Camping is one of the best ways to connect with nature and let go of the many burdens of our high-tech, high-speed lives.
The outdoors offers fresh air, wildlife, abundant trails, backcountry lean-tos, and truly breathtaking vistas. It’s healthy to head into the woods for some good ol’ nature’s medicine and let mother nature heal your mind and soul for a night or two. Once you take care of the basics of shelter, food, and water, it’s just you and the stars (and maybe a few friends, a guitar, and a pint or two of whiskey). But before you head out into the night with your sleeping bag in your backpack and tent under your arm, there are a few things you should consider for a more enjoyable trip.
BEFORE YOU GO
To fully enjoy your experience and for safety’s sake, you should plan ahead and prepare before heading out for any overnight outdoor experience. Make sure you leave adequate time for your excursion, and check the weather beforehand. Leave word with someone as to where you are traveling, and make sure you are tackling a trip within your physical capabilities. If heading far into the woods, bring a map, and know how to read it.
PLACES TO CAMP
There's a plethora of camping spots throughout the Hudson Valley to suit your interests and skill level. YOU CAN CAMP NEAR LAKES, MOUNTAINS, OR CAVES. You can go near your car with lots of families or head to remote areas miles into the woods. Here are some spots that are not too remote and might be a nice start for beginner campers.
1) North-South Lake in Haines Falls is the most popular and largest state campground in the Catskill Forest Preserve. It offers historical sites and great beauty, such as Alligator Rock, Kaaterskill Falls, Artist’s Rock, Sunset Rock, Newman’s Ledge, Boulder Rock, and the Kaaterskill Hotel and Laurel House sites. There are numerous hiking trails; 219 tent and trailer sites; two lakes; picnic areas with tables and fireplaces or charcoal grills; flush toilets; hot showers; and rowboat, canoe, kayak, and paddle boat rentals.
2) Peekamoose Valley Campground (County Road Route #42 in the Town of Denning) in Sundown Wild Forest is a pretty but rustic camping area with no vehicle access to most campsites, no running water, and just a few porta-potty toilets. Camping is limited only to designated campsites marked with the camping symbol. Mountains, waterfalls, and rivers make for great hiking, fishing, and swimming in the area. The nearby Red Hill Fire Tower is worth the trek and provides
3) Woodland Valley Campground in Phoenicia is at the base of Slide Mountain, the Catskills' tallest peak. It offers 70 trailer and tent sites and access to many trailheads to get you to the top of the mountains, as well as basic amenities and fishing in Woodland Valley Stream.
4) Rondout Valley Resort and Campground located in Accord offers both creek-front tent sites and more luxurious cabins. The amenities—heated pool, mini-golf, convenience store, adult lounge, and much more—make this destination desirable for all types of campers. Bicycle rentals are available for exploring the area, and it is only a short drive to Lake Minnewaska State Park and the Mohonk Preserve.
5) Kenneth Wilson State Park in Mount Tremper, just five miles south of Woodstock, is a gorgeous spot with 76 campsites surrounded by panoramic views. There is a lake and boat rentals at this park also. The campsites are large and secluded with a lot of woods. It also has picnic areas and flush toilets and showers.
6) Phoenicia Black Bear Campground is an especially great place to camp for first-time campers. You can rent almost everything from them, including tents, chairs, tables, gear, etc. Better yet, the Trailways bus can drop you off right in front of the campground if you just ask the driver beforehand. The campground is situated directly on the beautiful Esopus Creek and right near town, so you have easy access to supplies and restaurants
7) Gunks Campground is brand new and slated to open this spring. Now run by the American Alpine Club, it replaces the mutli-use area that was previously available for camping. Located on the south side of Route 299 in Gardiner, it’s within walking distance to the Mohonk Preserve Visitor Center (and the Mountain Brauhaus for delicious food and beer). Located on 50 acres, campers will have 50 campsites to choose from—many more than the nine campsites available at the former multi-use area. Campground amenities include a central gathering and cooking area, bathhouse facilities, and indoor space for campers to hang out during rainy weather.
As you gain experience, you can use the latest New York/New Jersey Trail Conference maps to look for lean-tos to stay in off of the main trails. Lean-to sites usually come with designated fire pits and a privy. These three-sided shelters also often have other perks, like extra wood, tools, grates, or a hiker’s journal—and you can hike without having to carry your tent!
