He sat on the logs, smoking, drying in the sun, the sun warm on his back, the river shallow ahead, shallow, light glittering, big water-smooth rocks, cedars along the bank and white birches, the logs warm in the sun, smooth to sit on, without bark, grey to the touch; slowly the feeling of disappointment left him . . . It was all right now. -- Ernest Hemingway Big Two Hearted River

We came from the woods. Fearful as rabbits, we ventured out to the dangerous plains to build huts, till fields, herd animals. We made villages, kindled hot fires for the melting of metals. Piled stones to the sky, seeking favors from heedless gods. We invented; then invented games to distract us from the pain of our inventions. We ploughed, harvested, arched, bridged, smelted, alloyed, discovered, inoculated, electrified, detonated, decimated, lifted off an touched down. Heavenly pretenders, we fabricate life from primordial soup and tear asunder elemental bonds, stealing fire from the sun. Through eerie holes in the universe we peer, and soon we may gaze, abashed, at the fiery secrets themselves.

But we came from the woods.

Perhaps that's why we must return to them. For return to them we do, in steadily increasing numbers, crowding national parks and forests, rests, pushing new trails into deepest wilderness, inciting gearmakers to frenzies of high technology achievement. Tools, ultimately refined, become art: witness the hunting knife honored by the Museum of Modern Art. We day-hike, car-camp, backpack, canoe-trip, rock-climb, spelunk, snow-camp and generally betake ourselves to the wilds for the good of body and soul. For, deep beneath each veneered psyche, a primordial nerve tingles with memories of dark forest. When we catch the vibrations, they are in the stomach or on the bottoms of our feet. Too long unheeded, they become pain, rubbing and cutting until there is but one sure cure: Go camping.

Camping is good. It is hauling a 40 pound pack up 4,000 vertical feet in six inches of new snow, sweat bursting through the skin as though under pressure, thighs on fire, back screaming, and loving every second of it. It is waking in early morning's glowing dream-mist to watch six deer drinking from a nearby spring. It is passing up a seemingly perfect mountain top campsite because the trees, stripped by fierce night winds, grow limbs only on one side of their trunks. It is walking after an ice storm through woods of glass, new sun reflecting and refracting from every crook and twig, the light splintered as if by a million crystal prisms. It is learning the meaning of luck when you step on a fat copperhead snake and his stride bounces harmlessly off of your leg because in his jaws, impaled on the backward-slanting fangs, is a dead chipmunk.

It is soloing for weeks without seeing another human and then, encountering one, being unable to raise your voice above a whisper. It is diving under a waterfall so cold your bones ache, then stretching on sun-warmed rock to dry, feeling your skin loosen and your heart slow. It is standing in a gale wind, pounding your tent into its stuff bag and cursing not the tent nor the wind but yourself, for carelessness. It is watching a child watching trout in a glassy pool, seeing his eyes move with the curl of their bodies as they hold steady in current and seeing him laugh when they pop the surface to feed. It is knowing what the weather will be in the evening from the way the wind blows -- and tastes -- in the morning.

It is letting Swiss chocolate melt on your tongue after a ten-mile morning and feeling energy soak into your drained muscles. It is relishig the grace and delicacy engendered by living in the woods as you brew tea with the shimmering, unflawed attention of a Zen ritual. It is breathlessly crossing an icy stream on a slippery log, exulting, then remembering the food bag, still hanging from its bear-proof branch of the night before, on the other side.

It is -- at some point -- contemplating not going home, Ever. Wondering: Could I do it?

Camping is freedom. Leaving for the wilderness, we shear those tethers that bind us to worry: houses, mortgages, cars, loans, jobs, money, diets, lessons, goals, neighbors, habits, all the frames of our relentless days. We go into the woods with packs on our backs, carrying every item upon which our existence will depend. We are born anew. Complete, carrying our self-contained life-support system with us, we're dependent on nothing. Fearing nothing, we venture where we wish, into deserts and onto peaks, our only limits those of muscle and imagination. Our rhythms become languorous, our thoughts crystalline, our travel pure as dream. Inner chatter ceases and stillness permeates our being. We watch the remarkable blue of a stove's flame or the curve of branches in the wind, attuned. We find perfection in our actions, learning to trust again muscles and instincts long neglected. Left behind are the fatuous demands of cities, and rediscovered are the real priorities: saving water, staying dry, seeing land, creating fire. We discover that when we are clumsy or careless or stupid we pay in pain or hardship or death, and it is good for us. We become -- !! -- graceful, careful, intelligent. In camping, as in all things worthy, the greatest exploration occurs within. The woods make jewels of us all.

