This guide is offered as an aid for those unfamiliar with Pennsic.
It is reprinted with the kind permission of the author, Bart the Bewildered (Paul S. Kay). The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not of the Pennsic War staff.
(Note - the Guide was updated in 2017 by the Pennsic War webmaster, to correct out-of-date information about the War)
Pennsic War Guide and Checklist
Originally, this was a checklist of things to take to Pennsic or any other camping event in the northern eastern and mid-western states. After the first issue, I realized that there were things I knew that could benefit others, so I added a section on camping tips. The reaction that first update received has prompted me to continue to expand on the idea. The document has steadily grown to include other information.
The original checklist was targeted for Pennsic XII (back when it was a week-end war), but it is still useful for most camping events. Add more of any item as you see fit for longer periods and delete items for shorter events. This is all meant as advice, I am not associated with anyone making policy for the War. (Caveat: The rules on fires and flame sources are different in different areas - follow the local rules!)
What follows is a list of useful things to know and to have along when campaigning in the wilds of western Pennsylvania. As well as an extended checklist, there are sections on things to be wary and aware of, hygiene, and thoughts on dealing with food and eating. The style may seem severe and the warnings stern, but do not let these scare you off. These issues are raised in this manner to alert and instruct so that you may better enjoy the War.
There are possibilities for danger in any camping trip, knowing what they are and how to deal with them can be the difference between a little excitement and a disaster. Included here are some of the things to be aware of, and have plans for, when you go to Pennsic. This is by no means a complete coverage of dangers, but it hits the points that cause the most trouble to most folks.
I would like to emphasize a climatological fact. The area the War is held in is part of the Great Plains weather pattern. This means the area is subject to disturbances at the leading edge of a cold front (a 15 to 40 degree temperature drop). Friends of mine from the East (and West) Kingdom have variously referred to these as "monsoons", "typhoons" and "Storms of Great Ferocity and Note." Those of us who grew up in the Midwest call them thunder showers, except for some folks I know from Kansas who call it mild rain (no twister and it did not flatten the crops). These thunder storm cells are 15 minutes to three hours of high winds (sometimes 50 plus miles per hour), heavy rain, and spectacular lightning. A storm may be followed by several hours of rain. The fronts seem to roll through every six to nine days in August. I advise all to expect at least one storm.
The people who grew up with the weather do not ignore the storms, these folks respect and plan for the weather. It is unpleasant, but need not be a disaster. Some things to remember:
- Do not panic. If you are truly terrified, tell someone so they can keep an eye on you, keep busy so you will not have time to panic until the camp is secured, and then find company and cuddle or sing or give back rubs or whatever it takes to get through the storm (this can make storms fun).
- Storms usually come from the west. Avoid setting up your tent with the door facing due west. A slight cant to the north or south will keep things drier and lessen the chance of having the tent blow down or tear.
- Make sure that your tent is set up with all of its pegs and tie downs (dome tents may need extra guy lines; once they start rolling, they are hard to catch). If you do this in the first place, you will spend less time in the rain doing it after the storm hits.
- If you are camped on an incline (probable), then you might consider a small drainage ditch on the uphill side of the tent. This channels water around rather than through your tent.
- Do not use heroic measures to save a dining fly or awning. Some things were not meant to stand high winds. A flapping piece of plastic with a pole attached to it can do a lot of damage, both to people and to property. If the wind gets high and the fly starts to take off, drop it down over what you want covered and weight the edges.
A more subtle climatological fact is that the average temperature and humidity in August is horrendous during the day, while the nights can be down right cold. (Can you say frost? I knew you could.) Either of these extremes can lead to health problems that have one symptom in common: the affected person gets stupid. As someone who has suffered from these medical conditions, I can think of no better description. The mental processes slow (or shut) down and you are in a walking stupor. The sufferer stops listening to reasonable advice and will do things that will seem stupid to them when they have recovered. Many other injuries at the War are probably related to these conditions. Watch your friends and yourself.
