Chicago-area camping for beginners
August 23, 2013 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a place to go camping for a night, preferably on/near Lake Michigan, over Labor Day weekend, within a 4 hour drive of Chicago. I have never camped before. I have a tent and a tarp. I need help with location, how to make fire, what to do about food, and other things a 32-year-old camping virgin should know before setting out. More details inside.

My boyfriend and I are looking for a place to camp for a night over Labor Day weekend, and would like some help with utter newbie questions. Here are the details of what we have and what we need some help with.

* We have a car, live in Chicago, and are willing to drive up to 4 hours.
* We have a dome tent on loan from some friends, and a tarp to lay under it.
* My boyfriend has been camping a couple of times but always with experienced campers who ran the show, and the only time I've slept outside was in a parking lot for a big stadium rock show *mumblemumbledoesn'tcount*.

My main questions are:

* Where do we go? A camp site on Lake Michigan would be preferable. I'd like it to not be a super crowded full of people and kids site but I acknowledge that this might be unavoidable on Labor Day weekend.
* Do different campsites have different difficulty levels, so to speak? Are there places with nearby bathroom/running water areas? How much does it typically cost to camp somewhere and are reservations required/how will Labor Day Weekend impact this?
* What do we sleep on inside the tent? Do people typically use sleeping bags for this?
* What are best techniques for beginners to make fire? Links to websites or resources would be great.
* What are some good food things to bring, provided we succeed at the making of the fire? (There's a reason why we only want to do this for one night. Super easy beginner level stuff here.)
* Anything else to expect, given our relative newbie status? I've spent a lot of time in the woods in the UP but I always stayed at a cabin with running water and stuff.

Thanks for your help! I want to spend a night outdoors, preferably after watching the sun set over Lake Michigan, stargazing and poking a fire.
posted by norrington to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, state parks and private campgrounds have water and toilets and those types of things. Since this is your first trip, you probably don't want to have the experience of shitting in the woods. I don't live in the area, so can't recommend a place to go. Yes, you should look into reserving a campground on a busy weekend like labor day.

Sleeping bags are good for sleeping in, depending on the temperature. But really, buy either: camping mats (foam ones are cheap and work pretty well) or, since you're taking a car, get an air mattress and bring lots of blankets.

Making a fire is easy, pile up a pile of sticks in a pyramid shape over a pile of leaves, cotton balls or something that burns fast (brown paper bags work really well.) Keep adding bigger sticks as the fire catches (have a pile near the fire ready to go) until you get to putting logs on. Make sure to douse it with water before you leave. An ash bed might look like it's burnt out, but it's still hot under the surface.

If the firepit has a grate over it, you can try grilling something - but you might stick to hot dogs and s'mores since you have no experience. Pretty impossible to mess those ups.

Expect all kinds of noises, you can hear coyotes from miles and miles - it might sound like they are next to you but they're not. LED headlamps and flash lights are cheap, you can make a nice lantern by shining one in a gallon jug of water.

Don't forget the booze, it makes it easier to sleep.
posted by thylacine at 7:43 AM on August 23, 2013

Labor Day is going to be nuts. For locations, the first place I ever camped as a kid was here, but it's nowhere near Lake Michigan.

* Do different campsites have different difficulty levels, so to speak? Are there places with nearby bathroom/running water areas? How much does it typically cost to camp somewhere and are reservations required/how will Labor Day Weekend impact this?

The IL state DNR uses an online registration system for this sort of thing. Check in there for availability and cost. Yes, there are grades of campsites. Full-pull-through areas are for folks who are in trailers and RVs. You probably don't want to be anywhere near that. Tent sites are usually clustered around a common bathroom/shower facility. There may or may not be AC power available at the site. You're likely to find a fire ring of some kind, picnic table and maybe a small concrete slab. Some sites in TN have a gravelly area for parking your car. Primitive camping is just that. No managed facilities at all. I'd steer clear of that for now.

* What do we sleep on inside the tent? Do people typically use sleeping bags for this?

Yes. Check the nighttime temps to see how cold it's likely to be that night. Air mattresses are also getting popular, but maybe that's just for us crotchety old folks.

* What are best techniques for beginners to make fire? Links to websites or resources would be great.