There are many, many people camping now. Accurate estimates of just how many are difficult to formulate because camping, unlike skiing or bowling or bingo, requires no ticket. But it does require certain things, and if you wish to join the millions who go seeking solitude or beauty or adventure or themselves in the wilds, you should know what they are.

The first thing you should do is buy a book. I'd like to tell you that there are many books, well written and equally helpful, to start you on your way. I cannot. There is one book, by a man named Colin Fletcher, that towers above all the others. It is called The New Complete Walker. Go to any bookstore and buy it. Read it cover to cover. Twice. It will be one of the best reads you've had in years. Fletcher is one of those unusual men who could've crafted fine fiction or poetry, but chose a different road. He writes eloquently about his special form of camping: backpacking. Backpacking is the form that he -- and I -- commend to those who would truly see the woods and discover themselves therein. He's often amusing, frequently elegant, deftly cutting his hard knowledge into gems of perception that will leave you hungry for a wilderness to explore. Read him thoroughly. He's one of those men who knows one thing very, very well and is able to share the depth and breadth of his knowledge.

Read him, and go then for a day hike to a real place, like Big Devil's Staircase in the Shenandoah National Park, or Big Savage Mountain in Maryland's Savage River State Park. When you regain your car at sunset, if you hunger for more, try an overnight next time. Rent a pack and mummy bag from Appalachian Outfitters, plan a sensible route using U.S. Geological Survey Topographical Maps (available from the Government Printing Office, cheap) and strike out. It will not take long to burn the fuzz off your senses.

Dwell, next, upon the two decisions required of any camper: what to take, and where to take it. Decide whether you want to go in a Winnebago, a trailer, a canoe, a jeep or (ideally) on foot. Then examine the equipment. In the last ten years, the demand for sophisticated camping equipment, especially in backpacking, has produced a bewildering variety of packs, frames, sleeping bags, tents, clothing, stoves, foodstuffs, gadgets, gimmickry. More than any safety and fun, and you should know about three critical advances in camping gear: the waistbelt, the down garment and the stove.

Sometime around 4,000 years before the birth of Christ, an ingenious ancestor noted that round rocks rolled better than square ones and went on to fashion the first wheel. Only slightly less important, for campers, was the discovery of the waistbelt. If you're old enough to have camped in the '40s and '50s, you remember the old packs and packboards. These brutal devices hung their weight, and that of your load, on your shoulders. Cruel they were for any distance, and the addition of a tumpline around the head only increased the agony.

As with most things, there was a better way, and it was the waistbelt, discovered about 5,960 years after the wheel.Someone attached a belt to the bottom of a pack, cinched it tight around their hips, and camping was revolutionized. A waistbelt pulls the pack's weight in close to the back and focuses it upon that sturdy shelf directly above the gluteus maximus muscles, largest in the body. One famous outdoor writer, trying his first waistbelt-equipped pack, said that heavy loads lost their "sting." They certainly do. The waistbelt makes travel with 30 or 40 pounds pleasant. That's right: pleasant. Weight hangs securely on that nice strong shelf above your buttocks, and you can cruise all day. All packs come with waistbelts now, but look for one that's padded all the way around. Kelty packs are otherwise flawless. But other companies, notably Camp Trails, make padded belts that mate nicely with the Kelty frame, so don't worry.

Almost as important as the waistbelt was the discovery of down as an insulator. I have no idea who plucked that first poor duck and shoved the feathers inside of a jacket for warmth, but we now sandwich down between layers of nylon, making the most efffective cold-beater since fire. Down traps body-heated air and holds it still. It is remarkably effective: I have an expedition-grade sleeping bag manufactured by Sierra Designs, a California company. In this bag I have had to strip to my skin, with the outside temperature at 30* below zero because I was beginning to sweat.

Unfortunately, down is virtually useless when wet. If you plan to camp a great deal in cold, watery climes, you might want to consider one of the synthetic insulators. The best is 3M's Thinsulate, a polyolefin which warms almost as well as down and works when wet.

