You can change your camping experience

My parents never took us camping.

“Camping is no vacation for your mother,” my father proclaimed. “She’d have to do all the things she does at home without the conveniences.”

It was hard to disagree. Who would voluntarily take 11 kids (ages 13 to 1) into the woods to cook and change diapers (no disposables) for any reason or amount of time?

So we kids built forts in the back yard, gathered sheets, blankets, graham crackers and Kool-Aid, and were grateful that our parents let us sleep outside.

Maybe if they’d had Tom Stienstra’s latest edition of “Moon California Camping” (Avalon Travel; $24.99), things would’ve been different.

“It’s the one book that’s vital to people,” says Stienstra, outdoor guru, author and longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist. “My hiking and fishing books are very popular, but you don’t have to have them. You have to have this book. It can change your experience.”

Stienstra has just stepped inside his Bay Area home for a phone interview. Minutes earlier, he was doing what he does every day: relishing every waking moment and thanking his lucky stars that he’s alive.

“Before you called, I was trying to sneak up on deer and get a close head shot (with my camera),” he says with unabashed enthusiasm. “You should wake up every morning and feel like a golden retriever. They are always happy and excited about what’s coming.”

Stienstra, who says he’s hiked 25,000 miles and driven more than a million throughout California, nearly died at age 12 when his head collided with a hatchet. It was wielded “by a guy who was robbing a gas station. When I got out of the hospital, everything was different. I’d go for a hike and feel like I’d been there a hundred years ago. I felt kinship with another time — like I didn’t belong in the present. Right out of college I was a sports writer in Green Bay, feeling like I didn’t belong there — like I should be out in a canoe. One day it hit me that there were 70,000 people in the stadium watching 22 guys and they all needed a hike.”

Stienstra sounds sincere when he says that the San Diego area is one of his favorites.

“When I think about the places I treasure, San Diego is in the top five. One thing about your area that’s unique is that you have some of the best coastal campgrounds on the entire West Coast.”

That’s good news and bad news, because when reservations open each year, “all the campgrounds sell out from here to Monterey Bay in one day,” Stienstra explains. “The camping spots are so popular that there are people selling them on Craigslist. It’s kind of frustrating that a handful of people with computer skills can work the system.”

But never fear; Stienstra’s book helps locate other great campsites — like Millard Canyon and Millard Falls, a mere 5 miles from the I-210 freeway near Pasadena.

“There are amazing waterfalls in Southern California,” Stienstra says, “and most people are totally unaware they are there. Ninety-five percent of the people go to 5 percent of the campgrounds. They have no idea what’s in their perimeter. If you want to go to one of (the mostly unknown) places, you’re screwed unless you have this book. Everything is mapped so you can see what is within 5 to 10 miles. The worst thing of all is to hear about a campsite, it’s full, and then you spend the night in the car. I’ve given away at least 100 of my books to people who just spent the night in their car.”

While Stiensta is a veteran outdoorsman, his book includes a how-to guide for the ultimate novice, including a realistic equipment guide.

“Someone asked me about gear last week and I made a list,” he said. “You can get outfitted with everything you need at first for $250. You accumulate over time. You go from a one-day hike to one overnight to backpacking for a week.”

The time to start is now, Stienstra urges.

“Never be a prisoner of hope. I know firsthand how fast life can end. You need to treasure every day.”

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