The River Rat Ranger takes a break from his float trip journal to express his opinion on sandbar camping. There is one main advantage to it and one main disadvantage. And they are both the same thing – sand. Sand is smooth, soft underfoot, easy to drive tent stakes into, easy to dig in. And it is at the same time a gritty mess. It WILL get into your food, your clothes and your bed despite all you do to avoid it. It adds a whole new dimension to eating my favorite breakfast food, grits. Nonetheless, it can be handy. A fistful of sand will scour the cooked-on food out of any fry pan or pot. Just be sure to rinse it out with boiling water, remember where that sand has been.
One major problem with camping in sand is the useless teeny wire tent stakes that come with almost all tents. Long ones are needed. The picture shows boughten and homemade. The purchased type on the left are heavy steel and can be driven into rock. They are the only thing that will work in rocky conditions such as Big Bend National and State parks in Texas. They cost 50 cents at Sprawl Mart and about a buck in campground stores. Their major disadvantage is the weight... a full set for my Wenzel Starlite weighs more than the tent, poles, and ground cloth! Homemade such as are pictured weigh much less, are made on the spot, and cost nothing but your time. However, it is illegal to cut green trees in some wilderness areas. They work well, though and look “woodsy”. Beware the ones shown in camping handbooks that are made with a notch cut out near the top instead of utilizing a side branch. They always, always, ALWAYS break right at the notch as they are driven in. Also, many ultralight tents have only tiny loops for the stakes and the notched type won't fit. But the side branch style can be driven in next to the loop with the “hook” going down into it.
One good plan for keeping as much sand as possible out of food and gear is to pull the boat up onto the bar and flip it over. Yes, it will be sandy, but a few buckets of river water will sluice the sand off and you now have a stable convenient mostly sand free table to cook on and roll up bedding, etc. This is where the jon boat shines compared to a canoe. Also, try to curl up under a canoe during a gale force hailstorm sometime. You'll be a jon boat convert forever.
A few words about picking out a sandbar. First, make sure it's sand. In Midwestern rivers there are as many mudbars as sandbars. Step off onto a fresh, wet mudbar and you will be lucky to escape at all and for certain it will swallow your rubber boots. Secondly, be certain it's high enough above the water. Even small rivers can rise several feet during the night. You don't want to have to swim out of your tent in the dark of night and try to catch your gear before it floats away. Or your boat. Which is why when the likely sand bar that pops up round the bend at dusk is fairly low to the surface of the water, tie the boat to a tree on shore or a large log. As all my gear is in buckets or my waterproof bag, I endeavor to run the bow or stern line (on boats it's “line” not “rope”) through all the handles of the buckets, strap of the bag and the handles of the water carriers, tying it to the last one. Now, should the river rise rapidly and you're suddenly wet and struggling in the dark, the only gear you have to worry about is yourself and your tent. You'll be wet. You'll be miserable. But you'll be alive and have everything you arrived with. The tent will pull easily from the wet sand. Tumble into the boat with it. Drag your other stuff aboard and count your blessings.
Always fasten your boat wherever you camp. “Johnny Sneakum” is alive and well in rural America and nothing seems quite so funny to such a character as to push a camper's boat into the stream and watch it float away. Bow and stern lines can also be cut or “borrowed” so I have a light anchor chain permanently padlocked to the bow and lock the other end to an immovable object. The two padlocks are keyed the same and the key NEVER leaves my person if I have to wear it on a string around my neck.
Sandbars are also wonderful places to build fires. Just scoop out a depression in the sand and you have a fireplace out of the wind. There is one more advantage. In most states in America, the banks on each side of the river are privately owned. It can be criminal trespass to camp on them. But sandbars, being in the river bed are usually considered public property. On smaller streams the landowner also controls the river bed and thus the sandbars, but the water belongs to the public. Most states allow “reasonable” trespass for the purpose of seeking out portages, checking out rapids, etc. This may not include the right to camp by the letter of the law, but the float tripper has a couple more things going for him. One is that the landowner has to be able to get to where you are and order you to move. The other is that very few float trip canoes, jon boats, or inflatable rafts have lights, making operation after dark not only dangerous, but illegal. Speaking as a part time sheriff's deputy, no cop wants to drag campers from a sandbar, take them in, house them in the jail overnight, inventory and secure their gear, be laughed at by the judge in the morning, and get chewed out by their boss. The worst that could be likely to happen is that the irate landowner will call the sheriff and be told that if the camper is still there the next morning to call him back. Or if the deputy or DNR man actually is dragged out to the campsite, they will tell you to move on come daybreak and likely be envious of you and want to chat. I've befriended DNR men all over the state. Once had one for a backup at a shooting incident. They like camping. They like river rats and they're usually rangers themselves. Only once in my life have I ran across a landowner who stridently said I couldn't camp on his land. My son and I talked gently and respectfully and took the time to get to know him and he invited us to stay wherever we wanted.
There is only one more trespass issue. That is if you should happen to stumble across someone's pot plantation or meth lab site. In this case you may be threatened with violence. It has never happened to me, but I've heard of it. The cell phone is your best defense in these situations. In fact, it has changed the whole face of backwoods travel. Johnny Sneakum never knows anymore if the person he is harassing is already in contact with the law. Many times just the sight of a cell phone is enough to back down belligerence. If you are a purist who doesn't want to carry one, buy one that doesn't work on a garage sale and gut it, using the inside as a storage place for waterproof matches.
Need I add in closing that you deeply bury all garbage and human waste and put out your fire totally, burying the burned sticks and ashes and leave only tracks and take only memories? It's the Ranger Way.