Smooth camping

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 fostered many changes in campsite design and standards set by the U.S. Forest Service. The revisions will make campsites and access to recreation easier for people in wheelchairs and with physical disabilities.

Thanks to growing access, mobility-impaired campers won’t always have to rough it.

When Darryl Kotcher, 30, became qaudriplegic five years ago, he no longer could do many things that able-bodied people take for granted. Camping, though, was not on his list of forfeited activities. “I’ve been camping since I was eight,” Kotcher said. “My wife, Karen, and I really hated to give it up because it’s fun and not very expensive.” So every summer the couple uses vacation time from work to camp at state parks throughout their native Michigan.

But there are problems. Beaches are off-limits for Kotcher, whose electric wheelchair spins out in the sand. Restroom doors may be too heavy for him to open alone. Wheeling down asphalt trails that have a crown in the middle gives him a sore back. An avid fisherman, Kotcher is confined to the shoreline trails leading to piers, and docks with steep ramps are out of bounds.

Despite these and other hurdles, help is on the way for campers with disabilities like Kotcher. Sweeping the country is a concept called “universal access” – new words, perhaps, but with die force of federal law behind them. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires government agencies at all levels, as well as certain private and commercial enterprises, to provide equal access to everyone regardless of physical impairment. This includes outdoor recreation at the nation’s campgrounds, from modern urban parks to rustic wilderness sites. (See “Outdoors Unlimited,” March 1993, for more information, as well as that month’s regional section to see what your state is doing.)

Some say that the new law is the most sweeping social legislation passed since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The ADA is rapidly changing how hunters, anglers and campers access the outdoors, and is furnishing recreational facilities with a new look.

The law has caught many off guard, and there is confusion on how it will be implemented. No one can agree, for example, what constitutes a fully accessible fishing dock or campsite. But the experts are getting closer. At press time the U.S. Forest Service was completing its new handbook, Design Guide for Universal Access to Outdoor Recreation. Soon it will be the textbook of standards.

And some day entire campgrounds will be fully accessible, not just one of every 20 campsites. Toilets, showers and other support facilities, for instance, win be located closer to the people they serve. Connecting trails will be hard-surfaced and wide enough to permit people in wheelchairs to pass each other.

The universal or “whole access” design concept requires campsites to be located on fairly level terrain and to provide a large, hard-surfaced pad to house a picnic table, grill, electrical outlet and parking space for die camper or vehicle.

Under old guidelines of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, tent pads must be flat, stable, at least 17 feet by 20 feet in size, and located next to the hard-surfaced area. Picnic tables are considered accessible to wheelchair-bound campers when the top of the table extends past die legs at least 19 inches on both ends, and there is a minimum of 29 inches of space between the underside of the top and the ground. There must be at least four feet of clearance around picnic tables and grills, which should swivel to accommodate wind direction and feature cooking surfaces that are 30 to 36 inches high. These are a few of the many guidelines the Forest Service, which estimates that 19.2 million Americans are unable to walk farther than a quarter-mile, is reviewing.

Able-bodied campers don’t realize how hard it is for someone with a mobility impairment to get a drink of water from a fountain or how dangerous it is to cook over a ground-level fireplace when you’re leaning over from a wheelchair.

Even hard-surfaced trails with vertical joints or edges higher than a quarter-inch can be tough for someone in a wheelchair to use. A hiker on crutches has trouble negotiating a trail with a slope of more than 5 percent. Crushed stone or pea rock may look nice for trail bedding, but it becomes a nightmare to someone trying to plow through the loose, catching material with a wheelchair.

Most older campgrounds can be retrofitted to make them fully accessible, but the process may be expensive, and most states do not have the resources. However, when universal access is incorporated into the design of new public facilities (also mandated by the ADA), the additional cost is only about 1 percent.

