By Emma Livingston, Staff Writer

Summer is winding down everywhere in America (except, of course, in our beloved Phoenix). Americans are desperately trying to pack in one more camping trip before the darkness and cold of winter descends upon us. One of the biggest camping weekends of the year is Labor Day weekend, the first weekend of September. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explore the essential American tradition of camping.

Car camping taken to the extreme (photo courtesy of www.camping-gear-outlet.com)
Car camping taken to the extreme (photo courtesy of www.camping-gear-outlet.com)

There are as many ways to camp in America as there are fast food chains. The most common is car camping: load up your car with everything you could possibly need for one or two nights, drive to a campsite, preferably in the woods but just off the road, set up your tent, and go rummaging through your car whenever you need supplies.

We also have RV camping, good for those who like to explore the beautiful places the country has to offer, but don’t like to leave the comforts of home far behind. RV campers park a mini house on wheels in a beautiful spot and still get to enjoy electricity, indoor plumbing, and soft beds with pillows while having the great outdoors at their doorstep.

Giant Class A RV. Like you've never left your house (photo courtesy of www.tropicalpalmsresortfl.com)
Giant Class A RV. Like you’ve never left your house (photo courtesy of www.tropicalpalmsresortfl.com)

Finally, there’s backpacking, by far the most rugged way to camp out, where you carefully pack the most lightweight gear possible into a sturdy backpack, fling it across your shoulders (or your horse’s shoulders, or into your boat, depending on your mode of transportation) and march into the wilderness – setting up camp towards dusk in any relatively flat place by a water source that looks appealing.

Backpacking tent site on the Colorado Trail (photo courtesy of Emma Livingston)
Backpacking tent site on the Colorado Trail (photo courtesy of Emma Livingston)

There are also many different reasons Americans go camping. For some, it’s a fun, relatively inexpensive way to take a family vacation. This is what motivated my parents to take my sisters and me camping when we were little.

For others, camping is a way to have a wild, raucous, alcohol fueled party outdoors, far from any police molestation due to noise complaints. This was the goal of a camping expedition with my friends from West Virginia, which involved an obscene number of bottles of Captain Morgan and culminated in a giant bonfire where an entire mattress was burned while my drunken friends jumped the fire.

A fire something like the fire I saw consume a mattress in West Virginia (photo courtesy of imgarcade.com)
A fire something like the fire I saw consume a mattress in West Virginia (photo courtesy of imgarcade.com)

For many, camping is a time to “get away from it all,” to commune with nature, and enjoy peace and quiet far from the city. This is the reason I go camping now.

Despite the huge variety of camping styles, there are a few constants that every American is bound by tradition to attempt whenever they go camping:

 

1) Build a campfire.

Sitting around the campfire in the Helan Mountains near Yinchuan, China (photo courtesy of Luke Stewart)
Sitting around the campfire in the Helan Mountains near Yinchuan, China (photo courtesy of Luke Stewart)

Whether you buy wood at the local grocery store or gas station, forage for fallen sticks and branches, or bring saws and axes into the woods to cut down dead trees for timber, every camper has to attempt to build a campfire – the bigger the better (the exception, of course, is when forest fire danger is high, in which case, don’t you dare start any fire!). The campfire is the focal point of the camping experience, where everyone gathers to warm up, watch the flames, swap jokes and stories or just sit in silence, listening to the crackle of the fire.

2) Experimental cooking

Campfire Stirfry (photo courtesy of Luke Stewart)
Campfire Stirfry (photo courtesy of Luke Stewart)

Every camp trip has to involve an innovative method of cooking. Away from our kitchens and our stoves, Americans get quite creative with our meal preparation. Meals range from the extremely simple: shoving a hot dog on a stick and cooking it over an open flame; to quite complicated: one of my co-workers claimed that her mother-in-law was able to bake an entire pie over a campfire. In my camping experience, I’ve had baked potatoes and veggies wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked in the bottom of the fire, I’ve eaten omelet cooked in a ziplock bag dipped in boiling water, eggs cooked in an orange peel warmed over last night’s coals, and a stir fry for 10 people cooked by a friend who carried a heavy metal wok on his back all the way up the mountain.

3) S’mores

Artistic imaging of a s'more. In real life, these treats are much sloppier (photo courtesy of foodartist.wordpress.com)
Artistic imaging of a s’more. In real life, these treats are much sloppier (photo courtesy of foodartist.wordpress.com)

You’ve probably heard of this camping dessert, called “s’mores” because once you have one, you want “some more.” The basic recipe for s’mores is:

Ingredients

1 graham cracker broken in half

1 piece of Hershey’s chocolate (it has to be Hershey’s, because that’s the power of marketing)

1 marshmallow

Preparation

Put Hershey’s chocolate on half a graham cracker. Set aside for later

Cooking instructions

Place the marshmallow on a stick and cook over an open fire. Marshmallow should be held just above the flames and rotated frequently until browned to perfection. Alternatively, marshmallow can be shoved directly into the flames until it is on fire. You can then hold it over your head, pretending you have a torch until marshmallow is completely burned and blackened. At this point, blow out the flame.

Place cooked marshmallow on top of the Hershey’s chocolate and graham cracker half. Use 2nd graham cracker half to pull the marshmallow off the stick. Smoosh graham crackers as tightly together as possible to achieve best effect. Eat s’more like a sticky sandwich.

Repeat until all the marshmallows are gone.

S’mores are disgusting and make a big mess, but you can’t go on an American camping trip without making them at least once.

4) Stargazing

Once the fire has died down a bit, and before everyone slips off into their tents for the night, at some point we all look up at the stars and make comments like, “There’s so many of them!” and “It really makes you realize just how small we are compared to the universe.” This is what I like the most about camping: it’s an opportunity to focus on the most important things in life: friends, food and family, and get some renewed perspective on the world and our place in it. I encourage everyone at Thunderbird to go on a camping trip this year. Living in Arizona, we have the unique opportunity to go camping all year round if we’d like. Happy camping! And don’t forget the marshmallows.

Backpacking in the Helan Mountains (photo courtesy of Luke Stewart)
Backpacking in the Helan Mountains (photo courtesy of Luke Stewart)

Do you have an interesting camping experience, a favorite campfire recipe, or a camping tradition you’d like to share? Leave a comment! We’d love to hear your perspective.

Emma Livingston

Emma Livingston

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