In the Learn from Us post series, we tell you our rookie mistakes so you don't have to make them. Laugh at us and learn.
"We can't stop here...this is BAT country!"
I snorted with laughter. Johnny Depp, panicked and twitchy, stared out at the vast desert onscreen. I had never seen Fear and Loathing before, a problem that Neurobomber had promptly decided to fix. We were pulling an all-nighter studying for midterms, but no all-nighter is complete without a movie break (and doughnuts). As we watched Hunter S. Thompson spin with an orangutan on a merry-go-round bar, we began formulating the plan for our second big road trip: bat country.
The idea was to make a loop from CA to Las Vegas, then to Phoenix AZ, Joshua Tree, LA, and back home. All we knew was that it was winter and we didn't want to go north, so we opted for south. We didn't plan it as well as our other trips because we were so preoccupied with school, a price we paid on the very first night.
HEAR YE, HEAR YE: I am sure this is common knowledge at this point, but no matter how hot a desert is during the day, it reaches bona fide FREEZING temperatures at night. No matter the season. I knew this from hiking and camping experience, but it was hard to convince Neurobomber of the significance of this fact. Since we planned on sleeping in the car on the CA-NV border (a rest stop near the town of Primm, NV), we would in essence be subjecting ourselves to the night temperature of the wide wild desert, not to mention the scorching highs during the day we would spend driving through it. I insisted on bringing large quantities of water, 2 temperature-rated sleeping bags, and fleece blankets. This revealed to me a previously unknown fact about Neurobomber: he had no idea what the basics of camping were.
"Why do we have to bring so much water?" he asked me. He was annoyed that it was taking up space in the car, even though we were travelling relatively light.
"We're going through elevation changes and we need to keep drinking water for the heat," I said. I was confused. This was camping 101. You always bring water if you're going to put yourself somewhere remote. "Plus it's for emergencies. You can't improvise water."
"Fine but I still don't want to bring 2 sleeping bags and blankets. They'll take up so much room and I don't think we need them!" Neurobomber is a minimalist when it comes to travelling, which sometimes doesn't mix well with my survivalist view (bring the basics, but be prepared). But now he just wasn't making any sense. Good sleeping bags can be fit into small, convenient stuff sacks that also keep them clean. And fleece, when used as a shell inside another blanket or covering, is the best way to trap body heat while still being light and transportable. I relayed this information to Neurobomber, who looked at me with an exasperated expression.
"What the hell is a stuff sack?!"
After some gentle questioning, I discovered that the only sleeping bags Neurobomber had ever known were the kind that are barely good for indoor slumber parties. Bulky, made of cotton, and completely ineffective at keeping you warm. He had also only been camping once when he was a kid, and hated it. The only way I was going to make him realize that we needed the supplies was to wait until the first night of the trip. I convinced him, albeit reluctantly, to let me bring everything, and off we went.
After traversing some 250 miles through red roads, hidden plaster sculpture stores, Mad Max vehicle junkyards and, yes, bat country, we rolled into the rest stop. The water bottles were already proving their worth after driving through the mountains and desert. I set up my sleeping bag and tucked a fleece blanket inside it. Even with this, it was still wrenchingly cold. A few hours before, when we had stopped at "the world's largest working thermometer" on the side of the road, the temperature had read 53 degrees and was dropping fast. Neurobomber, stubborn as ever, simply wrapped himself in a blanket. I knew eventually he would get too cold and use the fleece and sleeping bag I had brought for him, and that we would ultimately make it through the chilly night with all our appendages unfrozen.
The mistake we made was not checking the weather.
If you are going to sleep in your car, a tent, or anything that doesn't have central heating or cooling, check the temperatures. You can type in "weather in X, CA or Y, NY" and a weather station site will show you the hour-by-hour temperature predictions as well as the overall average for the night. If it is below 50 for the night, you will need a real sleeping bag that can keep out the cold. If it is above 85, you might not want to sleep in the car at all! Knowing this can affect your trip a lot more than you think. Spend a night in the car or a tent at the wrong temperature and you might not be able to function the next day.
We didn't know that night that it was going to be in the low 30's. We shivered throughout the night, even with the sleeping bags and blankets. When we woke up early the next morning, we were shocked to find ice on the INSIDE of the car. Our breath had condensed and frozen to the interior of the windshield and dashboard. If we hadn't had the sleeping bags we probably would have become hypothermic miles away from any sort of help. It was a grim lesson that we discussed inside the nearest Starbucks while pouring searing hot coffee into our thawing bodies.
Even though we've since had the opposite problem (having to seek a cooler place to spend the night because of high temperatures in the car that nearly suffocated us), at least Neurobomber is a bit of a survivalist convert; proper sleeping bags and water are worth the space they take up. But the real habit we formed was checking temperatures and weather reports every day of our trip and knowing what we can and can't be caught in. Learn from us.