There are plenty of sites out there for is but one. Your campground may or may not allow fires if the summer has been dry, and you're better off if you can bring a small amount of your own firewood. Campgrounds are usually picked pretty clean. Do not cut any trees or limbs for your fire. What's on the ground is usually fair game, but pickings are usually slim in popular campgrounds. What you don't use, leave for the next guy.

* What are some good food things to bring, provided we succeed at the making of the fire? (There's a reason why we only want to do this for one night. Super easy beginner level stuff here.)

Keep it simple: hotdogs and other pre-cooked things. Why? If it rains, or you otherwise can't get your fire started, you will still want to eat. We do a lot of Dutch Oven cooking when we camp. For that you'd need a Dutch Oven, some charcoal, a way of lifting the lid to check the food, etc. More here.

Camp stoves are not all that expensive and are more reliable way to cook than over a fire. Since it's just the two of you, a pocket-rocket style of stove might be all you need. You can boil water with it and make pasta, oatmeal or any of the other dehydrated-food-things in the camping supply store.

* Anything else to expect, given our relative newbie status? I've spent a lot of time in the woods in the UP but I always stayed at a cabin with running water and stuff.

Bring a cooler with plenty of ice, bug spray, etc. Several light sources. Lanterns are fun - get a battery powered one to start with. A tarp for the ground to pitch your tent on. There are a variety of checklists online for the other supplies that tend to be useful. A lot of the basic cooking stuff can be gotten at a dollar store and stowed in a bin until your next trip.

Most importantly? Practice with all your gear before you go. Also, bring extra toilet paper.

I have the TN, GA and FL editions of this book and they're great resources for not only picking the campground, but specific sites in the campground to grab (or avoid).
posted by jquinby at 7:45 AM on August 23, 2013

Food that only needs to be warmed is nice for beginners (hotdogs, sliced canned corned beef), though some nice steaks marinating in ziplock are very nice.
Metal silverware and non-paper plates are nice, don't forget a can opener.
A roll of paper towels (Bounty) and box of Kleenexes.
Many organized campgrounds don't allow you to forage for firewood, they or stores nearby will sell it by the bundle.
Remember, no food in tents or around the campsite at night, you don't want the racoons and skunks divvying up your stuff.
If you are coffee drinkers, figure out how you are going to make it, cowboy style (boiling the grounds in a pot, then adding a cup of cold water at the end to make them sink to the bottom), percolator (practice at home), or bring brewed coffee from home that you only need to warm up.
Don't forget pillows, (or just pillow cases that you can stuff with a coat or clothes).
We use frozen jugs of water in our cooler, doesn't fill the bottom with water.
A couple of lawn chairs are to sit in and watch the fire after dark (and a bottle of wine or brandy will keep you warm).
posted by 445supermag at 8:02 AM on August 23, 2013

Good point on the coffee...we have use a french press for coffee when we camp. If you can boil water, you're in good shape.
posted by jquinby at 8:11 AM on August 23, 2013

Normally I would say "come to Wisconsin!" but DON'T COME TO WISCONSIN OVER LABOR DAY. The 110th anniversary of Harley Davidson is going on in Milwaukee and every campground for 50-100 miles will be booked solid. Even if it's not, you'd have to contend with the noise of motorcycles all night.

I have no other suggestions; I logged in just to say that. Don't come to Wisconsin to Labor Day weekend. (Some other weekend, come to Kohler Andrae State Park, it's on the lake and about 3 hours from Chicago.)
posted by desjardins at 8:15 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Every weekend is crowded when it comes to camping by the lake. Warren Dunes in Michigan has great beaches. So does Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, but both might be full. We've liked Potato Creek and Turkey Run State Parks in Indiana, and Devil's Lake and Point Beach in Wisconsin. All are great for car camping, but Labor Day gets booked pretty early.

Maybe book something for fall? The Wisconsin campgrounds are lovely in the early fall. On preview, Desjardins is straight up correct about the loveliness of Kohler, but it's so nice it might already be booked thru the fall.

We do frozen water bottles for cooler ice for camping and road trips and I like pie irons for cooking quick meals over a fire (burritos, yum).
posted by readery at 8:23 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Okay, I have a couple of things to add. Bring bug spray. Do not run out of bug spray. The mosquitos are no joke this year, and as you know we just got a lot of rain yesterday.

Make sure to get bug spray with the ingredient DEET.

Also make sure to bring flashlights. At least three - one for you, one for your partner, and one for when you misplace one of the other ones. You will absolutely need one if you go to the bathroom at night.

