This appeared in Florida Wildlife magazine (now defunct) a few years ago.
Those of you with interest in the outdoors may find something of value here.
The backpacker faces a constant dilemma: every item he takes with him into the bush has the potential of adding to his comfort and safety but it also increases the load he must bear. There is a constant conflict as to whether the utility of an object makes up for the fact it has to be carried on one’s back. The wilderness experience does imply giving up some comforts and taking some risks, but if it becomes either a minimalist struggle for survival or a labor of Hercules, then it may soon be abandoned altogether or substituted by a mechanically assisted air-conditioned technological expedition in some lavishly equipped vehicle. This isn’t camping, it’s space travel. There must be a better way.
My compromise is dinghy camping. I can carry more on a small boat that I can lift so there are some additional conveniences and supplies that can be brought along to make life easier in the wilderness. But you are still camping–I would loosely define a “dinghy” as a boat too small to sleep on. It is the nautical equivalent of a two-seater roadster or a motorcycle with a sidecar. A dinghy can carry at most a few people but it can go places you can’t get to on foot or in any form of motorized land transport. It might be oar, sail, power, or any combination; it is any boat that can take you to a wilderness campsite but still be small enough that you can pull it temporarily on the beach or anchor in water shallow enough to wade ashore. Under this definition even the old Native American standard, the canoe, can qualify as a dinghy.
Somewhere near you is a body of water and a campsite suitable for your boat, be it a reservoir, river, lake, or the sea. Of course, away from inland waters your boat must have some measure of seaworthiness but how much is up to you to decide depending on your craft, your skills and your cruising grounds. Just remember you will be on your own and as in any wilderness experience things can go wrong; no matter how well prepared you are you can always be overwhelmed. Be careful and use common sense. This article was composed with my own boat and home waters as a model but I suspect much of what we cover here can be applied to your situation.
My dinghy was a San Francisco Pelican, a 12 foot flat-bottomed centerboard cat-rigged lugger originally designed for use on windy San Francisco Bay. It was a small boat but ruggedly built, very roomy and capable of carrying four and minimal camping gear for a weekend or a week’s supplies for two. It was also seaworthy enough that I had the confidence to travel considerable distances offshore or along the coast and the carrying capacity to take whatever I needed to remote and lonely places. There was no auxiliary outboard so canoe paddles provided emergency propulsion. My Pelican was a long way from home. I sailed her on the Florida Gulf Coast where bays, inlets, islands and sand bars, as well as estuaries and beaches, provided an infinite variety of secluded spots inaccessible by any other means. And in the spirit of the true pocket cruiser, this vessel could be trailered to the water’s edge hitched behind a compact car. In this era of limited and diminishing facilities for recreational boaters and high fuel costs, this can make all the difference.
When looking for potential camp sites consult the charts for your area and select spots that can be conveniently reached from where you launch your boat. Scrutinize the waters and the approaches to your destinations for potential harbors and hazards as well as aids to navigation. In many cases, Google Earth software can provide GPS waypoints and a preliminary aerial reconnaissance to evalute a potential site. Determine alternate options in case you run into trouble or even if you just change your mind–always have a Plan B. Nautical charts can suggest worthwhile destinations, too; in my cruising ground a remote Indian mound and an offshore freshwater spring were both clearly marked on the charts of the area; both were fascinating spots to visit and pretty much unknown to most boaters in the area.
Until you learn your way around contact the authorities about camping regulations on public lands and always respect others’ property rights. Keep in mind your boat’s strengths and weaknesses; for example, I knew I could take my Pelican into shallow water where deeper draft vessels could not follow. This usually got me some choice campsites all to myself. At the same time I avoided areas that were too well sheltered and far from open water and the dependable day land and night sea breezes I relied on. My boat was clumsy under oars so I stayed away from places where I was likely to be becalmed or neaped (forced aground for long periods by an unusual combination of high and low tides). My mast was low but there were some bridges I still could not clear without unstepping it. Of course, in any boat, knowledge of the seasonal weather patterns in your area is critical as well as the short-term forecast. Make sure you are familiar with your marine environment, too, and the rising and setting times of the sun and phases of the moon–you are going into the real world now, these facts can save your life. Buy up-to-date charts and get access to almanacs, tide and current tables, coast pilots, light lists and other publications and learn how to use them. Your local marine store can advise you and much information is available on the internet. There are also numerous recreational boating guides and regional sailing directions on the market with invaluable information for cruisers and sportsmen. You’ll find planning your trips almost as much fun as taking them!