Stoves are the last gift from technology you should know about. Forget Hotpoints, Microwaves and those steel suitcases your dad used to lug out to the beach. I'm talking about lightweight beauties designed especially for camping/backpacking use.. These little jewels, weighing a pound or two, burn white gasoline or pressurized gas like butane. The best of them boil a quart of water in three minutes, run for hours on 12 ounces of gas and are as rugged as Joe Frazier's chin. They're a must not only because they provide incredible convenience, but because in most remote areas fire-building is simply no longer permissible. Forest fires, wood shortages and negative esthetic impact all come into play here; but after you have struggled with a wet-wood fire for two hours, you won't ever consider going out sans stove again, anyway.

What about tents? Colin Fletcher says go without them, and I agree that they're really needed only in severe winter conditions. Other times, they are weight you must carry and they separate you from the elemental beauty you came to enjoy. Carefully used, ponchos and polyethylene groundsheets will keep you dry in all but the worst downpours. And it's a rare environment that will not offer you neat natural shelter from rain and wind. You will learn to find it for yourself.

But if you must have a tent, know that those monstrous canvas nightmares of yesteryear are extinct. Good quality camping tents are made of nylon, and come in an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes, costing from a hundred dollars up. The most common forms accommodate two or three people, are truly waterproof, will withstand howling gales, have intelligent niceties like wall pockets, tub floors and indestructible zippers, and weigh less than eight pounds, including poles.

So. Now you know how to get started. But where should you go? Washingtonians are blessed with fine camping territory of great variety all within half a day's drive. You can savor the mountains or the ocean, trek in summer and ski in winter, hike maintained trails like the granddaddy Appalachian or bushwack remote wildernesses in West Virginia. For that half-day's drive you can sample Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and find your own brand of heaven. Each region is commendable in its own way. Washington's great natural backyard is the Shenandoah National Park. There you find the Appalachian Trail, nicely maintained and well-marked, springs every eight miles or so, civilization just down the flanks of the mountains. Farther west, in the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests, you will find fewer people, fewer amenities, more bears and more mountains. Dotting Western Maryland are state parks that offer fine scenery, good water and rugged terrain with marked trails. In Pennsylvania there's more of the same, with perhaps fewer fresh footprints to mar your exploratory zeal. And there are special places: the walk-in sites on Assateague Island, which give you 12 miles of private ocean on each side, if you can handle the hike in on loose sand; Dolly Sods, an area of sub-arctic tundra in West Virginia; North Carolina's Mount Mitchell, nearly 7,000 feet high and untopped by anything east of the Mississippi.

There are cascading waterfalls, virgin spruce forests, thousand-foot rock spires, alpine meadows, forgotten cemeteries, bears, wild rose, snakes, gut-wrenching view, caverns, rivers, streams. There are the stars, which you will never forget after a moonless and cloudless night on a high mountain, and the sun, which can save your life by thawing a frozen sleeping bag before night-cold sets in. And of course there is your own inner terrain, which you will discover, to your continuing delight and dismay, over and over again.

A word about access and resources. I've touched only the point of the tip of the iceberg. Much must be left unsaid, but sources of information and aid are numerous. Seek help from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, for one. The club's volunteers are veteran outdoor people who will cheerfully answer your weirdest questions. Volunteers answer the phone at 638-5306 every evening from 7 until 10:30. You can also visit their headquarters at 1718 N Street NW to look over their maps, books and brochures. You might even consider becoming a member. The dues are reasonable, and the club sponsors activities like trail construction, organized hikes and ski trips.

Also extremely helpful are the people who work at this area's serious camping stores, Appalachian Outfitters and Hudson Bay Outfitters. A.O. has stores in Oakton, Virginia, and Ellicott City, Maryland. H.B.O.'s places are in Fairfax, Kensington and in the District near Tenley Circle. Their people are unbelievably knowledgeable, and they seem to care more about equipping you properly than about raping your checkbook.Coax them out from behind the racks of parkas and canoes, get them started on any wilderness topic, and you will get an earful of invaluable data.

Finally, don't overlook the National Park Service and National Forest Service. Many of the places you will explore lie within the judridiction of one of these agencies. They can provide maps, reservations, rules and regulations, weather data and other information about your areas of interest. When you plan to visit a park or forest, call or write to the ranger-in-charge. Ask specific questions and you will get specific answers. Rangers aren't your average bureaucrats, and the accuracy of their information will surprise you. See, your taxes do something nice, after all.

Up in the high country snows will soon begin melting. Streams will swell, flowers will bloom, and animals, svelte without winter fat, will come grumbling out of burrows and tunnels. It is all waiting for you. Go find it.