ESSENTIALS TO BRING
Being prepared is half the work when camping. Besides your tent, make sure to bring these essentials to have a safe and frustration-free experience:
HEADLAMP A headlamp allows you to be more active in the dark than a traditional flashlight for things like late night cooking or last-minute tent adjustments. Go hands-free!
MESS KIT & CAMP STOVE A mess kit and camp stove can be found at camp stores like Kenco. Mess kits contain pans that double as plates and pots that double as bowls and other necessary utensils. This little kitchen in a bag will come in handy at every meal. The camp stove will work on a flat surface to blast heat for cooking with pots and pans, allowing you to make everything from sauces to eggs!
WATER PURIFIER Found at any camping store, this lightweight gadget is important when you are going overnight away from your car. It will enable you to pump pure water into your drinking bottles from the nearest stream or river. Also, plan to bring some fresh water with you. If car camping, you can just load up with a few gallons of water for everyone.
FOLDING SAW A lightweight folding saw will come in handy when cutting small- to medium-sized logs for your campfire. You’ll need a lot of wood if you want to keep the fire going all night, so be sure to bring a friend to help with the hard work. It is important to note that it is not legal to cut live trees, and that in some places you are not even allowed to collect dead wood. For car camping, it is best to purchase wood at the Ranger’s fee station or just outside the campground. Because of the risk of invasive insects, it is illegal in New York to transport untreated firewood more than 50 miles.
UTILITY KNIFE This is the perfect camping tool. It’ll cut your food for eating, it’ll whittle your sticks for hot dogs, it’ll be a wine opener or scissors or even a toothpick. You never know what amazing solutions one of these little knives will have to your far-from-home woes.
TOILET PAPER This comes in really handy, but if you forget some . . . look for a nice broad leaf or some moss, as long as you know it's not poisonous. Wag bags or something similar are also now recommended for backcountry visitors. The use of these devices is becoming more common and goes a long way in reducing our significant impact on heavily used areas. If not using wag bags, consider carrying a small plastic trowel to dig a “cat hole” for poo. The hole should be nine-inches deep and toilet paper should mostly be burned before being swept into the hole (with your poo) and buried. TP used for pee ought to be placed in a ziplock bag and carried out.
FIRST-AID KIT Keep the essentials, like Band-aids, first aid ointments and tapes, and antiseptic cleaners, on hand for any cuts out in the nature that need cleansing and protection.
LIGHTER AND MATCHES Bring a plastic bag with a lighter and matches in it to make sure they stay dry in bad weather. These will be extremely helpful when starting your fire!
CHOOSING YOUR TENT SITE
There are several factors that make for a comfortable and convenient camping site. Before laying your bag down for the night, know that the backcountry visitors staying above 1500 feet must camp in established tent sites or lean-tos. Ideally, your campsite will also not be too far from water—or too close. DEC regulations require that camping is AT LEAST 150 FEET AWAY FROM WATER, trails or roads. Accessible water is crucial because you will need to purify water and refill your drinking bottles, boil water for cooking, and use water to wash your dirty dishes. Never throw the dirty dishwater back into the source; any food or waste should be disposed away from the water to make sure to not contaminate it. If you are staying a few nights, water also helps keep your body clean, and, if it is hot, you can swim in it! So, being near water is good.
Also, shade is ideal. Tents can really capture the sun’s heat. It’s pretty uncomfortable to wake up in a pool of your own sweat with the sun beating down on you at 7am.
You will also want to find an area that is clear of twigs, rocks, and debris that may make sleeping uncomfortable. And make sure to put your tent far enough from the fire that it doesn’t risk any stray ashes landing on it and burning a hole (or worse, burning you!). Pine trees make for good spots to sleep beneath, as they are nice and shady with a soft bed of needles.
Bring a small bag with dryer fluff or newspaper to help you start your fire easier. GATHER MANY STICKS OF DIFFERENT SIZES—small twigs, branches, and medium to large logs. Dry, dead branches will burn best. If it was raining recently, then get creative, and look under overhangs or peel wet bark off small twigs that are dry on one side.
MAKE A TEEPEE OF STICKS OVER YOUR STARTER MATERIAL (newspaper or dryer lint). Begin the teepee with your smallest kindling on the inside, and then create another layer with slightly larger sticks, and continue with even larger sticks. Kindling used to make your teepee should not contain any wood that is fatter than your thumb. Leave a little opening to insert your lighter, and ignite the paper.
