Tom Stienstra has been exploring the outdoors up and down the West Coast for over thirty years, and he’s got a lot of lessons to share! We at Moon reached out to our award-winning outdoor author to answer some questions about how to get the most out of your next great adventure.

man doing a map check while hiking

Tom Stienstra checks the map at Solder Lake Meadow on the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo © Michael Furniss.

When was your first camping trip and what did you learn?

I learned a lot on my first trip. The most important lesson was to get a good night’s sleep.

When I was a little boy, I went on a camping trip with my dad and my brother. After a long drive, an evening of trout fishing and a barbecue, we rolled out our sleeping bags and bedded down for the night. But I was still wired and wide awake. And as kids do, I had to wake up Dad and tell him, “Hey, Dad, I can’t sleep.” He told me to watch the sky for a shooting star and to tell myself that I could not go to sleep until I saw at least one shooting star. As I waited and watched, I started getting tired, then sleepy; my breathing became rhythmic and it was difficult to keep my eyes open. But I had to keep watching. When I finally saw a shooting star, I went to sleep so fast that I didn’t even remember seeing it.

It’s a good trick…along with having a good sleeping bag, ground insulation, and a tent. The first rule of a good night’s sleep is that you must be dry, warm, and safe. If you can get your sleep set-up right, not only will you feel great, but it can transform your outlook for the next day.

How do you find the time to get outside?

I schedule my trip dates. I know tons of people who love to fish, camp, boat, hike, bike, and travel, but when you actually look at their calendars, you discover they are working all the time and hardly ever go do anything. The only answer is to treat your fun with as much importance as you treat your work, and to schedule trips with family and friends. This is the one certain way to get you away from your job and into the outdoors.

With campground fees on the rise, what are some budget-friendly options for exploring the outdoors?

With the reservation crush at many state park campsites, it can take a winter of planning to book sites for peak summer weekends. And those weekends can easily add up to the cost of a hotel room. Fortunately, you have options.

Many Forest Service campgrounds offer free campsites and primitive camping on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) is often free. You may have to walk a few yards or cart in your own drinking water and use compost toilets, but what you give up in plushy amenities you’ll gain in solitude and savings.

At many lakes, you can create your own boat-in campsite for free. Camping with a boat is a do-it-yourself venture in primitive circumstances. Yet at the same time, you can bring along coolers, stoves, lanterns, and even portable generators. In California, there are 400 lakes you can drive to, including 190 lakes in national forest with no boat ramps—or fees. And you don’t need a boat ramp for a kayak or canoe.

How can I avoid the crowds?

I’ve learned that 95 percent of the people use just 5 percent of the camping destinations, and most of those are in national and state parks. Those same campgrounds are often uncrowded during the off season and on weekdays, the best time to book a site. At the opposite end of that spectrum are the remote and primitive sites that provide a sense of isolation. The people who camp off the beaten path join the 5 Percent Club: the 5 percent of folks who discover the little-used, beautiful spots in California. In my book, Moon California Camping, these sites are marked with a 5% icon. Find a site with a 5% icon, and you’ll avoid the crowds.

With so much competition from iPhones, the Internet, and television, how can we get kids excited about the outdoors?

Take children to places where they can be a part of the action. Show them how to do something—gathering wood for a campfire, reading a trail map, tying a knot—and snap photos of them holding up fish they have caught, starting a campfire, or jumping in a lake. Look for gear that fits their size; having their own gear can give them a sense of ownership. I’ve donated a lot of outdoor gear to many different youngsters and organizations. The way their eyes light up is one of the most satisfying things I’ve experienced in the great outdoors—they cherish every gadget, every lure.

Why is it important for kids to spend time outside?

About 80 percent of the nation’s youth and millennials live in cities or urban areas, with no connection to wild places, wildlife, and the need to protect them. Camping and time spent outdoors can bridge that divide. Kids that go camping fall in love with the outdoors. When you fall in love, you are most apt to act to protect what you love. In turn, that can lead to an interest in persevering habitat, protecting wildlife, and conserving public lands.

What are some tips for parents?

Many young urban parents are disconnected from nature; they may not know where to turn for their own outdoor education let alone their children’s. Fortunately, there are outdoors organizations, such as REI Outdoors, Bay Area Wilderness Training, and Outdoor Outreach, that offer organized camping trips or outdoors skills classes for youth. You can also sign up for family-friendly volunteer vacations with American Hiking Society or Wilderness Volunteers. These classes and volunteer trips offer an opportunity to learn alongside your kids.

What’s your favorite camp food?

I call it “hodgepacking,” a sort of a hot soup/stew mix. Start by bringing a pot of water to a full boil and then add pasta or ramen. While it simmers, cut in chunks of trout, potato, carrot, onion, and garlic clove, and cook it for about 10 minutes. When the vegetables soften, add in soup mix and some cheese and you are in business. If all this doesn’t sound like your idea of a gourmet camp meal, well, you are forgetting the main course: rainbow trout. Now, that’s my favorite camp food!

What was your biggest mistake?

One of the most miserable nights of my life was on a camping trip for which I hadn’t brought my rain gear or a tent. Hey, it was early August and the temperature had been in the 90s for weeks. But rain it did. And as I got wetter and wetter, I kept saying to myself, “Hey, it’s summer, it’s not supposed to rain.” Of course, one of the commandments of camping is: Forget your rain gear and you can guarantee it will rain. All it takes is to get caught in the rain once without a tent and you will never go anywhere without one again.

How has your experience in the outdoors shaped who you are today?

It’s taught me to live in the moment. By becoming aware of the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and tastes around you, you can learn a zest for life and create exhilaration in the moment. When these moments come together, the days you create can be extraordinary.


For more expert camping tips from Tom Stienstra, check out his book Moon California Camping.