Each year, as the winter begins to give way to spring, our bodies start to thaw out and we’re drawn to the outdoors. The sun is shining, the sky’s grey gives way to blue, and folks that have been trapped indoors for months start emerging from their caves full of hot chocolate and Netflix subscriptions, intent on spending a little quality time with mother nature. It’s camping season again, which means another year of answering the same questions about how your military experience must make you uniquely suited for the wild frontier that is your local state park’s fifteen dollar campsites.
See, decades of military movies about Rambo-looking guys strutting off into the deep jungle carrying nothing but a Kabar fighting knife and bandana to fend for themselves have left most people assuming that being the service is basically just one long wilderness survival exercise. Every Soldier or Marine worth a damn must be well versed in animal trapping, building a fire, making shelter, and producing good, clean drinking water, right?
Wrong. Camping has absolutely nothing to do with being in the field for most service members.
Okay, that’s not entirely true: both things take place outdoors, you’re usually sleeping on the ground, and at least one person in your party will almost certainly snore like a grizzly bear with a chainsaw in its mouth – but beyond that, there are very few similarities between a normal field exercise and a friendly camping trip. In an effort to better explain this to my buddies that I’ll certainly be tenting up next to, I’ve compiled a short list of reasons why camping is not anything like my military experiences in the field. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t lots of survival experts born in the service, it’s just not a part of the training for most folks in uniform.
Camping is about relaxing in nature. I realize that part seems obvious, but it’s a serious distinction between a trip to your local campsite and literally every field operation I’ve taken part in. You go camping to spend time with your friends, maybe do a little fishing, and almost certainly, to relax in the great outdoors. You go to the field to do your job under more difficult circumstances.
Think of whatever you do for a living right now… go ahead, I’ll wait. Now imagine having to load all the stuff you need to do that job into a pack that also has to house everything you’ll eat and wear for the next few days, hoist it onto your back and head off into the woods. Your work day may be around eight hours under normal circumstances, but in the field, you’ll find that you have more work to do than ever and a million inconveniences slowing your progress – meaning you’ll be working from the moment you wake up until you’re done – whether that’s fourteen or twenty-four hours from now.
Survival seems like a fun game. When you and your buddies unload the cooler full of Bud Light and start deploying your tent hammocks while blasting your favorite Spotify playlist to help pass the time, it’s fun to consider how things would be if you were really out there to survive. We all dress up our outing like it’s a dangerous endeavor – and its cathartic to separate ourselves from the reality of the day-to-day grind by pretending that building a living room in the forest is somehow treacherous.
In the field, you are constantly reminded of why you’re there: which is to accomplish a mission without getting yourself killed. In some circumstances, that means exercising a fair amount of light and sound discipline – meaning Bluetooth speakers and campfires are out of the question. You go everywhere wearing your flak jacket and Kevlar, carrying a weapon you might need to defend yourself and your fellow “campers” if you are subject to an attack. In the field, you’re either in actual danger, or you’re preparing for when you will be – which doesn’t have nearly as cathartic or relaxing an effect on the human psyche.
Campers love creature comforts. A big part of the culture of camping is getting your hands on the coolest camping gear. I love gadgets, and I love being comfortable, so I’m certainly not discouraging you from bringing your new cooler-couch-radio-and-shower you spent nine hundred dollars on just to take with you on this one trip, but it’s another important distinction between the mindset of a camper and that of a Marine or soldier heading out for another field op. We actually buy new gear for the field too – but we prioritize carrying less, or lighter versions of necessities, over the latest in wilderness based entertainment systems.
When I’m in the field, or camping alone (which I tend to treat like a field op) I actually value the discomfort of the experience. I’m not there to be comfortable, I’m there to hone a skill or to do a job. That mindset is very much a holdover from my time in uniform, when going to the field was all about preparation and nothing to do with enjoying yourself. I slept on the ground and ate my MREs cold, not because I wanted to prove how tough I could be, but because I was freakin’ busy, exhausted, and too hungry to care about whether or not this god-awful veggie omelet tastes like warm garbage or just regular, cold garbage.
Nobody sleeps when they’re camping. Every time I go camping with friends, what we’re really doing is staying up all night with our buddies in the woods. It’s one of the things I love about camping – we laugh, drink, shout, and play with all my favorite kinds of toys like knives and dirt. It’s a bonding experience like no other, and when it’s done, the sun is usually coming up and we’re already making plans to break camp in time to eat a hearty breakfast and go home to get some sleep; unless we’re staying for days, in which case we’ll finally be drunk enough to pass out by then, only to get up five or six hours later and do the whole thing over again.
If you disrupt my tent while I’m asleep in the field, on the other hand, I’ll bury you under it.
As a platoon sergeant, you’ll be lucky to get a few hours of sleep a night, and your responsibilities will often require that you sleep in chunks so you’re available to oversee the post and relief of ECP (Entry Control Point) guards and the like. That means getting up every two hours, all night, sometimes just to ensure the guys working for you get things done – and it also means you become fiercely protective of the time allotted to catch some Z’s.
Camping is nothing like the field – at no point in my tenure in the Marine Corps did I have to find my own food, start a fire, or play the acoustic guitar – all things people seem to value in a camping buddy. I thoroughly enjoy camping, but each year one of my friends will arrive with $200 worth of brand new camping gear he doesn’t know how to use and an expectation that I’m there to teach him the ways of the wild. Honestly, I spend a lot of time alone in the woods, but it wasn’t the Marine Corps that taught me to build a fire, and nothing in my government issued handbooks could teach me how to use the solar-powered coffee maker you have strapped to the roof of your Subaru. Honestly, I tend to eat instant coffee when I’m in the field… it wakes you up just the same and works even on an overcast morning.
This year, I plan to spend a good amount of time camping with friends, and my fair share of “field time” by myself – working to better use the tools I have and trying to perfect the survival skills I’m always learning – but it’s important to understand the distinction between the two. Camping is camping: a social occasion and a good time, but the field is where you go to work, and fun may be only a byproduct of the sense of accomplishment one gains through hardship.
So before you ask, no – I was never trained in how to hunt wild boar with only a knife. Nope, nobody taught me which plants are okay to eat, and no, I don’t have any military-grade tips on building a shelter. All Uncle Sam gave me when it comes to the wilderness, is an appreciation for simple things that work, an understanding how long I can go without bathing before I start to itch, and enough good sense to put my tent on high ground.
But honestly, that’s all I really need to have a good time.
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