2016 Summer Journal #BusLife

Creepy Camping: When things go bump in the night

People love to ask if we get creeped out while we’re staying on the bus. The short answer is yes, it totally happens, but probably not for the same reasons that you’re thinking.

One of our first "gray area" campsites | Issaquah, WA

One of our first “gray area” campsites | Issaquah, WA

Many people are familiar with that feeling that you sometimes get when you go camping. You’re out there in the woods having a great time with not a care in the world, but after the lights go out and things get quiet, your imagination starts to run wild. Every twig that breaks in the forest must be from a mountain lion and every owl that hoots is surely a would-be attacker signaling a partner in crime.

Once, while tent camping with Alyssa near Tuolumne Meadows, I became convinced that a bear was stalking around our campsite. It took and hour of heart pounding fear to realize that the “bear” was actually just a beetle crawling on the nylon fabric above me, making a noise that sounded (to my paranoid brain) like the swish of a big animal walking through the tall grass.

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Sheep Creek Trailhead, MT

We definitely have creepy nights on the bus, but so far they have always turned out to be like the beetle: small, harmless things that our nervous brains irrationally transform into life threatening situations.

Alyssa and I are both big on following rules. We really don’t like to break the rules and when we do, we always feel like we’re going to get in trouble – or at the very least, that we are letting someone down. That being said, sometimes we park for the night in places that would fall into a gray area; usually places like trailheads and parking lots that are marked ‘no camping’ because of the impact that comes with camping without bathroom and trash access. Since we are fully contained, the impact of parking for the night is really no different than parking during the day: we don’t cook outside, leave trash, or poop in holes. “No Camping” is the rule we break the most.

It is on those nights that we experience our most common anxiety, fearing that at any moment a ranger is going to knock on our door to tell us to move it along. This may not sound like a big deal, but it has definitely caused one or two restless nights for us. We don’t want to be on the Forest Service’s bad side!

Curtis Canyon, WY

Curtis Canyon, Jackson, WY

Apart from our fear of getting into minor trouble with the law, we do occasionally get creeped out in the traditional “axe murderer” sense of the feeling. This is pretty uncommon for us because we have talked about it at length and have created a list of reasons why getting nervous about “stranger danger” in the woods is ridiculous:

  1. One is much more likely to encounter a dangerous person in the city than in the wilderness. Predators go to where their prey is, which is not in the backcountry.
  2. If someone with sinister motives were to come across the bus, it’s unlikely they would choose to mess with us. We’ve found that the bus is a little bit creepy itself!
  3. If someone with sinister motives were to come across the bus and decide to mess with us, we would have the upper hand. We’ve taken several precautions to keep us safe inside the bus.
  4. Hilde is a friendly dog, but when she feels threatened her bark is ferocious. Once Alyssa accidentally got her knee in-between Hilde’s teeth during a friendly dog wrestling match and came out with a bruise the size of a fist – those teeth could do some serious damage if they wanted to.
  5. Bear spray. If it can deter an angry mama grizzly, it will certainly mess up an intruder long enough for us to start the bus up and haul ass outta there.
Slate Creek, Crested Butte, CO

Slate Creek, Crested Butte, CO

Of course, sometimes our lizard brains get the best of us. The most recent occurrence of this creepiness was last weekend, as we were headed up to Moab, UT from Flagstaff, AZ. It’s about a 6 hour drive and we didn’t get on the road until late in the afternoon. Long hauls on the bus can be tiring, so we decided to pack it in for the night about two hours south of Moab.

Being unfamiliar with the area, we first tried a Forest Service campground outside of Blanding, UT, but were quickly turned around; the sign said the campground was 11 miles off the highway and still closed for the season. It was starting to get dark, so Plan B was to drive a few more miles to a recreation area at a local reservoir. Finding good camping is hard enough in an area you don’t know, and infinitely more so in the dark, so we wanted to lock something down before it got too late.

The views at the reservoir were nice, but the area had clearly been out of use for the colder months and felt like it hadn’t yet “reopened” for the summer season – the parking area was full of trash from an overflowing dumpster and the bathroom building was covered in graffiti.

The trees hadn’t blossomed yet and last year’s fallen leaves were still rotting on the ground. To top off the eery, abandoned vibe, the old road that predated the reservoir ran straight into the water, coming out the other side. Alyssa and I each independently felt that the place gave off a weird “you shouldn’t be here this time of year” vibe.

We talked through our worries together while cooking dinner, and ultimately decided that it was just the time of year that made it feel unwelcoming – this place was clearly well loved during the summer, and there was no reason that this particular Forest Service road should be any creepier than any other. We got ready for bed and said nothing more on the topic.

Moments after we turned out the lights, Hilde got up and started growling and barking at the door. This might not sound like a big deal, but Hilde very, very rarely barks at night. (In fact, one night last summer we were awoken by flashing police lights right outside the bus and she slept through the whole thing!) Our prior uneasiness coupled with her unusual barking set off some major alarm bells, but there wasn’t much we could do other than wait and listen.

We laid silently in bed, stock still, as Hilde calmed her barking and hauled herself up onto our bed to snuggle at our feet. Hilde seemed to quickly forget the disturbance, settling into her usual “dead as a doornail” slumber. Of course it wasn’t as easy for us to find sleep with our anxious minds running through all of the terrible things that could happen.

