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How Much Do You Know About Camping?

Camping out has changed considerably since the good old days of pine bough beds, bonfires and fresh-cut trail shelters. Camps stoves have taken over where fires once ruled, and a deluge of new fabrics--nylon, polypropylene, fleece and Gore-Tex, have challenged traditional fibers. Packsacks, tents, hiking boots and raingear have all become lighter and more compact.

Regrettably, what hasn't changed, is "knowledge of the sport". The wise old scoutmaster who could rig a tight camp in a driving rain, has been largely replaced by the well-meaning leader who atones the night in his pick-up camper. Everyone, it seems, has plenty of good gear, but precious few know how to use it.

Can you rig a tent so it will withstand an all night storm? Do you know what to do if a bear visits your camp? Are there ways to keep mosquitoes and black flies from honing in on you? Can you make accurate weather predictions without the aid of tools or TV? Take this tough little quiz and see how much you really know about the wild outdoors.

Hint: Some questions have more than one right answer, and some answers are "open to interpretation".


1. You are camping at a popular site. Your freeze-dried and canned foods have no odors to attract bears. Still, you are concerned that a hungry bruin might find your camp.

Best plan is to:

  1. attach a rope to your food pack and hoist the pack into a tree. The pack should be at least 15 feet off the ground. Rope marks on a large limb suggest that other campers have "treed their packs" here.
  2. Set your food pack inside your tent or car.
  3. Place your food pack under an overturned canoe or fishing boat. Set metal pots on top of the canoe or boat to function as an "alarm system" if a bear comes while you're sleeping.
  4. Take your food pack out of the campsite and hide it in the bushes, well away from animal trails.

ANSWER: d) is the best plan.
Bears are creatures of habit; like dogs (they are much smarter than dogs!), they learn from experience. Habituated bears know that food comes in cans, packs and boxes. They'll chew through these items even when there is no food inside or food smell outside.

Bears also learn that food grows on certain trees! Why? Because there are usually just one or two trees in a typical campsite with limbs that are high enough to discourage a bear. Campers all put their food in these trees. Bears are excellent climbers! In fact, they are so adept at getting treed food packs, that campers in western parks call the treed packs "bear piñata's".

It's okay to hang your food in a tree if you don't use the same tree as everyone else. This will break the conditioning cycle. Be aware that bears rely heavily on their eyesight to find food. A pack lofted high into a tree is visible for some distance. One hidden in the bushes isn't. Dried foods and canned goods are probably odor-free. If a bear can't smell your food, or see your food, it won't get your food!

If you have a dog, try this experiment: When feeding time rolls around, don't put your dog's (dry) food in the usual place. Instead, place the food inside two tightly sealed plastic bags and hide the bags under your bed. See how long it takes your dog to find the food. Rover may search for hours!

Any animal that is regularly fed at the same place, will return there for more. Make no mistake; a determined bear will get your food if you put it in the same place as everyone else.

It is dangerous to keep food inside tents and cars. I recently saw a late model BMW that a bear had demolished. There was a cooler filled with steaks in the trunk. The bear caused $5,000 worth of damage to the car. Yes, she did get the food!

2. The best way to keep water out of your tent when it rains is to:

  1. Dig a trench around the perimeter of your tent and slope the trench so rain water drains away.
  2. Place a plastic ground cloth under the floor of your tent.
  3. Place a plastic ground cloth inside your tent.
  4. Pitch your tent on a slight incline so that flowing ground water will drain away from your tent.

ANSWER: c) is correct.
Groundwater commonly enters a tent through ground level seams or worn fabric. Of course, tent seams should be waterproofed--either with special sealing glue or a liquid compound. (I prefer Thompson's Water Seal--a brush on chemical formulated for waterproofing wood and concrete.) But, fabrics and seams wear and tent floors eventually leak. An interior ground cloth keeps accumulated water away from your sleeping gear. The groundcloth should be a foot larger (all-round) than the floor of your tent, so it "flows" up the sidewalls a few inches. Now, water that enters your tent while you sleep will be trapped between the interior plastic "bathtub" and tent floor--and you'll stay dry. Low cost, 4-mil thick plastic sheeting (available at hardware stores) makes a fine groundcloth.

