As EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2000 approaches, literally thousands of pilots, co-pilots and passengers are preparing to camp with their airplanes at Wittman Field. But what about the other 51 weeks of the year? What should the well-equipped airplane carry and how should its occupants prepare for sleeping with it? And, how to find airports that allow camping? AVweb's Rick Durden takes on these questions, and more.
July 10, 2000
|About the Author ...
Rick Durden is a
practicing aviation attorney who holds an ATP Certificate, with a type rating
in the Cessna Citation, and Commercial privileges for gliders, free balloons
and single-engine seaplanes. He is also an instrument and multi-engine flight
instructor. Rick started flying when he was fifteen and became a flight
instructor during his freshman year of college.
He did a little of everything
in aviation to help pay for college and law school including flight
instruction, aerial application, and hauling freight. In the process of trying
to fly every old and interesting airplane he could, Rick has accumulated over
5,400 hours of flying time. In his law practice, Rick regularly represents
pilots, fixed base operators, overhaulers, and manufacturers. Prior to
starting his private practice, he was an attorney for Cessna in Wichita for
He is a regular contributor to Aviation Consumer and AOPA Pilot
and teaches aerobatics in a 7KCAB Citabria in his spare time. Rick makes it
clear he is part owner of a corporation which owns a Piper Aztec because,
having flown virtually every type of piston-engine airplane Cessna
manufactured from 1933 on, as well as all the turboprops and some of the jets,
he cannot bring himself to admit to actually owning a Piper.
a Friday evening at the virtual airport and things are spooling down. Several
airplanes have departed with families heading out for the weekend. The students
have pretty well finished up and I've plopped down in one of the big chairs to
make some notes on conversations I had over the last few hours.
On arriving at the airport from the office I saw the couple who owns the
Cardinal loading camping gear into their airplane. I knew they used their
airplane to extend their range for weekend trips but I didn't realize they used
it for camping and was curious. I used to airplane camp in college and law
school when I couldn't afford motels and was too young to rent a car. Now it
seems the only time I airplane camp is at Oshkosh. For most of us in the Lounge
camping is going to a hotel where room service shuts down at 10:00 pm. So I was
pleased to learn that people are still using airplanes to go camping. It sure
seems more interesting than just going for another $100 hamburger.
My friends said they were going to just get away from things for a couple of
nights as relatives were watching their young daughter. They knew about a small
grass airport that was somewhat remote where they could set up camp for the
weekend and do some hiking around a scenic area. The thing that fascinated me
was that they managed to load everything they needed in a very short time and it
didn't even fill up the baggage area of their Cardinal. I know the Cardinal's
baggage area is quite large I used to own one but I was surprised at how
little space they needed. I asked where the rest of their stuff was and was told
that what I saw was it. I assumed they were going to tie down the airplane and
hike into a place where they would camp. They said that they occasionally did
that, but, for security, they usually camp with the airplane when at a remote
strip. Because space and weight are limited in an airplane and they sometimes go
into high altitude strips, they always packed as if they were going backpacking.
It made sense to me.
After my friends taxied out, I spent some time talking with others that use
their airplanes to get to places to camp. I learned a quite a bit about camping
with an airplane and figured that as the Oshkosh AirVenture is approaching, it
might be worth passing along what I'd heard.
So, Where Can You Camp?
Even in this day and age of heightened security at airports and general
intolerance, most smaller airports will not object to folks camping next to the
their airplane. There are still a fair number of pilots that camp with their
airplanes on longer trips. Their rule of thumb seems to be that if the airport
does not have a control tower there is a pretty good chance that one can get
permission to camp with the airplane. If the airport has at least one grass
runway the chances go way up. Once the airport gets large enough to have a tower
there seems to be less enthusiasm on the part of the locals for folks camping
with their airplanes. There are airports near and on public lands where pilots
regularly fly in and camp or use as a base for backpacking expeditions. Some
state parks have airstrips open to the public. Over the years I've also heard of
various airports, mostly in the west, that are set up for and encourage campers.
There may be a clearinghouse or publication that identifies airports that are
amenable to camping with one's airplane, but I haven't found it, yet.
Fortunately, I'm also certain that if such a publication exists, the readers of
this column will let the rest of us know about it and I can add it right here.