Other changes are occurring. Although some campers with disabilities want the security and comfort of a developed campground, others seek more challenging activities. This includes access to wilderness. According to the Forest Service, at least 15 outfitters now specialize in serving people with disabilities, an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 of whom visit semi-primitive and primitive areas each year.

New products such as tents that set up simply and quickly and self-igniting stoves and lanterns are helping campers with disabilities to enjoy the outdoors more. Nowadays they become very best camping tents. Backpackers are the tents for 1~4 people when family tents are bigger (6+ people). A best instant tent can be setup or teared down close to under 5 minutes. Further, many manufacturers of travel trailers and other recreational vehicles are incorporating the whole access concept into the design of their units. The Kotchers, for example, gave up tent camping altogether after buying a lightweight folding camping trailer that Darryl can set up alone. Floor-mounted lifts are available as optional equipment in some RVs. The new Coleman Red Canyon Tent (8 persons) are considered as the best family tent by many many customers. They can be divided by 3 rooms, super waterproof, very spacious, WeatherMaster Tec and easy to setup.

And there’s more good news on the horizon. The Bureau of Reclamation is designing the nation’s first computerized program for instant information on accessibility. By February 1994 campers will be able to dial a toll-free number to call Accessibility Data Management System (ADMS) and plan a trip anywhere in the country. At first, ADMS will tie together those federal agencies offering public recreation. Later, state, local and perhaps even private campgrounds will join the partnership.

Regardless of your physical condition, these are exciting and challenging times for campers.

Get in the van: regatta camping is a way of life whether you’re racing on a shoestring or ready to splurge



We’d just arrived at Pennsylvania’s Pymatuning YC for the Independence Day Regatta, a two-day affair for Thistles, Lightnings, and Highlanders. I had a newly mixed rum drink resting on the running board of the Advanced RV–our lodging for the weekend, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van on loan from the upfitter. Inside, my wife, Lauren, was running her hand along the galley’s granite countertop and inspecting the sleekly rounded cabinetry as if we’d just checked in to a room at the Ritz-Carleton. Our Thistle was nestled on its trailer near the hoist, and we’d set up camp on the lawn that slopes gently toward the serene, tea-colored Lake Pymatuning. I turned my attention to my daughter, Clare, who was crawling around on the grass, searching for things to eat. It was going to be a great weekend. If only I didn’t have to return the motor home on Sunday.

In the Thistle class the majority of the regatta takes place off the water. Teams arrive at the venue pulling boats behind vans, campers, and SUVs, and each retraces the motions of a set routine: unhitch the trailer, peel back the covers, step the mast, find a shady spot to set up camp. I’m returning to the class after a long hiatus, and I’ve found myself studying the other sailors not just for the way they carve holes on the starting line, but for the way they pack their vehicles, the way they tie down their masts, the way they keep their tents dry in the heaviest downpour.

Over a summer racing the Midwest regatta circuit in the lead up to the Thistle National Championship in Sandusky, Ohio, I took note of the ways different sailors approach the camping scene–the vehicles and/or tents we choose, the things we carry, the things we don’t carry. From a simple, minivan-and-tent program to the lap of luxury in an Advanced RV, there’s a camping setup to fit every racer’s budget.


Will Weible and Evan Graves take tremendous pride in Shadow fax, the 1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan that pulls their sagely Thistle, GandaIf, to regattas near and far. The recent college graduates campaign on limited funds, and they developed a close bond with Shadow fax when they traveled from Cleveland to San Diego and back for the 2012 nationals.

“All in all, it’s a great car for a road trip,” says Weible. “The windshield is massive, which is great for driving. In addition to being comfortable and reliable, the van lacks state-of-the-art music gadgets, which forces us to appreciate the local radio stations.”

With the middle bench seat removed, there’s plenty of space for passengers to move about the cabin while underway, which is helpful for whoever’s on sandwich duty. “A cooler filled with drinks and stuff to make sandwiches is a plus for long trips,” says Weible. “It allows us to drive straight through and reduces food costs.”

