When I’m camping I’m living right on the earth – grass and sand and silt and pine needles and mud and dirt – day in and day out. It’s one of the things that makes living like this so different from living in a house, and it’s one of the things I love about camping. I don’t think any studies have been done, but I’ll bet that living on the earth like that is healthy for us, for our bodies and our minds. But how do I keep myself and all my stuff clean?
All campgrounds provide a picnic table and a grill and most provide a source of drinking water. Those are the dependable basics. Where they differ most is in their bathrooms. National Park and State campgrounds offer different levels of amenities, from almost none all the way up to bathrooms with sinks and showers, plenty of hot water, plus electricity, sometimes even outdoor showers and spigots just for cleaning feet. I often choose the more primitive campgrounds run by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, and they usually don’t have flush toilets or sinks, just a vault toilet and, if I’m lucky, a spigot for drinking water. I’ve been finding more and more campgrounds no longer have drinking water, they’ve ripped the sink right out of the bathroom, even if there’s still electricity and a flush toilet, and closed off the drinking water spigot. That’s how the State and National campgrounds are saving money: they’ve fired the guys who used to check the chlorine levels in the drinking water every week. Our government certainly has our best interests at heart, doesn’t it?
I like my tent to be neat and clean, and that has turned out to be easy. I have a welcome mat at the door, and a rug just inside, so I never have to let the bottom of my shoes touch the tent floor. I use a dust pan and brush when needed, and every time I take down my tent, as soon as the rain fly is off and the stakes are out, I turn it upside down, give it a shake, and voila – clean! It’s another advantage of having a tent that weighs so little.
What about dishes? Some people who are living in tents, bless them, wash their dishes after every meal by heating up enough water for the soapy dish pan as well as for the rinse pan, but that’s too much work for the likes of me. Here’s again where eating no dairy or meat products helps: I just pour a bit of water out of one of my water jugs over my dishes and cooking pots, scrub with my dish brush or steel wool scrubber, and then wipe it all clean and dry with some paper towels. Every time I do it I can feel my ferociously ecologically aware daughter Susan frowning at me for using all that paper, and I send her a rebellious smile. It’s not only teenagers who enjoy rebelling against a family member.
Oh, you’re wondering why I like the more primitive campgrounds? A couple of reasons. They’re often further off the main road, tucked away in gorgeous places. And they don’t have all the things most RV people want: electric hook ups, hoses to fill their water tanks, places to dump their waste water (imagine: huge RVs travel down the freeways with gallons and gallons of their bathroom and grey water sloshing around in big holding tanks). Best of all they often don’t have long enough parking spaces for the really big RVs which means that maybe there will be mostly tents.
I don’t do much to clean my car until I get home at the end of the entire trip. Then I have it cleaned inside and out to within an inch of its life. During the trip I work hard to keep it as neat and uncluttered as possible. This takes a bit of work every day because the whole back of it, under the hatchback door, is my pantry. I keep all my food in there, away from all the animals that come sniffing around. I back in as close as possible to my kitchen set-up on the picnic table so everything is right at hand when I cook. In the front on the passenger seat I keep all my maps, snacks, hand lotion, purse, lots of miscellany. It’s usually a big mess, and every now and then I straighten it up.
I allow my clothes to get dirtier before I wash them than I do at home. And I bring along lots of clothes, both so I don’t get too bored with them, and also so I can wait a few weeks before having to make a trip to a laundromat.
And what about my body? Luckily, I’m not someone who has ever felt the need to shower every single day. I have a box of handy-wipes in my tent, and when I get dressed in the mornings I give myself a sponge bath with them. When I car camped with Mike I’d find us a shower at least every week, but now, traveling alone, I sometimes go two or three weeks – yes weeks! – before seeking a shower in a nearby town. Waiting this long has its rewards: when I finally stand under the hot water I moan in rapture.
My feet are the biggest cleanliness challenge for me since I wear sandals or go barefoot almost all the time unless it’s cold. This summer I added a plastic pan to my gear, a pan that my feet exactly fit into. Every now and then I heat up a pot of water, make it soapy, and sit comfortably with a book, soaking my feet. A pedicure follows, often a manicure too, and then I feel socially acceptable again. My campground neighbors watch me with amusement.
Speaking of toilets, I always have a Rubbermaid plastic container with a tight-fitting lid under my cot, carefully chosen over the years for just the right size and shape. I use this at night. I’ve done it for so long that I can do it almost without waking up. I’ve even figured out how to pee into it without making a sound, an important consideration in the absolute deep silence the night holds out in nature, away from traffic and other sounds of civilization. I like to listen to the silence but also to the breathing nearby, maybe a little snoring. I imagine us all lying there in the field or the woods or on the bluff above the beach, all next to each other but with bits of metal or nylon fabric between us so we can pretend we’re alone and not connected. A wild pack of humans, asleep on the tundra!