Roughing it

Right now I’m deep in researching the details of my army brat hero’s background and one of my absolute favorite references is Life in Wellington’s Army by Antony Brett-James. It’s just full of the sort of detail that is missed in most history books, much of it gathered from journals and letters of soldiers and officers.

Life in Wellington’s army was no picnic. Read on if you are not too faint of heart…or stomach.

Consider this letter from Charles Napier to his mother: “We are on biscuits full of maggots, and though not a bad soldier, hang me if I can relish maggots.”

Or the story of biscuits (of American make) that were so hard and thick that Lieutenant Wyndham Madden of the 43rd Light Infantry suggested they could turn a bullet aside as he put one in his jacket. “Never was prediction more completely verified,” a fellow officer wrote, “for early in the day the biscuit was shattered to pieces, turning the direction of the bullet from as gallant and true a heart as ever beat under a British uniform.”

(The illustration is “Half Rations” from The Military Adventures of Johnny Newcombe by Rowlandson.)

As for living conditions, when they were not billeted in some village or other, the men often had to sleep in the open. Sometimes they used makeshift tents. In 1813 tents were made general issue but were only a marginal improvement. With twenty soldiers to one tent, it meant, according to Sergeant Cooper, that “none could turn without general consent, and the word ‘turn’ given.” Moreover, in the wintry conditions in the Pyrenees, “mountain gusts and drenching rain tore the wooden pegs out of the mud and left the soldiers to flounder in horrible, enveloping wet folds of canvas.” Brrrr!

(Sketch from The Wheatley Diary.)

I was raised doing all sorts of camping, spending weeks with my family hiking in the Adirondacks or canoeing in the Canadian wilderness. At least we had modern, reasonably waterproof tents. And of course, no maggot-ridden biscuits–although I learned to love Spam while camping. I don’t know how it is—I’ve since tried it at home and found it disgusting!—but frying it over an open fire makes it crispy, salty and delicious beyond words.

Much as I cherish the memory of those family camping trips, now I am married to a man whose idea of roughing it is staying at Day’s Inn rather than Marriott. I still like to hike and canoe, but now our “camping” involves something more like this. Even I have to admit there’s something to be said for modern plumbing!

So how about you? What have been your experiences in “roughing it”? Did you enjoy it? Or would you rather just read about it?


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Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I’m with your husband, Elena! My husband and I camped a bit before our kids were born and quickly learned the value of a good motel room. To me camping means that things that are easy in everyday life become more difficult and time-consuming–and one encounters insects and snakes, as well.
Although, I’ll admit that there is nothing quite like sleeping outdoors in the fresh air, tucked into a snug sleeping bag.

Georgie Lee
14 years ago

I enjoyed roughing it when I was a kid and through most of high school. I was in Girl Scouts and we would rough it a few times a year during a weekend camping trip or our four day canoe trip down the Colorado River. However, I don’t enjoy roughing it as much as I used to. When I was younger I could go without sleep and still hike a full day. Not anymore. I enjoy camping but there has to be some amenities.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

I’m also with your husband on the idea of “roughing it,” Elena! I like to have a proper bathroom nearby. And room service is nice, too. 🙂

But when I was a kid I was in Girl Scouts, and even though I wasn’t very good at it (my merit badges were few), I have fond memories of campfires, s’mores, and clear outdoor air. And making things out of yarn and macaroni!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I enjoyed the whole campfire aspect too Amanda, roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories, the one about the ‘H’ man comes to mind, when I went to sleepover camp, but the sleeping outside part with no proper bathroom didn’t appeal to me at all. Or outhouses! Although there is something to be said for snuggling up to that special someone in the sleeping bag! Unless a snake or a scorpion joins you for for warmth!

Cara King
14 years ago

Campfires and s’mores are all very nice (I was a Camp Fire Girl myself, so I ate lots of s’mores), but I don’t like being cold. And I like modern plumbing. And, hey, mattresses are good too.

I’m not as extreme as my brother, who once said “I dislike any activity that does not involve a roof over one’s head,” but I’m not an outdoorsy person.

More like a cat. Curled up with a book and some tea…but by a sunny window. Or perhaps outside, but with an inside relatively near. 🙂


Rob W.
14 years ago

My wife and I camped once.

We were on a environmentally-friendly project in Yosemite, where they gave a group of us a closed picnic area as a campground.
Mosquitoes were very thick – we spent about 48 hours covered with “Off!” Our tent was my wife’s old Girl Scout tent which apparently slept 3 comfortably – when they were 10-year-old girls. Dry rot had weakened the mosquito net such that opening it on the first morning ripped it instead of unzipping it.

We bought dental floss expecting to lace the netting up for the second night. But as we were finishing dinner, Mama and Baby Bear decided to stroll past our campground heading for the river. Our tent was nearly the last one closest to the river. I leaned over to my wife and said “that’s it, we’re out of here after the campfire.”

We put our duffle bags in the car. We took down the tent and just kinda rolled it around the tent poles, using the tie-downs to lash the bundle together. We drove home at 11 that night, only stopping at the exit gate to the park to stuff the bundled tent in a nearby trash can.

