I tried camping, as in complete with tents and sleeping bags, for the very first time last weekend. It was a very good learning experience for me, which is the main reason I am writing this post.
If you are only interested in the photos from the trip, click here to go straight to my Picasa web albums. If you care for the rest of the story, read on.
A big thank you goes out to Kaushik and Souvik for making this happen. :-)
We camped and trekked in forests close to Munnar. The original trek route we had decided on is almost exclusively reachable through package tours alone, since googling around will help you only so much as to get you within 5 Kms or so of the actual area. That's what happened to us, anyway. No amount of internet search got us all the info we needed.
Having said that, we made the most of what we had, and camped and trekked for a fair bit through the forest and enjoyed being outdoors. I could give out details like name of the hill we wanted to go to or the lake we were looking for, but all that makes for a very long (and boring) post, so...
My main motive for writing this piece is to share what I learnt about camping from this first time experience. Of-course, if you are interested in other details too, reach out to me (or Kaushik ;-) ) offline.
Here comes the part about 'learning'.
Camping out in a forest or any location not too close to civilization is not for everyone. If you are too fussy about sleeping on the ground without a mattress, too weak to walk a few kilometers with heavy loads, really picky about food, can't live a day without 'net access, or in general make a big deal out of little inconveniences, etcetera (well, you get the idea), then camping and trekking is not for you. Stay at home; do not venture out.
Learn to setup your tent. Practice several times until you can get it right in your own backyard. Setting it up (packing it back) is hard for first timers and requires you to be patient with the tedious process.
Carry enough water. This one sounds like a no-brainer, but it can't be over-emphasized. You need water to drink, cook your maggi noodles or tea or anything else, and for your basic hygiene and comfort. Try doing all this with a 2-liter water bottle at home and you will get an idea of how fast water runs out!
Pack enough insulation. This includes clothing and blanketing. Also carry a plastic tarp that is compact and light. It is easy to underestimate the cold while camping out while we are all quite used to warm and comfy indoors. Carry a jacket, thermal wear, maybe even a bedsheet. Stay warm: if your basic comfort is met, you will be able to enjoy the outdoors better.
Carry some means to start a fire. You must have a lighter or matches, and either pack some tinder material from home, or collect some while out on the trail. Fuel can be collected in the field too, of-course, but you should plan ahead and collect some while you still can. Remember, when daylight goes down, it does so fast, and dark forests look good only on National Geographic in their green night-vision videos. Practice starting a fire before you head out into the wilderness. I can't highlight everything here, but please also educate yourself about responsibly starting and putting out fires.
Please carry a sturdy knife that will endure some striking on timber and twigs, poking into the ground and packets and tin cans, and so on. A kitchen knife will not do, sorry. Any utility knife worth its name is good enough. A Swiss knife is perfect.
Carry some lights! My first night camping and it made me write torches on the top of my list! My friends carried LED headlamps while I carried a torch. You need these even more than water, a knife, fire, and almost anything else. You will need them at the camp-site for moving around without tripping over your tents and finding things easily. They will be most useful for finding your way through dark forest trails or signaling for contact/help if you see another human being. But seriously, a night in the forest is scary dark if you have no lights with you. If you have a lantern-like light, its perfect for a tent site as you can place it somewhere so that everyone can move about without knocking things over. It won't cover more than a few meters, though. :-) Torches (okay, 'flashlights', <rolls eyes>) are essential.
You should also have enough food with you. Maggi noodles, chocolates, chips, snacks, anything. Keep your energy levels topped-up with a small bite every now n then; it really helps you stay fresh and cheerful. Keep the snacking items in some handy places so you won't have to be too lazy to unload your massive backpacks to fish out a chocolate.
Hmm, this could well be a topic of its own to write about, I guess. Not that I'm much of a wilderness photographer myself, but I did pick up a few tips from watching the other two guys. Lets leave this for another day, maybe.
I could write much more, but I'll spare you the boredom. :-)
My friends Kaushik and Souvik have both lived in the US for about 2 years each and have done their fair share of trekking/camping while being there. They have plenty of very useful and well-made camping gear that they brought along on this trip and put to good use. So while I behaved like a total novice, they were as calm as seasoned 'nam veterans, and they whole trek/camping was almost literally a walk-in-the-park to them. And did I mention they are both much bigger/serious photography nuts than me? And they both carried equipment that I envied.
That's all for now! Thanks for reading all the way though! :-)