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Getting started with camping for a frightful fun time

May 17, 2018 GMT

Ha-ha, we all know this one: two teens on lover’s lane; radio announcer reports escaped serial killer with a hook for his hand; panicked teens race for home; find killer’s hook hand hanging from car’s door handle.

Tell this urban legend around a crackling campfire in the woods, and it works every time.

“Building a fire, sitting around a campfire, is just critical to a good time camping,” says Steve Werner, one of the country’s foremost camping authorities. “People just need to go out and stare into a fire to renew their soul. Make s’mores, or roast marshmallows. If you don’t know ghost stories, look them up online.”

Can any place in the world surpass Lane County and its environs for such superb camping choices? What will it be for a summer day: the sweet aroma of High Cascades fir trees, or briny sea air at the Oregon Dunes?

Swimming in a warm Willamette Valley lake, some with designated beaches, or simply relaxing by the clear-as-crystal McKenzie River tumbling down from volcanic Clear Lake?

It’s all for the taking within about 90 minutes either way from Eugene. But anyone new to camping likely will have a more enjoyable time if they heed some basic “hacks,” or words of advice, from experts like Werner. He’s learned a thing or two as president of American Land & Leisure, which manages thousands of national forest campgrounds — including those in the Willamette and Siuslaw regions — on behalf of the Forest Service.

Scout motto: be prepared

Jumpstart the learning curve. “Do a test run in the backyard,” Werner advises. “Tent camping can be intimidating for people, especially newbies ... if you arrive at 10 at night, you haven’t had dinner and you’re trying to set up a tent in the dark, that’s a recipe for a challenge between you and your wife while the kids are screaming.”

Keep it simple. “You don’t have to go fancy on tents; I wouldn’t suggest spending big bucks on something, especially if it’s your initial camping experience,” Werner offers as a warning.

Make do with camping gear. “Weight is not as much of a factor with car camping, so get heavier sleeping bags, or even taking the foam topper off a mattress works.”

With experience, add more fancy gear. It will pay for itself over the years, he says.

Quick-fix meals work best. “Until you are more experienced, keep it pretty simple with food,” Werner says.

Pack light, but stay warm and dry. “Even in warmish weather, bring plenty of blankets and warm clothes,” Werner says. Rain and/or thunderstorms come out of nowhere. “Getting wet is a bad deal. There’s never bad weather, there’s just bad clothing choices. You can be outside in any kind of weather as long as you are dry.”

But neither should you overpack, he adds. Most people end up wearing the same clothes all weekend.

Reservation bliss

Typical campgrounds have a mix of reservable and first-come, first-served sites. Beginning campers, however, will love having a spot staked out and waiting for them.

“Planning ahead is one of the biggest things (for beginner campers),” allows Dena Plemel, who works in the information center for Oregon State Parks.

It’s fun to camp on a whim, she admits, but often not realistic during peak summer season.

Ultra-popular Honeyman, an Oregon State Parks coastal campground with dunes, lake, park, lodge and watercraft rentals just south of Florence, accepts reservations as far as nine months out at oregonstateparks.org.

Most national forest campgrounds take reservations six months in advance through reservation.gov.

“It creates a lot more pressure if you don’t have a good place to camp (reserved for you),” Werner agrees. “We encourage reservations, but we also remind people it’s not essential.”

The government standard for campground sites is 60 percent reservable and 40 percent walk-in.

But during peak summer season, anyone who waits until Friday night to get a first-come, first-served site at popular campgrounds faces slim-to-none odds.

Optimistic campers, however, should keep checking online for campsite cancellations.

Oregon State Parks sends out email blasts to people who have asked to be notified if a campsite they tried to reserve — but already was booked — should become available (call 1-800-452-5687 for details).

On recreation.gov., canceled campsites will show as available for booking again, so even last-minute searches might be worth a try.

Make it fun

Families with younger children should choose campsites near water safe for children, Werner advises. Let them skip stones, fish, row a boat, wade or swim.

Show them the wonders of nature, too, like a starry night or nearby wildlife. “If you’re by an ocean, there’s lots of cool seals, sea caves and wildlife. Hanging out by the tide pools is a great way to entertain little guys,” Werner says.

Older kids will enjoy helping to start a fire. Overall family time can be at its best outdoors. “If you’re reading to your little ones at home, why not read around a campfire?”

Werner also suggests tapping the wide world of YouTube for camping ideas and how-tos, such as setting up a tent or cooking on a campstove. Likewise, he says, Pinterest is loaded with hacks for camping fun.

And for the campfire, remember to hook up with some fun stories.