When it comes to camping, there are usually two distinct camps of thought. While one is unwilling to even entertain the idea — “No bathroom? No chance.” — the other is already pulling out the backpacks, stuff sacks, tent and bacon — “Let’s go right now!”
Regional Chief Paul McCormack with the South Carolina Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism has seen a lot of both camps throughout the years in the state’s large park system. “A lot of people are hesitant that first time they go camping, especially families,” he says. “What’s often a surprise to parents is how much kids naturally enjoy camping. It can be hard to entertain them at home. Here, I see the same kids happily take to the woods for hours on end.”
As one of the four regional chiefs overseeing South Carolina’s state park resources, he has a wealth of understanding with every aspect of camping. “But I am also a Boy Scout leader and father of three boys,” he says with a laugh, “so I’ve camped at many, many of our parks myself.”
South Carolina’s state park system features 47 parks from the marshy coast to the rugged upstate mountains, each with a variety of camping options. “Different parks offer different experiences,” says Paul. Campers can enjoy comfortable lakeside cabins, camper sites with electricity and water, primitive campsites with or without bathrooms and shower houses, or back country camping. According to Paul, each park is a hidden jewel.
Courtneylove Gowans can’t help but agree. “Our state parks are so amazing,” says the 25-year outdoorswoman and manager of The Backpacker. “You have Sesquicentennial, which is very local. Or, many families enjoy beach parks like Hunting Island because of the wonderful shelling and bike riding on the beach.” For those who prefer to head upstate, Courtneylove suggests a trip to Table Rock or Oconee State Park, especially in the early summer or fall.
For a first-timer or a seasoned pro, the best place to start a trip is the official information-rich website of the state park system, www.southcarolinaparks.com, where full information is listed about each state park in South Carolina. The website is bursting with information about park amenities, special offers and upcoming programming opportunities. “The website has a wonderful park finder and reservation system,” says Courtneylove. “It also lists all amenities and activities related to the park so you can find whatever hike or activity you’d like to experience.”
Those ready to venture out for the first time can ease in gently according to Paul. “Each spring we offer the Palmetto Campout at Sesquicentennial,” he says. “We send a gear list in advance and rangers camp with the families, many of whom are experiencing the outdoors for the first time. We walk them through cooking meals and building a fire, and even show them how to boat or fish.” The whole experience, says Paul, is designed to help people feel more comfortable and less stressed.
Getting started is easier than one might think. Nestled just up the road in northeast Columbia is Sesquicentennial State Park or just a short drive outside of town is Poinsett State Park — two of the state’s more beginner-friendly parks. “When you’re getting started and working out the bugs, it’s best to camp close to home near a city,” shares Paul. While close proximity to forgotten or needed supplies is critical for early trips, Courtneylove also notes something else is essential in those early trips. “Comfort is absolutely the key for people to have fun and to keep wanting to go camping,” she says.
A Desire to Go
Peggy and Chris Angel didn’t grow up camping. They camped in college together as a young couple and later as newlyweds. Today, they still camp but their site now accommodates the couple and three growing daughters: Rosemary, 13; Lilly, 11; and Abigail, 6. “Some years we go more than others,” says Chris, headmaster at Hammond School. “When the girls were younger, we’d go shorter distances and for shorter periods of time. We made it work.”
That work over the years has provided the family many adventures as well as rare quiet time together in an always-on world. “Camping is really good family time,” shares Chris. “You’re there as a family and are unplugged from television and electronics. It’s a great way to truly be together, have real conversations and enjoy each other’s company.”
One of Chris’s fondest memories is of his youngest daughter, Abigail, who at the age of 4 hiked the entire way to a wilderness campsite. “She walked the whole trail by herself and even carried her bag in,” he says with a smile. “We thought hiking four miles at the age of 4 was pretty good!”
Chris hopes his daughters’ love of the outdoors stays with them. “That time together is priceless,” he says. “I hope they will someday have that same experience with their families.”
Years of experience around the wild areas of the Palmetto State and inside The Backpacker have sharply honed Courtneylove’s packing and gear list. “The most essential gear for car or campground camping is a dependable tent,” she says. “I’ve been on many trips with friends who brought tents that were not waterproof.” According to Cournteylove, it only takes one cold, wet and generally miserable night to snuff out anyone’s camping enthusiasm.
“You need appropriate sleeping pads and bags, especially if you’re going to go camping when it’s cold,” she says. “You want to be warm when you go to sleep so you will sleep well.” And while many campgrounds are equipped with fire rings or grills, cautions Courtneylove, making a good fire and being able to cook on it is easier said than done. “We recommend taking some type of stove to cook on,” she says. Campers can choose from multi-burner, propane-fueled camp stoves or small, powerful single burners that tuck neatly into a corner of a backpack.
Also high on Courtneylove’s list is weather appropriate clothing — warm layers for cold weather and quick-dry clothing in the heat. One of her most essential equipment recommendations has nothing to do with cold ratings or survival skills. “You really need to test your gear before you go,” she urges. “Be familiar with it instead of ripping it out of the package at the campsite. You should understand how it works before you go. If you come by a store like The Backpacker, our experienced staff can answer your questions and help you choose the right kind of gear.”
Another critical ingredient in any camping excursion is food. While you can pick up pre-prepared meals, most campers believe everyday food from the grocery store tends to taste best. Some versatile campsite staples including eggs, pancake/baking mix, rice, lentils, pasta and cheese can be mixed and matched into multiple, palate-pleasing meals. Campsites should always have plenty of water or, at minimum, a water source from which campers can purify local water or store perishable food items.
But don’t forget the utensils and tools that are readily available at home. Whipping up those fireside meals is a lot easier with a set of nesting camping pots, cups, a potholder, multipurpose tools and utensils.
Paul notes that the style of camping, trip duration and nearby resources greatly impact meal planning, preparation and another critical campsite must: food storage. “It’s awful to be only two days in to a four-day trip and have your food eaten by wildlife,” he says. “If you are back country camping, you can protect food by suspending it in a bag from a tree out of reach from resourceful and curious wildlife.” Bear canisters are also an option, and while they may add a few ounces to the pack, it removes the hassle of finding the right kind of branch and tying up the food. While staying in one of the state parks many camp grounds, keep food secured in a vehicle or secured containers overnight.
Given the choice, Chris Angel prefers backpack camping. “Being out in the woods on your own is a level of independence that’s really important to experience,” he says. “It makes you feel very self reliant.”
Courtneylove also recommends that experienced campers try backcountry camping. “You really get away from it all and there’s no campground noise,” she says. “Just crickets and owls!”
For those who crave a wilderness experience, Paul suggests heading upstate to Jones Gap, Caesar’s Head or Table Rock. “Backpacking is a relatively safe experience, and you can leave your car in a secure location,” he advises.
Courtneylove also suggests Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina as a good starting location for new backpackers. Other options include sections of the Foothill Trail and Chattooga River corridor. “We carry all those maps at The Backpacker and can make great recommendations,” she shares.
Visit www.columbiametro.com for great camping recipes!