A Few Thoughts on Camping With Kids

Share on Tumblr

Parental aspirations are all too often dashed on the shoals of reality, and mine were no different. We would be a camping family from the very beginning — two out of three of us swore on it. On that first trip to Sequoia National Park, however, the 13-month-old thought bears were giant doggies, the backpacking stove was a light-up rattle, rock-strewn campsites should be wobbled through at the highest possible speeds, and sleeping bags were too restrictive, even when the wee hours turned frosty. As it turns out, majority doesn’t always rule. We survived our woodland adventure, but the little man would be in grade school before we attempted another overnight in a tent.

For most of the last two decades I’ve made a living writing about outdoor adventure, the joys of which seemed self-evident to me, but it wasn’t until I tripped over the brutal honesty of my own children that I understood why camping wasn’t always an easy sell — for munchkins or adults. There was the sleeping on the ground, the strange and creepy night noises, the bathroom issues.

It’s not my nature to take the soft road, but the hard way seemed only to produce tears, not win converts, so before my son and his sister were too far grown, I splurged on a 4WD Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, complete with sink and two-burner stove, fridge, a pop-up roof, and cushy sleeping for four. We started with overnights at a park just 20 minutes from the house and loaded the van with favorite pillows, cuddly blankets, and enough marshmallows and graham crackers to s’more an army. Whether the kids wanted to make a fort inside the van or search the woods for walking sticks, I was equally happy.

Then we bit off a trip from Southern California to Oregon, followed by one all the way to Vancouver Island. I taught them the rush of riding a small river rapid on your butt, of a summer snowball fight on Mt. Rainier, of leaping into green swimming holes, and they learned how much cleaner and freer you feel when you end such days outside. The van had become home, and car camping was becoming our thing.

Tents were part of the experience, too. My kids have been helping me set up tents for gear testing since they were wee, but as they grew bolder they began to spend nights in the back yard. Soon they were begging me to spend night after summer night on their own in wilds between the porch light and the back wall. It was time, I thought, probably past time, for my son’s first backpacking trip.

I was nervous as we drove to a trailhead two hours from home and then shouldered our packs en route to a spot four miles away. You just don’t know what will happen. But his load was light, his legs strong, and his spirits high. We arrived at our destination tired but happy — no tears, no tantrums. There was wood for a fire, a bubbling creek, and no neighbors. The boy chased frogs while I made dinner, and then we settled onto our sleeping pads and watched the sky turn cobalt.

We talked for a while, then fell silent for a long stretch. My son sighed. “You know what, Dad?” he said. “This makes car camping look stupid.”

A burning star streaked overhead, but I didn’t make a wish. I didn’t need to.

Photo by Thomas Kauroff/Shutterstock

Share on Tumblr

{ 20 comments…read them below or write one }

  • MHC

    Awesome piece- last week my girls spent part of vacation sleeping in their tent in our living room and roasting smores in the firepit. I can only hope that we’re as lucky in the coming years.

  • Joey

    Thanks Steve! This makes me appreciate my mom and her repeated efforts to take 4 young, rambunctious kids camping every summer. I still don’t appreciate the freeze dried food from back in the day though! Congrats on the article and the camping!

  • Tom

    My kids absolutely love(d) camping in the Westfalia, though we might be in for a dry spell as one is almost a teenager now. We camped for 2 weeks one summer; it was great fun for all.

  • Steve

    Amazing how kids cut through all the cluttered thoughts we have and absolutely nail the moment. Like when my 6 year old son told me on the chairlift “Dad, when I grow up I want to move to Kelly Canyon so I can ski every day.” A 900-foot local hill with a ~2 month season. You eventually forget most all of the soccer games, the recitals, the parent teacher conferences, the movies, but you’ll never forget time spent together in the wild.

  • Lee

    Both of our kids made their camping debut at four months old. We go several times a year, and have taken family vacations that were exclusivly camping trips through various National Parks. Last fall when we told out oldest that our next trip wasn’t until March she got really upset. They love camping, and I’m confident they’ll camp the rest of their lives. They’re not old enough to back pack yet, but as soon as they are you can bet we’re going.

  • Lou

    Started taking my two oldest kids car camping when they were toddlers. Packed out disposable diapers on their first BWCA trip. Both are now wilderness guides at a YMCA summer camp in Grand Marais, MN. After state park trip last summer, two youngest kids, 7 & 5 are pestering for a BWCA trip. There are parts of my life where I wish I had achieved more success but introducing my kids to the wilds has been a wonderful experience.

  • Kelly

    Made me cry. Seriously. We are attempting a house boat on Shasta this summer.Can’t wait for the adventures and the excitement in their eyes! Thanks for this wonderful piece.

  • MikeMac

    As the father of two adorable blonde deviants, and one that had a less than ideal upbringing, I find myself contemplating the concept of fatherhood quite a bit. Probably no more than normal, but at the same time probably more than I think about anything else in my life. Kids and their care from infancy to adulthood are all-consuming tasks and topics.

    The sudden and unexpected death of a friend’s father last week has made me even more reflective on how special each day, each minute is. You just never know when your number is up. And you hope to whatever god you worship that you’ve done enough and imparted the proper wisdom to help them as they wind their way through a complex world.

    Thanks for this little vignette. It’s not the XBOX or pristine new shin guards that they’ll put in their mental backpack a they leave the nest. It really is the moments spent looking up at the stars, the kind word, the simplicity of time spent with them.

  • Alyssa

    This gives me hope! As we are in the stage where we just bought our first cheap/old camper to help us keep getting out with three young kids. We were once avid backpackers and sort of feel like traitors to the cause.

  • Laidlaw

    What a great story Steve. The idea of having kids that hate the outdoors scares the living hell out of me. I guess there’s only one way to find out…

    –Mark

  • amy

    Such a great post. We don’t have kids yet, but it’s already in the back of our mind how to bring them up in a way that we all love our outdoor experiences (and survive them). Also, this may be my favorite quote of the year, “it wasn’t until I tripped over the brutal honesty of my own children that I understood…”

  • jennyj

    I loved your post! It warms my heart to see parents putting in the effort and not giving up when the going gets tough. You’ve raising some lucky kids :)

  • Robi Pochapin

    +1 teary eye. The denouement is precious. Our five y/o girl has more nights outside than I could get in my first two decades.

  • Jaime Martinez

    Great story! I have two sons (8 and 11). When asked by my wife what they wanted to do when I return from deployment their answer was to go camping. Disneyland and other amusement parks were an option, but they decided to do what dad likes to do. Refreshing!

  • JP

    Great story! We bought a old VW Westfalia when our kids were 1 and 3 respectively, it was the best family purchase we have made. Like you we took it in steps, starting with smaller adventures and making sure there were plenty of breaks for rest or play. Now our kids are 7 and 9 and we have journeyed far and wide across this beautiful continent. Scrambling up mountains, fishing, kayaking or exploring old abandoned places off the beaten path or plain ol’ roasting marshmallows. It has given us all amazing memories, keeps us healthy and inspires us all to look for the next adventure. Highly recommended!!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>