Just the two of you, and a salmon crackling over a cedar fire. Later, a tapestry of stars tilts overhead, and amid the stirring silence, an owl hoots. You cuddle closer, a finger gently tracing a path along a flash of exposed skin.
Or maybe not.
Maybe, for you, camping and romance mix like chalk and water. Maybe the great outdoors gets you thinking about blisters, bugs, scratchy legs, stinky armpits and hungry bears. Bleck!
Whoa, now. Whether in summer or winter, lighting a fire under the full moon (and maybe even howling at it) and sharing a little body heat (to ward off hypothermia, of course) is as natural as it gets.
For those unfamiliar with the art of zipping sleeping bags together, we'll start at the beginning.
When you're out with someone special, plan a short day. A 10-hour death march through thick coastal brush, in the rain, after losing the trail, does not inspire fireside nestling. Instead, such marathons are a sure recipe for skipping dinner, sleeping in dirty clothes, and snoring with your mouths wide open. One sure sign you've been going too long: searching for a campsite in the darkness. Remember, shorter days mean longer nights.
Next, the tent. Your cocoon, your calm in the face of the storm, should strike that perfect balance between too small (if you can't sit up, or pull on pants without demonstrating your yogic abilities, your tent is too small) and too large (if there's an echo, or finding your partner requires a diligent search, then your tent is definitely too big).
Most important, if you haven't set it up recently – say within the past two years – or if you harbour even the faintest sense of foreboding as poles tumble from the stuff sack like a confusion of pickup sticks, do not, under any circumstance, pour yourself and your friend a stiff drink before setting up this sanctuary. Nothing kills the mood like a ferocious squabble over which part goes where. Even worse is the sound of tearing nylon.
At the same time, take your time finding a flat spot. Sleeping pads are slipperier than cafeteria trays on hard-packed snow: The slightest dip or roll, and you'll slide off the crucial cushioning. It is also advisable, at this point, to remove any rocks and logs from under the floor of the tent. You'd think that would go without saying, but apparently not.
By now you've both worked up an appetite. Which is good, as nothing puts you in the mood like food. As long as it's not a can of pork and beans, jammed into the smouldering remains of a fire, burnt on the bottom and tepid on top. This won't spark even Survivorman's flame. Skip the tiny soup packages and gas-inducing dehydrated beans and bring out the good stuff. Pack appetizers, fresh fruit and veggies, and of course, something to wash it all down. Most critically, don't forget dessert (hint: good chocolate).
Most important of all? The sleeping bags. Under no circumstance should you grab the musty camouflage sacks your brother took hunting last fall, when he and three buddies spent a storm-bound week eating greasy steaks and guzzling tall boys. They may pass the sniff test at home, but once the heat of a human body is applied, overwhelming reminders of previous trips will float out.
How to get comfortable and close? You could spread one open bag beneath you, and toss the other on top, but this will inevitably lead to an alarming gasp when a minor shift in position sends frigid air tearing into warm skin. No, far better are “mating sleeping bags,” two warm cocoons that can be zipped together into a single mothership.
But don't make the fatal assumption that any two bags will do. “You bring yours, I'll bring mine – it'll be great!” Not so fast. Sleeping bags come in all shapes and sizes, with a multitude of zipper gauges. Nothing is as disheartening as a two-hour zipper-wrestling marathon in the dark as the mood evaporates. Test the mate-ability before leaving home. (Also, watch you're not matching two “rights” or two “lefts,” as one of you will spend the night feeling like a Benedictine monk with a heavy hood.)
A final few suggestions.
If your hiking boots are wet, resist any temptation to bring them into the tent! Do not yank out the sodden liners and prop them beside your head to dry moments before planting a goodnight kiss. Nor should you peel your steaming socks off while commenting excitedly about the unexpected wrinkles, the ghost-like coloration, or the throbbing blisters on your toes.
Dogs can be problematic. Yes, they love to get outside, and, yes, you probably should take them out more often. But the sound of two mouths meeting in the night is indistinguishable to the canine ear from the sound of food being stealthily consumed. The unexpected addition of a third, slobbering tongue can be unnerving at best. Depending whose mouth said tongue goes in, it may produce a spirited tantrum. Also, a cold nose unexpectedly pressed into the nether regions is always a mood dampener. (Another argument for testing the compatibility of your sleeping bags before you leave home.)
Beware of flashlights. Your tent wall is essentially an enormous screen, projecting every move on the inside to any eager audience still at the campfire. You may be in the great outdoors, but keep the greatest show on Earth to yourselves. (Unless, you know, it's that type of camping trip.)
With a little forethought and simple planning, there are endless opportunities for intimacy. And seriously, flickering firelight, shooting stars and a blanket of resounding silence – it doesn't get more romantic than that.
Now, can I rub some more lotion on your bug bites?
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