Other must-haves include a cigarette lighter-to-USB adapter for charging phones, a tent that’s easy to set up after a long day of driving, and an old-school road atlas. “Smartphones are great for navigation, but nothing beats a road map,” says Weible. “They’re great for getting acquainted with an area, and they give the passengers something entertaining to look at.”

Their cross-country trek taught Weible about the merits of packing light. “Too much clutter makes stopping for gas more of a hassle, since you waste time digging for wallets, etc.” he says. “Not to mention, unpacking the car is a breeze when you only have a few bags.”

Shadow fax has its flaws–the fuel gauge is hit-or-miss, and the automatic sliding door is now manual–but Weible has complete confidence in his team’s budget-friendly setup. “Not many people sport a 1996 Oldsmobile Silhouette with original plum interior nowadays, and even fewer drive theirs cross country with a boat on the back.”


Stuart Grulke’s job in the merchant marine gives him extended periods of free time. Last summer, the 27-year-old Florida resident strapped his SUP to the top of his Sportsmobile, hitched his Thistle to the back, and headed north. From New York’s Finger Lakes to Ohio’s Lake Erie Islands, he explored the Midwest’s premiere sailing venues, competed in dozens of races, and never once paid for a hotel room.

“I love the functionality of van camping,” says Grulke. “It’s nice to park for the entire weekend. I save on travel time to and from the venue. I have everything I need and plenty of storage. I can make breakfast in morning, shower when I get off the water, and there are plenty of cold beverages in the fridge.”

Sportsmobile conversion vans are popular with one-design road warriors; Grulke’s is based on a 1992 Dodge van with high top and extended chassis. He found it on Craigslist for $7,000. With the forward captain’s chairs reversed and a Kelty Carport shelter attached to the side entrance, there’s plenty of room for entertaining, regardless of the weather.

“It just makes for a more social regatta,” says Grulke, whose Sportsmobile was a central hang in “tent city” during Nationals. “The Thistle class has a big following with the camping scene. At Nationals, over half of the 109-boat fleet was camping in tent city.”


Nicole Shedden knows how to road trip. The 29-year-old attended her 30th Thistle nationals in 2013, having spent the first in utero and most of the others sleeping in vans on the grounds of yacht clubs from Florida to Oregon. Nicole and her brothers learned the art of regatta camping from their parents, Jack and Kathy Finefrock. Now, she and her husband, Jesse, are raising their own family on the circuit.

“If you’re camping on the grounds of the regatta, you never really have to leave the party,” says Shedden. “Our gear is a quick walk away instead of sitting forgotten at the hotel room. Besides, we’d go broke staying at hotels every weekend from May through October.”

Before the birth of their son, Finn, the Sheddens were content with a tent-plus-SUV setup. Now, they appreciate the convenience of their 1998 Chevrolet conversion van. “There’s one less thing to tear down while chasing a toddler on Sunday afternoon,” says Nicole.

Their second child, Evelyn, arrived over the winter and Midwinters East in March was her first regatta (at two months old) and first long trip with four in the family regatta wagon. Consequently, sleeping arrangement changed a bit. “Now that Finn is in a ‘big boy bed,’ we have a small toddler travel bed that sits on the floor, even with both captains chairs,” says Shedden. “If they’re both out, there’s room for a collapsible bassinet for Evelyn.”

To block out the morning rays, she suggests throwing a heavy blanket over the windshield. “Kids rise with the sun,” she says. “Grab a bit of extra shut-eye by parking under a tree and covering the front windows.”

Shedden relies on a well-stocked cooler to save money and pit stops, too. And even with tots in tow, she resists the temptation to bring the playroom. “The regatta atmosphere in itself is like one big toy,” she says. “There’s no need to worry about bringing along every little accessory or favorite toy.”

One more word to the wise: stick to high ground. “I remember one regatta when a downpour left six to 12 inches of rain in most tents,” says Shedden. “Low ground while camping equals flooded tents and stuck vans.”

