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Camping at Fort Jefferson

Camping at Fort Jefferson | No one tells you about the prep time

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


There are half a dozen news stories I ought to be writing about, but nuts to that.

Ranger Ed and I are prepping for our annual 3-nights-4-days camping at Fort Jefferson out in the Dry Tortugas. I’m as goofy as a kid on Christmas Eve, texting friends that there’s “one more sleep” — with multiple exclamation points.

Camping at Fort Jefferson is not for the faint of heart and, frankly, it’s not so much for my arthritis either, if the truth be known. Sleeping on the ground is easy. I’ve got me my pillow, a sheet, a blow-up mat and a solar-powered mini-fan. Getting up from the ground? Eh, let’s say I tend to think about it for half an hour before I do the ol’ heave-ho.

Ranger Ed and I’ve been making the at-least-annual trek since 2017. We were cleaning out unused stuff in the storage unit and came across a bunch of camping gear from long-ago Boy Scout days. We were about to pitch it when (light bulb blazes here) we said, “Hey, let’s use it one more time.” Celebrate our anniversary (40) camping like we did on our honeymoon at the Outer Banks.

Those were the days when a quick call to the Dry Tortugas Ferry folks scored a camping slot almost immediately. And off we went. Turns out, that camping trip was great training for Hurricane Irma, which followed five months later.

The 2017 trip was a wretched affair, considering that a tropical storm roared around us for 24 hours and all four days were windy enough to blow away anything not triple-staked. We promptly booked round two.

Camping at Fort Jefferson | Get the prep done

We’ve got the Fort Jefferson camping prep down to a science. Used to take 10 days to sort the myriad things one needs for pack-in-pack-out. Now we can do it in a couple days. Food, water, shelter rapidly become a two-page list with reminders not to forget the salt. Or matches. Or toilet paper. (Actually, toilet paper is the one thing you wouldn’t have to pack because the National Park Service provides a roll in the compost outhouse. I take one just in case. Be prepared, ya know?)

In fact, our Fort Jefferson camping boxes and paraphernalia now double as our annual hurricane prep. We don’t much unpack when we get home, since hurricane season is just down the road a month or two. First-aid kit? Check. Hammer and tiny shovel? Check. Solar chargers and battery packs? Check. Toilet paper? Check and see above. French press for coffee. Absolutely check. And duct tape. Always duct tape.

Back to the prepping list, which starts with our menus (after I confirm with the Cat 5 sitter that he’ll be here). Sure, we could do what hardcore primitive campers do. Toss in a handful of MREs and call it done. Or we could cheat and just buy a sandwich from the ferry when it docks each day. But, folks, when one lives in Key West, menu planning and food prepping are half the fun.

This year’s menu includes lasagna with garlic biscuits, chili with cornbread, steel-cut oatmeal with wild blueberries, French toast breakfast bread pudding and egg, bacon and Gruyere cheese English muffins. Toss in steak on the grill for the first night, a bunch of leftover veggies and fruit from the refrigerator at home, a Ziplock of brownies made by Dear Sheila and, darn, if we won’t be eating high on the hog.

I start cooking and freezing five days before we leave the dock. With dry ice in the cooler, all those serving-size meals are ready for reheating on the charcoal grill. We do eat fine. And we usually have enough leftovers to share with neighboring fishing folks.

Then I hunt up the Epic Wipes. Although it sounds like I am shilling for them, Epic Wipes are, hands down, my go-to for a bath-in-a-bag. Think baby wipes on steroids. Big enough to wrap around a skinny person. One gets you clean from hair to toes. And they are biodegradable and easy on the environment. No chemicals and such. Epic Wipes rank up there with a solar charger. Or the sunscreen. Lots of that. Reef safe, of course.

The final two checklist items are my Kindle, because I can never be without a book, and a big wad of cash to tip the long-suffering and patiently-helpful crew on the ferry. Those folks lift and shove the gear on and off the ferry. Definitely not a job for most of us, so tip big.

One more sleep!!!!! We leave before dawn.

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