In the Jewish tradition, a bride and groom trade vows while shaded under a chuppah—a four-posted canopy representing the home they’ll inhabit together. Such a sacred tent is a fitting symbol for a new marriage. But any couple who hopes their union will last longer than their wedding cake ought to try tenting before getting hitched.
Why? For one thing, there’s no better gauge of true romance than a camping trip. A twosome who plays house in the woods, huddled inside 30 square feet of leaky nylon (owning a condo in Vancouver doesn’t count), will learn more about each other than in a year of dinner dates. It’s tough to fake your feelings when a large, noisy, possibly carnivorous mammal is wuffling outside the tent.
By the time I first combined camping and courting, my wilderness savvy—like my understanding of the opposite sex—was still largely theoretical, based on Reader’s Digest tales of survival and family road trips (and Reader’s Digest tales of surviving family road trips). A university buddy invited me and my girlfriend on a double date into B.C.’s Strathcona Park. Not knowing better, I packed the same K-Mart pup dome in which I’d spent so many summer nights as a kid. Any tent in a storm, right?
Apparently not. During set-up, one of the bamboo poles snapped. By day two, the flimsy rain-fly had gone porous under an alpine drizzle. That night, despite the romantic setting, my wilderness cohabitant seethed in her soggy sleeping bag. We both realized that, as a shelter provider (and so much else), I’d proven inept.
A few years later, I went backpacking with a different companion. This time, I knew to invest in weather-ready gear. But I wasn’t prepared to find huge claw prints trespassing upon our secluded campsite. It was too late in the day to pull up stakes, so I decided to impress my date by improvising a fortification. Using whittled branches, fishing line and bear bells, I strung an elaborate trip-wire that would alert us to midnight intruders.
My campmate was too kind to say anything at the time, but she later admitted that my Distant Ursine Warning system seemed more laughably ill-conceived than the Maginot Line. It certainly didn’t help her sleep any better that night. And we never went camping again.
Even when a backcountry date goes well, outdoor amour must still master the contortions of what’s best described as “tentric” sex. Not every new couple can appreciate the erotic Braille of rubbing blackfly bites against Therm-a-Rest valves in the shivering cold. Nor do all campers go gaga for an aphrodisiacal cologne composed of one part bug spray, one part unlaundered polypropylene, and a final scent-note of freeze-dried chili. If a couple’s ardor does get harder in such odorous confines, then their mutual attraction must be more than a seasonal flush of hormones.
At least that was my theory.
But then I broke my cardinal rule: I shacked up with the girl of my dreams before camping with her. When we finally headed into the woods, our trials-by-tent didn’t go well. We got hammered by a late-summer storm and chased from the Adirondacks. On another trip, I dropped the tiny gas-valve needle for my camp stove and, instead of dining en plein air, we scrabbled futilely in the dirt for that elusive gewgaw. Wherever we went, foul weather and equipment failure tracked us like an Old Testament curse.
We reached a moment of reckoning in Frontenac Provincial Park, north of Kingston, where we’d planned a getaway from our busy city lives. It started raining as we drove there. It rained as we hiked in. It rained as we huddled under a tarp and, for entertainment, watched the periscope head of a water snake, the only other inhabitant of the park.
The next morning, we lay in our sleeping bags and read for hours as the rain beat against our tent. “What time is it?” Jenny finally asked. “Um, 8:30,” I replied. It was going to be a long day.
Reluctantly, we decided to pack up early and save our holiday time for a sunny day. But as we trudged back down the trail, it felt like a defeat. Maybe the camping gods were telling us something.
Then a ray of light broke through the clouds. And another. We looked at each other, grinned and turned around.
Of course, by the time we’d pitched the tent again, the deluge had returned and continued till we left. It didn’t matter. Yes, the weather wasn’t perfect, and the dehydrated dinners weren’t haute cuisine. But we had our home alone in the woods and we had each other, and that was proof enough.
A year or so later, we decided to get married. (Needless to say, it rained.) And for our honeymoon? We booked a package tour instead.