Editor’s Note: I’m camping again! My pain condition has improved since I wrote this in 2010. Also, I’m now following my own advice. I’ve got the double-thick Coleman air mattress with the 1-inch zip-on memory foam pad that keeps the cold air away from me. I’ve got the tent that sets up in 2 minutes. I’ve got a couple of friends I camp with who carry the heavy stuff for me so I don’t aggravate anything.
While I still wouldn’t recommend tent camping for anyone with severe chronic pain, I now believe that with mild to moderate chronic pain, tent camping can be both possible and fun.
Then let them do as much of the work as possible. Because tent camping takes work–you’ve got to unpack the car, set up camp, cook, do dishes, secure food away from bears, hike back and forth to the bathroom, carry water…it goes on and on. Think about all the work that needs doing before you head out camping–it’s a lot harder than staying in a hotel.
Buy a big tent
Like one of these. Or these. Stooping down to fold and spindle yourself into a 2-3 man backpacking tent will make pain worse, not better. In a big tent, you can fit all the equipment you need to maximize your comfort, including the oversized air mattress and the propane heater.
Set up that nice big tent beneath a nice big tree. About three seconds after the sun rises on a nice summer day, the icy air inside an unshaded tent will rise about 140 degrees. Or at least it’ll feel about like that. But a shaded campsite makes all the difference. If you open up the windows to allow air to circulate through your tent, you can even take an afternoon nap in a shaded tent.
Create the warmest, comfiest bed you can
Start with a sturdy, self-inflating air bed. If you like, add a memory foam mattress topper. Before you inflate the mattress, spread out a wool blanket, an old wool rug, or a sleeping bag. This goes underneath the air mattress, to keep as much cold from seeping up as much as possible.
Skip the expensive Zero-Kelvin mummy bag and make yourself up a real bed. Sheets, blankets, multiple pillows, the works. Regular rectangular sleeping bags, fully unzipped, make good camping blankets. Not only will it feel more comfortable and homelike, you’ll be able to share in your camping partner’s body warmth. Now’s not the time to be squeamish, either–even if your camp buddy isn’t your life partner, borrow some body heat!
If a pile of blankets doesn’t keep you warm enough (it doesn’t work for me), a few options can help turn up the heat. My favorite is the battery-operated electric blanket. A poor man’s version, the hot water bottle, doesn’t work anywhere near as well for general bed heating, but is better if you need to warm up chilled joints or icy feet.
Skip the traditional camp food and eat right
For me, beenie-weenies from a can mixed + burnt marshmallows + grape kool-aid = hideous pain flare. Instead, keep as close to your standard daily fare as you can. Unless you’re already good at it, don’t bother trying to cook whole meals over a fire. Instead, buy a propane camp stove–Coleman stoves are fuel-efficient, easy to cook on, and virtually indestructible. (My recommendation: always buy Coleman branded camp stoves. Cheap imitators never work half as well.) Cooking on a good multi-burner camp stove feels lots like cooking on an at-home gas stove. With a matching camp stove griddle, eggs and pancakes for breakfast fry up in a snap. A pot of boiling water plus some gourmet jarred sauce becomes a delicious pasta dinner. I do pack nuts and dried fruit in ziplock bags and call it trail mix when I take it hiking. And yeah, I’ll roast a few marshmallows after a nutritious dinner. Some traditions ought to be honored.
Bring a super-comfy seat
Bring a comfy camp chair, preferably with a footstool, like this one. Add an extra plastic dish pan to your kit, and use it for either warm water or ice water so you can soak your feet. Get a few crack-em instant hot packs and cold packs from the drugstore, so you can ice or heat sore spots each evening. If you’ve got an old yoga mat, bring it along too, and spread it out each day for a stretching and relaxation session.
Light up the night
Pack flashlights, a couple of camp lanterns, and plenty of extra batteries. Then use them every time you get up to walk anywhere at night. Nothing makes the pain of camping worse than adding a broken toe or a sprained ankle from tripping over an unseen root or stepping in a gopher hole in the middle of the night.
Use a camp toilet
Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is my least favorite part of tent camping. Sure, most modern campgrounds provide shared facilities. So all I’ve got to do is slip out of my nice warm bed, find my shoes, struggle into a coat, grab a flashlight, unzip the tent, and shiver my way across the campground in the dead of night, hoping that I’ve remembered the right path to take. Given my bladder issues, I get to do that between once and five times every night.
The best solution: thrust my shivering dignity aside and use a camp toilet. These days they come with seats and high tech plastic disposal bags. Best of all, by shoving a camp toilet in the corner of the tent (and possibly adding a makeshift privacy screen) I can avoid all of the wretchedness of leaving the tent in the middle of the night.
That’s about it. Oh, except for my opinion of backpacking and hike-in camping. Don’t do it. If you’ve got pain, the level of misery you’ll achieve while backpacking will be amazing. [Editor's note: this part's still true. Chronic pain = no hike-in camping for me.]
Next up…RVs and other civilized means of camping with pain.