For Shedden, the freedom and affordability of van camping is one of the main attractions of the Thistle class. “It’s like having a home away from home every weekend, and I don’t have to worry about unpacking and repacking,” she says. “Driving is becoming a lost art–one I’m not sure we’d participate in if it weren’t for sailing. I’ve seen almost every terrain this country has to offer while travelling to and from regattas, and I hope our kids have the same experience.”


Not long after my family’s idyllic arrival at Pymatuning, reality set in. Actually, it pulled in: a procession of camper vans and SUVs, filling in the space all around us, disgorging their contents of sailors, sailing gear, and cases of Natural Light. We were suddenly ensconced in the middle of tent city, and we were about to be extra thankful for the Advanced RV.

Built on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 chassis, Advanced RVs are designed for camping “off-the-grid,” i.e., without connecting to shore power. The electrical system relies on a bank of lithium-ion batteries, charged by the diesel engine or optional roof-mounted solar panels. Park anywhere and hunker down as long as you like.

The Independence Day Regatta was 48 hot, loud hours of non-stop hooting and hollering, fireworks, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But inside the RV, with the shades drawn and the air conditioning blasting, Clare slept like a baby. Using the Silverleaf central control system’s touch-screen interface, we set the cabin temperature, and the system automatically managed power consumption. When the air conditioning causes the voltage to run low, the system starts the RV’s diesel engine, charges the batteries, then shuts the engine off again. Ideally, we would’ve been sleeping under the stars, but the alternative was nice.

Compared to the van camping I’ve done, the Advanced RV made life a little more comfortable in subtle ways. In the morning, we didn’t have to walk up to the clubhouse for coffee; we brewed it in the Keurig. We didn’t have to put more ice in the cooler because there was ice in the freezer. It was a luxury to not to have to stoop over to move about the cabin, and sleeping on a hotel-quality mattress in a bed that folds with the push of a button sure made it easy to rise and shine for sailing.

That’s the thing: It was nice. Is a $150,000 luxury motor home necessary to camp at a Thistle regatta? Of course not, but it sure is nice–nice to be around nice things, nice to slice your post-race limes on granite countertops, nice to rest your rail tail in custom upholstered captain’s chairs. In my case, the comforts of the Advanced RV made the regatta more enjoyable for my wife and daughter, who aren’t grizzled one-design road warriors. It helped me sell them on the idea of regatta camping, but it’s not going to help me sell them on the Wal-Mart tent I have lined up for the next event.


Why winter: don’t head inside just when things get even better outside

Something was wrong. We had gone to sleep inside our tent on a late-tall night in the Sierra Nevada, and when I opened my eyes in the morning, the world had changed. The light filtering through the nylon was a tint I’d never seen before. The quiet was so deep I thought I’d lost my hearing. I felt farther from civilization than I ever had before, and it was a little disconcerting-until I opened the tentdoor and realized what had happened. A thick blanket of soft snow had settled over the wilderness in the night-fat flakes were still falling noiselessly-and the world had been transformed.

As a kid, I didn’t know anyone camped in the snow. My family camped in the summer, then put away the gear for the winter. End of story. So it was a revelation that morning in the Sierras many years ago. I’ve had plenty of snow-quieted nights since then, and now I recognize the profound silence for what it is: a signal to relax, because everything’s just right.

What else is right about winter? I asked BACKPACKER staffers what they enjoyed most about the fourth season. Whether you’re snowshoeing (page 33), camping (page 34), or building an igloo (page 38), here are a few of our favorite perks:

* First tracks On foot, on skis, whatever … It’s like no one has ever been there before.

* Scotch Need a better reason to pack a bigger flask?

* No mosquitoes. Or snakes or spiders Pack your DEET away for the winter, as well as heavy bear canisters. Bonus: refrigeration for fresh food.

* Long nights The upside of getting into your tent at 5 p.m.? Catch up on sleep and reading!

* Easier to see (and track) wildlife Look for fresh prints after a snowfall.