Some "experts" suggest that you place the ground cloth under the floor to save the nylon floor from punctures. Don't do it! Groundwater will become trapped between the plastic sheet and floor and be pumped (by body weight) into the tent! You'll really have a sponge party if this happens! The effect is similar to pitching a tent on concrete in a heavy rain.

It is unethical and illegal to "ditch" a tent. Gullies result as topsoil washes away. An interior groundcloth will keep you dry in any rain.

3. Which is the best way to sharpen a knife?
Raise the blade about 15 degrees to the stone and:

  1. cut firmly into the stone with a long sweeping motion.
  2. draw the edge away from the stone with a long sweeping motion;
  3. hold the stone steady and rotate the blade in small circles.
  4. hold the knife steady and rotate the stone in small circles.

ANSWER: a) will best provide a uniform sharp edge.
Use c) if you have a very small whetstone: however, this procedure will not produce a uniform sharp edge.
d) is ineffective and possibly dangerous.

4. True or False?
Modern polyester-filled sleeping bags should be drycleaned or washed by hand: they should never be washed in a washing machine.

ANSWER: False!  Never dryclean synthetic sleeping bags or fleece garments. The drycleaning solution may dissolve the fibers! Machine washing with gentle detergents is the best plan. Sleeping bags--synthetic and down--are best washed in commercial front loading machines that have a gentle tumble-wash cycle. The reverse agitation of top loading machines can damage baffles and stitching.

5. Which of these would make the best tinder for starting a campfire on a rainy day?

  1. newspaper
  2. finely split cedar wood
  3. dry splittings taken from the stump of a dead pine tree
  4. dead leaves

ANSWER: b) or c)
Conifers concentrate highly flammable resin (pitch) in their roots. Splittings taken from this "fat wood" (c) burn brightly for many minutes, even in rain. Finely split cedar wood (b) also makes great tinder. Dead leaves work only when bone dry and when not in the advanced stages of decomposition. Newspaper is "hydrophilic"--it absorbs moisture from the air--and the poorest tinder of all.

6. Your tent is pitched on a substantial incline. You will have to "level the site" with spare clothes in order to sleep comfortably. Best plan is to pitch the tent with the:

  1. head end facing uphill
  2. head end facing downhill.
  3. head end perpendicular to the incline (one side of the tent is higher than the other)
  4. it doesn't matter.

Pitch your tent across the incline (c) and level your bed by placing spare clothes under the down hill side of your sleeping pad. This will produce a level sleeping platform.

If you choose (a) and stack spare clothes under your legs, your head and feet will be higher than your hips. One night spent in this "hammock" position may be more than you can take. Sleeping with your head down hill (b) borders on madness!

7. Boots should be sized so that you can wear two pairs of socks--one thick pair and one thin pair--inside and still wiggle your toes. Socks may be wool, polypropylene or polyester, but never clammy cotton.
You should:

  1. wear the thin pair inside-out next to your skin. Wear the thick pair (inside out or rightside out) over the thin pair.
  2. same as above but always wear your socks rightside out
  3. The heavy socks should be worn next to your skin and the lighter socks over them.
  4. It doesn't matter how you wear your socks as long as you wear two pair.

You re less likely to blister if you reverse the liner socks (a) so that abrasive seams are away from your skin. Heavy socks may be worn inside out or rightside out, but, they should always be worn over lighter socks.

