By Budd Davisson, EAA 22483
This piece originally ran in the April 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Yeehaw! Summer is around the corner, and we’re coming out of the darkest, coldest, longest winter in our history — the COVID winter. Fly-ins are back on the calendar, and the boondocks are beckoning. So, it’s time to pack our camping gear in our flying machines and hit the high road.
Aero camping has exploded in recent years, but camping with our airplanes comes in several different flavors. There are the folks stretched out next to their Super Cub on a sand bar hundreds of miles from nowhere. And then some are snuggled down under a blue Harbor Freight tarpaulin that’s stretched over the wing of a King Air 350 at Oshkosh.
The airplane camping bug has definitely infected a wide variety of pilots for an equally wide variety of reasons. Each of those reasons and each of their different camping environments, fly-in to bush-camping, has its own specific requirements in terms of equipment. And, no, this is not going to be a treatise on backcountry flying. It’s going to be a collection of random thoughts on shopping for camping goodies for those who are thinking about communing with nature via their airplane. Oddly enough, this kind of shopping can be more complicated than it sounds because, among other things, there is no one-size-fits-all shopping list for aero camping.
The Airplane as a Determining Factor
Regardless of whether you’re headed for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2021 or a blank spot in the map, each airplane, regardless of type, presents some limitations of its own. Namely, space and weight. And, oh yeah, fuel. The trade-offs among all of those change considerably from airplane type to airplane type and destination to destination.
To alleviate some of those pesky weight and space problems, here’s a thought for those planning on extended camping at recognized fly-ins that are close to recognized towns such as AirVenture and the SUN ’n FUN Aerospace Expo: Cheat and don’t carry all of your camping goodies on board. Ship some of your stuff ahead. A Schwinn bicycle has about the same storage space and weight capacity as some airplanes, so using UPS isn’t cheating. Plus, with you and your significant other (or your aviation-crazed best friend) bundled into something like a J-3, there’s barely enough room for the two of you and fuel, much less the right amount of camping stuff. In those kinds of airborne close quarters, anything you’re carrying on board has to be of the flyweight variety, which is a very specific, unique shopping arena that we will be poking our nose into.
On the other hand, if it’s just the two of you in a Cessna 182, when it comes to space and carrying a load, you’re in fat city! The space and load-carrying capability offered by something like a 172/182 means you can afford to be a little less picky in terms of what types of equipment you buy. Hyper-light camping equipment isn’t necessary. However, center of gravity concerns still come into play, and an accurate weight and balance calculation is important. All of the swap mart treasures you buy while at an air show can be shipped home.
The Differences: Fly-In Camping and Backcountry Camping
There are several major differences between prepping for camping at a fly-in and camping in the boondocks. For one thing, most fly-ins that have any amount of camping involved also have water available, and many have food such as hotdogs and burgers. At major fly-ins like AirVenture, there are grocery stores on the grounds. Plus, all fly-ins have port-a-potties, which, if nothing else, means that you don’t need to pack toilet paper. At major events like AirVenture and SUN ’n FUN, we’re essentially camping in our own backyard because all the necessities of home are on-site. With food and water available, including them in your onboard supplies is optional. Also, folks with 172s and larger aircraft have the option of, among other things, expanding their menus.
When it comes to expanded menus, it’s not unusual to see an ice chest come out of the baggage compartment that’s packed with frozen goodies that share the ice chest with dry ice. Dry ice in a good ice chest can last much longer than expected. Pair that with a cookstove and propane canisters, and all the home-cooked goodness of frozen burritos, casseroles, and whatever your personal favorite is can be yours. In fact, at some fly-ins, type clubs get together (Cessna 195s and Bonanzas, for example) and pool their load-carrying capacity to bring in enough equipment that the meals they trot out would do any restaurant proud.
Backpacking Needs vs. Camping Stuff vs. Airplane Camping
In a real way, the backpacking community has done airplane campers a big favor by being such a strong market for very lightweight but effective goods for camping. Most sporting goods manufacturers and retailers recognize that the camping community, as opposed to the backpacking community, have different requirements for sleeping and eating out under the stars. The backpackers are very sensitive to weight. Carrying a 10-pound weight to the campsite in a jacked-up four-wheeler is one thing. Having to carry it on your back for 15 miles to get to that campsite is an entirely different matter. For that reason, every piece of equipment designed for that market has to be as light as possible. Weight is measured in ounces, not pounds. As the saying goes, if you lay the item on a table and it doesn’t float to the ceiling, it’s too heavy. The aviation community thinks the same way. We don’t have to carry stuff on our backs, but our airplanes do. Gravity is our enemy, and besides having to deal with proper CG locations, every extra pound costs us in takeoff and climb performance or the amount of fuel we can carry. This is the kind of mindset that, if we’re going camping somewhere out in the boonies, has to be our guide in prepping for it.