Suffice it to say that if you fly into a small airport and ask politely to camp
with your airplane for a night or four, the chances are pretty good that the
answer will be yes.
Just after this column was
published, readers pointed out to me that the AOPA Airport Directory's
listing of individual airports indicates whether camping is available
on the field. Further, on the AOPA
web site, association members can search the directory for
airports that allow camping. It is suggested that the pilot still call
ahead to find out about camping facilities as some are better than
When talking with folks about airplane camping, I constantly heard variations on
the theme of "keep it light." Everyone said that the most important
thing to remember when airplane camping is to pack light. The best comment I
heard was the first of the afternoon: Compare it to backpacking. Pack as if you
had to carry everything five miles to the campsite in one trip. One person even
said that if I were to take some fresh peaches I should first discard the pits.
That kind of concern about weight got the message across to me.
As I listened to experienced airplane campers talk, it all made sense. First of
all, most of the four-place airplanes we fly are weight limited. In general they
can only carry three adults and full fuel. When camping gear is added to the
equation it means fewer people and/or reduced fuel. Once you add warm weather, a
short grass strip and obstacles, the idea of going in and out at or near gross
weight is foolish at best. Experienced airplane campers keep the bathroom scale
handy when packing.
Trying to explain the extreme importance of weight to a nonpilot is difficult.
The best way seems to be to express it in backpacking terms: "Okay partner,
plan on carrying everything you bring at least five miles." That will
usually get even the most determined clotheshorse to reduce to minimal
What To Take
In order to keep this column within reasonable size, I'm not going to discuss
the survival kit you should have with you in the airplane and when camping.
That's another topic. For now I'll direct you to what is the best Web site I've
ever found for survival information, guidance and equipment reviews: Doug
Ritter's "Equipped to Survive" site.
Break down what you are going to take into groups: shelter, food/cooking,
clothing, navigation, and personal.
At least a week before departure find some space at home where you can lay out
what clothing you intend to take. After looking at it for two days, put half of
it away. After two more days put half of what remains away. Now you've gotten
things down to a reasonable amount of stuff. (This packing technique works for
any trip you take, not just camping.)
We all know how to dress ourselves here, but there are a few comments for
airplane camping that should be made. Again, the backpacking comparison is
Make sure you have footwear that is appropriate to the destination and in which
you can walk several miles simply because you may need to walk farther than you
Never, ever go barefoot when camping. There is simply too much risk of stepping
on or getting bit by something that will incapacitate you or of catching one of
the interesting parasites that lurk on the ground. That also applies to camping
at AirVenture, where the showers have been known to flood.
Socks are essential if you intend to do any walking. The best are the
sophisticated blends sold by camping equipment outfitters; however, you can't go
wrong with 100% wool socks. They do a good job of wicking sweat away from your
feet and don't wind up as a limp, stinky, soggy mess the way cotton does.
Even if it's going to be warm where you are going, have one pair of long pants
to protect you against sun, sudden cold snaps and bugs.
Some sort of long sleeved top is wise for many reasons. Fighting off mosquitoes
while wearing short sleeves is no fun at all.
The lightweight backpacking tents on the market are perfect for airplane
camping. They do not take up much space and weigh only a few pounds. By the same
token, for over 80 years a lot of pilots have simply rolled up in a sleeping bag
under the wing or fuselage. It's a good idea to put some sort of ground cloth
under the sleeping bag to help keep dry. If you want inexpensive shelter, a tarp
or big piece of plastic over the wing works pretty well. Be sure and stake it
down, as one of Murphy's laws states that major storms hit while airplane
After this column was published, the
creators of a good-looking line of tents that attach to the wing of a
high-wing, tricycle-gear airplane contacted me and suggested that
those who want to save weight when airplane camping consider the tents
from Wing Inn It. It is certainly worth checking out their
I discovered that more than a few people bought Grumman Cheetahs and Tigers
because they could fold down the rear seat and sleep in the airplane. The
airplane is a flying RV so to speak. I wonder whether Winnebago would do up the
interior of a Shorts Skyvan as a camper?
Which sleeping bag should you use for an airplane camping trip? Don't rush out
and drop a bunch of money on a super duper expensive, high tech bag. A sleeping
bag you would use for backpacking will work well.
