Airplane Camping: Fly to Camp, Camp to Fly

A backcountry vacation is the ultimate adventure.

Airplane Camping Feature 1

Summer is upon us and so is the best flying season for most. While flying to a nice resort with all the creature comforts you could dream of is by all means a terrific experience, flying into a remote area will get you far away from the hustle and bustle. If you want to get far away from it all on your next vacation, take your airplane on a camping adventure. You will find peace and quiet where you can enjoy the wilderness in solitude or together with good friends.

If you want to really rough it, you can simply roll out your sleeping bag underneath the wing and bring some prepackaged camping food. On the other end of the spectrum you can have an extravagant experience with top of the line camping gear, gourmet food and vintage wines.

No doubt, camping with an airplane can become the best vacation you've ever had.

There is a lot of planning required to make the journey successful, safe and fun. You need to choose the destination carefully, prepare for the worst and contemplate what you should bring to make sure you don't overload the airplane while creating an enjoyable environment in the wild. Here are some ways to help you maximize the fun factor and stay safe.

With no hotel room costs, airplane camping provides a low-cost vacation or a flexible way to travel the country. There is lots of light camping gear on the market, making it easy to stay below the max gross weight.|

Airplane camping is best if you do it as a group, so you may first want to invite some friends along on the adventure. While hangar flying is terrific, sitting around a campfire telling airplane stories strikes a primal chord. Flying as a group is much safer because you can look out for each other. You can also plan the trip together and share equipment to reduce your load.

When choosing a destination, the first thing you need to consider is the capability of your and your friends' airplanes. While a Cessna 185 taildragger can bring you into most areas, it may not be a good idea to take your 2010 Beechcraft Bonanza into a 2,000-foot-long, rough-surface backcountry airstrip. You are guaranteed to regret it after your propeller and beautiful paint get all dinged up, and under certain conditions you may not even get off the ground. Research the airstrip carefully to make sure there are no nasty surprises.

You should also scrutinize the approach. Some areas may appear fine, but there could be dangerous invisible air currents that would make it critical to approach and depart from the same direction. A quick glance at the AirNav website for preflight planning is not sufficient. As with the airstrip itself, study the approach path to make sure there are no life-threatening surprises. For the best data, read backcountry-specific guidebooks or contact people who have flown in the area before.

Another consideration is density altitude. Many backcountry strips are situated at higher elevations, and even if the elevation is not extremely high, afternoon heat and humidity can severely restrict the takeoff and climb performance of your airplane in areas where mountainous terrain requires its best.

Once you choose a suitable airstrip to fly, you need to make sure that you have permission to land and camp there. John McKenna, president of the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF), says he is not aware of any airstrips located on U.S. Forest Service property or Bureau of Land Management land where you cannot land and camp without authorization.

You should be aware, however, that the government is in the process of implementing user fees for recreational backcountry users through the Federal Lands Recreation ­Enhancement Act (FLREA), an effort that RAF supports because it is designed to pay for much needed services in backcountry areas. Contact the USFS or BLM to find out whether a fee is required for the site you have selected.

There are also some airstrips that sit on beautiful private properties. In those cases, you need to get permission from the landowner to land and camp. Most of the time, it is sufficient to make a quick phone call; however, in some cases you may have to provide proof of insurance and obtain written approval from the landowner, McKenna says.

When you fly out to camp, you'll have a lot more gear than you are likely used to carrying in your everyday flying. The weight of the tent, sleeping bags, cooler, cooking gear, food, clothing and other equipment adds up quickly. You may also have more people on board the airplane than you would normally bring. Use a scale to make sure you have accurate weights for your items and people (some of whom may be reluctant to provide an accurate number). Then carefully calculate the weight and balance to make sure that you stay below max gross and within the CG envelope.

If you plan to camp in a remote area, fuel is also a critical consideration. You need to find the right ­balance between bringing plenty of fuel to get you to your camping spot and then to the nearest fuel stop, and not having too much fuel to put you above the weight limit with all of your gear and people on board.

Be very conservative when you choose your field since you may be in a remote area where a mishap could get you stuck for days. Whether you are considering performance in terms of density altitude, useful load, fuel burn and takeoff or landing performance, always plan for the worst-case scenario. This is not the right time to test the boundaries of your airplane's capabilities. Also, if you have never flown the airplane with a full load, practice in the pattern at your local airport with a full load to make sure you are comfortable with the handling of your airplane before you head off to a remote and unfamiliar place.

There is a fine balance between bringing enough gear and staying within the max gross weight and cg limits.|

There are, however, many ways to keep the total weight down. "Extreme backpacking has become so popular that it is easy to find lightweight gear," Tim Clifford, director, secretary and treasurer of the RAF, says. While you may not see the benefit of paying extra for something that weighs a few ­ounces less, the weight all adds up. A good water filter will also save you from having to bring gallons of water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Just make sure you will camp near a relatively clean water source that still has water available (something that may prove challenging in drought-stricken areas).

Keeping food cool can be an issue since good coolers are heavy and take a lot of space. Clifford suggests precooking food to bring on the trip, putting it in Ziploc bags and freezing it, killing two birds with one stone. "We eat gourmet out in the backcountry," he says. "We'll make anything from lasagnas to Mexican dishes." He also suggests freezing water bottles to store in the cooler or supplement with dry ice. Dry ice has twice the cooling capacity of regular ice per pound, according to Universal Industrial Gases.

