Plan a Camping Trip for Your Non-Outdoorsy Partner
The key to an adventure that's fun for everyone: lower your expectations, squash insecurities, and bring along plenty of creature comforts
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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My girlfriend and I have been dating for a few years now and we’ve done a fair bit of traveling, but we’ve really only gone hiking together once. And that was for my birthday.
I know that hiking and outdoor stuff isn’t really in her wheelhouse, but she’s told me multiple times she’d be fine with taking a camping trip as long as I’m the one who does the bulk of the planning, since it’s my area of expertise.
Considering everything that’s happened this year with COVID-19, quarantine, furloughs, and working from home, I thought it might be nice to plan a long weekend for this spring, when hopefully (at least a few) things have changed for the better—even if only the weather.
My only problem is I’ve never planned a camping trip for one person who’s into roughing it and one person who’s not. I’ve planned hikes that way, but I don’t know if I’m prepared for overnight. Do I bring more stuff for comfort or less so her back doesn’t die with weight? Do I pick a hike-in campsite that’s gorgeous or one that you can drive right up to?
She’s the planner between the two of us and it usually feels like she’s got a sixth sense about what I might enjoy and where my preferences will wind up, so I’d really like to take that on and give her a really nice mini-vacation that takes that load off her shoulders for once.
There are so many lovely things about this situation: how you’re excited to share something you love, how your girlfriend is open to experiencing it, and how thoughtful you’re being as you plan the best possible experience for her, both when it comes to the outdoors and to your typical roles in the relationship. There’s obviously a wide world of outdoor adventure that you can share with her, but your best bet—and the best bet for most new outdoorspeople—is to start small, with lots of comfort and low expectations.
It seems like your questions are circling around the inherent tradeoffs in outdoor experiences—let’s call it the comfort/adventure spectrum. (This is an imperfect model, but bear with me.) The spectrum looks something like this:
On one end, you have luxury eco-spas with catered multi-course meals and private masseuses. On the other end, you have climbing Everest barefoot. Most experiences fall somewhere in the middle; but in general, a more comfortable trip means you’re sacrificing adventure, and a more intense trip means giving up some comfort. For example, backpacking can bring you to rare and gorgeous places, but you’ll probably eat powdered food and wear stinky clothes. Sleeping out in subzero temps isn’t as pleasant as sleeping in a bed, but it gives you the freedom to travel through deep wilderness in winter. Does that mean it’s worth it? There’s no right answer; every person can decide for themselves.
I think a lot of people’s resistance to camping—and outdoors in general—comes from feeling forced into trading comfort for adventure faster than they would have chosen it otherwise, or feeling pressured into experiences farther right on the spectrum than they would like. Plus, the first few nights outside can be intense in their own right. Sleeping is vulnerable, and nature can seem unpredictable and frightening, so there’s no need to add extra challenge right away.
Which is all to say that when it comes to your girlfriend, I’d recommend planning a cushy trip that still captures a taste of what you love about the outdoors. Ideally, this would be the most beautiful and private drive-up campsite that you can find.
In this situation, car camping has a couple of benefits over backpacking. You can bring a ton of creature comforts: an airbed, blankets and pillows, books, games, a cooler with her favorite food. Even though you’re packing more, car camping tends to be cheaper, because you can bring supplies you already own without worrying about weight. And if your girlfriend’s not used to sleeping outside, she might feel more relaxed near a car, knowing that she has the option to go “inside” a familiar space at any time.
Even if you’re planning the whole trip—and you’re keeping the details a surprise—you should still run a few general things past her. Does she want intense physical activity, or would she prefer taking it easy? Is there anything she’s nervous about (bugs, strangers, bathroom access) that you can accommodate? Is she looking to learn new skills, or would that feel like work? Is she open to turning off phones for the weekend?
With those details in mind, you can start planning the day’s (or days’) activities. This part should be a blast, and it’ll depend entirely on the location you choose. Hiking is obviously a classic, but you could also try fishing, canoeing, beach combing, or just general exploring—whatever you think she’ll be into. Be sure to pack a bag for both of you with sunscreen, extra clothing, and plenty of drinks and snacks.
Don’t overlook tent time, either; there’s something wonderful about waking up in a sleeping bag with nowhere to go, or spending long evenings playing cards or reading books by the fire. Bring a lantern for mood lighting and talk long into the night, or bring wine and offer her a massage. (Some people like sex while camping, and some don’t, so try not to have any expectations on that front; you can roll with however you’re both feeling.)
It may be that if your girlfriend has fun, she’ll be interested in trying a more intense outdoors experience in the future—pushing a bit farther from the Comfort end of the spectrum. Or maybe she’ll want to go car camping again, because car camping is great. It’s also possible that she’ll appreciate the experience but want to stick with hotels in the future. Whatever her preferences, try not to take them personally. The important thing is that you’re sharing something you love with the person you love—finding an adventure that’s right for both of you, together.
*Adventure is subjective, a product of curiosity and exploration and the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences, and I firmly believe that an afternoon in a park can be just as much of an adventure as some grand and historic expedition. But for the sake of this model, let’s go with the stereotypical qualities of adventure to mean, roughly: more danger, more exclusivity, more isolation, etc.