Everything hurts. I’m not going to open my eyes. Oh, hell. Bladder warning. Reality check. I’m going to have to move.
Eyes open, I’m assaulted by the day-glo orange of the hyperlight tent I’m lying inside. There’s a bucolic moment where I hear birdsong—and then something else. The rapid beating of blades on air. A helicopter: big, inbound. Where was that helicopter pad staked out?
The dome of the tent starts to move. Crap. Did I even tie down this thing when we crawled inside it last night? I know I tied down the airplane. I look over at my sleeping partner, who is snoring away in his sleeping bag. He’s heavy enough; we’re not going anywhere.
Ugh. I heave myself to a sitting position and pull on my shorts. I crawl to the door (this is a backpacking tent—not stand-up, even for me).
“Zippers should be banned,” I mumble, forcing myself to be gentle as not to tear the seams. Feet out, shoes slipped on, I emerge on hands and knees into a spray of dew off the rather-wet turf. My eyebrows are being blown back by the turbulence generated by the landing Coast Guard helicopter. Standing, I watch as an ambulance trundles up and disgorges a patient onto a stretcher. Within a minute, they are secured on board, and the wind pummels the tent once more as the rescuers depart. Then back to birdsong. And I remember my bladder—run!
No, actually. I don’t run anywhere anymore. Late middle age is not always kind to former athletes. Maybe I just pick up the pace a little bit and usher a prayer of thanks that I am not forced to wait in a line for the bathroom dedicated to campers on this airfield. Inside, it is clean and warm, if a little damp from the previous occupant, who clearly showered. Functional. I’ll take it.
If you’re reading this column because you think I’m going to teach you something about backcountry flying, turn the page. I’m flying a Van’s RV-10. I can certainly land on an excellently maintained grass field (thank you, Triple Tree), but rough or unimproved mountain airstrips are not on my list of options for anything but dire emergencies.
I do carry camping equipment on my long cross-country flights, however, for dual reasons: emergencies and because my retired airline-pilot husband and I are frugal. We like to go to really interesting places, but we don’t like paying for fancy lodging. Every now and again, we’ll indulge in a little group air-camping too. It’s nice having friends to share a meal and bonfire. Less nice having friends see me in my camp pajamas pre-coffee the next morning, but hey, trade-offs, right?
When we travel solo, it is delightful to go places such as where I am now, Orcas Island, Washington, which allows airfield camping. It means we can afford a holiday in a secluded paradise where other accommodations are priced for those who value luxury. Town is an easy stroll from the airport, shops run from tony to kitschy, and waterside dining abounds. Renting a bicycle or car opens up miles of parklands, beaches, and even two modest mountains worth summiting. Renting something that floats might result in wildlife encounters you’ll remember for a lifetime.
I can afford all that if I camp. Yeah, I’m cranky in the mornings until I get a couple of cups of coffee and a good stretch, but to date, it’s all been worth the price of admission.
We find airfields such as Orcas by referencing the Recreational Aviation Foundation Airfield Guide. The graphics here are descriptive, and the page loads and updates quickly, depicting airports with camping all over the US, as well as those with co-located hotels or cabins, restaurants and recreational activities. Beyond that the guide provides a “relative hazard index” to help you decide if the airfield meets safety specs for your aircraft’s capabilities and your current pilot proficiency.
How do I stay comfortable while camping? A quality hyperlight tent is key. You don’t want your camping equipment to put you over gross. Are you one or two people? Get the four-person tent if you are two. Get the two-person tent if you are one. These companies all exaggerate tent floor space.
Can you walk under your airplane’s wing? Consider bringing a tarp you can sling over a wing and tie down. Pitch your tent under the tarp and enjoy a much drier experience. Tarps are great sunshades too. It is lovely to set up a couple of lightweight camp chairs and a camp table under the tarp in the afternoon to watch arrivals and departures off the nearby runway, or in quieter venues to study the sunlight as it shifts on water or mountains, or both. With a low wing, we use our tarp as a ground cover, to keep the tent floor from getting too damp and facilitate faster breaking of camp.
My sleeping bag is down, but I can shake the filling so it is all on the bottom, providing me with a comfortable three-season mummy bag that weighs about 2 pounds and takes up almost no space. My sleeping pad is self-inflating and probably inadequate, but you can’t get two giant pads in a little backpacking tent. Anyhow, if my pad was comfortable, my partner says I’d never book a hotel room on vacation, and I’d ruin the economy, right?
For cookstoves, I am a minimalist. I only boil water on mine. I will cook but strictly things that can be made with boiling water. Mostly, I use my AeroPress to make coffee every day. That said, I do carry instant ramen noodles, instant oatmeal and Lipton onion-soup mix in my emergency pack. You never know.
I don’t carry a compressed gas cookstove in my unpressurized airplane. Call it risk management. My minuscule stove folds open, and heat is generated by burning fish-oil briquets. They are hermetically sealed so they don’t smell, and they generate a ton of heat and light with one match. When cool, said stove slips inside the simple foam cooler we carry just in case we are going to a more-remote spot and need a few groceries. That said, most of my camp shopping is for salami, fresh baguettes, hard cheese, shelf-stable cream and refreshing beverages. Deli sandwiches, chips with canned dip and maybe more coffee.
No matter what you do when you’re air-camping, never run out of coffee. Just laugh about the rest. That’s what makes it fun.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of FLYING.