Motel 6 is now as “roughing it” as we get.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

LOL, Rob. Bears might do it for me, too. Now that I’m an adult, anyway. My brother and I once brought some bear cubs back to camp when we were very young. I vaguely remember it and know I wasn’t scared. Well, bear cubs are cute! I was around 5 at the time though, not old enough to realize that mother bear might not be so cute…

Back to the Peninsular War, I also read that those guys sometimes had to deal with wolves.

Tracy Grant
14 years ago

Great post, Elena! I’ve been reading about the Peninsular War for the Fraser Correspondence section on my website. I love the vivid details like those you mentioned. Definitely difficult conditions (juxtaposed to the fact that officers often traveled with crystal and silver and wine and port).

Much as I might enjoy writing about characters coping with privation in the Pyrenees or the Cantabrian Mountains, in my own life I’m with your husband and the others who posted. My family used to joke that I’d be okay with camping as long as there was room service. Even on my 8th grade trip, I really hated going more than two days without being able to wash my hair :-).

Judy T
Judy T
14 years ago

I remembering camping when I was very small, but must admit that indoor plumbing is mighty high on my list of priorities. LOL! Also must confess that I don’t care for fish, unless it is freshly caught trout, cooked in butter over an open fire. 🙂

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

I roughed it for several years as a field archaeologist in England; I lived in places with no indoor plumbing and where the only heat was fireplaces. I also lived in tents and in a tiny trailer in the middle of a field. So I feel it gave me very good insight into the living conditions of my characters.
You learn very quickly how to keep clean, or at least keep the visible bits clean. I mastered the art of washing (long) hair using two kettlefuls of hot water.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Sgt Cooper had a wicked sense of humor!!

The one and only time when I went for a week-long camping trip, on the last day, we all managed to find a YMCA and hot showers. You should’ve heard the moans of pleasure echoing in the bathroom from the women.

Give me hot showers, hot food, a flush toilet, and Charmin’ extra soft. No bark or leaves for me. Nuh-uh! I prefer car-camping, to backpacking. Sleeping in a cozy sleeping bag in a tent is overrated. Unfortunately, the other two voting members of the family disagree. Woe is me!

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Awww Elena. One of my life ambitions is to hug a bear before I die. My brother fell off the couch when I first told him that.

Rob, dental floss for a tent?! Now, that’s going MacGyverish!!

Janet, washing long hair with only two kettlefulls of hot water? And I thought I was doing great this trip when I managed to bathe my daugther and I in three buckets.

Cara King
14 years ago

LOL, Rob! I wouldn’t have waited for the bears…the mosquitoes would have sent me running long before… 🙂


14 years ago

Oh Elena, what a magical experience for a 5 year old! But you were really lucky. Your parents must have had a heart attack.

I encountered a bear this summer at Lake Shasta. We’d run the houseboat ashore and I was babysitting someone else’s beagle puppy. The bear looked skinny and hungry. I quickly scooped up the puppy and made my way unobtrusively back to the boat.

I adore nature during day trips. But camping is too exhausting. And houseboating turned out to be a seasick version of camping.

I agree with Elena’s husband.
I’m a chocolate-on-the-pillow-at- the-end-of-the-day girl.

14 years ago

I actually loved ‘roughing it’ when my DH and I went camping BC (before children). I loved cooking stews and such over an open fire. The guys would go off hiking and walking while I tended the fire and read to my heart’s content.

Ah, those were the days!

Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

We used to go camping when I was a kid, but for the past 20-25 years or so, “roughing it” has meant shared bathrooms in a college dorm or youth hostel. And even that is ten years in my past.

But we recently had a lovely, non-roughing it getaway on the Olympic Peninsula. Stayed at a romantic B&B, did some scenic drives and day hikes. But if you really want to see Olympic National Park, you have to be willing to rough it–to hike in, sleep in a tent, the whole nine yards. And it bugs me that I only got to see the drive-able edges of the park, so one of my motivations for staying on my diet is to get in shape so I can go sleep in a tent and do without showers and, incidentally, see places where a car can’t go.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Susan, I know what you mean about seeing places you can’t get to without a longer trek. We used to do it and my parents still do. At present I feel a bit worn down by mommy-writerhood. I am trying to get more fit, so maybe I’ll look forward to camping more again. I’ll still have to work on my husband, though…

14 years ago

My last camping trip was with a group of my high school students. We went into an area around Mt. Cheaha (Alabama) to find and photograph and document some endangered flowers. The trip was great because the weather cooperated. Everyone slept like logs because we played a game of “capture the flag” in the dark in the woods. Who knew something that silly could be that much fun? Those students are grown with kids of their own and they still talk about that trip when they see me.

My worst camping trip was at Loch Ness in 1980 in March. FROZE MY POSTERIOR OFF!!!! Never again!

14 years ago

I’m OK camping for a day or two, before the lack of showers drives me back to civilization. But I haven’t done it in more the fifteen years, and I can’t claim I really miss it. 🙂 I might do the odd hike, but having a hot shower and a cozy bed at the end of it is definitely appealing. And when I travel, I tend to do most of my hiking through museums (unless I am caught up with a group of inveterate nature lovers, as some of my friends are).

The Napoleonic Wars have their romantic aspects, but the maggoty food is not among them. Oh, and the being shot at and hacked with swords. That part’s bad too.


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