HeatDaytime high temperatures average in the high 90's with humidity to match. If you are not used to this, or are not in prime condition, take it easy. More people, fighters and spectators, are lost to heat than all other types of injuries. Folks who are used to desert heat are as likely to drop as anybody else. The high humidity, which they are not used to, slows heat loss via sweating.
If the temperature and humidity get high, drink lots of water, stay in the shade, eat fruit (especially bananas)(*), and occasionally taste metabolite replacement drinks (drinks that replace minerals that the body sweats out). While Gator-Aid is not the best, it is easy to get (too high a concentration of mineral salts and too much sugar; dilute with water for best effect). If Gator-Aid does not taste bad, drink up until it does, you are in trouble. (How is that for rough and ready sports medicine?) Go easy on the alcoholic beverages. An occasional beer or wine cooler is a relief, but alcohol speeds dehydration by replacing water in the body. Your body then uses more water to metabolize the alcohol, so, in quantity, it is a very bad thing.
Other symptoms of heat disorders include flushed and dry skin, lethargy, no sweat, and, as I said, acting stupid.
ColdA large difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures is common to the area at this time of year. The nighttime temperatures usually seem to range from mid 30s to the 50s, e.g. chilly. This can lead to another problem encountered at the War, hypothermia. This is a drop of the core temperature of the body, which can lead to coma and death if not treated. Treatment is to warm the person up as quickly as possible.
It is easier to avoid hypothermia by changing out of wet clothes, drying off, and getting warm. If a friend is wet (say after being out in the rain) and getting cold (since the temperature dropped 30 degrees in the last hour) help them out. Get them into dry clothes and get them warm. Strong drink (liquor) is not advised if they are still wet or cold. While they may seem to feel warmer, drinking alcohol speeds heat loss, which is what you are trying to avoid.
The next point I will touch on moves from cold back to hot, i.e. fire. This wonderful tool is like any other, it will turn and bite you if you mishandle it. The fire safety consultant would like to mandate a minimum of 10 feet between open flames and tents. I wish them luck since common sense is hardly common. (For instance, what is an open flame is a question that they have a much more restrictive answer to than is normal.) The rule of thumb I use is "far enough away so that the fire cannot be knocked into the tent." Except in extreme drought years (2 so far), the grass is wet enough that flames will not spread quickly. If there is a drought, special rules are published to reflect the pertinent dangers.
Never have an open flame in a tent. Most modern tents are too air tight and are made with fabrics that melt too fast and too hot for you to want to take chances. Even Fire-retardant canvas will burn if heated long enough. Most Pennsic campers set up their tents with at least 3 feet between tent walls, in the hopes that if there is a fire, it will keep it from spreading. If this seems like a lot, look at the guy lines from a properly set 3-person A-frame pup tent and you will find that two of them end up having their walls three to four feet apart.
This was brought home at Pennsic 25 when a candle in a tent fell over and, after a while, set the canvas on fire. I understand it was spectacular; the pictures sure were. Quick thinking by the security team that spotted it probably saved the lives of the folks in the tent. The space between the tents and further quick response by folks with extinguishers saved the surrounding tents. It was stiff competition for horrifying sights for the Pennsic 23 "brazier heating a dome tent" meltdown / implosion / fire (pick one, they all kind of fit).
As for campfires, if you are not good friends with Prometheus, be very careful. Let me put it in simple terms. Amateurs make me nervous, and a wood fire can be a hard teacher. There are very few people in the world (let alone at Pennsic) who are good at treating amateur fire gods who become burn victims. There are enough accidents, do not go looking for trouble. If you are not used to fires, learn by observing and take your time.
If you have never been camping, you are about to find out one of the less thrilling things about nature; God must love insects, he sure made a lot of them. Something for folks from the "left coast" to remember is that there are a lot more insects, both type and number, on this side of the Rockies. I never saw a tent with zip-out bug netting until I helped King Paul from the West set his up at a Pennsic. They just are not sold in the Midwest or East. Bring mosquito netting and bug spray and remember to keep garbage, coolers and tent netting closed. If you are allergic to bee stings, bring your medication! Some types of bugs of note:
- House flies - That friend you thought you left at home is here at the war, too. Just like at home, he never wipes his feet before landing on your table (or food), no matter where he was last. Keep food and garbage covered and clean food preparation areas, just like at home.