It may sound redundant for many pilots, but make sure you have duct tape and a
multi-tool. They have both proven themselves so valuable that most everyone
carries them in the airplane, but, nevertheless, make certain they are with you
for airplane camping.
Because you are going to be near your airplane, tie it down carefully. Plan to
provide your own tiedown ropes and stakes and don't leave any slack in tiedown
ropes or chains. Once the airplane builds up any momentum, due to even on an
inch or two of slack, it has enough mass to snap the ropes and chains we use.
Once upon a time, tiedown ropes would shrink when wet and could cause problems
with the aircraft structure, so leaving some slack in the ropes was normal
procedure. That was well in the past. Don't leave any slack in your tiedown
ropes; you don't want your airplane crawling into your tent with you.
Plan on not being able to build an open fire. Around an airplane it is almost
suicidal. Don't even think of it if you are camping on an airport as you will
cause apoplexy among other pilots and the burned spot on the ground leaves word
to the world than an idiot was there. More and more public lands prohibit
campfires. With the population pressure on national and state parks there just
isn't enough dead wood around for everyone to have a campfire. On top of the
fact they don't burn well, cutting down a live tree for a campfire is either a
criminal act or should be. Figure on using a backpacking stove. There are a lot
to choose from at camping goods stores. They are light, generally easy to use
and the gas supply can be taken in a general aviation airplane under Part 91.
The gas containers are used on Everest at camps as high as 25,000 feet, so you
don't have a lot to worry about at 7,500 feet in the family airplane. Make sure
you know how to use the stove before you go, and that you have enough gas for
the expected length of the trip plus emergencies.
Choices of food tend to depend on the weight you can carry. If you can budget a
cooler in the weight allowance, and you aren't planning to camp far from the
airplane, you have more flexibility in your choice of fare. Do a little shopping
at your camping supplier. You might be amazed at what is available these days in
the way of freeze-dried food.
If you are flying into AirVenture you can walk to a grocery store, buy
groceries, an inexpensive Styrofoam cooler and cook to your heart's content
without weight concerns, other than the pounds you may add to yourself.
If you plan on one-pot meals the number of cooking utensils you have to carry
diminishes. The old faithful Boy Scout mess kit is excellent for individual meal
gear. A lot of backpackers only bring a portion of it, leaving the plate at
home, thus reducing weight. The Boy Scout nesting silverware is also a very good
way to provide utensils for each individual.
Dish washing detergent is a necessary item, so bring it in the smallest
container you can. Do some thinking before you clean up after a meal to use
water as efficiently as possible. An appropriate scouring pad and dishrag are
items you should not leave at home. A mesh bag for dipping utensils into hot
rinse water is helpful and doesn't weight much. It also allows you to easily air
dry the utensils.
If you insist on taking recreational alcohol remember that beer is heavy; a case
weighs nearly 20 pounds. Also keep in mind if you get into a survival situation
that alcohol dehydrates the user and makes one more susceptible to freezing to
death because it dilates the surface blood vessels. About all it is good for in
that situation is to burn, if it is in a high enough concentration. The biggest
concern in a survival situation is that it adversely affects the ability to make
Water is essential and, depending on where you camp, may not be readily
available. If you have to carry it in remember it weighs eight pounds per
gallon. I have some collapsible water containers that carry from two to five
gallons. They are great for adjusting the center of gravity in the airplane.
They come with handles so they can be carried easily. Individual canteens or
"camel backpacks" are handy for water when making day hikes.
Make sure you have enough safe drinking water and use it carefully. When making
decisions about weight you can sacrifice almost anything except water. If you
are under gross weight at departure and feel it is ok to carry more, make the
extra weight water.
Make sure you have adequate toiletries for your needs, but be reasonable in what
you decide is adequate. Aftershave lotion really isn't needed. Toilet paper is
Make sure you have plenty of bug repellent and sunscreen. Dealing with sunburn
while camping is not fun. Your personal first-aid kit should include meds for
burns, cuts, headaches and other minor problems. Your airplane kit handles the
bigger stuff. You might check out Dr. Brent Blue's article here on
information on a good first-aid kit.
Soap and a towel are necessities. It is not "clean dirt." Failure to
keep things clean can mean getting very, very sick and even if you have an
airplane you may be in no condition to operate it.
Bring soap for washing clothes.
