Camping with kids in the 21st century

The last camping trip we undertook was, as I said, a Fine and Pleasant misery. Near constant rain, freezing temperatures and winds conspired to keep us damp, cold and in the tent or the car for most of the trip.

This is what bliss looks like
This is what bliss looks like

This trip, a mere four weeks later, could hardly be more different. The temperatures were literally double Memorial Day, making gentle waves between 90 and 65. We had a spectacular time this trip. For the first time maybe ever we just stayed in the camp and went swimming and sat around and generally had a superb time. (Well, except for our trip to go see Despicable Me II, which the boys thought was hilarious and which Adam and enjoyed enough.) All in all, this camping trip was one of the most enjoyable we’ve ever had as a family.

Last time I went camping, a number of my friends and readers mentioned that they’d love to hear how one goes about camping these days. (Ok, so maybe that was one person… but it totally counts, right?) Having once again read far too much McManus this trip, I’d be happy to offer my expertise on the topic.

I was trying to remember why I decided to go camping the first time. I mean, I’ve loved camping since I was a little girl. I remember camping when I was five and my mother was pregnant with my brother. I loved wandering the woods, building dams in mountain streams. I loved the sound of the zipper on the tent, the patter of pine needles on the canvas roof. But for reasons that escape me, Adam and I did very little camping while we were unchilded. I think I thought I was too busy, when in fact I was just prioritizing wrong. I was also, in truth, still a total snob about East Coast vs. West Coast mountains and disdained the mountains and woods that were available to me.

But likely the summer I was pregnant with Thane I realized that this was it. This was my life. I lived in New England. I owned a house. And if I wanted to go camping with my kids, I would need to go camping in New England. My longing for backpacking as a family, of reading by the stream while their feet went numb and they built a dam, would only happen if we actually went camping.

Actually taken two days before the famous "dance class" picture
Actually taken two days before the famous “dance class” picture

Thane was 7 months old the first time we went camping as a family. I, more or less at random, picked White Lake State Park for our trip. It had facilities (a bathroom, running water), it was a reasonable drive for us, and it had a very highly rated beach. I figured it was as good a start as any. That first camping trip, I don’t think we had any chairs. We brought the pack ‘n’ play for baby Thane. We bought a cheap tent at Target (which I loved, by the way, until it died a good death this year). We froze because I didn’t bring nearly enough blankets. It was tough to work camping around naps and babies and lack of expertise. But yet, somehow, we kept coming back. Nearly every trip back, Adam and I review the trip and make notes on what we should do differently next time. We’ve gotten to a point now where it is pretty optimized and all we need to do is make adjustments for the particular time of year and the boys’ stages in life.

This year we attempted fishing.
This year we attempted fishing.

So… if you, dear friend with small children, were thinking about camping, what would I recommend?

First of all, gear. We have always had insufficient car space to take all the gear I’d like to take. I joke that our camping trips are equivalent to a space shuttle launch, in terms of our careful choice and selection of gear. The absolute minimum requirements are: a tent, an air mattress for the grownups, a chair for each person. Chairs are unexpectedly key; trust me. Most of the rest of the gear is small and/or optional. It’s definitely wise to have a light source per person and a knife. My husband will add that you should have roughly a thousand feet of rope and three tarps – definitely preferable if it rains. Tents start to leak under sustained precipitation. Then there are the nice-to-haves: table cloths, wood-shop class name plates (I don’t have one and confess to actually wanting one. I have years to go until my sons take woodshop though. I wonder if Boston suburbs actually teach woodshop?) Finally, approximately a thousand toys, which should be doled out to children gradually over the trip.

Food is actually a challenge. I have no problem planning breakfast. First morning: eggs and bacon. Second morning: pancakes and bacon. Third morning: instant oatmeal. Lunches can be managed with a loaf or two of bread, cold cuts, cheese, peanut butter and jam. Pretzels, cheese sticks, apples and snack foods fill out the lunch. Oreos and smores are the traditional desserts. Dinners, though. Dinners are tough. Usually we have hot dogs/sausages the first night. I tried hamburgers, but they never turn out tasty. Sometimes I’ll bring a soup – either a frozen stew I made ahead of time, or two cans of some sort of Campell’s. But usually I only plan on eating at the campsite for half the time – the rest of the time we’ll eat out.

Next summer I bet Thane will be reading too
Next summer I bet Thane will be reading too

And that’s one of the secrets of my brand of camping: we don’t stay at the campsite most of the time. We go on “Car walks” up the Kancamagus Highway. We go climb a local (small) mountain. We drive to North Conway or Lincoln for various excuses. (Starbucks!) We visited Mt. Washington and the Polar Caves. We bring our food with us, so we can stop and make our lunch wherever we find ourselves. But it’s nice to go to a nice clean restaurant and have dinner out. These car walks started, I think, because Thane had so much trouble napping in a tent and so much less trouble napping in a car seat. (A fact that remains true even today. Someone is snoozing in the back seat as I write, which would not be true if we were at the site.)

So one secret to camping with small children is to not be a purist. Our camp site has lovely amenities. It also has full cell phone coverage. We eat out while camping. We watch movies. We have digital devices, although we try to save them for times when there is not too much opportunity lost.

Key: build traditions. Have a favorite diner you stop at on your way down. (Like Miss Wakefield’s.) Stop by a little roadside stand. Have a favorite hike, or cookie, or campfire song. Have a set of toys that are sacred to camping. It takes very few times to have something become a tradition when you have small kids. Three times is plenty.

Our Miss Wakefield ritual is down to the exact parking spot
Our Miss Wakefield ritual is down to the exact parking spot

Finally: Starbucks Via is a great way of getting your morning coffee. Just putting that out there.

So how about you? Do you go camping? Are you horrified at how many compromises I’ve made to pure camping? Are you horrified at the thought of coin-operated showers? Have you found a great way to bring your kids camping? (Or your spouse?) Do you aspire to go camping? Do you have any logistical questions I have failed to address?

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One thought on “Camping with kids in the 21st century

  1. I loved camping as a child, too, even when we forgot to “trench” the tent and got soaked and had to learn to drink coffee to stay warm at the tender age of 10! We played a lot of board games and swam a lot and just daydreamed and found shapes in the clouds and located constellations and told stories and played in the dirt and sang camp songs and cooked all our meals. Try cooking an egg in an orange peel (very carefully peeled to keep as much intact as possible) over a fire. Make stew for supper. Baked beans always taste good with hot dogs. Lots of hot chocolate. We shopped for meat but cooked at the camp – chicken on the grill and roasted potatoes and roasted corn. (Take lots of aluminum foil!) . I’m so glad you’re keeping up the traditions……Grey & Thane are blessed indeed.

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