8. You'll be the master of any camping and boating situation if you know these three important knots:

  1. bowline, square knot, tautline hitch
  2. bowline, crown knot, fisherman's knot
  3. diamond hitch, square knot, two half hitches
  4. two half hitches, sheetbend, power-cinch (trucker's knot)

The three knots in (d) will "do it all".
Use two half-hitches to secure a line to a tree or boat. The sheetbend won't slip when you tie two ropes together. The power-cinch acts like a powerful pulley: use it to stake your tent and to tie canoes on cars and heavy equipment on to trucks. My book, The Basic Essentials of Camping(Globe-Pequot Publishers) illustrates these knots

9. Whenever you pitch a tent or rain tarp, or rig a clothes line in camp, you should always end your knots with:

  1. a double half-hitch around the bite
  2. a slippery or quick-release loop
  3. a bow
  4. a monkey fist or crown

If you end your knots with a "slippery" loop they'll come apart instantly when you pull the bitter end of the rope. A wise woodsman once wrote that, "The world would be a better place if every camper learned to tie quick-release knots!" Try picking out rain-soaked knots after a storm and you'll see why...

10. You are boating on a large lake and are "mightily confused". Fortunately, you have a simple map and a battery operated GPS (global positioning system). Your map shows the structure of the shoreline and the major islands, but there are no contour lines or latitude/longitude marks. The direction of true north is given, but the magnetic declination for the area, is not. You planned to stay near shore so you didn't program the GPS with your starting position.

To find your way "home":

  1. turn on the GPS and obtain a coordinate fix. Transfer this fix to your map and you'll know where you are. Then, follow the bearing provided by your GPS.
  2. Your map does not have a coordinate system so your GPS is useless. Best plan is to use your compass and try to backtrack.
  3. You must know the area magnetic declination to program your GPS.
  4. Your map does not have contour lines so both your GPS and compass are useless!

ANSWER: b) Use Compass and Backtrack
Your GPS is useless! You can obtain an accurate "fix", but you can't plot it on your map. If you had programmed in your starting position the GPS would provide a "bread crumb trail" home.

Newcomers to GPS technology should be aware that many maps (especially the free ones you get at state and national parks) don't have latitude/longitude and/or Universal Trans mercator (UTM) coordinates printed on their face. A GPS is useless without these reference points. You must have good map reading and compass skills to use a GPS effectively.

11. Your map shows a small fishing pond deep in the woods, about two miles due south (true bearing equals 180 degrees) of your location. The magnetic compass declination (as given on the map) is 10 degrees west. What compass bearing must you follow to reach the lake?

  1. 190 degrees
  2. 170 degrees
  3. 180 degrees
  4. 10 degrees.

ANSWER: a) 190 degrees
A compass points (actually, it doesn't point--it lines up with the earth's magnetic field) to magnetic north, not true north. This angular difference, called declination must be considered whenever you use your compass. In the eastern United States the declination is westerly; in the western United States, it's easterly. If you live right on the imaginary line which goes directly through both the true and magnetic north poles (called the "agonic line"), your declination will be zero. Every topographic map has a "declination diagram" which tells the value of the angular difference between the two north's.

Here's how to adjust your compass for magnetic declination.

1. Use a protractor or the protractor function of an orienteering compass to determine the bearing from your location to your destination. If you reference your bearing from the top of your map it will be a true bearing. 2. Use this rhyme to convert your true map bearing to a magnetic bearing that will be set on your compass. DECLINATION EAST, COMPASS LEAST If the magnetic declination is east, subtract its value from your true map bearing.DECLINATION WEST, COMPASS BEST Add west declination to your true map bearing.

Example: You computed a true bearing of 180 degrees to the pond. The declination is 10 degrees west. "West is best," so you add 10 to 180 and get 190.

By the way, one degree of compass error equals about 92 feet per mile of ground error. A 10 degree error over a 2 mile distance equals 1840 feet, or about one-third of a mile on the ground!

12. A storm is brewing as you are setting up your tent.
You should pitch your tent:

  1. with the entry-way facing the wind;
  2. back-end facing the wind;
  3. on a quartering angle to the wind;
  4. the direction makes no difference.

