I Went Camping as My Dungeons & Dragons Character
After a year spent inside with too much time on his hands, a writer survives two days in the woods with only the equipment available to his hobbit alter ego—rapier and lute included
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
When I heard the snap of branches coming from the darkness surrounding our camp, my hand tightened around the hilt of my sword. My eyes scanned for the source of the noise but saw nothing.
Could it have been a bear? Or even a troll looking for a meal? I prayed it was not a band of cutthroat goblins seeking to plunder our hard-earned treasures.
That’s when I spotted it: a wolflike creature stalking toward me in darkness. I turned to Tanner the ranger, my traveling companion, to warn him. But I discovered to my horror that a large dark shadow had appeared right next to him. Before I could draw my sword, the wolf creature was already upon me. It was too late.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
I love Dungeons & Dragons—probably too much.
When the pandemic started, I, along with millions of others, turned to D&D for fun and socializing. After all, the real world really sucks right now. Some people escape by learning a new language or reading. We escape by pretending to be elves. Don’t judge.
Over the past year, many of the physical activities I used to do, like going to the gym, fell by the wayside. It’s had an acute impact on my physical and mental well-being—and I’m not alone. Even as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, social isolation has created a lasting crisis of anxiety, stress, and depression for many across the world.
These thoughts culminated one day while I was huffing home with a backpack filled with groceries, when I wondered, How the hell does my D&D character carry their things while slaying orcs and exploring dungeons?
With more time on my hands than I knew what to do with, I figured now was the perfect opportunity to answer that question.
My quest was simple: I’d go hiking and camping for two days carrying all the equipment my character carries. It would give me the chance to marry my love for D&D with my old love of doing anything physical—an improvement over my current exercise of only getting up from my couch to grab another beer from the fridge.
Of course, every adventure needs an adventuring party, so I recruited my college buddy Tanner. He’s an outdoorsman of the highest caliber, having hiked everywhere from the treacherous trails of eastern Iowa to the exotic locales of central Iowa.
I sent him a missive, imploring him to brave this perilous journey with me. “Wanna go camping with me in a month?” I texted. Not long after, he responded, “Yeah, sure.”
Now I was ready to answer a question that philosophers, artists, poets, and scholars have ruminated on since time immemorial: What happens when a somewhat-out-of-shape writer tries to survive in the wilderness using only the gear available to his D&D character?
I was about to find out—or die trying.
Chapter 2: The Preparation
My character is Zaddy D. Vito, halfling bard and adventurer extraordinaire.
He and I are a little different. For one, I am a six-foot-one-inch human man, not a portly hobbit the size of Long Boi duck. But Zaddy has panache and always makes things work with his cleverness—so I would, too.
In his Explorer’s Pack, according to the D&D player’s manual, Zaddy carries the following:
- A backpack
- A bedroll
- A mess kit
- A tinderbox
- Ten torches
- Ten days’ worth of rations
- A waterskin
- 50 feet of hempen rope
I already had some of these things: a backpack, a bedroll, and a wineskin I got as a souvenir from a trip to Spain. Through the magic of fate (read: Facebook Marketplace), I acquired a Boy Scouts mess kit, a survival tinderbox, and 50 feet of cotton rope. I also created ten torches by combining free paint stirrers from Home Depot with a few ripped-up T-shirts.
That left rations, which the player’s manual says “consist of dry foods suitable for extended travel, including jerky, dried fruit, hardtack, and nuts.” After a bafflingly expensive trip to the grocery store, I had everything but the hardtack (a simple dry bread that sailors used to carry on long voyages), which I ended up baking on my own. True to its name, the batch I made was virtually inedible and could have doubled as sidewalk chalk. I plan on sending future samples to NASA in case they want to use it to line space shuttles.
Zaddy also carries a rapier and a lute. My substitutes: a fake sword from Craigslist and my girlfriend’s ukulele. All told, the equipment weighed just 25 pounds—a far cry from the 59 pounds that the player’s manual estimates he totes. I wasn’t about to complain, though. With my setup mustered, it was time to set off on my quest.
Chapter 3: The Quest
Tanner and I decided to camp at Lake Macbride State Park, north of Iowa City, Iowa, for our adventure. The player’s manual doesn’t mention a tent, so we needed to build shelter for the night. Luckily, Tanner took a survivalist camping class once. With his guidance, we created a somewhat structurally sound shelter out of branches and leaves.