When the sun finally did come up we were greeted with pristine views of the reservoir on a shiny spring day, the terrifying thoughts of the night before seeming ridiculous in the morning light.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, maneuvering the bus around the freshly redistributed trash, we saw what a bonanza that overflowing dumpster must be for the local coyote, raccoon, and black bear populations. Hilde doesn’t usually bark at people, but wild animals can really get her going. It was plain to see that she was likely barking at some harmless woodland creature who was just trying to get some easy dinner from the dumpster buffet.

Just as with camping, it takes a little while to get accustomed to sleeping comfortably on the bus. By the end of the season last year we were sleeping like babies in any place that we chose to park, from trailheads to city streets. Over the winter we lost some of that experience and hardiness that made us confident in the lock on our door, our can of bear spray, and the fact that a darkened school bus is just a little creepy if you don’t know who or what’s inside. I think as we work into the summer season, our confidence will come back and we’ll have fewer restless nights and panicked checks for headlamps in the dark.

Unfortunately we didn’t think to take any photos of this creepy yet beautiful campsite… which we are kicking ourselves for now! 


What do you look for in a campsite?
We aren’t too picky about our campsites. The bus is very comfortable so we can be pretty happy anywhere from a picturesque backcountry site to a crowded Walmart parking lot. That being said, our typical campsite is usually… (in order of importance)

    1. Free
    2. Around other campers (helps with peace of mind!)
    3. In nature, preferably with a pretty view
    4. In a place where we are not specifically prohibited from camping
    5. Within 20 minutes of town
    6. Within walking distance of a trailhead for our morning run

What precautions do you take for personal safety on the bus?
The bus is very secure. We have burly locks on all of the doors, and the windows cannot be opened from the outside. Even if someone could open a window, it would be supremely difficult to wiggle their way in. We keep a few cans of bear spray at the ready for worst case scenarios, and Hilde is a pretty attentive burglar alarm. 

In addition to that, we use an app called BlueLight. BlueLight uses your phone’s GPS to connect your emergency call to the closest responder (sometimes dialing 911 doesn’t route you to the closest responders and your call needs to be transferred, which wastes time.) BlueLight is super helpful while traveling because we rarely know the address of the places we’re staying – if they even have addresses!

What’s the backstory on the night with the police lights?
Last summer our visit to Crested Butte coincided with their annual Vinotok festival, a week long event celebrating the local harvest. One of the nights the town hosts a huge sit down dinner in the streets, and we attended. Not wanting to drive after participating in the festivities, we parked the bus off one of the main streets and went to bed. Around 12am we woke up to red an blue lights splashed across the ceiling of the bus. Crested Butte is not known for being particularly friendly to people sleeping in their vehicles, so we laid quietly, waiting for the knock on the door that was surely coming.

It never did! I finally convinced myself to peek out the window and realized that the Marshall happened to be doing a traffic stop right alongside the bus. He wrote the driver a ticket and each of them went on their merry way. The same situation replayed itself twice more that night – we had inadvertently parked just downstream from the main intersection in town where the Marshall was keeping an eye on the stop sign. We are absolutely amazed that we didn’t get hassled that night!

 


Have you ever been creeped out by something that goes “crunch” in the forest? Do you have a suggestion for safety on the road? Tell us about it in the comments!!

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  • Karla Sanders

    This is a great and helpful article, safety is something we’ve thought a lot about having just started our nomadic journey, tent camping and sleeping in the car. Although I think Hollywood makes us feel more afraid of the world, the precautions are very much needed. We’ve thought about what kind of weapons for self protection, but I agree: if bear spray can deter a grizzly, it’ll scare off a human too!

  • I spent a night camping alone in Deckers Colorado sometime in May. First night was with friends but since I didn’t have to work the next day I stayed, and they left. Not too long after they left rain turned into slushy ice. I spent the night in the tent listening to globs of ice falling from the branches of the pine tree all around me. The thud as they would fall to the ground sounded like foot steps and the slush sliding down the sides of my tent sounds like creatures coming to get me just as I would fall asleep. Also wondering if a spring blizzard was in my future, if the foot steps were from a park ranger telling me to go home and how drivable the roads would be. I’m 6’4″ and can put on my grrrrr face but sitting alone in a tent still creeps me out just like everyone else.

  • I actually laughed out loud at the bit about the bus being a bit creepy in it’s own right. So true! If I came across a large bus parked alone in a lot, I’d definitely be wary of it! It would just seem…so out of place… Sounds like you’ve thought a lot about safety on the bus, which is awesome. I guess I’ve always had such good experiences while camping that I never really consider the dangers of being out in the forest, but then again, I’ve always been in heavily-populated camp areas where the biggest animals you really see are the other campers’ dogs. I have a feeling as I venture further out into the wilderness, I’ll definitely get a few more “creepy” nights under my belt. And as the Rocky Mountain National Park ranger advised “Always carry bear mace. It works great on people.”

  • Eric Bakke

    Being retired law enforcement I always have a firearm close by when sleeping. Bear spray is fantastic for repelling animals and I have that too. But when it comes to humans, if they are crazy enough to break through the locks on my doors then they will have to deal with my “other” alternative.