A Beginner’s Guide to Tent Camping in Maine

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This story was originally published in June 2020.

Camping in a tent is something many people look forward to every summer. It’s a chance to embrace the outdoors, relax, unwind and live simply. But some aspects of camping can be challenging. Just one mistake can lead to a very uncomfortable night under the stars.

These tips and tricks for camping in a tent will help beginners try it out without fear — and might teach seasoned campers a thing or two, too.

Your mode of transportation will dictate the supplies

How you access your campsite will determine how many supplies you can bring with you, Bob Duchesne of Bangor, who writes the Bangor Daily News Good Birding Columnunderline.

At one end of the spectrum is backpacking, where you carry all your gear, including your tent, to a foot campsite. In this case, you are limited to what you can carry. Fortunately, many companies have created lightweight gear specifically for this type of camping, including packable sleeping pads, miniature stoves, and tiny water filtration units. Therefore, you can still find comfort in the outback, if you do a little shopping and strategic packing.

At the other end of the spectrum is what is known as “car camping”, which is when you can drive your vehicle directly to a campsite. In this scenario, you can pack everything except the kitchen sink. This type of camping allows for larger and more elaborate tents, folding camping chairs, lanterns, board games, grills, coolers and more.

Somewhere in the middle of the camping comfort spectrum is canoe camping, where you paddle to your campsite. This type of camping limits your gear to what you can fit comfortably and safely in your canoe. And the same can be said for other modes of transportation, like sailboats or horses or ATVs. The amount of camping gear you can carry depends on how you will arrive at your site.

In this 2015 file photo, a loaded pickup truck is filled with camping gear after a group of campers spent a weekend at Bear Brook Campground in Baxter State Park. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

Get to know your tent beforehand

If you’ve bought a new tent, consider assembling it before heading out into the wilderness, suggested John Gordon of Kennebunk. Lay it out in your garden on a sunny day and learn how all the posts, canvas, mesh windows, bungee cords, Velcro, zippers and pegs fit together. So you won’t be so stressed when you install it away from home. It will also give you the opportunity to repair broken tent poles or torn canvas before you really need it.

Know the rules of camping

Most campgrounds and designated campsites have important rules to follow, and some of these rules may not be so obvious, especially for beginners. For example, some campsites require campers to obtain a fire permit before starting a fire. Others have specific check-in and check-out times. It’s best to learn these rules ahead of time so you can prepare. Check the campsite owner’s or management’s website, or contact them directly by email or phone.

Put the thought in your place

Once you arrive at your campsite, consider where exactly you are pitching your tent. Pick a flat spot and avoid hazards like overhanging branches, advised Hazel Stark, co-owner of Maine Outdoor School. Also, stay on high ground if possible.

“Make sure you don’t pitch your tent in a low place, especially if rain is forecast,” said Julia Gray from Orland. “Unless you want to sleep on a leaky waterbed.”

Protect yourself from water

If you manage to go camping in Maine without it raining at least once, consider yourself lucky. Pine Tree State is known for its rapidly changing weather conditions. For this reason, it may be a good idea for you to use your flysheet, which is the outer layer of a tent. Usually a flysheet is attached to the top of the tent, with the edges away from the tent on all sides. This space between the tent wall and the flysheet helps reduce the amount of water that gets inside your tent.

Still, water beading will likely form on the walls of your tent, especially near the ground, when the temperature drops at night. This accumulation of dew cannot be prevented. For this reason, Bethany Preble of Ellsworth suggests keeping your gear away from tent walls. Otherwise, you might wake up with a bag full of damp clothes. She also suggests bringing an extra tarp, which can be hung up to create additional shelter outside your tent – for example for eating under – if it’s particularly raining.

Placing an imprint (piece of canvas or similar material) under your tent can also make a difference, said Susan Keppel of Winterport. Not only can it add extra waterproofing, but it can also help retain heat and extend the life of your tent by protecting it from sharp objects such as rocks and sticks.

BDN reporter Aislinn Sarnacki rests her stinky feet after hiking 4 miles down the steep Fire Warden trail to Bigelow Pass, a dip in the ridge between Avery Peak and West Peak on Bigelow Mountain July 22, 2014, near of Stratton. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

A comfortable bed is essential

Everyone has an opinion on what type of bed is best for the tent. Some people use an inflatable mattress, while others prefer a foam cushion or a cot. There is no “right” setup, but it is generally much more comfortable to have some form of padding between you and the ground, especially in Maine where rocks and exposed tree roots can be found almost everywhere.

“I’ve found that the more you improve your sleeping surface, the better the experience,” said Kevin Lawrence of Manchester, New Hampshire. “In cold weather, I usually lay down a closed-cell cushion, then our bedding.”

In Maine, it is often cold at night, even in the height of summer. It is better to expect colder temperatures than expected. Lawrence suggests placing blankets on your mattress or mattress for insulation, then crawling into your sleeping bag. Additionally, Alison MacDonald Murdoch of Gouldsboro covers the floor of her tent with woolen blankets, which wick away moisture, serve as insulation and are comfortable to walk on.

Plan to get up at night

Place a flashlight, headlamp, or lantern where you can easily find it in the middle of the night, because chances are you need to go to the bathroom. Know your way to the nearest outhouse or bathroom. Some people even place solar lights or battery-operated lights in the outhouse to make it more visible.

Keep food and fire away

Black bears and other Maine wildlife are easily attracted to the smell of food. Therefore, keep food out of your tent and make sure it is secured somewhere else at night. If you are car camping, that means putting your food in your vehicle. If you are hiking, you may need to hang your food in a storage bag in a tree. Also avoid using perfume and other heavily scented items in your tent for the same reason.

Also, keep the fire away from your tent. Although your tent may be treated with fire retardant, it is not flame retardant. Sparks from a campfire could easily burn holes in it.

Keep your tent tightly closed

In Maine, black flies, mosquitoes, and noses are the bane of campers, but if you keep your tent tightly closed, it’ll be a safe haven. If flies get into your tent, look for zippers or open holes, which you can temporarily seal with tape if you don’t have a suitable repair kit. But no matter how vigilant you are to get into your tent quickly and close it right after you, a few flies will likely make their way.

“Bring a good flashlight into the tent and kill every last mosquito and nose you see before you go to sleep,” Duchesne said. “A mosquito buzzing in your ear is enough to drive you crazy.”

Ventilate your tent on hot days and starry nights

If the weather forecast calls for a dry, hot day, consider unpacking the solid walls of your tent so air can circulate through the mesh windows and doors. If you try for several days, it will ventilate musty smells. Also remember to remove your flysheet (or rain cover) on clear, rainless nights.

“Take off the rain cover and look at the sky”, Carl Emrich of Guilford. “Definitely worth the risk [of rain].”

Small touches can go a long way

Think about the little things that could make your tent more comfortable, whether it’s extra pillows or a lantern hanging from the ceiling. Waldo’s Robin Hanks Chandler does a number of things to keep his tent floor clean. First, she puts her shoes in a plastic garbage bag in front of the door. She also places a small rug or an old towel outside her tent to walk on while removing her shoes.

Freeport’s Tom Brown Boutureira often hangs a clothesline outside his tent, where he hangs towels and clothes to dry. And my family always brings a hand broom to sweep the floor of the tent before putting it away. Also, if the tent is wet when we pack it up, we take it out when we get home and let it dry in the sun. This prevents mildew from ruining the fabric.

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