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

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.

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The Pilots LoungeIt’sa Friday evening at the virtual airport and things are spooling down. Severalairplanes have departed with families heading out for the weekend. The studentshave pretty well finished up and I’ve plopped down in one of the big chairs tomake 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 theCardinal loading camping gear into their airplane. I knew they used theirairplane to extend their range for weekend trips but I didn’t realize they usedit for camping and was curious. I used to airplane camp in college and lawschool when I couldn’t afford motels and was too young to rent a car. Now itseems the only time I airplane camp is at Oshkosh. For most of us in the Loungecamping is going to a hotel where room service shuts down at 10:00 pm. So I waspleased to learn that people are still using airplanes to go camping. It sureseems 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 ofnights as relatives were watching their young daughter. They knew about a smallgrass airport that was somewhat remote where they could set up camp for theweekend and do some hiking around a scenic area. The thing that fascinated mewas that they managed to load everything they needed in a very short time and itdidn’t even fill up the baggage area of their Cardinal. I know the Cardinal’sbaggage area is quite large – I used to own one – but I was surprised at howlittle space they needed. I asked where the rest of their stuff was and was toldthat what I saw was it. I assumed they were going to tie down the airplane andhike into a place where they would camp. They said that they occasionally didthat, but, for security, they usually camp with the airplane when at a remotestrip. Because space and weight are limited in an airplane and they sometimes gointo 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 usetheir airplanes to get to places to camp. I learned a quite a bit about campingwith an airplane and figured that as the Oshkosh AirVenture is approaching, itmight 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 generalintolerance, most smaller airports will not object to folks camping next to thetheir airplane. There are still a fair number of pilots that camp with theirairplanes on longer trips. Their rule of thumb seems to be that if the airportdoes not have a control tower there is a pretty good chance that one can getpermission to camp with the airplane. If the airport has at least one grassrunway the chances go way up. Once the airport gets large enough to have a towerthere seems to be less enthusiasm on the part of the locals for folks campingwith their airplanes. There are airports near and on public lands where pilotsregularly fly in and camp or use as a base for backpacking expeditions. Somestate parks have airstrips open to the public. Over the years I’ve also heard ofvarious airports, mostly in the west, that are set up for and encourage campers.

There may be a clearinghouse or publication that identifies airports that areamenable 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 ofthis 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 campwith your airplane for a night or four, the chances are pretty good that theanswer 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 onthe theme of “keep it light.” Everyone said that the most importantthing to remember when airplane camping is to pack light. The best comment Iheard was the first of the afternoon: Compare it to backpacking. Pack as if youhad to carry everything five miles to the campsite in one trip. One person evensaid 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 ofall, most of the four-place airplanes we fly are weight limited. In general theycan only carry three adults and full fuel. When camping gear is added to theequation it means fewer people and/or reduced fuel. Once you add warm weather, ashort grass strip and obstacles, the idea of going in and out at or near grossweight is foolish at best. Experienced airplane campers keep the bathroom scalehandy 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 willusually get even the most determined clotheshorse to reduce to minimalequipment.

What To Take

In order to keep this column within reasonable size, I’m not going to discussthe 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’veever 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 outwhat clothing you intend to take. After looking at it for two days, put half ofit away. After two more days put half of what remains away. Now you’ve gottenthings down to a reasonable amount of stuff. (This packing technique works forany trip you take, not just camping.)

We all know how to dress ourselves here, but there are a few comments forairplane camping that should be made. Again, the backpacking comparison isappropriate:

Make sure you have footwear that is appropriate to the destination and in whichyou can walk several miles simply because you may need to walk farther than youintended.

Never, ever go barefoot when camping. There is simply too much risk of steppingon or getting bit by something that will incapacitate you or of catching one ofthe interesting parasites that lurk on the ground. That also applies to campingat AirVenture, where the showers have been known to flood.

