Camping On The Run

I experienced one of my worst nights in the backcountry during Hal Koerner’s 2003 Colorado Trail then-record-setting run. We had covered roughly 50 miles of high-altitude mountain trails that day. Along the way, intermittent but strong rain and sleet showers pelted us and soaked through our rain gear. By the time we arrived at our campsite, we were chilled to the bone. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet and my knees ached. I just couldn’t get warm. The wet weather permeated everything, leaving even my dry clothes damp. We were more than 100 miles from the nearest warm shower and the stove-warmed mac and cheese just wasn’t satisfying my appetite. I slept like crap, awoke to find ice hanging from the ceiling of the tent, and my breath froze before it passed my lips. I had absolutely no desire to head out for another 50-mile day of more of the same.

Whether by choice or necessity, camping has become commonplace in ultrarunning culture. The rise of multi-day events, the increased popularity of FKT (fastest known time) attempts, and the quest for adventure have led to an increased number of people spending their nights under the stars. Camping, like training, requires a special skill set so that you can stay safe and comfortable. A dismal night spent in the backcountry, like mine on the Colorado Trail, can leave you wrecked and ruin your adventure. Let’s look at how to get a good night’s sleep outdoors.

Types of Camping

‘Camping’ means something different to everybody. For some, a stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel is roughing it while others sleep soundly in a bivy sack.

This was the type of camping Hal and I were doing on the Colorado Trail. Sage to Summit, Bishop, California’s, outdoor retail store, aptly describes fastpacking’s two discerning characteristics: “1) Rapid, long-distance mountain travel, on foot, over multiple days, involving camps or bivouacs, and 2) Refined equipment choices and practiced skill sets that allow for both rapid movement and self-sufficiency in a remote mountain setting.” Because speed is of the essence, runners may have crews meet them along the route with food and other supplies or they may cache gear ahead of time. Another form of fastpacking is utilizing a hut system like in the White Mountains of New Hampshire or in the European Alps where room and board are supplied each night.

When we transition from fastpacking to backpacking, speed and distance traveled per day are sacrificed and the amount of supplies is increased. In general, a backpacker carries more food, clothes, a stove, a more protective tent, and a larger pack to accommodate the extra gear. Campsites may change each evening or a base camp may be created in one location so that daily runs are held from a single spot. For example, several years ago, Karl Meltzer and I backpacked 12 miles into Wyoming’s Wind River Range, set up camp at Island Lake, and ran remote mountain loops from this site each day for five days.

Car Camping
This is probably the most popular kind of hotel-less overnighting. You can either stay inside your automobile (like an RV, truck, or van) or use the vehicle to haul all the comforts of home right to the campsite. You can car camp at developed campgrounds with electricity and showers or far from modern improvements. I car camped before Zane Grey Highline Trail 50 Mile, San Juan Trail 50k, Mesquite Canyon 50k, Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run, and Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 Mile because the start lines are far from the nearest available lodging. I’ve also utilized my truck as a supply wagon while exploring remote trailheads in northern Arizona, central Nevada, and California’s Sierra Nevada.

The Nitty-Gritty

New York City runner Mary Arnold arrived at this year’s three-day PepsiCo TransRockies Run, a stage race in the Colorado mountains, a camping newbie. Upon seeing a field of 400 tents at the first night’s camp, she felt overwhelmed. How would I ever find my tent, thought Arnold. “Getting up and hiking to the bathroom was definitely going to be a problem. Once I was inside my tent I found that they weren’t designed for tall people like me.” Camping for first timers, whether it be for one night or several, can be a daunting task.

Site Selection
Picking where you’ll bed down for the evening is like picking your wardrobe for the day–your decision will impact how comfortable you’ll be for the next 12 hours. Campsites that overlook a deep canyon or have a view of a lake are idyllic, but if you’re not careful to take into account where you’ll be resting your head the night could end up anything but restful. Before you stake out, tie it up, or park your bed for the evening it’s best to keep these factors in mind.

  • Inspect the ground. Ensure that the ground is level and void of rocks, roots, and hummocks that can make your back sore the next morning. Though it may look silly, lie down on the exact spot you’ll place your pad and sleeping bag before setting up your tent and double-check for unseen bumps and lumps. Do not pitch your tent in a low spot that can collect rainwater.
  • Look up. Make sure you’re not setting up underneath dead limbs or trees that could be blown loose during the night.
  • Search for tranquility. If possible, set up away from busy roads and neighboring campers. The noise from passing traffic and late night partiers can ruin your evening.
Kanitz Campsite

Tent site location is key. Here’s Kanitz’s tent just inches away from a deep pool of runoff after a hailstorm at TransRockies. Photo: Kimberly Kanitz

Kimberly Kanitz, an ultrarunner from Las Vegas, completed the six-day event at TransRockies. “I’d only camped one other time in my life and my naivety showed,” she says. “On the first night I picked a tent that was near the Porta Potties, and after unpacking, I realized my tent was on a slant. All night long there was a constant slamming of bathroom doors and I kept flip-flopping in my sleeping bag for even blood flow. I probably got two hours of sleep.”

