10 camping questions you've wanted to ask

If you're new to Idaho or new to camping, here are your answers.

rphillips@idahostatesman.comApril 16, 2013 

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ROGER PHILLIPS — rphillips@idahostatesman.com

Not every one learned to camp as kids, but every one should have experience camping at some point regardless of age.

If you're not a camper, or feel daunted heading into Idaho's great camping areas, here are some answers to those questions you may not feel comfortable asking.

1. Where can I camp?

We've listed a bunch of campgrounds here, and most public campgrounds in Idaho are managed by the Forest Service, Idaho Parks and Recreation, Bureau of Land Management, and a few other public agencies. Idaho Power also owns and operates several campgrounds.

State parks, Idaho Power campgrounds and private campgrounds tend to be the most developed, and you can typically find flush toilets, running water, showers, RV hookups, etc.

At some of those places, you may even be able to buy a cup of gourmet coffee and get Wi-Fi in your tent or RV.

Expect to pay about $20 to $30 per night depending on what services you use, and don't expect solitude because they are popular.

Many state parks also have cabins and yurts (See page 013), which makes it really easy to go camping if you don't have all the gear, or you want something a little more cozy than a tent.

Forest Service and BLM campgrounds tend to be less developed and cheaper.

Expect to pay $5 to $15 per night. They typically have outhouses and water pumps that are centrally located in the campground, so everyone shares them.

Most also have fire rings and picnic tables. Some have campground hosts, but many do not.

Most Forest Service and BLM campgrounds do not have RV hookups, but many have paved RV pads.

2. Do I need a reservation?

Depends. If you're planning to camp between Memorial Day and Labor Day, especially weekends, it's a good idea.

You can make reservations for state parks at parksandrecreation.idaho.gov, and at Forest Service or BLM campgrounds at recreation.gov. Remember there are reservation fees, and not all campgrounds offer reservations.

Not all campsites are reservable, and if a popular campground is booked, most popular recreation areas have more nearby. So if you get a sudden urge to go camping, don't let the lack of a reservation stop you.

But if you want peace of mind and don't mind paying a few bucks for it, reservations are a good option.

2. Do I have to camp in a campground?

No. You can camp on most publicly owned federal and state lands. No fees or permits are required in most cases.

However, you do need to be self-contained. You should know how to camp with minimal impact on the land, and be careful with fire.

You also can't drive off road to a camp spot, but finding a decent spot near a road is usually not difficult.

There's a different etiquette than at a developed campground.

You should bring a portable toilet along. Just because bears do it in the woods, doesn't mean you should.

Most people use these spots for solitude. A good rule of thumb is to stay out of sight and hearing distance from the next camp.

3. Is camping safe? Are there bears?

Yes, and yes. Camping is by and large a safe activity as long as you consider hazards common to all outdoor activities, including bears, but we will get back to that.

Use common sense when camping. Have a first-aid kit, and be careful with fire.

Also remember the weather can change quickly, especially in the mountains, so always bring warm clothes and extras. Have a good, weatherproof tent and a warm sleeping bag. Nights are cool in the mountains, even in summer.

Don't leave your camp unattended for long periods. Theft occasionally happens, but it's rare. And despite scary campfire tales, altercations with people are also rare.

Now about those bears. Most of Idaho is bear habitat. It's unlikely you will see a bear, much less have one raid your camp. But it does occasionally happen, usually in the fall when bears are getting ready to hibernate.

Learn the basics of camping in bear country, which is essentially safely storing your food and keeping a clean camp.

Bear attacks on humans are extremely rare in Idaho. It's almost cliche, but you're much more likely to be injured by bees than bears.

4. Can I get Wi-Fi, and will my cellphone work?

Depends. Many state parks and private campgrounds offer Wi-Fi, and some campgrounds have cell service.

Idaho is a very mountainous state, and cellphones don't work well in the backcountry because mountains block the signal.

There are large swaths of Idaho that do not get cell service, so if it's important to you, plan to camp in a state park or near towns, but realize that won't guarantee cell service, either.

5. What if there's an emergency?

If you have cell service, calling 911 will usually put you in contact with the nearest sheriff's office dispatcher.

But beware it may take a while for help to arrive. It's always best to be prepared to handle it yourself.

6. Is my vehicle suitable for camping?

If you drive a passenger car, it's best to pick a state park or campground near a highway or paved road.

If you have an SUV or pickup with all-season tires, most roads won't be an issue, but it's best to have a full-sized spare, not a donut.

7. How do I keep from getting lost?

Don't blindly trust your car's GPS. Most are configured for cities and highways, and many become unreliable when you get off pavement.

Get a good ol' reliable map or an atlas. "The Idaho Road and Recreation Atlas" is an excellent one that has reasonably good detail about back roads.

Probably the best map for campers is a Forest Service map, which tends to be the most up-to-date, covers a fairly large area and shows campgrounds. They're available at Forest Service offices.

No map should be considered 100 percent accurate because things change from year to year.

Navigating the backcountry typically isn't difficult, but if in doubt, don't go down a dubious road.

8. When is the best time to camp?

As mentioned before, Idaho is very mountainous, which means prime camping seasons vary at different elevations.

May is typically prime time for southern Idaho because it's lower in elevation and has more of a desert climate.

Many campgrounds in the mountains don't open until June or July.

A good rule of thumb is to camp at lower elevations in the spring, then move into the mountains during summer.

9. Should I take my dog along?

Dogs and camping go together like campfires and s'mores, but beware, when you hear about a camping disaster story, a dog is often a main culprit.

If you're in a campground, dogs must be on a leash. Your dog doesn't recognize the boundaries between campsites, so obey that rule.

If you're camping outside a campground, you must keep an eye on your dog.

Consider Murphy's Law at play. Your dog will eat things it shouldn't, roll in things you don't want it to, get wet and likely muddy, and then find your sleeping bag irresistible. That's no exaggeration. But your dog is part of the family, so take it.

10. What do I do with my garbage?

Some campgrounds have garbage cans or dumpsters, but the general rule for camping is to pack out what you pack in.

Minimize waste before hand by removing excess packaging. Don't cook meals larger than your group can consume.

You can burn dry paper and cardboard in a fire, but don't burn other trash.

Do not dump or bury food waste. It attracts insects and wildlife.

You may also want an air-tight trash container, such as a bucket with a tight-fitting lid to pack out waste.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

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