Socks are essential if you intend to do any walking. The best are thesophisticated blends sold by camping equipment outfitters; however, you can’t gowrong with 100% wool socks. They do a good job of wicking sweat away from yourfeet 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 pantsto protect you against sun, sudden cold snaps and bugs.

Some sort of long sleeved top is wise for many reasons. Fighting off mosquitoeswhile wearing short sleeves is no fun at all.

Shelter

The lightweight backpacking tents on the market are perfect for airplanecamping. They do not take up much space and weigh only a few pounds. By the sametoken, for over 80 years a lot of pilots have simply rolled up in a sleeping bagunder the wing or fuselage. It’s a good idea to put some sort of ground clothunder the sleeping bag to help keep dry. If you want inexpensive shelter, a tarpor big piece of plastic over the wing works pretty well. Be sure and stake itdown, as one of Murphy’s laws states that major storms hit while airplanecamping.


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 Tigersbecause they could fold down the rear seat and sleep in the airplane. Theairplane is a flying RV so to speak. I wonder whether Winnebago would do up theinterior of a Shorts Skyvan as a camper?

Which sleeping bag should you use for an airplane camping trip? Don’t rush outand drop a bunch of money on a super duper expensive, high tech bag. A sleepingbag you would use for backpacking will work well.

It may sound redundant for many pilots, but make sure you have duct tape and amulti-tool. They have both proven themselves so valuable that most everyonecarries them in the airplane, but, nevertheless, make certain they are with youfor airplane camping.

Because you are going to be near your airplane, tie it down carefully. Plan toprovide your own tiedown ropes and stakes and don’t leave any slack in tiedownropes or chains. Once the airplane builds up any momentum, due to even on aninch 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 problemswith the aircraft structure, so leaving some slack in the ropes was normalprocedure. That was well in the past. Don’t leave any slack in your tiedownropes; 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 almostsuicidal. Don’t even think of it if you are camping on an airport as you willcause apoplexy among other pilots and the burned spot on the ground leaves wordto the world than an idiot was there. More and more public lands prohibitcampfires. With the population pressure on national and state parks there justisn’t enough dead wood around for everyone to have a campfire. On top of thefact they don’t burn well, cutting down a live tree for a campfire is either acriminal act or should be. Figure on using a backpacking stove. There are a lotto choose from at camping goods stores. They are light, generally easy to useand 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 youdon’t have a lot to worry about at 7,500 feet in the family airplane. Make sureyou know how to use the stove before you go, and that you have enough gas forthe expected length of the trip plus emergencies.

Choices of food tend to depend on the weight you can carry. If you can budget acooler in the weight allowance, and you aren’t planning to camp far from theairplane, you have more flexibility in your choice of fare. Do a little shoppingat your camping supplier. You might be amazed at what is available these days inthe way of freeze-dried food.

If you are flying into AirVenture you can walk to a grocery store, buygroceries, an inexpensive Styrofoam cooler and cook to your heart’s contentwithout 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 carrydiminishes. The old faithful Boy Scout mess kit is excellent for individual mealgear. A lot of backpackers only bring a portion of it, leaving the plate athome, thus reducing weight. The Boy Scout nesting silverware is also a very goodway to provide utensils for each individual.

Dish washing detergent is a necessary item, so bring it in the smallestcontainer you can. Do some thinking before you clean up after a meal to usewater as efficiently as possible. An appropriate scouring pad and dishrag areitems you should not leave at home. A mesh bag for dipping utensils into hotrinse water is helpful and doesn’t weight much. It also allows you to easily airdry the utensils.

If you insist on taking recreational alcohol remember that beer is heavy; a caseweighs nearly 20 pounds. Also keep in mind if you get into a survival situationthat alcohol dehydrates the user and makes one more susceptible to freezing todeath because it dilates the surface blood vessels. About all it is good for inthat situation is to burn, if it is in a high enough concentration. The biggestconcern in a survival situation is that it adversely affects the ability to makerational decisions.

