I'm a novice camper really, so I don't have much to offer in terms of kit suggestions or locations, but I do have a story.
I moved to a rural county about two decades ago, back when gas was cheap(er), and for fun on the weekends I would go driving. I would drive anywhere, everywhere I hadn't been. Lots of potholed backroads, amazing dawns and sunsets in strange locations, subsisting on music, water, almonds and cigarettes. I saved the reefer for the campsites.
Campgrounds were few and far between, surprisingly. Most of the acreage was privately held, and defended with fences, dogs and guns. One lucky day however, I chose dusty fork in the road at the top of a hill I'd never been to and headed right where I wanted to go.
To this day I still don't know what possessed me to make the quick turnoff at a bent road sign I could barely read instead of barreling on down the natural curve of the road. Past mossy trees and over rushing creeks, between arching trees and over stones, this tiny rutted lane led me to down to a place that was beyond my imagination. Being new to the area, I'd never been treated to the true majesty of the interior, the gnarly backwoods.
After hours of rambling that summer afternoon, I'd stumbled into a real locals-only spot, where I could throw a tent without a fee. The road ended by the edge of a hundred foot canyon wall, with a beautiful, swimmable river running through the bottom. Boulders the size of houses leaned against each other, creating deep pools connected by shallow riffles, surrounded by bent and towering old trees, dripping with lichen.
The locals were all friendly and relaxed during my visits. One time a native Indian family was there, roasting salmon in a fire pit on the sand. They waved from across the river and offered me a piece. Very cool moment for me. Everyone left in the late afternoon, when the shadows covered the beaches along the canyon floor. I tried to be last to go, because the road in was so narrow at one spot bordering a creek that meeting oncoming traffic would be borderline dangerous. That's how I noticed that no-one seemed to camp there.
It was understandable, seeing as you had to portage your gear down the hundred feet of canyon wall, which at points required one hand free to hold a rock or rope. After five years or so, I had learned the lay of the land enough to attempt an overnighter.
I arrived about an hour after dawn, making the switchbacks over the first mountains in the fog and darkness. Unpacked at the trailhead around 9AM, made four trips up and down the canyon, stashing my beer and wood in a cold dark crevice between some rocks. Finished my first swim around 10 when I heard the day's first visitors rumbling down the road above.
I roamed about a quarter mile down river to gather extra wood, carrying it back up the boulder-strewn river was a nice challenge. Once dusk fell and everyone else had migrated back home I set up my fireplace. A large rock several paces back from the water was eroded at the bottom, creating a nice oven-shaped recess with flues on either side to keep the flame stoked. Other than it being filled with mud, it was perfect.
I dug the mud out of my fire pit and lined it with gravel and small stones, and flanked the sides with larger flat pieces. Lichen and dried leaves were laid across the bottom, and the wood and kindle weaved over it all. Once lit, the heat quickly reflected off the overhanging piece of rock and the stones underneath. Within an hour it was hot enough to burn a log every ten minutes.
As the moon rose over the canyon, I cooked sausage in beer and listened to the sounds of the wild, punctuated by the pockets of sap exploding in the fire. Mice invaded my camp while I tried to sleep. I left at daybreak, making only three trips back, with the ice, wood and beer now gone like the night.
I returned once or twice each year since, never quite had the same experience. Sometimes there were meteor showers at night, or bears at dawn, cool old-timers or amazingly beautiful country girls during the day. Nudists, climbers descending from the opposite ridge, or hillbillies partying to Lynyrd Skynyrd at the end of the road at midnight.
I mostly write this story to celebrate what it was, for it has fallen on hard times.
A long string of home invasions in the area has left the locals shaken and suspicious of all outsiders, even those from other parts of the county. On top of that, a major storm last year destroyed the last half mile of road, possibly beyond repair, leaving several homes cut off. The only parking for the spot now is directly next to two homes, and the residents are extremely concerned with random people parking overnight. Last summer I braved the extra distance each way and made my camp, but I couldn't help catch their attention, leaving several times with different packs. That night a search posse made their way down to the river.... at least four guys and two dogs. I'm almost certain they were looking for me. Thankfully I chose a very secluded spot where my fire would not be seen, but it killed my buzz and honestly scared me a little.
When I made it back to my car the next morning, a gentleman "happened" upon me, and asked if it wasn't a little early for a swim. I told him I stayed the night, thew my bags in the trunk and GTFO. I'm not sure about visiting this spot again, which is a damn shame.
Anyway, that's my camping story, I hope you enjoyed, and happy camping!