The hand-held GPS and the cell phone are very recent inventions, people got along fine without them for thousands of years but it is difficult to visualize more vital safety gear today. One should not rely on either, they are mechanical and prone to failure, but it would be irresponsible to go out on the water without them now no matter how skilled a sailor you may be; together, they simultaneously solve the problems of navigation and emergency communications. A battery operated portable radio will also provide essential weather forecasts. However, none of these is an excuse to fail to learn the fundamentals of small boat navigation. Without some knowledge of piloting, dead reckoning, basic compass and chart work, plus understanding of the rules of the road and aids to navigation, you may become overly reliant on a piece of equipment you do not fully understand. If you lose it or it malfunctions you will not have a clue as to what to do to find your way home. Even if it is working perfectly, if you don’t have complete faith in your equipment it is useless: they tell aviators to trust their instruments and so should you. The confidence you achieve when you verify a GPS position with basic piloting and coastal navigation techniques(or vice-versa) is truly priceless. The bare minimum you need in the way of traditional navigation gear is a chart of the area, a pair of binoculars, parallel rulers and dividers and two good, well-adjusted magnetic compasses, one for steering and one for shooting bearings. If you don’t know what “shooting a bearing” is, or how to plot a fix on a chart or lay out a dead reckoning track, you’re not ready to solo yet. Read up on the subject or find someone to teach you, it’s a lot easier than you think.
So you are ready. You know where you’re going, you know what you’re doing, and you have all the equipment you need for safe operation of your craft. You have fuel, tools and spare parts and your boat is legal with all the proper safety equipment required by the Coasties. So what do you take with you? Food and water, of course, at least twice as much as you expect you’ll consume, and plenty of dry clothing and bedding. Always take more than you need of everything (you may not be able to return when you want to) and pack everything in waterproof containers. make sure they are all light enough to float (don’t fill your water jugs all the way up). Being prepared only sounds like common sense but I’ve rescued more than one family stranded with a dead motor on a barrier island or an isolated beach. After a day and a night they were in bad shape: hungry, thirsty, shivering with cold, covered with mosquito bites and terribly sunburned. It is not a pretty sight, and for young children it could prove fatal. This is a wilderness even though you may be within sight of civilization, without your equipment and your boat you might as well be in the Amazon or the Outback; that is why you are there and casual visitors often forget that. An offshore sandbar can be a crowded vacation spot on a Sunday afternoon; on Monday morning it can be a lonely and remote place. Depending on the weather or wildlife in your area different survival items may come in handy. In Florida, I found hats, sunglasses, sunblock lotion, bug spray and insect repellant essential. Important enough, in fact, that I usually carried a backup for each.
Chances are that you won’t be camping within sight of your boat so one thing you should be ready to invest in is a good anchor and suitable ground tackle for the common types of holding ground in your area. The shores of Florida are predominantly sand but you may have to deal with turtle grass, mud, shell, coral or oyster bars; fortunately, rocky botoms are relatively rare here. Talk to people with local knowledge and take their advice. Don’t skimp, use stout line recommended for anchoring, a good length of chain to weigh down the line, or rode, and first-rate shackles and swivels to hold it all together. Always secure your boat in the most protected spot you can find even if it means carrying your camping gear a long way to where you will set up your tent. Set your hook by hand and make sure it’s well dug in even if you have to get wet, consider how the boat may swing as wind and tide shift and be ready to use two anchors or a backup mooring to a tree on shore, if necessary. There is nothing more demoralizing than returning to your boat only to find it nowhere in sight. One trick is to rig one anchor with a sentinel (a weight which can be lowered down the rode to help keep it on the bottom) and another with a float (to keep its rode off the bottom). This prevents the two lines from fouling each other or their anchors if the vessel is dancing around in a blow. Whole books have been written on the art of anchoring, it is a subject worth studying if you plan to be away from your boat all night and the weather kicks up. A dinghy can often be simply carried out of the water, or beached. Do so if you can but tie up or set an anchor anyway in case the tide rises. Never, ever, anchor on the weather side of an island or on an exposed beach, no matter how quiet the sea is. An unattended boat suddenly finding itself in heavy surf is almost certain to be lost.
