Lipreading By Campfire

Gael Hannan
September 4, 2012

Some of my friends love camping – at Camp Hilton. Others can pack a knife and a match and head happily into the bush. I grew up in a hotels ‘r’ us family, but now I’m a card-carrying camper. I love it, I really do, but camping does present some unique communication challenges.

When our son was five, we bought a tent trailer (which I refer to as a ‘tenter’, because the word ‘trailer’ always inspires certain family members to ask if I’ve gone whole hog with pink sweatpants). Bigoted relatives aside, camping is a highlight of our family summer although, sadly, I have yet to develop any useful camping skills. I’m sure I could get a fire going if I had to – as long as someone split the firewood for me. The men-folk, maybe.

Beyond the scenery, outdoor-cooked-food and quality family time, one of the most enchanting aspects of camping is that jewel in the crown of  dark summer nights  – the campfire. Who doesn’t enjoy a good campfire?

I’ll tell you who doesn’t – a lot of hard of hearing people!

The complaint we have about camping is that when the sun goes down, so does the hearing. And it’s not that I don’t like campfires – I just don’t do ‘darkvery well. I’m never the last person sitting around the campfire, watching the embers, thinking about life.  I’ve always been the first one to pack it in for the night, because it’s almost impossible to stay engaged when you’re struggling to hear.

Campfires are most enjoyable for hearing people who can converse more comfortably with faces shrouded in darkness, and who can hear voices that fly heavenward with the fire sparks. But for people like me, campfires are a communication barrier in need of a solution.  My family and friends care about me, but when they get swept up in interesting conversations they forget the rules of communication engagement.  Knowing that I’m usually assertive about my needs, if I’m not asking for accommodation, they don’t always think to check.

When people sit within the glow of the campfire, I can see their lips.  This works best when there are just a few people, four or five maximum. But with 6, 8, 10 or 15 people, the circumference of the circle becomes huge, taking faces out of illumination-range and  leaving me with a group of bodies without heads, or even feet without bodies. You try following a conversation with eight pairs of feet!

Singing campfire songs poses no problems, because we’re all singing the same words at the same time.  (I just need someone to let me know when we’ve stopped.) I’m also happy when, in larger groups, there is more than one conversation going on.  I join the conversation involving the person to my immediate left, because that’s my better side.  Communication also improves when the wine has been flowing, because voices get louder. And just when conversation is at the perfect volume for me, the park ranger comes by and tells us to shut up.

This summer, we were a smaller group of eight – my nearest and dearest friends and one husband. Years ago, camping with this same group, I had stomped off into the blackness of night, enraged that in spite of my pleas for accommodation, the conversation swirled around me. My husband came after me, and we had one of our best-ever talks about my hearing loss. He had assumed I was keeping up, although in retrospect he realized that something was off because I wasn’t as chatty as usual. So this year, when it came time for the first campfire, I announced that my next blog was going to be about camping. Unless we came up with some communication solutions, I was going to publicly name any poor communicators.

The location of the firepit at the edge of the campsite meant we had to form an arc, rather than a circle. My husband placed a Coleman lamp in the centre the arc,  increasing the area of brightness. And then – a breakthrough – my friend lent me a head strap-light that illuminated the face of anyone to whom I pointed my forehead. There was a downside to this:  the speakers closed their eyes to avoid being blinded, making them look as if they were talking in their sleep. OK, so the head strap solution wasn’t perfect, but it did make the dark trip to the ‘comfort station’ much more civilized. Without the need to hold a flashlight, one could hold a friend’s arm with one hand and a glass of wine with the other.

So, to summarize speechreading-by-campfire solutions:

  • Use lots of light; make the fire as big as permitted and add additional lights and brightness.
  • Campers form a ‘ring of fire’ by sitting in a circle around the fire, as close as possible without personally igniting/
  • Try a light on a head strap.
  • Remind your fellow campers of your hearing loss.
  • Have the guy in the next chair – spouses do nicely for this – alert you to any topic changes.
  • Drink wine.

Finally, if anyone forgets about you, start singing that wonderful old campfire song:

Fire’s burning, fire’s burning,

Draw nearer, draw nearer…..                                                           

                                                                (Photo:  B. Kindness, camp photographer extraordinaire!)

  1. Love the threat of public naming any communication mal-doers! I’ll have to keep that in mind. And not just for campfires ….

  2. People with hearing never realize how important a small item such as light will help those who have a hearing loss to understand speech in the dark. I have been hard of hearing for over 65 years and glad you are educating about hearing loss. Keep up the good work. The problem is when we speak we sound like we have no hearing loss.

  3. Having just got back from a camping trip I know exactly what you are saying!!! The head gear is great for the outhouse not so much talking to each other!! I always put the light behind me Gael so that it shines out toward the group and the trick is to find a stand for it to hang at about 6 feet or so. (Found one last year at Army Navy- Best camping tool ever!!!) This is great for campfire and allows for people to get closer to the fire….colder here in the nights in Alberta!! And yes of course, the wine is a must!!

  4. Just know where to look helps me. I’ve gotten in the habit of pointing at whomever is talking — part of what I do to help others like me that are hard of hearing. The simple idea is that way they know where to look to read a person’s lips. My wife on the other hand thinks pointing at someone is a bit rude, so this pointing has become rather subtle, just moving my finger, not my hand, and certainly not my entire arm.

  5. Fantastic. As always you rock. there is a bright side however, i noticed that i don’t have the problem of listening the those blasted mosquitos buzzing around your ear…just sayen

  6. Oh, does this article strike a cord and bring back memories!!! How about the ‘ole “talking stick” routine (only the person with the stick gets to speak), with the “talking stick” being a flashlight held under the chin area (ghostly)? Hmmm…will have to try that. Even if it doesn’t work so good for lip reading, it sure would look funny!! And, yes, have lots of wine (or other choice of spirits)!

  7. growing up camping Boy Scouts, etc. myself Patrol leader. I got somebody to learn sign language and communicate with me, sometimes my ears in a large group to keep me in the loop. Use sign language around campfire is fun glowing hands! Now going camping with my hearing brothers and the policy at campfire gathering is everyone signs! ; )

  8. as time goes on my hearing is quickly pretty much none exsisitant so i have a hearing dog try singing around a campfire with a hearing dog lol he loves to join in it makes for a great conversation piece

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