As we worked, a ferocious-looking dog barked at us from a nearby campsite. Its owner eyed us suspiciously. I made a mental note to keep my sword close.
Once finished, I donned my equipment and we set out. In D&D, players accept quests given by NPCs (non-playable characters). I figured we could do the same by soliciting quests from strangers in the park.
To our surprise, folks didn’t immediately call the cops on us when we approached. In fact, we ended up completing quests and getting rewards like real D&D characters. Our quest-givers included:
- A group of students from the University of Iowa. Their quest: for us to drink a shooter of Fireball. Their reward: two hard seltzers.
- A lovely older couple traveling around the Midwest. Their quest: for me to play them a song on the ukulele. Their reward: a handful of Dove dark chocolates.
- A young couple with excitable dogs. Their quest: for me to play them a song on my ukulele (I was afraid everyone else would want this, too, but luckily they didn’t). Their reward: a can of light beer.
For our last quest, we came upon a large family, whose dad told us, “Find a morel mushroom. We’re making pizzas, so we can use it as a topping. We’ll make you one, too… if you find it.”
Tanner smiled. He was a mushroom-hunting veteran and knew exactly how to locate them. We took off into the woods, confident that we’d come across a morel soon enough. Alas, after an hour, we were tired, hungry, and mushroom-less. Defeated, we headed back to the family to report our failure.
Yet won over by the sheer silliness of what we were doing, they decided to make us a pizza anyway. So we drank our beers and ate pizza while reflecting on a hard day of adventuring.
Darkness had fallen by the time we made it back to our campsite. I fumbled through my backpack, looking for the tinderbox to light a fire. That’s when I heard the snapping of branches.
I looked up and noticed a dark shape walking toward me. In my mind, I saw a wolf ready to pounce. In a panic, I grabbed the hilt of my sword, ready to cut down my foe. But before I could do anything, it was already at my feet… sniffing. It was the dog from the camp nearby.
Relieved, I looked at Tanner to tell him about it—and saw the silhouette of a man next to him. I could imagine the headlines already: “Man with Sword and Inedible Bread Found Murdered.”
“You boys have any cigarettes?” he asked. Tanner shook his head. I fished out a pack from my pocket and gave him one. The man lit it and stood there for a moment before walking away.
“That was weird,” Tanner said. We laughed. Soon after, I found my tinderbox. Tanner made a small pile of leaves and twigs in the camp’s fire pit—but I realized we had forgotten to grab firewood.
As I was about to search for some, three logs fell on the ground next to me with a thud, as if gifted from the gods. I glanced up and saw it was none other than the stranger who had bummed cigarettes from us.
“Thought you boys could use some,” he said before quickly disappearing into the darkness. Tanner and I exchanged looks.
Quest and reward—just like D&D.
Chapter 4: The End
We decided to go hiking the next day, though we were both exhausted (surprisingly, our shelter was not the most comfortable place to sleep).
I could feel everyone’s eyes on me as we trekked down the trail. To their credit, I don’t think any of them expected to see a man with a ukulele and a sword hiking alongside them that Sunday.
The hike was a lot tougher than I anticipated. Though my pack was lighter than the one Zaddy uses, it felt like a hundred pounds by the end. Eventually, we stopped near a lake, and I fell asleep as soon as I lay down.
After I awoke, we headed back to the campsite. Each step was harder than the last, and I took many opportunities to rest and “admire the scenery.” If Tanner knew I was tired, he didn’t let on. He’s that kind of guy.
We made it back to the campsite in time for lunch, and attempted to eat a few bites of hardtack but gave up before we chipped a tooth.
By this point, I had a fairly good idea of what Zaddy endures, and I told Tanner that our quest was a success. He nodded and agreed. As is bro custom, before going our separate ways, we made our requisite vague promises to hang out again.
As I cleaned up the campground, I reflected on what I’d learned. For one, I’ll be sure to opt in for my workplace’s dental plan if I plan before eating hardtack again. Also, hiking isn’t as fun when you’re carrying 25 pounds of equipment, a sword, and a ukulele.
But I also learned that even in the height of a pandemic, plenty of people were still willing to lend a hand and share some pizza with complete strangers—even two men armed with swords.
The biggest lesson for me, though, is that your adventures are only as good as your adventuring party. Fortunately, I had a great partner: Tanner the ranger, builder of shelters, veteran morel hunter, and good friend.