Once at our destination, we won’t have burger stands, temporary grocery stores, and port-a-potties to take care of us. There is no one reading this who doesn’t know what basics a human needs to survive: water, food, shelter, and sleep. So, let’s discuss option lists for supporting those needs.
This is the single most important aspect of surviving. If we’re camping at a fly-in, we can usually forget about bringing water. Sources are usually everywhere we look on the grounds. If we’re flying out to a frontcountry airport (as opposed to a backcountry airport), an out-of-the-way airport that is a recognized camping spot, chances are it has potable water sources on it. However, that’s not guaranteed. So, the more experienced aero campers carry a couple of gallons with them. Then, as soon as they land, they verify that there is indeed a drinkable water source on hand. If there isn’t, they either pack up and head for home or decide to leave when they’re down to 1 gallon or so. According to those who know, we’re supposed to drink 2 liters (about a half-gallon) of water a day per person. At 8.3 pounds per gallon, water can eat up an airplane’s useful load in a hurry.
If going to a backcountry airport that has no drinkable water sources, we need to do some serious planning and bring a lot more water than we think we’ll need. We can also use water purification filters, tablets, or adapt to a boil-before-drinking regimen to use on-site natural water sources.
If your airplane is big enough that space and weight aren’t huge problems (182, Stinson 108, etc.), you can stock your aero kitchen at your local grocery store. Canned goods are fine but heavy. Soft-packed foods are probably better choices. Also, with that room, you’ll be able to pack a small stove and cooler. That also gives the flexibility to cook what you want without having to buy specialized foods. However, should you decide to go the lighter food route, you’ll find that super lightweight food suitable for backpacking is an industry all unto itself. Google “backpacker food” and you’ll be immersed in a world where calories, weight, and nutritional value reign.
The types of backpacker foods boil down (that was unintentional) to either freeze-dried stuff that needs to be prepped in boiling water or food that can be eaten with zero preparation. You could call the latter “meals ready to eat,” which, coincidentally, is what the military calls them — MREs. These are the equivalent of the old K-rations (does that date me?) that a guy in a fox hole who is being shot at can eat. In theory, they don’t need to be heated, although some variations do have a little heater included. The other backpacker foods are offered in such a wide variety that they can fill any kind of menu desired, most of which require either boiling water or the simple ability to cook something. Enter the world of backpacker stoves.
It’s doubtful that anyone reading this doesn’t know the phrase “Coleman stove.” Just as the word “Frigidaire” is an old synonym for “refrigerator,” Coleman stove has become the synonym for multiburner, propane-powered, serious camping stoves. A simple Google search shows there are dozens of variations on the Coleman stove theme, many of which are small enough to fit into our logistical plans for aero camping. Most stove manufacturers have a wide range of products, with the smaller ones being applicable to airplane use. Coleman’s compact stove, for example, is a two-burner unit capable of working a 10-inch and an 8-inch pot at the same time, but only measures a tiny 2.5 inches by 7 inches by 16 inches and will run both burners, full bore, for 90 minutes on a 16-ounce propane cylinder. Yet it only weighs 6 pounds. This would give campers the cooking capabilities of being in their own kitchen and would fit into most airplanes. However, the myriad of classic birds like Cubs, Taylorcrafts, and Luscombes measure their baggage space by cubic inches, not feet, and their loads by the ounce. Fortunately, there are a whole series of stoves that, courtesy of the backpackers, will work great for them.
Since both backpackers and those flying classic style airplanes don’t want to carry any more than they have to, tiny heat sources have been developed. Here, too, there are several manufacturers that any outdoors store like REI and Cabela’s list on their websites. Although there are a variety of design approaches, most ultralight stoves, like the PocketRocket 2 and Snow Peak’s GigaPower, are a burner assembly that will fit in the palm of your head and screw directly onto 4-ounce and 8-ounce MSR fuel canisters. Rather than being the usual long and slim types, MSRs are short and squat so they form a stable base for the burner. However, simple external bases can be fitted to the canisters for even more stability. Most of them use an 80/20 mix of propane and isobutane and are good for 60 minutes on an 8-ounce canister and will boil a quart of water in about three and a half minutes. This is more than enough for most freeze-dried foods. Most of the burner units weigh 3-5 ounces and the canisters are 4 or 8 ounces, so the units will take up less than a pound of our payload. Pretty amazing!