Etiquette notes: keep your flashlight pointed towards the ground so you don't shine it into anyone's tent. Don't walk across anyone's camp site. Be quiet after 10 pm.

When getting in the tent, follow this procedure: unzip tent, turn to face away from tent, sit down inside tent with feet outside, take off shoes outside, zip up tent. This avoids getting dirt/mud in the tent.

Bring coffee packets like the VIA stuff that Starbucks sells. Or hot chocolate.

Washing dishes while camping can be a big pain in the ass. Bring disposable plates and cups for your first time out.

Bring microfiber towels if you have them - they dry a lot faster and you won't have nasty wet towel smell in the car on your way home. When you come back from the shower, drape the towel over the tent.

Set up the rain fly for the tent even if it's not raining (unless it's very hot). This will keep out some of the moisture in the morning. Even with a tarp, the floor of the tent will be a little damp when you wake up. Don't leave your phone directly on it. Almost all tents have mesh pockets attached to the inside.
posted by desjardins at 8:30 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

State parks and other campgrounds are your best bet. WI has some decent parks - and you can make reservations. In particular, Wildcat Mountain and Yellowstone Lake are pretty nice. Bluemounds and New Glarus woods are also not bad.

And a long way from Milwaukee and bikers. :-) Although, yeah, I dunno if you will be able to find a spot. Best to call ahead.

For firewood - as a rule, don't bring your own. That's how bugs and disease get transported. Most campgrounds will have seasoned firewood you can buy, or you can get it at a gas station near there.

For eats - stuff that needs to be heated work best. Or you can pack a cooler with stuff to make sandwiches. Don't forget to bring some water and beer.

I use blankets instead of sleeping bags. But the right answer is whatever is most comfortable and easiest for you.

This is totally something you can ease into. No need to go buy a Cabelas or anything.

Most important - Have fun!
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:30 AM on August 23, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all these fantastic answers. I'm starting to feel a bit more confident about this endeavor.

It's looking to be pretty warm that weekend - is making a fire even a necessary thing? Especially if I decide to get my hands on a camp stove like the one linked to above. It seems like the biggest variables at this point are going to be location and food/fire.

It sounds like Michigan lakeshore places might fill up pretty quickly so I am open to suggestions for non-lakeside areas, especially if they are near small lakes or rivers.

And yes, I've heard the mosquitoes this year are monsters.

But so far it sounds like there are ways to make this relatively easy for beginners, and I'm not crazy for trying to make it happen with zero experience. Yay!
posted by norrington at 8:36 AM on August 23, 2013

If you're not going to cook over it, the fire is more for ambience. A small one after dark is nice to sit near and poke at, roast marshmallows, fry pies (as mentioned above - grab a can of pie filling, white bread and butter for these), etc. The smoke might help keep some bugs at bay. Make sure it's dead out when you turn in for the night.
posted by jquinby at 8:41 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

These are all fantastic suggestions. A couple of other things to consider:

Camping chairs. You can pick a couple up at CVS for around $10 each, and they'll give you way more flexibility (and comfort) than the picnic table at your campsite.

If you already happen to have them, or are willing to shell out around $30: headlamps. They're so much easier to deal with than flashlights—hands free!

Even if you end up going the sleeping bag route, if it's chilly, you may want to bring a blanket to wrap around yourself as you sit by the fire. Also, since you're car camping: pillows!

Snacks (carrots & hummus, chips, grapes, etc.) to eat while you prep the fire and get dinner ready. This always seems to take longer than I want it to take, and if we forget snacks, I end up hangry by the time the hot dogs are ready.

Tasty, easy camping treat: a block of feta + a jar of roasted red peppers OR a wheel/wedge of brie + honey + nuts, wrapped in a couple of layers of aluminum foil, nestled in the coals until everything's melty. You can wrap this up before you leave, and eat it with crackers or a baguette around the campfire.

If you're planning on making coffee/hot chocolate/tea, you might want to bring a couple of travel mugs to keep your drinks hot.
posted by rebekah at 8:47 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't camp very often, but when I do, I've found Reserve America useful - they also list facilities available at each park. Seconding bringing snacks - you have a car, why not load up on non-perishables like trail mix just in case you want them?