Back-end to the wind is usually the best plan. This keeps door zippers and seams in the lee of wind-driven rain. This is more important with A-frame style tents than with domes. Some A-frame tents have one end higher than the other. It's best to pitch them with the low end facing the wind.

Consider adding a vestibule to your tent. Vestibules cover the doorway and provide a protected place to store equipment. They are available for most tents.

13. You are planning to hike a well maintained trail.
How should you arrange items in your pack?

  1. place heavy items low, near your hips. Lighter things go on top;
  2. place lightweight items near your hips; heavier things go on top;
  3. Try to distribute the weight evenly;
  4. put heavy things on the bottom and top; place light things in-between.

Keep the weight high for hiking well-maintained trails.
Adopt plan (a) when you rock-scramble or go off trail. A low weighted pack (hip-hugger) provides more freedom of movement--as when cross-country skiing--than a high-weighted one.

14. You cook your meals on a gasoline trail stove.
Which of these is a bad practice?

  1. Dump out the gas after each trip and burn the stove dry. Fuel up with fresh gas just before each trip;
  2. Never refuel a hot stove;
  3. Don't set over-size pots on the burner of a small trail stove.
  4. Use unleaded automotive gasoline in "multifuel" stoves.

Automotive fuels are much dirtier--and may be more volatile--than refined naphtha (Coleman and Blazo fuels). Regular use of auto gas will clog valves and put your stove out of commission. Burn naphtha (white gas) in your multifuel stove: save dirty auto gas for emergencies.

Gasoline left in stoves for long periods turns to varnish. If you must keep fuel in approved cans or bottles over the winter, keep the containers nearly full to reduce oxidation.

15. Which of these clothing combinations would be bad to wear in cold, rainy weather where hypothermia is a concern?
Clothing layers are listed from the skin out.

  1. wool long underwear, wool shirt, rain coat;
  2. polypropylene long underwear, polyester fleece sweater, rain coat;
  3. polyester long underwear, wool shirt, rain coat;
  4. cotton long underwear, polyester fleece sweater, rain coat;
  5. wool long underwear, cotton shirt, rain coat.

ANSWER: a), b) or c) is acceptable
"d" is unacceptable, "e" is a bad choice.
Cotton wicks moisture and heat from the skin and should never be worn in cold, rainy weather. If you must wear cotton, wear it over wool or synthetics. Polypropylene, polyesters and wool can be worn with confidence in cold rains.

Synthetic fibers won't stop rain or sparks from campfires. Wool will! Synthetics protect best when accumulated moisture is wrung out. Tightly woven wool resists wind and rain and it retains about 10 percent of its warmth when soaked. A combination of wool + synthetics may provide the best all-round protection against hypothermia.

16. You have spotted a black bear around your campsite. Fortunately, you have a can of cayenne pepper spray which will deter bears about 75 percent of the time.
Which of the following should you never do?

  1. spray your food pack and tent entrance with pepper to keep the bear away;
  2. spray the bear when it comes into camp;
  3. climb a tree and spray the bear from the tree;
  4. duck behind a tree (if the bear chases you) and spray the bear from behind the tree.

ANSWER: d) is best option.
(a) or (c) will get you into real trouble!
Bears don't like to be sprayed in the face with pepper, but they do like the taste of it. When rafters in Alaska sprayed their rubber rafts with pepper to keep bears away, the bears ate the rafts! Bears also demolished an out-house that was pepper-sprayed. Don't test-fire a can of pepper spray around camp. The residual pepper (on the can) might bring a bear to you!

If you do "fire" a blast of pepper spray, carefully wash the can with water and clean the nozzle with alcohol before you again carry the can or keep it in your tent.

Do NOT climb a tree and pepper-spray a bear! The bear will climb up and jerk you out--and maybe, have you for supper. If you climb a tree, break off a branch and poke the bear in the nose or eyes with the branch, as it climbs towards you. This procedure will discourage a bear nearly all the time.