- Horse and deer flies - While you can go the whole war without seeing them, these beauties are not uncommon in the area. They both bite and leave a welt. Horse flies are slightly larger than house flies. Deer flies are dark with white "eyes" on the wing and are slightly smaller than house flies. They are both easily discouraged by using insect repellent.
- Ticks - Both Woods and Deer Tick are indigenous to the region, each can vector for some nasty diseases. Insect repellent works, but a "tick check" twice a day is still a good idea.
- Mosquitoes - While not in the same class as the ones in Alaska or Minnesota ("It is awe inspiring to watch as the mosquitoes majestically flap their wings as they carry off sheep and small children."), mosquitoes are a pest in the wooded and low areas. Insect repellent makes the evenings more pleasant (and pungent).
- Ground Hornets and Wasps - There are usually several nests in the woods. If you find one, mark the area and walk away passively. Do not disturb the nest. Contact site security (and the Cooper staff) about it, if it is in a high traffic area they will probably bomb it.
Pennsic Road ConcernsMany people who have worked on The Watch will tell you that road and parking issues are the things they seem to spend the most time on. It may seem picky, but there are health and safety issues involved, as well as comfort, esthetics and fairness. This may come off a bit hard, but I got to deal with these problems one year. It was appalling that so many people did not think of things I took for granted.
First let me address the esthetics and fairness issues. I think we all agree that, well, the camp just looks better without cars. That is why the rule is to get them to the parking lot in a reasonable time. If most of the folks, including folks with disabilities, are putting their cars in the lot, it is only fair that every one do it. It's just the right thing to do. (The folks running the show have the right to grant exemptions, of course, but those are probably few.)
As for the safety and access concerns, some things to think about are:
- When setting up an encampment, plan for unloading
vehicles. People are coming to camp for a while, right? For instance, group/household camp planners can make everyone's life
easier using one or more of the following hints:
- Designate a section of the fence as "drive through" and either use the area on the inside of it as a common area or allocate that as the place where the tents for the last expected arrivals will be set up. This way folks can pull off of the road to unload.
- Set an area on a minor main road as the unload area and have a back gate there.
- Admit the shadow walls are for privacy and let people take one section down rather than forcing them to carry stuff through the gate. (This also allows them to park off of the main road and not have to schlep stuff twice as far as the person who set the camp up.)
- Do not encroach on roads used by busses or service vehicles with your encampment. Just because it is still wide enough to pass 2 small cars does not mean it is wide enough for the person in the Ryder truck who is unsure of where their corners are or the guy with the water truck. This is especially true when lord Generic parks opposite this spot to unload groceries. Also remember that if the service truck cannot make it through due to a choke point, someone's privies do not get cleaned or the dumpster is not getting emptied.
- Do not encroach on intersections. Just because it is still wide enough to pass cars does not mean that the long pick-up or the car with the trailer can negotiate the turn. They will probably take out a tent, maybe your tent.
- Park in close if you must park on a main road. Try to leave room for 2 cars
if at all possible (it's not, but you get the idea). If you cannot and you are
on the bus route, be quick about what you are doing, and expect to get some grief.
They are not going to try to
squeeze by, for which we should all be thankful. (Ever wonder where the buses
are? They are probably down by the lake waiting for somebody to move their car
that is blocking a bit too much of the road.)
Note - we also need to leave room for the tractors which the Coopers use to move people's box trailers, water down dusty roads, and haul stuck vehicles out of the mud.
- Do not abandon your car "for just a minute" in a high traffic area. Aside from being rude, if it becomes a problem, it might be gone when you get back. Always assume that you will be talking for a while at the war (it always takes me a lot more time there) and park that way.
- Please do not dump water in the road. If it is dry out, it makes a mess and if it has rained, it makes the road worse.