An alternative to canister-powered stoves are those that use some sort of one-time, concentrated fuel tablets that light with a match and work with a variety of burner stands. The smallest of those will fold up and, along with six fuel tablets, fit in a shirt pocket. Something like the Esbit Solid Fuel Cookset, which packs into a 2-ounce pot, measures 3.5 inches by 4.5 inches and weighs in at 7 ounces. That’s about the size and weight of a serious coffee mug!
As with every other aspect of camping, shelter, in the form of tents, varies radically and has benefitted greatly from advances in material technology. Gone are heavy (and smelly) canvas pup tents, and in their place is every type of lightweight synthetic imaginable. Here, again, the difference between tents designed for backpackers and pure camping is noticeable, not only in their weight but also in their comfort accouterments. For instance, as a way of saving weight, some have no floors while others will have windows, patios, and everything but TV rooms.
To make some comparisons, let’s look at two-person tents (although, it’s generally a good rule to use a tent that is one person bigger than needed just to guarantee enough room). A backpacker two-place dome tent can weigh as little as 6 pounds and fits into a bundle that’s 8 inches by 18 inches. A couple of sleeping pads, totaling 2 pounds, should be added to that weight, and each will be in a bundle that’s 20 inches long and 6 inches square.
A regular two-person, domed camping tent is going to weigh about the same, 6 pounds, but will pack into a bundle that is bigger with 2 feet long being typical. That may not sound like too much of a difference, but those extra inches in most classic category airplanes is a lot.
Tents can take up a lot of fuselage room, so an argument could be made to just pack a tarpaulin and rig it to the airplane in a way that gives acceptable shelter.
Sleeping bags are another of those areas where the combination of technology and the explosion of backpacking has really benefitted aero campers. The genre comes in a variety of shapes and various temperature ranges, but the 40-degree-and-up range is all we’ll need.
The shapes available are “mummy,” which are fairly form-fitting, semi-rectangular, and rectangular — with a lot more mummy designs available than the others. However, what is borderline hilarious to anyone who remembers sleeping bags from their youth (assuming that youth was a long time ago) is the weight ranges available. The heaviest available is 3 pounds, and the lightest is less than a pound! Most will fit into a bag that’s 7 inches by 8 inches! Compare that to the old days, when a bedroll was strapped across the back of a saddle.
Speaking of bags, all camping and backpacking outlets stock a wide range of different sizes of simple nylon bags. Buy a bunch of them because, when it comes to packing a tight airplane, flexible sacks and bags are far more practical than actual suitcases because they can be molded into nooks and crannies.
A Few Cross-Country Thoughts
One of the things we love most about flying is that it frees us from the limitations of a highway system. For that reason, much of our flight time is spent over areas that, although maybe not remote, if we have a problem and we’re down, we might be out of sight with the possibility that no one is going to come to help us. We might be trapped in the airplane, or at least stuck someplace, for much longer than we want to be. Always be prepared for that.
The first goal in any emergency is to let someone know that we have a problem and where we are. This is why a lot of pilots have personal locator beacons close at hand so all we have to do is push a button and a worldwide monitoring system is alerted and help is on the way.
Then there is the “messenger” version of a beacon, which acts like a satellite phone in that we can send text messages to anyone for any reason. This is more expensive and requires a subscription. An alternative is to simply rent a satellite phone for serious trips. The theory behind having these on board is that we might be in one of those many areas where cellphones have no signal.
For the same reasons, when going into remote areas, many pilots insist on the buddy system. Never go anywhere remote with just one airplane. That way, if one has a problem, the other can either give aid or summon help. Some of these same pilots will wear a military-style survival vest for every boondock flight. At the minimum, the vest includes:
Belt cutters: specialized and easily carried
Location equipment: map, compass, GPS, personal locator beacon, or satellite messenger
Signal capabilities: mirror, strobe light, flashlight, or flares
First aid: usual first aid stuff plus foot remedies and repellant in case a lot of walking is involved
Tools: a good, sharp knife and a Leatherman
Heat: a lighter, fire starter, etc.
Shelter: Mylar survival blankets
Survival food: energy bars, jerky, dried fruit, etc.
Canteen: water in the vest and extra in the cabin
Between fly-ins and the camper-approved frontcountry airports that present no serious short-field challenges, our airplanes give us access to a world enjoyed only by those of us who fly. So, let’s make it a goal this summer to show up someplace where we can simply step out of the airplane, pitch a tent, and throw out our bedrolls. Enjoy!
Budd Davisson, EAA 22483, is an aeronautical engineer, has flown more than 300 different types, and has published four books and more than 4,000 articles. He is also a flight instructor primarily in Pitts/tailwheel aircraft. Visit him on AirBum.com.