The nearest hotel was miles away and it was impossible to distance herself from the others for some peace and quiet. In this case, there are some preventative measures you can take. Wisconsin’s Carol Ann Lussenden, also a finisher of this year’s TransRockies, anticipated the noise issue. “I used ear plugs to dull the camp noise and I took a natural sleep aid that helped me get a few decent nights of sleep.”

When we leave the comfort of our homes to camp, remember that Mother Nature determines the climate, so be prepared for all conditions, however unlikely.

Jana Gustman, who’s completed long adventure runs around the world, ventured to Washington for a run around Mount Rainier on the Wonderland Trail. Against her better judgment, she decided to camp (instead of staying in lodges) with the group she was with. “On the second day, the weather had turned cold and rainy, and we had been on the trail for 11 hours. I was shivering and my teeth were chattering when we got to the campsite, which was completely under water,” laments Gustman. “Night was falling and I knew that there was no way for me to get warm even if I put on every piece of dry clothing I had. I was chilled to the bone.  Even if I made it through the night without going hypothermic, I couldn’t imagine running the final 20-plus miles in the rain the next day in such a depleted state. So I pulled the plug on the adventure.”

Keeping yourself and your equipment warm and dry in the backcountry is no small task and requires pre-planning. Here are a few tips that’ll keep you from experiencing Gustman’s predicament:

  • “Feed ‘em and beat ‘em!” This was an expression used at a winter mountaineering school I attended in New Hampshire. Calories and movement are the best ways to keep you from freezing. Once you arrive in camp, you must act deliberately and quickly by setting up shelter and shedding any wet clothes that are stealing your body heat.
  • The extra weight is worth it. Weather can change in an instant, especially in the mountains. Pack enough garments so you can cover and protect every part of your body.
  • Spare no expense. Buy the best equipment you can afford. Try to use tents, sleeping bags, and clothing fabrics that successful mountaineers and other experts recommend.
  • Keep it dry. Take a lesson from rafting guides. Use dry bags or Ziplocks to keep clothing and valuables moisture-free while in your pack and tent.
  • We can’t always have our favorite gear at our fingertips. For example, Gustman flew in from Los Angeles for her run around Rainier. She explains, “I didn’t have the luxury of dragging an airbed or anything better than a thin pad to cushion me from the hard ground.” You can travel light, but once you reach your final destination check with the local outdoor shops for any necessary items. Many will rent you the gear you need for your trip at very reasonable rates.
Meghan Hicks - Yosemite campsite

Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell’s backpacking tent during a winter trip in Yosemite National Park. Keeping dry and warm was imperative due to dangerous nighttime temps near -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Boston ultrarunner Jon Vizena was lucky enough to be car camping last year before the Leadville Trail 100 Mile run. He camped for 40 days in the shadow of the Collegiate Peaks, but quickly discovered that the gear he had used many times back East wasn’t going to cut it at 10,000 feet. “It rained all the time in Leadville,” exclaims Vizena. “Then it’d get very cold after the storms. So I made a decision to purchase a larger tent, a queen-size Aerobed, and a second sleeping bag. I was glad I did, it vastly improved my experience, and prevented me from driving to a hotel.”

Vizena Campsite

Vizena’s home away from home before the 2013 Leadville Trail 100 Mile. Photo: Jon Vizena

Being hot and sweaty is just as miserable as being cold and wet. At TransRockies, Arnold didn’t get any restful mid-day recovery naps because of the sun baking her tent from the inside out. “Not being able to control the temperature was something I had not thought about,” says Arnold. “I typically blast the AC and it took a long time, even at night, to get cool enough to rest comfortably in the tent.” If heat might be of concern try this advice.

  • Don’t create an oven. Set up under the shade of the surrounding trees to keep direct sunlight from beating down on your tent.
  • Take advantage of portable devices. If you’re car camping, bring a battery-powered fan to move air around in your tent. Note: Do not use a portable heater inside a tent or vehicle as carbon monoxide levels could rise to lethal levels.
  • Hang from a tree. Consider the use of a hammock. This will keep you off the ground, under shade, and provide cooling airflow.

Kanitz crawled into her tent for the first time and cried out, “There’s dirt in my tent!” Fellow TransRockies participant and experienced camper, Dana Pearcy, responded quickly with, “You’re camping, there is gonna’ be dirt.” The two laughed about the incident several times during the TransRockies week, but there’s no doubt about it, camping is a dirty pastime. Unless we’re in a developed campground, we eat, sleep, and ‘go’ without the use of running water. Superior sanitary habits are paramount in eliminating illness, odor, and grime. Here are some ways to keep clean:

  • Designate an in-camp sanitary station and arm it with hand sanitizer, soap, and water. Whether you’re alone or camping with others, routine hand washing should be priority number one. Lussenden, like Kanitz and Pearcy, spent six days surrounded by hundreds of other runners in a tightly knit tent village. “The biggest thing I had to get over was the communal use of showers, sinks, and Porta Potties,” says Lussenden. “I couldn’t allow my brain to think about germs. I made sure that I washed my hands often.”
  • Eliminate smells and keep unsoiled items clean by allocating a plastic bag for dirty clothes. “Having all of those wet running clothes in the tent made for a particularly aromatic experience,” says Arnold. “Once I separated them from my other gear and hung them outside, things improved.”
  • If you’re away from plumbing for multiple days, wash off in a river, lake, solar-heated shower, or take a good old-fashioned sponge bath.