Once the paper is lit and the teepee is burning, you can SLOWLY ADD LARGER PIECES. As a good bed of coal is formed, BEGIN TO ADD LOGS. Be responsible, and don’t make the fire any larger than you need it to be. Also, make sure it is 100% OUT BEFORE LEAVING. You can put it out with water, snow, sand, or by pulling it apart and letting it burn out. Make sure it is cool to the touch before leaving, as it can smolder underground in organic material or roots and cause a forest fire. The DEC allows use of established fire pits only. You could also avoid the impact all together and simply use a small backpacking stove.
FOOD ON THE FIRE
Food truly does taste better when you are camping. Maybe it is the hard work that goes into preparing to camp and eat in the woods; maybe it is the simplicity of camping food ingredients; or maybe it is the taste of nature and the fire that gets into the food. Whatever it is, it’s good.
FLATBREAD PIZZA is one of my simple favorites by the fire. You can use your favorite pita and some tomato paste (since it is more concentrated, it will be smaller and lighter to carry), a ball of mozzarella, some fresh basil, and whatever toppings you like. Lay the pita on a grate, and add some of the sauce, cheese, and toppings spread on top of it. Put it over a low flame. Rotate it while it cooks, and when the cheese melt . . . enjoy the smoked flatbread pizza.
ROASTED GARLIC AND POTATOES are a super side to any camping dish. All you have to do is stick the potato and garlic right into the coals, rotate them every few minutes, and then smash them together for a hearty, healthy, smoky treat.
DRIED TEA AND DRIED SOUP packets are great for warming you up if the night gets cool. And they are very light for carrying to a site and extremely simple. Just add water, heat, and enjoy!
S’MORES. There is a reason that some things become tradition . . . s’mores are just perfect to eat next to a campfire. Just lay your graham cracker with a square of chocolate (I prefer dark chocolate with almonds) on a stone near the fire while you roast your marshmallow on a stick that you’ve carved into a point. Once your marshmallow is ready, slide it onto your graham cracker (which now has slightly melted chocolate), using another graham cracker as a spatula to situate it properly and to top the dessert sandwich. Just be warned, you’ll want to lick all of that sweetness off of your fingers so nearby animals aren’t tempted! When packing food for camping, plan out each meal, and think about dry foods, like instant oatmeal (since it’s light and compact). Also, don’t forget high-energy snacks, like GORP (good ole’ raisins and peanuts).
HANGING YOUR BEAR BAG
We live and play in a wilderness that we know we share with black bears. They are typically not going to hurt you or want to go near you, but if they are hungry and smell food, you are at risk. THAT IS WHY YOU SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE A BEAR-PROOF SPOT FOR YOUR FOOD and smelly toiletries that may attract this big mammal at night while you are sleeping. If car camping, you can put your food and toiletries in a locked car. But if in the backcountry, you’ll need to get your food and toiletries up in a bag suspended between trees.
Put all of your fragrant things into backpacks or cinch sacks (or purchase a bear canister or “ursa sack”) and grab your 100-foot long rope. Head about 50 feet from the campsite and look for a horizontal branch that is at least 15 feet from the ground. Look for a fist-sized rock to attach to one end of the rope. Throw the rock over the branch, pulling the string halfway over. Use the rock-free end of the rope to attach the food bags. Pull the end with the rock until the food rises. The bag should be at least ten feet high and about four feet from the tree trunk (since bears can climb). Then tie it to a tree trunk for security overnight. In the morning, you’ll be excited to search for your bag and release it back to the ground for breakfast.
LEAVE NO TRACE
It is extremely important that we work together to respect our natural parks and to make an effort to have a minimal impact on plant and animal life as we hike, eat, camp, and recreate. Always pack out what you pack in, and leave plants, rocks, and other natural objects in the forest. And, for your safety and the animals’ sake, never follow, approach, or feed wildlife—only observe wildlife from a distance.
The Hudson Valley is truly graced by natural beauty. We are fortunate to get to divert time from our busy lives to connect with our surroundings, to feel the earth beneath our feet, and smell the forest and warm breeze. Nature can renew your soul, rouse your creativity, and provide a shift in perspective. Get out there and explore! There is so much to see and discover! From phenomenal camp sites that you want to call home to rolling waterfalls that land in pristine pools of water, you’ll find yourself bringing friends to share the experiences because they are so very spectacular.