I think I was nine years old when Santa brought me an Erector Set. It was your basic model of various miniature metal beams of various sizes with holes spaced from end to end, a bag of nuts, a bag of bolts, screw clamps, rods, and general doodadery. It was the early 1990s and the toy had remained primarily unchanged since 1913. As a kid, I loved playing with Legos. I loved finding old lumber, sticks, and logs and building forts in the trees in our backyard, in the alley behind our house, and in the woods in Wisco and Michigan during family vacations. After I took an old toaster apart at my father’s workbench in our basement, I gutted an old VCR. I asked Ol’ Saint Nick to bring that Erector Set down the chimney due to a mixture of watching The Sandlot too many times and what I felt inside my head and my heart when I tinkered.
I was not then nor am I now a mechanical wiz. Far from it. I have no idea how most things work. Gas make car go. Knobs make stove have fire. Buttons make microwave…microwave. But doing things with my hands is relaxing, rewarding, and makes me feel something good. My mother often tells “The Light Bulb Story.” I struggled in school as a child. I was tested for every learning disability early on in elementary school (to no avail), and needed extra time on tests and extra resources to help with my studies throughout school. For most of my childhood, I felt, ahem, not smart. When I was feeling less than as a child my mother would (and still does to this day) remind me that when my second grade classmates and I were given a battery, two wires, and a tiny light bulb, I put it all together and blinked on the light first. The story has always made me smile. I still love tinkering, MacGyvering, fiddling, or whatever you want to call it. And I really love doing it at camp.
An easy and useful camp tinker is tarp architecture. Neon parachute chord and a giant tarp will set you back just a few bucks, and you’ll have hours of enjoyment erecting and retooling your campsite’s rain shelter and sun awning. You’ll also need a lighter to burn the ends of freshly cut p-chord (no one likes a frayed string). Just added to the ranks of my Swiss army knife and my daily carry Buck knife, Gerber’s center-drive multi-tool is a campground tinker essential. I triple dog dare ya to make it one hour without snapping out the spring-loaded needle nose pliers at least a bajillion times. Once you hear/feel the thunk of the one handed deployment, it’s hard to stop.
For some super nifty cook time tinkering, check out BioLite’s new CampStove 2. I just used it and it made my tinker love freak out a bit. It’s a wood burning stove that has a thermo-electric generator (fire make ‘lectricity). A fan flips on and maximizes the heat from the twig fire inside the burn chamber. It boiled water for coffee pretty darn quickly. The fire turned electro-juice also generates three watts of power for phone or camera charging. Charge while the fire is a-burnin’ or use the stored battery power later. It took me a little while to get the hang of starting a fire in a vertical chamber but once I figured it out I said “oh man, this is sweet” a lot. I’m not sure if it’ll fully replace my two-burner but I am going to bring the CampStove 2 on all my remaining camping trips this season.
I also got a kick out of goofing around with BioLite’s SolarPanel 10+. I’ve never used a solar panel during a campout and when I expressed my amazement at it working and working well, I was met with a “yeah man, it’s a solar panel…duh.” Whatever. The same duh response was given after I set up Nemo’s cloudview hammock, pointed at it with both hands, and exclaimed “HAMMOCK!” Yes, I am a camp geek but at least I am a proud camp geek.
I don’t know what’s behind the psychology of campsite tinkering but I am way into it. I can’t help but try to figure out the best way to make coffee and cook dinner, the best way to stay dry during downpours, how to make the back of my Subi the most comfortable rolling weekend home ever, and any other campsite activity that lets me tie knots and hitches, use a pocket knife and a multi-tool, and gives me that same feeling I got when fiddlin’ as a child. Ya know, they’re teaching tinkering courses at MIT. I wonder if I could beat those brainiacs in a lightbulb-wire-battery set up. I betcha my mom’s money is on me.
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