The Poignant Beauty of Camping With Kids

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 shorter than the tents, but as they grew bolder they began to spend nights in the backyard. Soon they were begging me to spend night after summer night on their own in the 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.

Words by Stephen Casimiro // Photo by Steve Wall




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