the ground; it will attract flies and leave a penetrating, unpleasant odor which will hang over the camp for a long time. Tin cans should be first burned and then pounded flat and buried. Any cooking utensils which may have “come with” the camp should be left bottom side up, off the ground. Empty the dishwater in the latrine or refuse pit. The latrine is also the place for the ashes, which should never be left heaped around the fireplace. Keep stock out of camp, manure is unsatisfactory material for bedding.

For larger parties the routine is essentially the same. There is more to do, but it should be done in the same way. Shelves should be hung free of trees and branches, preferably on a pulley so they can be pulled out of the reach of bears at night. The cooler should be similarly hung, not placed at the edge of a stream, or it will be emptied by a skunk, marten, fisher, bear, or in the lower altitudes, ringtailed cats, or kicked over by deer. Put a flat pan of water on top of the cooler and let the upper ends of the canvas or burlap covering hang from it. The cloth can be held under the water with a couple of small rocks. This arrangement is vermin proof and much colder than the cooler with its base immersed in water.

A cooking crane with pothooks is unnecessary with a grill or other covering for the fireplace, but artists always include them in pictures of campfires and some people prefer them. The simplest and most solid construction is the best. Cut two poles an inch and a half or more in thickness, and two feet or more long, each with a thick branch at one end. Cut the branch off four inches from the crotch and leave four inches of the pole above. Cut this end straight so you can pound on it, and sharpen the other end. Drive these forks into the ground about three feet apart on opposite sides of the fireplace. Cut another pole of similar thickness, but without branches, three and one-half feet long and insert it in the forks. Use green, deciduous wood, cherry is good, and leave the bark on. Don’t have too large a cross pole or someone will knock against it and spill everything in the fire. Pot hooks are best made of 10-gauge wire, bent in an S shape and of various lengths, so that the pots can be adjusted to the heat of the fire. Lacking wire, a forked stick may be hung over the crane and a notch cut in the lower end to hold the pot. Be sure the fork is long enough not to slip off and cut the notch diagonally downwards, on the same side as the fork. It is never shown this way in pictures, but it will support the pot with greater stability. If the notch is cut above a knot, it is less likely to chip out. If you plan to make bannock, build a similar crane of two forked sticks and a pole in front of the circular pit, but make it only as high as the diameter of the frying pan. If a Dutch oven is to be used, a hole should be dug for it. A good base can be made for a portable wood stove by staking out a rectangular frame of logs, slightly wider in inside measurement than the stove, and filling it with sand and rocks.

In a large party those pursuing various activities tend to get in each other’s way unless the camp is rigidly divided into “rooms.” The region about the cookfire should be set aside as a kitchen, sacrosanct to the cook and his assistant. Similarly, there should be a washstand, latrines for Ladies and Gents, a dining table, and if possible, at least one other table, hitching racks for saddle stock and for feeding and shoeing (a heavy rope stretched between two trees makes a good one) and the sleeping quarters should be thirty feet or so away from the cookfire.

If you care to take the time and trouble, all sorts of furniture may be constructed in a permanent camp. Chairs of the steamer type can be made from poles and feed bags or pieces of canvas. Tables can be made of poles and topped with shakes or thin wands of willow or cherry. An oven can be built like the fireplace, only larger, roofed with a slab or slabs of granite, sealed with sods, and equipped with a tin-can chimney; or an oil can, with the top cut free on three sides, laid on a foundation of rocks, covered with sods, and with a hole at the rear of the top, makes a good small oven. No doubt all these contrivances make life more comfortable, though the ovens, even if well made, are seldom as good as a reflector, but figuring out how to make them is half the pleasure.


Chapter 4 of Kenneth Rexroth’s Camping in the Western Mountains (unpublished manuscript, ca. 1939). Copyright 2003. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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