* Zipping bags together with your spouse There’s no better way to generate a little extra heat. And it’s even better than sharing a bed at home.

* Soft snow Head out in 2 feet of fresh powder. Its like a bouncy house for hikers!

* Solitude Want to see the Yosemite backcountry-any backcountry-without the crowds or permit hassles? Go now.

* Skiing It’s faster than walking!

Start smart: New to winter adventure? Boost comfort and safety with advice from our Get Out More team. Starting this month, they’re traveling the country and giving winter skills and gear clinics. Find one at a retail store near you at

Important Tips: The key is your tent! Your best family tent must be one of all weather tents (4 season family tent), and very well made material. Coleman always be a very good choice from various best tent brands.

Get lit: from ultralight backpacking to luxe car camping, we found the best lights for every occasion

1. LIGHT & POWER BioLite NanoGrid System

Mama light, baby lights. That’s how we think of the versatile NanoGrid system, which pairs the PowerLight, an all-in-one flashlight, lantern, and 4,400mAh battery with up to four small lamps (SiteLights) connected via 10-foot cords. We carried just mama PowerLight for backcountry treks, and the 200-lumen lantern threw the smoothest, most even light we’ve ever seen, letting us set up camp without headlamps, even after we used it to fully recharge an iPhone 5. (You’ll get 1.5 charges, and it takes 4.5 hours of wall time to re-up). On a winter trip, we hooked in two SiteLights and set a 16-person teepee fully aglow for hours without turning on the PowerLight and draining its battery (the SiteLights draw very little power). The controls are intuitive, and mama’s flashlight kept shining (weakly) for eight hours even after we thought the battery was nearly dead. Only gripe: Despite the yo-yo-like cord storage, the SiteLights are tangle-prone. $100; 10.7 oz.;


This touch-sensor headlamp is so light you’ll forget it’s on your head. But small doesn’t mean weak: On high, it puts out enough light (80 lumens) for bear-bag hanging and night hiking on trails. Touch and hold the rectangular panel next to the bulb to dim and extend battery life. It also locks to prevent accidentally turning on the light. Two AAAs lasted through a long week of nightly use. Output is regulated, so when the batteries go, don’t expect a grace period of dim light (there’s no low-battery indicator). Ding: As with most Black Diamond headlamps, the red light is too low for anything but reading. $25; 1.7 oz.;


This hip-to-be-square lantern marries form and function. It’s a 2-inch cube that can sit on any surface or hang from a tent ceiling. The four settings (100 lumens on high) include a groovy color-changing mode that hits every hue in the rainbow. On weekend trips in New England, it made a great campsite centerpiece when fires were not allowed or appropriate. One-button controls are idiot-proof, and the Cube’s smooth, clean lines–no moving parts–nix weak points. Gripe: On high, the three AAA batteries only last for about three hours (on medium or disco-mode it goes for about 11 hours). $30; 3.4 oz.;

4. CAR CAMPER Zippo Rugged Lantern

We knocked it off the picnic table, dropped it in puddles, and even let toddlers roll it around camp, but this bright, rechargeable car-camping lantern wasn’t fazed. The aluminum cage has rubberized corners and an acrylic globe that withstands drops up to 5 feet. The lithiumion battery takes a painful 16 hours to recharge on wall power, but at full brightness (there are three levels, plus blinking/emergency mode), we got 14 hours of burn time. Bummer: The charging cord is proprietary, so don’t lose it. $90; 3 lbs. 14 oz.;


Consider this the modern version of the good ol’ candle lantern, but way more practical. After a day of charging (even in overcast skies), blow it up like a mini beachball (5 by 4 inches) and it throws a 10-square-foot pool of 25-lumen light–enough to cozy up your campsite or perform easy chores like washing dishes–for about six hours. On an 18-day Grand Canyon raft trip, it made the perfect tentlight, and it collapses down to a pancake-size package. $10; 2.5 oz.;