When I say the words “camping with kids” what images come to mind?
Inconsolable babies? Thunderstorms? Full diapers, mysterious rashes, tick bites? Mosquitoes, bats, burned food, no food, rustic latrines with no toilet paper, snakes, mountains of laundry . . . shall I go on? Would you rather not talk about it?
For parents, camping with kids can be one of the most pointless, frustrating and miserable things you may ever do in your lifetime. Why would you take your entire family out of their normal schedule and air-conditioned environment and purposely put them in a situation where they are cold, wet, dirty, hungry and as uncomfortable as possible?
Scott and I have taken our kids camping in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
We’ve camped in bitter cold, pounding rain, merciless wind and catastrophic thunderstorms. We’ve camped in the mountains, on beaches and in the swamp. And we still go out for more. We can’t get enough of it. We love it.
Perhaps we are insane.
I understand if you say that camping with kids is not for you. It is a lot of work. When we go camping we only take the things we know we will use and it still looks like we are planning a three-week vacation to the moon. You’ll have to bring diapers and bikes and pack-and-plays and books and sleeping bags and tents and extra clothes and food and stoves and dutch ovens and coolers and propane tanks . . . you get the idea. And remember, you will need at least an entire day to prepare for your camping trip and two entire days to clean up when you get back!
And then there are the nights! Oh, the agony!
It will most likely be one of the Top Three Most Horrible Nights of Your Life, right up there with the other two times you went camping with kids. You will either be freezing cold, sweltering hot or getting eaten alive by invisible bugs. You will hear strange noises, have weird neighbors, and there will almost always be someone who needs help finding the outhouse (hopefully it will be one of your own children and not someone from the next camp). And if you bring a baby, even one that regularly sleeps through the night, expect that just when you finally drift off to sleep he will wake up with a 4-alarm cry. If you expect to sleep through the night, you are in trouble.
Better instead to expect to have a great story to tell everyone else at breakfast.
And speaking of breakfast, did you know camping has a magical effect on food? There is something about not having an option for food for miles and miles that makes any scrap of food taste unbelievable. Dirt and charcoal become flavor enhancers instead of reasons to throw food away. It is miraculous how the outdoors changes your perception of “tasty.”
And when food does turn out perfectly, well, you eat like kings. Grateful, ravenous kings.
If the above scenarios seem unappealing to you, than camping with kids is not for you. But then, isn’t that the point? It isn’t for you, right?
What you see as a world of work, your children will see as a world of discovery.
Camping gives kids the opportunity to do a lot of things that are normally off-limits. They can get as dirty as they want. There is no schedule to adhere to, no clocks, no lessons, no school. Boys can swing from trees and girls can find their inner Amazon. They can revert to their carnal nature that their parents are always trying to suppress. They get to sleep outside, pee outside, eat with dirty hands. They howl at the moon. They worship fire.
Camping builds character exponentially and fosters gratitude. Little things become big things: a zipper that zips up–a miracle! A warm sleeping bag–a luxury! A spoon–incredible! Dry socks–to die for!! A flashlight with batteries–heaven!!
Camping makes work meaningful and concentrates the big, grand, hard-to-fathom Law of the Harvest into a small period of time that they can comprehend. Would you like a fire to get warm? Gather fire wood. Would you like a tent to sleep in? Set it up. Want to get across the lake? Paddle.
But getting kids to do that stuff is easy. The hard part is getting everyone to fold up the tents when we are done, because seriously, who wants to go home?
Have I convinced you yet? No? Well then I know what you are thinking . . . the cost! Surely it must cost a lot of money to get all the camping paraphernalia you need to go out in the wild, especially for kids. But I guarantee that it will cost you less to take your family camping, even if you had to buy all the gear from scratch, than it would take to get your family to Disneyworld. And you can use your camping stuff over and over and over again.
Plus, when you are outside and you don’t have electronics and time commitments, strange things start happening. Kids talk to each other. Kids talk to you. They play games with real, live people.
They get to use things like knives and axes; tools that were used for hundreds of years before computers. Tools every child knew how to use by the time they were twelve. Tools that built civilizations.
Then, if you really want to see something cool, give your kid a camera and tell them to go far a way. Then see what they bring back.
For me it is worth it just to see how excited they are to sleep in hammocks or see the light on my son’s face when he says, “You mean I can go to the bathroom in the WOODS?! Awesome!” (Granted, my daughters’ reaction is quite different.)
When they are 75 years old they may not remember the video game or the toy or the book you gave them, but they will remember the tree that almost hit your car (true story!) and the time you fell in the creek, and they will remember listening to the coyotes howl and they will remember the way that trout wriggled when they touched it. And every miserable act of suffering will become a legend in the grand hallways of your family history.
But when it all comes down to it, the reason I go camping with kids is for the adventure. There are not enough adventures in our current lifestyle. Why? Because all we do is push buttons. We push buttons for work, for fun, for social needs, for school. Believe me, unless you are breaking the code of the Enigma, it is hard to have an adventure pushing buttons.
So go on. Get out there. Suffer. Be miserable.
And make adventure happen.