- If you have an oversized truck or bus or a trailer, please use the oversized lot for parking them. They have had one for years. It is usually flatter than the main lot and planned with wider aisles. If you do not have an oversized vehicle, please do not park there, especially in front of someone else's trailer. The former might mean that an oversized vehicle ends up parked in the main lot, risking it and the cars around it. The latter might get you a stern talking to by someone with a trailer that costs about what your car does and is not amused with the options for hooking back up to it. ("...So I hooked up the come-along and dragged that Escort....")
- Park as if you knew the folks around you. Try not to take up too much more space than you need and try to avoid parking too close. Yes, the parking moves around as folks come and go, but there are limits. Use some sense, less than 6 inches is probably not enough when trying to pull out on wet grass, and the rude folks who scraped their trailer in between 2 new cars were lucky that they were not caught. There is a lot of parking lot and the bus runs all the way, try to remember that rather than making someone else's life miserable.
For many folks, Pennsic is their first and/or only camping experience. When camping, the standard rules of hygiene apply. There are also other, camping related, practices to be aware of that help make camping safer and more fun. It does not take much to turn camping from fun into a nightmare. Many of the of the causes for discomfort can be linked to disregarding some sensible rules.
This topic is an old one. I had it from my parents, in the Boy Scouts, and in High School Gym class, but it is still important. If these precautions seem trivial and unnecessary, think again. The heralds have cried these through the camp and published them at Pennsic. These include:
- Put the lid down on the privy when you're done. It reduces the smell, and keeps the flies from spreading
- Wash your hands after using the privy.
- Wash your hands before handling food, especially if you are preparing it for more than yourself.
- Use clean surfaces for food preparation.
- Store food correctly. This means meats and milk products in a cooler, bread in plastic in the shade, et cetera. All meat should be kept in a cool place, even sausages. Sausages with a high fat content, even if smoked, can go rancid.
- Cover or close your garbage container. This makes it harder for flies to spread diseases.
Camping also requires some special provisions for hygiene beyond those above. Looking through my Scout manuals reminds me of several that were so ingrained that I take them for granted. I was also reminded of some safety and courtesy rules that make camping more pleasant. Some of these are:
- Keep your cooler(s) closed tightly. The ice lasts longer, the food stays cooler, and the chances of an insect invasion go way down. Another good thought is to keep drinks in a separate cooler than food. Update - your coolers will stay cold longer if you keep them covered with a cloth, or in the shade. Remember that shady areas will shift as the sun crosses the sky!
- Check yourself occasionally for ticks and rashes. Poison ivy is no fun, but can be contained if you catch it early, as can Lymes Disease (which has been reported in the area).
- Wash dishes completely and carefully. Get them clean!
- Wipe off excess food before you start.
- At least use a basin of soapy water and a hot rinse. Use a final rinse with a sanitizing solution if you can, especially if someone in your camp is sick.
- Change the water (especially the rinse water) if it starts getting dirty.
- Air dry dishes on a clean surface. This may seem odd, but it is less likely to spread disease than using a towel.
- Dispose of waste water carefully. Under normal circumstances, this means keep it away from the fresh water supply, but it also applies to not dumping dirty water around the spigots. After a day or so, the area around the water spigots becomes a quagmire from people washing dishes and performing their personal ablutions there. Put the water in a bucket and do your washing elsewhere, please.
- Use a sump hole or grease pit to dispose of waste water and liquid waste (e.g grease). This is your home for a while; would you pour out dish water on the kitchen floor? This hole can be sited either near the fire pit or in some area that will not be used as a walk way. Mark it to keep people from stepping in it in the dark.
- Use a fire pit. Cut away (and save) the sod and dig a pit larger than your fire and surround the outer edge with stones or piled dirt from the hole. This non-green barrier reduces the chance of grass fires.
- Never leave a fire untended. If you are leaving the area for a while, or going to bed, bank the fire carefully. If you do not know how to bank a fire, put it out.
