Why RV life isn't for these senior tent campers

Rich and Marion Patterson have always enjoyed #x201c;tent life#x201d; and have no interest in seeing nature in an RV as
Rich and Marion Patterson have always enjoyed “tent life” and have no interest in seeing nature in an RV as they grow older. (Rich and Marion Patterson/correspondents)

Ours was an inauspicious start.

Only a few family and friends watched us be married under a pine in the backyard of Marion’s parent’s rural New Hampshire home. We were unemployed, homeless and had no health insurance. Money was sparse. But with joy in our hearts and optimism brimming, we loaded everything we owned in our old VW Bug, said goodbye, and headed for Idaho, where we’d start married life.

We weren’t technically homeless.

Our 35-square foot mountain tent housed us during that long westward honeymoon drive. It kept us snug in Ontario, Canada, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana until we found work in Idaho and swapped tent life for apartment life.

Months later, a move to Kansas launched our professional careers. We then used the tiny tent for outings. Just before our son was born, we packed it on a plane to enjoy our last child-free trip, exploring California’s Big Sur.

Years slipped by, but not our love of tenting. When he was just 4 months old, we took our son tent camping in Shimek State Forest. A few years later, with an infant daughter, we knew the tiny tent wouldn’t work. So, we upgraded to a bigger one.

Now our kids are grown and gone. We still tent camp, but have modernized in respect for our age.

Dennis Goemaat, Director of the Linn County Conservation Board, has managed campgrounds for decades. He explained a common scenario is for a young couple to tent camp. Then, as their income improves and kids come along, they switch to a pop up tent trailer. Later, after the kids leave, a recreation vehicle (RV) enters the picture, complete with a comfortable bed, easy chairs, television, toilet and shower. Perhaps even a computer.

We never followed that route, and perhaps a mid-June overnight in southern Minnesota’s Beaver Creek Valley State Park explained why. After our tent was pitched, cots erected and campfire conversation dimmed, we turned in for the night. Then the rain started. It’s magical nesting warm and dry in sleeping bags as raindrops make music on the tent. Perhaps that’s why we’ve never transitioned to an RV. The simplicity of tent camping provides intimacy with nature not possible in an insulated RV watching television on a drizzly night.

During early camping days, our young bodies had strong muscles and flexible joints. Crawling on hands and knees into a mountain tent and sleeping on thin pads worked. Sticks and stones poking from beneath the tent’s floor didn’t cost us sleep.


Not now. Age has made crawling untenable. Our spacious tent is tall enough to walk right in and stand upright. Cots provide comfortable sleeping off the ground and make it easy to get up in the night. A small folding table holds a battery powered reading light while a battery fan wafts a cooling breeze through over us on sultry nights. A propane stove boils morning coffee in a jiffy and is easier to use than our old pump up one.

Camping gear has evolved since our mountain tent days, providing ease and comfort at low cost, helping us continue tenting. Our summer camping gear is compact enough to store in a closet corner or fit in our Chevy Cruze and costs under $1,000.

Many people enjoy their RV adventures. Their vehicles help them be closer to nature and travel in comfort.

It’s just not us. We enjoy tent camping as much at age 71 as we did in younger years and encourage fellow seniors to give it a try. Modern equipment helps anyone, whether a rookie or a veteran, enjoy it.


The best place to camp requires no driving. It’s the backyard.

Setting up a new tent, cots and stove always is best practiced there before driving to a distant park. Sleeping behind the house gives a chance to enjoy nature’s nocturnal music that doesn’t penetrate a home’s windows and walls.

Coronavirus has made treks to distant parks challenging. We’re lucky in Iowa. Hundreds of state and county parks have campgrounds. The scenery may be less spectacular than Yellowstone’s, but enjoying companionship around a campfire, spotting wildlife, swimming and hiking are just as fun.

If sour weather truncates a trip, the homeward drive is short.

Because we prefer rustic camping, our favorite Iowa destinations are Shimek and Yellow River State Forests. Their campgrounds lack electricity, flush toilets, showers and cellphone connectivity and make up for it in quiet beauty.

State and county park campgrounds offer more amenities, so if we want showers and flush toilets we’ll head to Backbone, Wildcat Den, Lacey Keosauqua or Palisades Kepler.


County parks are sprinkled across Iowa and offer pleasant campgrounds with modern facilities. Wherever someone lives there’s a camping park nearby. Our favorite nearby out-of-state camping is Minnesota’s Beaver Creek Valley Park near Caledonia, a pretty three-hour drive.


Summer camping requires only minimal equipment.

A good tent is an investment. Because we sleep on cots and want a table and chairs inside, we use four or six-person models tall enough to stand up in. Quality tents use aluminum, rather than fiberglass, poles, a tarp covering most of the outer surface and zippered doors on both ends.

Tents are rated at “two person,” “four person” or bigger, but those are pinch numbers. Four people can sleep in a four-person tent but they must be good friends and have no room for gear.


In our early camping years, we never used cots. Now they’re necessities.

A self-inflating pad on each cot makes them comfy. In summer’s warmth we use inexpensive sleeping bags, but a sheet and blanket from home works. We once never brought chairs. Now we do. Sling chairs pack easily, set up quickly and are comfortable. They make storytelling around the fire more pleasant.


A few years ago, we switched from a pump-up liquid gas cook stove to a propane model as easy to use as a kitchen range.

We have a camping pot and pan set but we could bring our everyday kitchen pans and silverware. An ice cooler rounds out our gear with one exception.

Age brought colonoscopies — nothing to look forward to, but the cleaned out plastic jug holding the intestine-clearing elixir makes an outstanding camping water container.

Summer tent camping is a simple, fun and an inexpensive experience that we plan to continue as long as we can.

Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood Community College. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. They blog at windingpathways.com.

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