Once ashore the outdoorsman’s skills the backpacker relies on come into play. The small-craft cruiser will probably be better supplied and equipped but he is now separated from his vessel and in the domain of the woodsman. I will make one suggestion: a folding lawn chair, the kind made of aluminum tubing and plastic straps, can be a very welcome luxury. It is light and folds up so it is easy to pack but it is a welcome alternative to squatting or sitting on the ground, especially around a campfire when one is invariably getting up to take care of small chores. In most areas setting up a tent is a routine task but on Florida’s sandy beaches I often found tent pegs to be useless. To anchor a small tent on loose sand I suggest that the pegs be replaced by small 3″x3″ plywood or plastic squares (like those that come on the ends of rolls of drafting film). Set up your tent, and instead of hammering in the pegs to keep the tent ropes taught, bury the squares about 8″ deep under the sand. A small hole drilled in the center of each allows the tent line to pass through where the peg can be tied to it to prevent the line from slipping back through the hole. With the pad buried deep in the sand (pour a little water in the hole to help make the sand gummy and hard) that pad cannot pull out, even in a full gale. The tent will rip first. I have had this rig survive several Florida thunderstorms on an exposed sandy beach. It’s a scary ride but it if you have a good tent it will not be swept away. A garden trowel and a toy plastic bucket come in handy for this and also provide a convenient place to store the plastic pads and pegs and other items you will need to secure your tent. Incidentally, when setting up your shelter orient it so the prevailing wind will blow in the open end and out the back window. This will keep the tent “inflated” and roomy and the breeze will provide a cool draft during the night. In Florida’s superhot summer and shadeless beaches I also learned to rig a temporary lean-to or tarp over the tent to provide shade and keep it cool in case I wanted to duck inside for a nap or to eat a meal in the shade. It can be put away after dark. A pup tent in the hot sun can become an oven in minutes so when selecting your shelter pick a color that will reflect sunlight but will also be easily visible from the air–just in case. Make sure your tent is pitched above the high water mark, too! Meanwhile, your clothes, food and fuel will be outside, but safe from weather, bugs and sand in their waterproof containers.
Florida mosquitoes, especially the salt-water marsh variety, can become a big problem after dark. Make sure your tent is fully rigged before sunset, and I would suggest keeping a wide mouth jar inside for storing liquid waste during the night until it can be disposed of in the morning. Leaving your shelter for even a moment will let legions of the creatures in when you undo the netting, they are guaranteed to keep you miserable all night. If some do get in use a flashlight to locate and dispatch them before you go to sleep. They tend to like to rest on the interior of the tent fabric and are easy to spot. The dreaded no-see-ums easily fit through the holes in mosquito netting but I have found spraying the screen doors and windows with insecticide (from the inside of your tent) will help drive them off. A fresh water sponge bath before you retire for the evening, clean clothes, and a light spray with repellent will discourage the few that do get through. Outside, your caches of food and clothing are in stout plastic, so they should be safe from most marauding woodland creatures and inclement weather. Florida beaches are often patrolled by the wily raccoon so take appropriate precautions with your provisions. These guys have a remarkable sense of smell, and they are a lot stronger than they look, all food items should be kept in tough, airtight containers. Weigh the lighter parcels down with the heavier ones so they don’t blow away in a gale.
With a good boat and increasing confidence the dinghy camper will be able to expand both his range and the challenge of his cruises, traveling further and staying longer in increasingly wilder and more remote environments. And it need not be a grueling wilderness ordeal either, a few days fishing on a spoil island by the shipping channel in a large harbor can still be a fascinating and relaxing experience, watching the ships from all over the world and the fishermen coming home from the sea. Dinghy cruising is a great way to enhance your skills as an outdoorsman and a mariner, provide you with exquisite fishing, snorkeling and birdwatching adventures and turn any long weekend into an economical mini-vacation. It’s amazing how long two or three days seem to last when you’re away from your usual routine, and after the second or third you get acclimated to roughing it and you won’t want to go back! As you get better at it you will learn to pack and prepare great meals, much better than you could carry in on your back. And with your camp and supplies set up on some central location, it will give you an advance base to explore a more extensive wilderness area with your boat. Florida has a lot of coastline, and many secret places; and they have changed very little since the days the Spanish Conquistadors first waded ashore in their rusty armor.