- Do not throw refuse in the fire. Most common plastics release toxic fumes when burned, glass bottles can shatter (explode), and cans will still need to be disposed of after the fire is out.
- Leave the campsite cleaner than you found it. Clean up as you go (this really makes the whole trip more pleasant). When you are leaving, cover your fire pit and refill any other holes you have dug (replacing the sod is a nice touch). Note from the Cooper's: Mark your filled-in holes and ditches with flagging tape on a stick, or something else that can be easily seen. This helps us fix your campsites so you don't have divots the next year. If you don't have enough dirt to fill a hole, please come to the War Room and we'll help you.
Eating during the War is a problem with several solutions. If the weather is typical (hot), you may not feel like eating much. Do not give in to this! Drink lots of fluids and force yourself to eat fruits and easy to digest protein during the day. This way, when it cools off at night, you will have enough energy to eat carbohydrates and other difficult to digest foods that you need.
Bring some or most of the food you need. It can either be pre-prepared and frozen or brought as ingredients if they are not perishable. Perishables (vegetables, ice, and such) can be purchased at Cooper's Camp Store (which has gotten quite large) or from a store in town. Butler is 15 miles east on 422 and New Castle is 10 miles west. There are grocery stores, state stores (liquor and wines), and beer distributors in both cities. There are also department stores in case you need something else, like a new tent. (Mine blew up in a storm one year. That is right, not down, up. The front blew right off. I have witnesses.)
Join or Form a Food Plan
Many groups and households do their cooking together. For information on how the local group or your household is doing things, ask at local meetings. If you do pool resources, set it up before hand. I advise cash in advance and an agreed upon work schedule. People resent someone who appears to be free-loading.
Catch as Catch Can
What to Take
This is the real reason I started writing this, to give a basic checklist. For ease of reference, the list is broken into two Sections: that which you need and that which might come in handy.
The following should not be left at home. If you have limited room, the items on this list can all fit in one duffel bag or two medium sized bags.
- Enough of any prescription medication that you need for the length of your stay.
- Sleeping bag and pad. You can always bum a place to sleep, but you ought to have something to sleep in, even if it is just a couple of blankets. This area can get down into the 50's on warm nights. This is no joke. The pad can just be something to keep you off of the cold ground; a thicker pad adds to comfort immensely.
- Rain gear. Rain coat or poncho, boots for mucking about, wool socks, plastic tarps. While a heavy, somber toned poncho most resembles an oil skin cloak (period rain wear), use what you have. Better safe than soaked; I have found mundanity is accepted when it is bucketing rain and you are holding down a tent (especially someone else's tent).
- Hat. This gets a separate item because it is important. A hat keeps the rain off, cuts body heat loss in the cold or at night, and keeps the sun from boiling your brain as quickly. Sun stroke and sun burn can be a drag. The hat should be medieval looking, but that leaves a lot of lee way. All oriental hats, many straw hats, and some leather cowboy hats look right. A note on hat etiquette: remove your hat in buildings, tents, or even shade. As well as being polite, wearing a hat out of the sun is almost bad for you as no hat in the sun.
- A warm cloak (or a friend that has one) or a plain blanket that can be worn as one and can be sat on. Again, the nights can get cold and the dew falls heavily even (especially) after the hottest days.
- Garb. This is an SCA event, and some attempt should be made to
dress in period as much of the time as possible. Mundane costumes are fine for
under armour or for going into town (but you might get complaints even then).
- Simple tunics or dresses in some light colored solid, with trousers or skirts to match, if desired. These should be a natural fiber that breaths well (e.g. cotton, linen, et cetera), as light as possible, while preserving modesty.
- Warm garb, or an over-tunic to pull on over a light tunic (layering is very effective), for cold nights or days. Wool works well, or even heavy trigger or cheap velour as both have a high polyester content and do not breath much.
- One good or semi-good outfit for court, going to the taverns, or visiting the campsite of someone you wish to impress.
- Light shoes or sandals, unless you want to slop around bare foot. Be warned, the gravel on the roads is sharp.
- Heavy shoes or boots if you plan to go into the woods.
