A Weekend of Car Camping at Lake Ahquabi State Park

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Clarissa and I spent the weekend car camping with friends at Lake Ahquabi State Park in Iowa, not too far from Des Moines. It’s not a bad little campsite, all things considered. There were lots of RVs there, many children zooming around on bikes, and a fair amount of dogs in the park. That being said, our neighbors were all pretty respectful and we had no trouble from the humans or dogs. We did have mild trouble with local raccoons, but that’s normal in such areas; properly storing and securing our food needed to be a priority.

I’ve camped at a lot of sites like this over the years in various State Parks where you can reserve a site through the DNR. You don’t necessarily need to do so, but if you want to make sure you get one, it doesn’t hurt. Since you typically pull right up to your site, pitch your tent, and can lock your food up in the car, most folks generally call it car-camping. It’s not surviving in the back country, but it has its charms. You don’t have to haul your stuff very far which enables you to fill coolers pretty full. That translates into delicious meals and, in our case, lots of beers to share around the fire.

Four of Clarissa’s friends from Sioux Falls drove down to meet us, and my oldest friend Tim flew up from Sacramento and rode up with us. All told we had a good sized crew of seven spread among two of the rental campsites. If you’re going to have larger groups, it pays to have a little space, and a lot of parks have a maximum amount of campers allotted to each site (Lake Ahquabi has a max of six campers per site). I usually prefer having a little space around my tent anyway, so it works out well that way.

Tim has been pretty excited that Clarissa is so interested in camping, hiking, and exploring the outdoors with me. She hasn’t had that much experience sleeping under the stars. This trip marked her third camp-out; she’s a world traveler, has hiked quite a bit, and is up for most adventures, but she still has some learning to do when it comes to camp skills. Which is great, because it gives me the opportunity to retrain my own skills as I help her learn. To help facilitate this, Tim brought us some early wedding presents; a personalized axe, and a 12 pound dutch oven.

Tim took the axe and burnt a lotus on one side of the handle, and a Bat-Symbol on the other, symbols that Clarissa and I closely relate to, respectively. Despite the availability of wood for purchase at the site, Tim and I supplemented this by searching out deadfall and chopping to size. We had no problem with this on Friday night, but our search on Saturday evening turned up what I believe to have been very hard oak. We did not make quick work of it, and we put a few blisters on our hands, but in the end, it burnt quite well.

Our awesome new axe, Bat-Symbol side up.
Our awesome new axe, Bat-Symbol side up.

Tim also installed a brass hook at the end of the axe-handle. This modification meant we could manipulate the dutch oven and its lid with less risk of burning ourselves. Clarissa outshone us when it came to the dutch oven cooking; when she and I were in graduate school together she worked at a historic site. Several times a week she would prepare meals for the first person interpreters, and she would do it in a circa 1845 dress. Prepping food in the dutch oven proved to be an easy task for her when she didn’t have to worry about lighting several dress layers on fire. The hook in the axe-handle worked admirably for this task, but in hindsight, we’ve decided to give it an additional 180 degree twist- at its present position the axe head is directed toward your face as you use it, and we’d prefer that not be the case. All the foods that were prepped in the oven during the trip turned out delicious.

Since we failed to bring the proper tool to move the hot coals around, we improvised and made a steel plate shovel, which proved very effective.
Since we failed to bring the proper tool to move the hot coals around, we improvised and made a steel plate shovel, which proved very effective.

Saturday morning four of us took a hike on a trail circling the lake. I was surprised how few people we saw along the way. Despite the fact that the campground was pretty full, we only came across one other individual on the trail. We caught glimpses of a couple deer along the five mile trail, and took an opportunity to shoot some photos in front of a beautiful lake view. We were finished in less than two hours and it was a really rejuvenating hike. It primed me for more hiking before winter sneaks up, and it inspired more serious thought about backpacking trips in the future.

Skirting the lake on our five mile hike.
Skirting the lake on our five mile hike.

I also had my first Stand Up Paddleboard, or SUP, experience in the afternoon on Saturday. Tim has done this a few times in California, but it was a whole new experience for me. Despite sunburned feet (and almost everything else), it was an enjoyable experience that I hope to have again soon back here in the Quad Cities. I’ll be writing a more detailed post about my first SUP experience in the upcoming days, so check back soon if you’re interested in that.

This was a really successful little camping trip. We got to spend some with a number of our friends, and Clarissa was able to have her first overnight camping event where she didn’t get soaked in a flooded tent. We’re feeling ready for more, so hopefully we can find our way to some more trips before the season is over.

Car camping is really accessible. It was a three hour drive for us, and roughly a five hour drive for the crew coming from Sioux Falls. There were parks closer to each one of us, but this was roughly between the two starting points. It wasn’t roughing it in the backwoods, so experienced campers, backpackers, etc. (like Tim) could be a little bored, but the trade-off is that there were some fun activities available to remedy that situation. Most sites have at least a few miles of trails to explore. The small lake beach at Lake Ahquabi was a treat on such a hot weekend, and in addition to SUP boards, there were all manner of watercraft available for rental, like paddleboats, canoes, one and two person kayaks (Mark explored the lake in a solo kayak, while Clarissa and Caitlin sped around in a double). Each one of these options was around $15 an hour per person, so it wouldn’t break the bank, even if you wanted to try a couple options. That being said, not every State Park will have a beach or boat rentals, so plan ahead if you’re looking for those sort of activities.

You don’t need a lot of gear for a car camping for a trip like this. I’ve outgrown a lot of the really nice gear that I used to have, so Clarissa and I are slowly outfitting ourselves according to our needs. For this trip, however, we brought two tents that we already owned, both of which had been purchased at Wal-Mart at some point in the past, for less than $50 each. They’re 3-person tents, but for comfort’s sake, you’ll really only want two adults in them. Our sleeping bags are nothing special, definitely not anything you’d want in really cold weather, but we never even got inside them on this trip (it was HOT). You could probably buy two similar sleeping bags for less than $50. That means that if you had no pre-existing gear, you could gear up for this trip for $100 or less. Campsites like this one range from $9 to $30 a night (Lake Ahquabi was $11 a night, I believe), and they typically have modern restrooms and even showers. Throw in the cost of food, gas, and site rental and you have a weekend getaway for maybe $300, but probably much less. Once the gear is purchased, consecutive trips will be much less expensive (until you’re ready to upgrade), and if you’re not sure if you’re you’ll continue to camp, chances are you know someone who will happily lend you some equipment, or there are places like REI where you can rent gear at reasonable prices.

Car camping is a great weekend trip to take if you’ve never camped before, are taking someone who might be interested in camping and want to get their feet a little wet, or if you’re out of practice with your bushcraft skills (like myself, hard as it is to admit). It’s also fun if you’re looking to take a pretty easy weekend by the water, on the trail, or just making s’mores around a campfire. It was a really great weekend for me, and I’m very grateful that so many of our friends could make it. Again, this park, and others like it are great places to begin your foray into camping, or just get away with family and friends. If you’ve got some decent weather coming up, I recommend you check out the State Parks near you and have an adventurous little weekend all your own.

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