The Pilot's Lounge #24:
Sleeping With Your Airplane

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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.

The Pilots LoungeIt's 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.

One Example

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.

THIS JUST IN...

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 others.

Packing Considerations

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 equipment.

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.

Clothing

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 appropriate:

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 intended.

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.

Shelter

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 camping.


THIS JUST IN...

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 web site.

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.

Cooking

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 rational decisions.

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.

Personal

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 essential.

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 AVweb for 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.

Navigation

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 with you.

Trash

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.

Etiquette

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 repeating.

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.