- Accessories. A belt with a pouch and knife are good things to have around.
- Change of other clothes for the time spent, plus two that are wrapped in plastic to keep dry. If you do not have extra socks, you will need them, and there is nothing worse than getting clean and then having to climb back into dirty, sweaty clothes. While washers are available, it is best not to rely on them, unless you like hanging out in laundromats. It is a good idea to have at least one change of clothes in your vehicle in case all of your clothes on site get soaked.
- Portable light sources, both for camp and the port-a-castle. Authentic if possible, but a hand flash is sometimes more convenient. If you use propane lanterns, be aware that they are bright. They can hurt the eyes of those of us who adjust well to the dark and provide quite a show if used as out-house illumination in a plastic port-a-castle.
- Toiletries. The usual stuff (soap, towel, toothbrush, etc.), and do not forget the shower gear.
- Money to buy fresh food, firewood, drink, trinkets, instruments, garb, armour, art, or whatever else you cannot live without. Note: there are two ATM machines at Pennsic, and the camp store (and many merchants) will take credit/debit cards.
- Sunscreen. If you are a typical SCA member, this is the most sun you will see all year. Getting severe sunburn can take a lot of the fun out of the War; armor chafes in new places, tunics rub, and you feel crummy. If you are fair skinned and/or do not get much sun, take precautions.
- A bottle opener, can opener, and/or corkscrew. I have seen people offered peerages for these things.
What follows is a list of things that are handy but may be left out if you do not want (or cannot afford) to overburden yourself.
- Armour. This is not mandatory, unless you want to fight or scout. There is still lots to do without fighting. I know a couple of knights who have just left their harness at home and relaxed at a War (O.K., so one marshaled a couple of times and the other was doing his thing as a Laurel).
- Instruments. Whether to just use at bardic circles or for more serious music, instruments can add to the fun. If you are a serious musician, or would like to be, this is about the best place you will find for SCA jam sessions.
- Song books. Bardic circles, or a large tent during a storm, are a great place to sing old favorites and learn new songs.
- Eating utensils. What type depends on how you plan to eat. If you are taking care of yourself, you will also need cooking and clean up gear.
- Grill, spit, tripod, camps stove, or some other way to tame fire and hold cooking pots. Which of these you use depends on preference, experience, and level of authenticity.
- Swim suit and towel. While there is no swimming permitted at Cooper's Lake, nearby Moraine State Park has lakeside beaches and public swimming facilities.
- A tent or tents. An extra tent allows more room for storage and hospitality. While pavilions are nice, modern tents are acceptable.
- Coolers are always welcome. They also can be packed with gear during travel.
- Plastic jugs of any size for water and mixed soft drinks. Canned and bottled drinks are good, but powdered Gator- Aid and Kool-Aid are cheaper and easier to pack.
- Extra and/or fancy garb.
- Camp lights. Kerosene torches, candles with chimneys, hurricane lamps, or what ever. They give a campsite a nice look and keep people from literally tripping around.
- Hand Fan. It may not be 100 degrees in the shade, but a fan is still "a good thing."
- Books and games in case things get slow (or hot).
- Bandannas, Band-Aids, bug spray (Avon Skin-So-Soft skin lotion is an effective and pleasant smelling substitute), hatchet, jack knife, matches (or flint and steel), rope, string, sewing kit, safety pins, and anything else that is handy in camp.
This is not a complete list, nor should it be taken as one. It is a start based on more than 20 years of War experience and more general camping experience. I still tend to use my old Boy Scout manual checklist, I just substitute "garb" for "uniform" and go from there. If you forget, or do not have an item, you can probably obtain it on site or near by. The main thing to remember is to have fun. See you there!
© Copyright Paul S. Kay, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1997, 2002, 2003 This document may be freely reproduced as long as the author's name and this copyright notice are included.
(*) If you are not used to eating lots of fruit, you may experience some intestinal changes. Some fruits can cause constipation, others make you watery. Heat illnesses and water change can have similar effects, especially diarrhea. Just another warning.