Gigging and Camping

The first tour I participated in may have spoiled me.  It was a six week tour with a rockabilly band from North Carolina.  We all pitched in and scheduled gigs from North Carolina to California.  For some reason we didn’t feel the need to plan the return voyage, maybe we all had a tiny voice in our heads questioning whether we’d actually go back to the Carolinas, but it all worked out and we did return home.   The reason I feel I may have been spoiled… we traveled in a full length diesel school bus.  This gave a way to hang out together, to travel down the road, and most importantly it gave us a regular place to sleep.

Since then I’ve toured in a small car and decent, comfortable sleep seems to be a difficult thing to find.  The car is cramped.  I usually need to rearrange half of what I’ve got just to lower the seat a bit.  It can be tough staying warm in the winter months.  It can be unbearably stuffy and hot in the summer.

When possible I hit up the audience at the show for a place to stay…. easier for a guy (at least safer).  Having a far-flung group of friends and acquaintances can help.  Plan ahead with friends at locations you’re playing or passing through can work fairly well and it gives a chance to catch up.   Sometimes it’s tough to consider staying with people because, well, sometimes you just might want to lay down and go to sleep and soon as possible.  Meanwhile your friends (or strangers) may want to stay up for hours, “jamming” or talking or drinking or whatever.

Most recently (now), I find myself on tour with this woman who mostly camps along the way.  Sure there’s a friend in this state or that but for the most part it’s a camping situation.  I wasn’t too crazy about the idea.  I was concerned about driving away from a venue in the wee hours and go on the hunt for a reasonable campground.  Just as expected, my fears were real, this proved to be an unpleasant procedure for me.  Apparently it works for some, just not me.

When it comes to camping I like to set up camp and stay for a few days or a few weeks.  Equipment can make all the difference though.  If I had a tent that popped open all by itself, maybe with a sleeping mat built in, and a sleeping bag to keep me warm no matter how cold it got…. maybe, with all this, it might be a bit easier.   But to be truthful, I like focusing on being a touring musician more so than a voyaging camper.

All that said.  Musicians like myself have very limited funds.  Until I can buy myself a Sprinter van, a mini van, a station wagon, or some such vehicle that has the perfect balance of indoor space and good mileage, I’m stuck making due.

First thing to do.  Test out ways to sleep in your vehicle.  Some are long enough to lay down a back seat and sleep from the back of the front seat into the hatch area.  Maybe you’ve got a car that you can remove a back seat and extend into the trunk.  Perhaps you’re comfortable sleeping sideways in the back seat.  My best scenario is to shuffle things around and lay the front passenger seat all the way down.  Not my best nights of sleep, but the best my car has to offer.

Once you have figured out the best way to sleep in your car,  gather camping gear you may have.  For me it’s a simple popup tent and sleeping bag.  Small enough and easy to put up in the middle of the night.  Anything too complicated simply won’t be worth it.

The next thing to do is a little bit of research.  The more you plan your nights the more comfortable you may be.  The more decent sleep you are able to squeeze out of a night, the better your performances (and attitude) will be.

Personally I am not much of a planner.  I tend to drift with the day but I generally have some basic plans.  I already mentioned the first… figure out how to most comfortably sleep in your car.  The next part about sleeping in your car.  Know where to park!  It’s not fun to have the police tap on your window in the middle of the night!  My go-to: WalMart.  Across the country these parking lots host car campers (as well as RVs and buses).  It can be disconcerting sleeping in a parking lot.  Noise. Light.  However, these lots usually have cameras and so they should be a bit safer than other options.  If you figure out some blinders for your windows then the lights are no longer a bother.  I started out by hanging blankets inside the windshield from the rear-view mirror and visors and wrapping around the sides by shoving into the handles above the door.  Again, figure out what works best for you.  Some people don’t mind the lights (or other people peering into the car as they pass by).

Sometimes camping may be the better option.  Perhaps there’s no WalMart or perhaps the area just seems prime for camping.  Here’s a tool I’ve found useful:  freecampsites.net   — I’m a cheap traveler so I always seek out the free spots.  This website can help you find paid and free camping for your touring pleasure.  It includes not only campgrounds and dispersed camping, it generally includes car camping options (places to park).  It is map based and generally has a description of the camping site, contact info, etc.  Between this and Google, I’ve had great luck.   So, a smartphone is key.  And be sure to understand the directions before heading off…. many camping locations lack cell service.

The next time you find yourself on tour keep some of these hints in mind.  If you’re able to tour around in a vehicle that offers a bed…. do it!   If not, try your best to balance sleep comfort with convenience.  A campsite might be most comfy but perhaps your gig ends at 2am in the middle of a city which means car-camping in a parking lot could make more sense.   You can always ask the venue if they could put you up for the night, it never hurts.  I’ve slept in store rooms and offices and back decks, it’s a very convenient way to go.  Some venues have a cot available for just such a thing.  Hit up the audience for a place to stay (if you are comfortable with that) if the other options aren’t great.  Before your gig starts try to decide whether you’ll be making a long drive after or you’ll be sleeping nearby, this could affect how much you drink or whether you’ll need some coffee at the end of the night.   A sleepy driver is not a safe driver.  Good luck out there!

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