Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Camping tips for novices

Dale Roe, Go-to Guy

Staff Writer
Austin 360
The Texas Outdoor Family workshops at state parks include lesson in the principle of 'leave no trace.' Here, a group of children receive instruction from an Inks Lake State Park ranger.

The idea of camping can be scary.

"It's normal to be a little intimidated to take the first step," says Ky Harkey, an outdoor education team lead for Texas state parks. "But once you do, it can open up a lifetime of new adventure for you and your family."

Harkey, 27, works with the Texas Outdoor Family program, which takes families on their first overnight camping trips. He says two barriers keep most people from camping: fear and gear.

"State parks are very safe places," he says. "They all have park police officers watching out for campers' safety." Weather concerns can usually be addressed by planning, and those noises you'll hear aren't coming from the vicious and hungry bears that plague inexperienced campers in movie comedies.

"More often than not it's a small animal about the size of a loaf of bread, like an armadillo or a raccoon," Harkey explains. "They're more afraid of us than we are of them."

Camping doesn't have to be expensive; much of the necessary gear is stuff you probably have. In summertime Texas, a blanket and sheet work just as well as a $90 sleeping bag, Harkey says. Use the cooking utensils from your kitchen. Bring a charcoal grill and barbecue just like you would at home. More specialized gear, including tents, can be rented (and some parks feature cabins).

Harkey says staff members, including rangers, are happy to help you plan your camping trip, discussing the parks and campsites, the reservation process and what critters you might see. Many of Texas' state parks let you rent gear so you can, for example, rent a kayak for a couple of hours instead of hauling your own.

Harkey recommends McKinney Falls, Pedernales Falls and Inks Lake for summer camping. Look for a campsite that has running, potable water and electricity available, because keeping a fan running at night can make a big difference in your comfort level. Camping, though, is not just a summertime activity.

"October and November are the best times to be out at Lost Maples State Natural Area because that's when the sugar maples turn beautiful colors," Harkey says. A Texas state parks ranger can recommend the perfect park for the time of year you want to visit.

Fees vary, but parks usually charge several dollars per person (admission at McKinney Falls, for instance, is $6 per adult; children 12 and younger are free). A pass is $70 and gets you and everybody in your vehicle into any Texas state park for a full year. There is an additional nightly fee for camping. The Texas Outdoor Family program charges $65 for a family of six. That covers gear, education and the camping experience. The next set of excursions begins in September.

If you're still anxious, Harkey suggests starting your overnight camping trip with a daytime visit. "Get out and explore the swimming holes during the daytime and familiarize yourself with the area; then you'll feel more confident returning for an overnight."

Most state parks have cell coverage and many have Wi-Fi access as well, but Harkey imagines you won't really need them.

"When you're in that different environment," he says, "it's so easy to just put the phone away and relax and really unplug."

Contact Dale Roe at 912-5923. Twitter: @djroe

More information