You should hide behind a tree when you pepper spray a bear. The tree will break the bear's charge and allow you to place your shot more accurately. Do spray aggressive bears which come into camp.

17. You're pulling away from the dock for a day's fishing on the big lake. The sky is deep blue, but overhead, there are wispy cirrus clouds which resemble mare's tails.

  1. You'd better cancel your trip - a bad storm is brewing;
  2. A gentle rain will begin in an hour or so. The rain won't last long;
  3. Don't worry; it won't rain today, but it will tomorrow.
  4. These are fair weather clouds - you can count on at least two days of good weather.

ANSWER: c) is correct.
Cirrus clouds are the highest clouds. The wispy streaks are ice crystals, thrown skyward by an approaching warm front. Nimbostratus clouds (dark gray rain clouds that cover the entire sky) are 24-48 hours behind. Make no mistake; it will rain tomorrow, or the next day, at the latest. The rain will be long and annoying, but probably without thunder, lightning and/or high winds.

18. The rain has stopped and a brilliant rainbow, with deep red overtones comes into view. This suggests that:

  1. you may pack your rain coat - the rain is over;
  2. keep your rain coat handy - more rain is on its way;
  3. the color of the rainbow offers no clue as to what lies ahead;
  4. you have a golden opportunity to get in at least an hour's more fishing before it rains.

The red color results from sunlight streaming through water vapor. A rich blue indicates clear skies ahead.

19. You're fishing in a quiet cove and the mosquitoes seem to be biting more than usual. Around mid-day, they quit biting altogether. This suggests:

  1. you're one lucky dude!
  2. It will rain in an hour or so;
  3. expect it to rain some time in the next day or two;
  4. their feeding cycle is over.

Insects sense the low pressure of an approaching storm and stock up on food (you!). Then, they scurry to shelter an hour or two before the rain begins.

20. What is the least effective way to purify your drinking water on a camping trip?

  1. boil it for at least 5 minutes--a 20 minute boil will kill all bacteria;
  2. simply bring the water to a boil--no need to boil for several minutes;
  3. pump the water through a commercial water filter;
  4. pump the water through a commercial filter/purifier
  5. treat the water with halazone tablets (available at pharmacies), which release chlorine.

Halazone tabelts are least effective, especially if the water is cold or cloudy.
Filters trap most microorganisms (but not viruses). Filter/purifers kill all bacteria and some viruses. Purifiers are more effective than filters but their flow rate is slower. Nearly all bacteria are killed when water reaches the boiling point (1000 C). Some bacterial spores and viruses can survive boiling. Except at high altitude, boiling longer has little effect.

21. Which of these is the preferred hitch to use when staking out guylines on a tent?

  1. tautline hitch
  2. clove hitch
  3. trucker's hitch (power cinch)
  4. timber hitch

ANSWER: c) The power cinch
The tautline hitch was popular in the days of canvas tents and manila ropes. It slides freely, yet jams under load. The modern "trucker's hitch" (C) is much more powerful and secure than the tautline hitch. It's also faster and easier to apply and remove--especially, around a tree or rail.

22. You're planning a spring fishing trip and need to buy some new rain gear. You know that mosquitoes and black flies are attracted to certain colors. Which color rain suit shouldn't you buy?

  1. sea green
  2. navy blue
  3. sunshine yellow
  4. rose red

ANSWER: b) navy blue
Mosquitoes and black flies love navy blue: it's the worst color you can wear in the woods! Also be wary of black and other dark heat-absorbing colors. Generally, dark colors attract insects; lighter colors have a more neutral effect.


18-20: Expert camper: Your friends shouldn't go camping without you.

15-17: Guide in training: You are the envy of your friends.

12-14: Faithful follower: Keep learning - you'll be a pro in a few years.

Below 12: Wishful thinker: You may want to read some good camping books before your next outing!

Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing.  www.cliffcanoe.com

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