Water is essential and, depending on where you camp, may not be readilyavailable. If you have to carry it in remember it weighs eight pounds pergallon. I have some collapsible water containers that carry from two to fivegallons. 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 makingdecisions about weight you can sacrifice almost anything except water. If youare under gross weight at departure and feel it is ok to carry more, make theextra weight water.

Personal

Make sure you have adequate toiletries for your needs, but be reasonable in whatyou decide is adequate. Aftershave lotion really isn’t needed. Toilet paper isessential.

Make sure you have plenty of bug repellent and sunscreen. Dealing with sunburnwhile camping is not fun. Your personal first-aid kit should include meds forburns, cuts, headaches and other minor problems. Your airplane kit handles thebigger stuff. You might check out Dr. Brent Blue’s article here onAVweb forinformation on a good first-aid kit.

Soap and a towel are necessities. It is not “clean dirt.” Failure tokeep things clean can mean getting very, very sick and even if you have anairplane 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 onewall and black on the other with a hose, nozzle and hanging strap. You fill themwith water, leave them in the sun to heat the water and, voila, you have a warmshower. They don’t weight much and add greatly to the enjoyment of any campingtrip. 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 oneif 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 keepthose 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 runningthe batteries flat due to inadvertent activation, put the batteries in backwardswhen you aren’t using the flashlight.

Carry a good knife all the time. The best are discussed onDoug Ritter’s site. Agood quality folding knife with a three-to-four inch, locking blade that can beopened with one hand will pay for itself. The Web site also has good informationon an appropriate straight blade camping knives.

One cell phone for the group doesn’t weigh much and can mean getting help whenthings go south.

Navigation

If you are planning to do any hiking carry topographical maps of the area and acompass. Sure that is basic, but many people head out for “a shortwalk” and get lost. If you have a hand-held GPS in the airplane, take itwith you.

Trash

Unless there are trash containers where you are camping, plan on takingeverything out with you. Don’t leave your site looking like a Chicago park onSunday evening. Clean up absolutely everything. If you did it right at yourcampsite no one should be able to tell you were ever there once the grasssprings 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 itis 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 yoursleeping bag on chunks of broken concrete, discuss the problem civilly with theairport owner or manager.

Never build a fire on airport property. Yes, I said that before, but it bearsrepeating.

Make sure you clean up every bit of trash. If you have kids, set up a game withsome reward for every bit of extra trash they collect. If you leave the airportcleaner than when you arrived you make the owners that much more willing to letsomeone camp there next time.

If others are camping on the airport make sure you keep noise levels down; neverplay music above conversational levels (after all, most folks are out there tolisten 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 knowswhere you are going, when you will be back and is willing to start efforts tofind 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 hasit that personal locator beacons will become legal for sale in the U.S. in thenext six months. They will be over $2,000, but, a little research into theircapabilities and some serious thinking about your proclivities for travel intoremote 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 theairplane. Loose camping gear in the airplane can hurt folks. It’s a nasty factthat a substantial proportion of fatalities in GA and airline accidents are dueto occupants getting hit with flying luggage. Don’t be like the Darwin Awardcandidates who stand on their front porch video taping the tornado and getimpaled with a 2X4 in the solar plexus.

You may be going into a rough airstrip, making it doubly important to secure thegear under the baggage net. If you come to a quick stop you don’t want to bewearing all your luggage as you struggle to get out of the airplane. I wasinvolved with a case in which two hunters stuffed the moose they shot into theback of their airplane, didn’t get off the ground before hitting the trees atthe end of the remote strip and the unrestrained moose meat came forward. Theysplashed. The remains were not found for some months. I still feel sorry for theperson who found that mess. Those folks are remembered as not being thebrightest bulbs in the package. Don’t emulate them.

Do the weight and balance calculation before you fly. It doesn’t take long. Howbasic 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. Youcannot 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’msure there are more hints that others can post. I’m heading home and starting tolay out the clothes and camping gear for Oshkosh. Hope you can make it.

See you next month.