Before my trip, I had only been camping once before and I wasn't sure what to expect.
Getting adjusted was rough at first, but I ultimately felt more connected to nature.
I would choose a tent over a hotel every time when vacationing near national parks.
In summer 2022, I spent 10 weeks living out of a tent in Oregon as a crew member for AmeriCorps. Before, I'd only been camping once.
I heard about AmeriCorps from a friend who did a similar program the previous year. I'd just graduated college and wanted to see if conservation work was a potential career path for me.
I was hired by Northwest Youth Corps, an AmeriCorps affiliate, to do trail building and forest conservation work throughout several regions in Oregon, over 10 weeks. For the entirety of that period, I would be staying in a tent.
While I love long hikes and nature, I'd only been overnight camping once before, so living out of a tent would be a new experience for me.
I was nervous in the beginning, but within weeks, I loved camping so much that I never wanted to stay in a hotel again.
My first week was spent training in the Willamette National Forest, and it was hard to adjust to my sleeping bag and tent.
My first week with the conservation crew was at Black Canyon Campground, a campsite about 35 miles outside of Eugene. Our group of five was given trail-blazing tools and a truck for traveling to different worksites.
Throughout the week, we learned about trail building and how to use a crosscut saw to remove fallen trees from hiking paths. In the evenings, we learned the basics of cooking, cleaning, and staying safe in the outdoors.
I pitched my two-person tent, which was spacious, but I missed the comforts of my usual bed. I bundled a pile of clothes in a stuff-sack for my pillow, and used a foam pad beneath my sleeping bag that was fairly thin. I could still feel the cool and damp ground beneath me at times, which was uncomfortable.
But, since it rained nonstop that first week, I quickly came to appreciate my tent as an essential shelter, and the only place where I could truly stay dry.
Switching to a new campsite showed me that camping could be more fun than staying in a hotel room.
After five days at Black Canyon Campground, my crew traveled to Detroit, Oregon. We stayed at a campsite called Shady Cove, which was closed to the public due to wildfires in 2020.
Over the next four weeks, we worked to repair the campsite by removing fallen trees from the trails, picking up litter, and installing new trail signs.
After cleaning out the site, I saw the area was full of natural beauty. A nearby river under a big bridge had some of the clearest water I'd ever seen, and the campsite had trails to explore in my off-time.
I quickly grew to prefer the natural amenities of this campsite over those I'm more used to at hotels. A dip in the swimming hole felt more refreshing than a pool, and a hike in the outdoors was more thrilling than a treadmill in a hotel gym.
After two weeks, I liked my tent. I forgot what a normal bed felt like, and was happy for the privacy the tent gave me in the evenings.
My tent quickly became my happy place at the end of the day. After eight to 10 hours of trail work and other manual labor, my sleeping pad and bag felt like a giant marshmallow. I was usually so tired, I'd open a book to read but would instead fall asleep to the sound of the river.
I also treasured the privacy my tent gave me. I loved my crew, but spending all of my waking hours with the same people was draining at times. Even though the walls of my tent were thin, it provided a physical sense of privacy where I felt safe and I could enjoy alone time.
On weekends off, my crew drove to national parks. I was surprised to find overnight camping for less than $25, although we often camped for free.
After a few weeks at Shady Cove, my crew and I drove to spend our weekend off at Crater Lake National Park. There, a fellow conservation crew let us stay with them for free at a campsite for National Park Service employees. I also noticed public camping in a campground nearby that charged $21 per night for tents and $31 for RVs.
Over that weekend, I realized camping was both an efficient and beautiful way to experience national parks. I liked being steps away from hiking trails, plus I saved money by camping instead of staying in hotels, and spent less on gas by not having to driving in and out of the park each day.
I thought I felt more connected to nature in the park camping overnight than I would have sleeping in a hotel. By the end of the trip, I knew I'd choose a public campground over a night in a hotel.
In the past I've spent hundreds on hotels, but by camping I was able to stay in or just outside national parks for free.
For most of our weekends off, my crew searched for free campgrounds as home bases to explore places like Redwood National Park and John Day National Monument.
The website we used, Free Campsites, had descriptions of each campground, and reviews written by former campers, which we found helpful for choosing where to stay. Some of the locations listed were official public campgrounds, while others were patches of gravel off the side of forest roads.
My favorite free campsite was on Mill Beach, 30 minutes outside of Redwood National Park. The sand was soft and comfortable under my tent, and the sound of the waves put me right to sleep.
A highlight of camping for me was seeing the sunrise and sunset almost every day, especially as I'm not typically an early riser.
I thought the national parks I visited were beautiful every time of day, but sunrise and sunset were especially surreal. I regularly went on hikes to get the best views of both.
In some parks, the sky was so beautiful that I didn't want to spend any time in my tent. At John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, my crew and I slept in our sleeping bags on the sand so we could see the Milky Way as we fell asleep.
Lying on my back, I saw shooting stars and constellations in the sky. I knew this was a view I'd never see from a hotel room.
Camping instead of staying in a hotel meant I was often the first person on the hiking trails each morning.
Camping in the park also meant I was able to start hikes earlier than if I were staying in a hotel and had to drive in.
With campsites just a five-minute walk from the nearest trail, I was often first in line to go hiking, and beat crowds who had to drive in from farther away.
It was serene during these quiet hours, with few other hikers around, and I felt relaxed and present.
Camping for over 70 days made me feel totally immersed in nature, and much more connected to my surroundings than past hiking experiences.
It felt amazing waking up with the sun and being surrounded by nature for more than two months.
With limited cell service, I didn't think about my phone and instead enjoyed swimming in rivers and going on long hikes.
Camping also made me realize the luxury of things I'd taken for granted in my daily life, like having a warm shower and clean clothes readily available. It made me appreciate stopping at laundromats or local YMCAs to freshen up on the weekends while traveling to the different parks.
I also felt fulfilled doing conservation work with AmeriCorps, because I knew it would help ensure other people have access to these beautiful trails and campsites, just as I did.
I knew I loved camping when I chose it over a hotel even after the program ended.
Once I finished my 10 weeks with AmeriCorps, I immediately made plans with a fellow crewmate to travel to Washington for a few days.
We first spent three nights at my crewmate's uncle's house in Seattle. Then, I happily broke out my tent for a camping trip to Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier.
Going back to my foam pad after three nights in a real bed was a harder adjustment than I thought. But sleeping in the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park outweighed the cons for me. In the morning, I beat the crowds and hiked on empty trails, and even saw grazing elk.
Camping isn't feasible everywhere, but when it comes to vacationing in the great outdoors, I would choose my tent over a hotel every time.
As I had almost no prior experience with camping before the trip, I was surprised I fell in love with it so quickly. And while spending 73 nights sleeping outdoors, I realized that what camping lacks in comfort, it makes up for in the connection to nature.
Living and working outdoors with AmeriCorps made me want to search for more conservation work opportunities, which I did after a few months of being home. I'm now planning to work for the National Park Service in California this summer. There, I plan to visit Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Lassen Volcanic National Park, camping all the way.
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