I've always found employees at places like Erehwon really helpful for this sort of thing - in my experience, they don't try to push useless stuff on you and can be very knowledgable about local park options and what basics are needed. They also have freeze dried food meant for campers (like this) - I've never tried any but always wanted to.

Have a great time - you can totally do this!
posted by milkweed at 10:11 AM on August 23, 2013

Fire starters are cheating, but make the process of making a fire very simple -- put the firestarter on a log, light it, and stack kindling around it in sort of a teepee shape.

You can make them yourself with cotton balls and petroleum jelly.
posted by elmay at 10:15 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

One recommendation from experience: sunsets over Lake Michigan while camping on the Michigan shoreline are incredible.

I have only done this from the Traverse City area and Beaver Island, both of which are outside your four-hour limit. There are a lot of campgrounds near Benton Harbor and St. Joseph (about 2 hours from Chicago), and it might be worth checking those out and/or getting recommendations.

Also: traffic around the southern edge of the lake will likely be horrendous that weekend, and you would want to account for that when planning the length of your drive.
posted by 1367 at 10:29 AM on August 23, 2013

Response by poster: Follow up question... I'm looking at the reservation sites and many of them are filled up for Labor Day already, it seems. And a lot of them have camp sites all crowded together. My concept of this was that we'd be able to find somewhere pretty remote and isolated, not right in the middle of a group of strangers. Is that naive of me? If not, what type of site would be best suited for that sort of thing?
posted by norrington at 12:30 PM on August 23, 2013

Campgrounds are like that. The book I mentioned does a pretty good job of steering you away from the sites that are too close to the roads, or the RV area, or high-traffic areas near the bath house.

The primitive sites are going to be a lot less used...but access to water is not guaranteed (unless it's on a river or lake), and you're going to have to dig a hole to use for a latrine. Around here, you usually have to hike in a bit to get to the designated camping spots. On the upside...very few folks are likely to be around.

If the area's wooded, proximity doesn't necessarily mean you're right on top of each other. The trees and brush generally do a good job of screening out the neighbors, but it's still a crapshoot at the end of the day if you've never been there personally to see that site #32 is the one that backs up to the RV septic area, and #12 is the one everyone wants because it's the furthest off the road.
posted by jquinby at 12:46 PM on August 23, 2013

"Remote and isolated" = no showers, probably no flush toilets, maybe no ability to drive to the site (i.e., you have to hike in). This would not be a lot of fun for a beginning camper, however, it will weed out the partiers and screaming kids. Some of the more remote sites have different rules for fires; be sure to check on that.

"Quiet and wooded" is achievable if you do some research. Some campgrounds have pictures of the sites. IIRC, Reserve America has campground maps (so you can see how close together the sites are) and brief descriptions (shaded, etc). I'm guessing there are review sites like Yelp but I don't know what those are.

Stick to state/national parks and avoid private chain campgrounds like KOA or Jellystone (any campground with a pool = screaming children). But on Labor Day? I think everywhere's going to be crazy.

How about going later in the year and seeing the fall colors? Wisconsin would be a great place for that.
posted by desjardins at 1:12 PM on August 23, 2013

You're probably not going to find a car camping place in a state park that isn't crowded on labor day weekend. If you go during the week any other time, you might get lucky and not have anyone around. Parks are pretty densely packed, you get used to it.
posted by thylacine at 4:06 PM on August 23, 2013

Devil's Lake is really nice.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 1:39 AM on August 24, 2013

Michigan State Parks has a Camping 101 program. For $20, you get 2 nights at a state park, and loaner camping equipment (tent, stove, lantern, hot dog cookers), plus a ranger to help you set everything up and answer your questions. It's a partnership with The North Face, so I imagine other states are doing it, too. You can learn more here.

You can also rent equipment from REI, if you do want to sink money into a stove, for example.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 5:28 AM on August 24, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, especially desjardins. Given all this info and my preferences, we've decided to wait to try camping on a less crowded weekend. Either camping or renting a small cottage in the woods during a weekend in the fall sounds lovely. We'll do a day trip during Labor Day, probably to the Glacial Park Nature Preserve in McHenry, to hike and enjoy being in the outdoors/away from the city. I'll probably be back later to see if anyone has any great cabin rental recommendations for October but for now this is resolved.
posted by norrington at 9:16 AM on August 26, 2013

« Older Will dry ice "smoke" damage equipment/surfaces in...   |   Helping a pregnant friend from a distance. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.