You can buy "solar showers," heavy plastic bags that are clear on one
wall and black on the other with a hose, nozzle and hanging strap. You fill them
with water, leave them in the sun to heat the water and, voila, you have a warm
shower. They don't weight much and add greatly to the enjoyment of any camping
trip. If using them on a public airport it is appropriate to wear a swimsuit.
If you have a concern about mosquitoes, a head net is cheap and light. Use one
if you are going to sleep out under the wing without the benefit of a tent.
Half a dozen Ziploc bags of varying sizes always prove handy. They may help keep
those dirty clothes from becoming a biology experiment until you wash them.
In addition to the airplane flashlight make sure each person has his or her own.
The personal lights don't have to be expensive. As protection against running
the batteries flat due to inadvertent activation, put the batteries in backwards
when you aren't using the flashlight.
Carry a good knife all the time. The best are discussed on
Doug Ritter's site. A
good quality folding knife with a three-to-four inch, locking blade that can be
opened with one hand will pay for itself. The Web site also has good information
on an appropriate straight blade camping knives.
One cell phone for the group doesn't weigh much and can mean getting help when
things go south.
If you are planning to do any hiking carry topographical maps of the area and a
compass. Sure that is basic, but many people head out for "a short
walk" and get lost. If you have a hand-held GPS in the airplane, take it
Unless there are trash containers where you are camping, plan on taking
everything out with you. Don't leave your site looking like a Chicago park on
Sunday evening. Clean up absolutely everything. If you did it right at your
campsite no one should be able to tell you were ever there once the grass
springs back from where you parked the airplane and tent.
If possible, call ahead to the airport where you intend to camp to make sure it
is okay to do so. Even if you do not call ahead, ask permission once you arrive.
If the airport sells fuel, buy some. Airports have to have income to stay alive.
Park where it is requested that you park, although if that means putting your
sleeping bag on chunks of broken concrete, discuss the problem civilly with the
airport owner or manager.
Never build a fire on airport property. Yes, I said that before, but it bears
Make sure you clean up every bit of trash. If you have kids, set up a game with
some reward for every bit of extra trash they collect. If you leave the airport
cleaner than when you arrived you make the owners that much more willing to let
someone camp there next time.
If others are camping on the airport make sure you keep noise levels down; never
play music above conversational levels (after all, most folks are out there to
listen to the sounds of nature, not pop music) and turn off all music at sunset.
Come Find Me
On one of your trips something is bound to go wrong. Make sure someone knows
where you are going, when you will be back and is willing to start efforts to
find you if you don't show up or call by an agreed upon time.
You may want to invest in a personal ELT that transmits on 121.5 MHz. Rumor has
it that personal locator beacons will become legal for sale in the U.S. in the
next six months. They will be over $2,000, but, a little research into their
capabilities and some serious thinking about your proclivities for travel into
remote areas should be conducted before you say yes or no to buying one.
Packing the Airplane
Sure it sounds trite, but for crying out loud, secure all that stuff in the
airplane. Loose camping gear in the airplane can hurt folks. It's a nasty fact
that a substantial proportion of fatalities in GA and airline accidents are due
to occupants getting hit with flying luggage. Don't be like the Darwin Award
candidates who stand on their front porch video taping the tornado and get
impaled with a 2X4 in the solar plexus.
You may be going into a rough airstrip, making it doubly important to secure the
gear under the baggage net. If you come to a quick stop you don't want to be
wearing all your luggage as you struggle to get out of the airplane. I was
involved with a case in which two hunters stuffed the moose they shot into the
back of their airplane, didn't get off the ground before hitting the trees at
the end of the remote strip and the unrestrained moose meat came forward. They
splashed. The remains were not found for some months. I still feel sorry for the
person who found that mess. Those folks are remembered as not being the
brightest bulbs in the package. Don't emulate them.
Do the weight and balance calculation before you fly. It doesn't take long. How
basic does the concept get? Don't fly the airplane over weight or out of c.g.
No, your airplane is not legal to fly five percent over gross in Alaska. You
cannot fly over gross because you are carrying camping gear.
Off We Go
That's what I remember from talking to folks here at the virtual airport. I'm
sure there are more hints that others can post. I'm heading home and starting to
lay out the clothes and camping gear for Oshkosh. Hope you can make it.
See you next month.