There are other creative ways of keeping food cool. Rather than having a large, space-eating plastic cooler, you can get smaller, soft-sided coolers that don't take up as much space in the cabin, says Jeanne MacPherson, a master CFI and ­founder of Mountain Airdance, which specializes in mountain flying, spin training and emergency maneuvers. A soft cooler can be placed inside a waterproof bag and then stored in a cool creek to keep the contents cold.

There are not a lot of experiences quite as wonderful as barbecuing steaks, baking aluminum-foil-wrapped potatoes and roasting marshmallows on an open fire in the wilderness. Be aware of and adhere to any fire restrictions in the area. The western part of the country has been particularly dry the past few years, and the potential for a fire spreading is high. Of course, starting a forest fire while camping would be devastating.

Remote campers are well advised to use a checklist when packing for a trip. Small, critical things, such as a lighter or matches for a campfire, rain protection, a knife or something as simple as a towel, can be sorely missed if left behind. MacPherson cautions against bringing too much gear, though. "I make a list of my gear and then I ­shrivel it down to make it light," she says. There is a fine balance between bringing enough gear to make yourself comfortable and cutting the list so short that you are survival camping.

When traveling to remote locations, you expose yourself to the danger of having to make an emergency landing in a place that is hard for emergency responders to find. A personal locator beacon could potentially save your life, particularly if you need to walk away from the airplane. If you are flying alone, make sure that someone tracks your position.

While nobody wants to think about the possibility of a crash, you should plan for the worst. Don't put your survival equipment in the baggage compartment. If you can't move, it won't help you, and in the event of a post-fire crash you will not have time to grab anything before evacuating the airplane. You may feel like a dork, but wouldn't you rather survive than look fashionable when you fly? Wearing fire-resistant clothing, such as a flight suit, and a vest with survival gear and emergency provisions could save your life.

"I was involved with accidents where people survived the crash and became terribly hypothermic. Some people survived the crash and died of hypothermia," says MacPherson, who has worked air-rescue missions. "After that I became a huge advocate that what you have on your person might be all that you have. Most often people end up spending the night and it gets really cold."

MacPherson wears a fire-­suppressant Nomex flight suit, which also carries a few survival items. "When I'm leaving the local area I wear a vest," she says. MacPherson's survival vest carries items such as a personal locator beacon; signal mirror; strobe light and whistle for signaling; a bivouac sack; hat, gloves and heat packs to keep warm; storm proof matches, BlastMatch and Vaseline-impregnated cotton balls to start a fire; and miscellaneous gear such as a headlamp, duct tape, parachute chord, multitool, compass, first-aid kit, power bars and water. MacPherson also recommends giving passengers a pouch with survival gear.

Once you get to your destination, you need to also keep your airplane secure. There are several tie-down products, such as The Claw, on the market that are quick and easy to install and will prevent the airplane from moving around if the wind happens to pick up.

Another very important consideration if you want to make it out of the bush with an intact airplane is to keep any food out of the airplane. In many parts of the country bears have learned to break open cars as if they were sardine cans to access edible items inside. The same could easily happen to your airplane, making for a very bad end to the trip.

Food should be removed from the airplane and either hung from a tree or stored in a bear-safe container. Putting it inside your tent would be like sending a direct invitation to dinner. I know a person who returned to a campsite only to find a bear inside his tent. Fortunately the bear didn't attack him, but instead ripped the tent to shreds as it exited through the nonexistent back door.

However, there are times when bears get aggressive, so it is definitely worth planning for the worst if you are camping in their habitats. You may be tempted to bring a shotgun for this purpose. However, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, bear spray is a much better way to go.

"No deterrent is 100 percent effective," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says in a fact sheet, "but compared to all others, including firearms, proper use of bear spray has proved to be the best method for fending off threatening and attacking bears, and for preventing injury to the person and animal involved." Also, a few cans of pepper spray take up far less space and useful load than a shotgun and ammunition capable of bringing down a grizzly. So unless you plan on hunting, opt for the bear spray.

One of the greatest things when it comes to backcountry camping in an airplane rather than by foot is that you can jump in the airplane and head to town to stock up on supplies. "If we're staying for four to five days we don't take a lot of groceries with us," Clifford says. "We'll go in, set up camp and then fly into town and go shopping. Then you're not worrying about how much weight you're bringing."

Airplane camping can provide a peaceful vacation, far away from the hustle and bustle. |

For people who love flying, heading into town for supplies is hardly a hassle but rather another fun adventure. On longer camping trips, Clifford and his wife sometimes fly out and take a break from the backcountry to eat at a restaurant or stay in a hotel for a night to get cleaned up. Group fly-outs for breakfast or lunch are also great airplane camping activities.

Backcountry airplane camping is a privilege that only a small percentage of the world's population ever gets to experience. It is a privilege that must be cherished, and it is important to respect the land. Be gentle with nature and bring everything with you that you brought in, even if it means the "chore" of taking more than one flight.

Get online content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.