Technology’s Absence
Most backcountry areas are far from cell towers. Pearcy is a fan of disconnecting from technology. “I absolutely love camping,” she declares. “I’m closer to nature and enjoy the simplicity of it all. I’m getting away from the hustle and bustle of life stresses.” Sometimes camp life can get monotonous. You’re less likely to notice the absence of a movie theater, iPhone, or television with these other distractions.

  • Read a good book. They don’t take up too much space and can occupy you for hours.
  • Like a book, a deck of cards is easy to pack. Many entertaining games can be played with 52 small pieces of paper.
  • Chill out. “I was able to foam roll, do some active isolated stretching, and nap during my downtime,” says Kanitz.
  • Try photography. Vizena used his non-running time to improve his camera skills, “I went around and took photos all around Leadville.”
  • Become a naturalist. Identify as many of the surrounding birds and wildflowers as you can.
  • Games like Frisbee or Cornhole are great ways to occupy time.
Meghan Hicks - PCT campsite

The quiet, technology-less view from a campsite along the Pacific Crest Trail in California is a huge reward for the hard effort of getting there. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

The Importance of Food
Our diet on the trail directly impacts our health, energy, and mood. Next to shelter, it’s the biggest factor influencing our camping experience and one that requires the most consideration. It takes great planning to orchestrate a proper day’s menu in the backcountry, let alone a week’s worth. Current lightweight stove and fuel options make it possible to cook without a kitchen virtually anywhere. While fastpacking or backpacking we may have to subsist on reconstituted or packaged goods (unless one is an expert in edible plant life). However, if you are car camping, you can spice up your meals by bringing an ice chest filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats.

Wildlife at Your Door
Animals and insects discourage people from camping. We fear being bitten by big, furry creatures while the small ones leave us with itchy, painful welts. “During my stay in Leadville those 40 days, I encountered a giant bear about 20 yards from my tent on one of the first nights,” recounts Vizena. “I also was notified that there was a mountain lion sighting within a few miles of where I was staying. That scared me!” Unfortunately this is an unavoidable fact of life when we’re camping. Even the most developed campgrounds struggle to keep man and beast from interacting. Know what kind of wildlife inhabits the area you’re exploring and how to react if you have an encounter. Always keep a clean campsite by disposing of your trash properly. Use bear boxes when available or hang your food. Keep your ‘dining room’ and ‘bedroom’ at least 200 yards apart. Don’t forget to pack the bug repellant.

Consider the Savings
We all know that camping saves us money on hotel costs. However, there are significant psychological benefits as well. Flagstaff ultrarunner and race director Scott Bajer explains, “Camping near a race’s start line relieves many of my pre-race jitters. I don’t have to drive far on race morning and don’t have to worry about traffic. I prefer to just roll out of my tent and walk over to the start.”

At several events, like the Zane Grey Highline Trail 50 Mile Endurance Run, it’s become tradition for runners to camp in the fields surrounding the race start. “It’s a great opportunity to meet and hang out with like-minded runners,” says Bajer. “We talk about the course and share war stories over a few beers.”

Camping’s For the Birds
For some, or under certain circumstances, a positive camping experience may simply be to not camp at all.

After her Wonderland Trail DNF, Gustman agrees. “I’ll run all day on any trail and in any weather but I just want a simple room with a shower before hitting the trail again the next day,” she says. “Perhaps if I had a queen bed with a feather mattress and someone to set-up and break-down the campsite and cook all the food, I’d consider camping. Otherwise, it just doesn’t appeal to me. I can run a zillion miles but I don’t want to schlep bedding or food.”

Arnold isn’t ready to relive her camping experience at TransRockies either. “I have to say that I didn’t even come close to mastering the art of camping,” she says disappointedly. “I think I need to learn a lot more about the gear and what I would need to make sure I was comfortable. While I loved the camaraderie of the camp, I don’t know that I could do it again.”

Determine if you’re cut out for camping by testing yourself and your equipment in training before an important event. “The best thing to do would be to do a trial run,” says Vizena. “Really dial in your camping under similar situations as to what it would be like before the goal race or adventure run.  Instead of 40 nights in a tent, consider camping for only one night at first.”

Ultimately, after a few nights of coping with the cold and wet weather, Hal and I left the Colorado Trail to spend the night in a hotel. The hot shower, hot meal, and comfortable bed revived our flagging energy and made the next day’s mileage tolerable. Sometimes camping, no matter how prepared you are, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and spending one night indoors is all you need to get you back out on the trail.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • In addition to Ian’s recommendations here, do you have any other tips or tricks that have helped you function and stay comfortable while camping?
  • And what about additional tricks and tips on combining running and camping that have worked for you?
  • Almost anyone who has camped now and then has a disaster story to share. Do you have a good story about how camping went wrong for you? And perhaps more importantly, what did you learn from that disaster?