When Camping Isn't Roughing It: Tips for A Fun Family Experience

Friends, I just booked two nights of tent camping at a lakeside campground on Mt. Hood, so this will be our third summer in a row with a camping trip. I have many friends who simply stopped camping when they had children--after all, they didn't camp much before children, and the early years of parenting can seem rough enough. But honestly, if you haven't camped in a while, or if you haven't yet gone camping as a family, you ought to know what you're missing.

Camp at Leh Valley by Karunakar Rayker

The Highlights

Relationships truly add the joy to camping. In the words of Chris McCandless (AKA Alexander Supertramp), "Happiness [is] only real when shared." (If you haven't read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild--or seen the movie--about Chris' adventurous, tragic journey, you must.) Camping is best when shared with family or friends.

Happiness [is] only real when shared.
— Christopher McCandless

The second best part about camping is the food--or at least, it ought to be! Everything tastes better when camping, but planning great meals elevates camping to an utterly fulfilling experience.

Along with friends and fine food, add nature's beauty and the life-giving air of the outdoors, and you'll agree you need to plan camping trips more often.

Sur le bord du feu by M. Marsolais (Parc de Plaisance, Québec)

What Not to Dread

You won't encounter many bugs--the campsites themselves are pretty barren. Mosquitos are a nuisance, but often avoidable. Wear long sleeves and jeans at night, sit near the campfire, and use basil, lemon, or eucalyptus-based repellent if you want. Lavender oil and lemon oil are soothing on mosquito bites.

Dirt is unavoidable, but as long you have access to hot showers, it won't drive you crazy. Pack a little dustbroom for sweeping out your tent and a dishpan for rinsing items if you want to feel like you've got it under control.

Camping at Red River Gorge by  Wayne

Camping at Red River Gorge by Wayne

The sleeping arrangements can make or break your experience. Never put a sleeping bag directly on the floor of your tent--you'll freeze! A foam pad, air mattress, or cot will make all the difference--and your back will thank you.

Getting the Ideal Campsite

If possible, book your site by phone so you can talk directly with the campground employee about the facilities and your specific campsite. Not only can he or she assure you that there are hot showers and firewood readily available, but employees can help you get just the site you want--shaded or sunny, ideally with a picnic table and campfire ring. It's great to have a water spigot near, but you may not want to be right next to the restrooms, or you may have voices, slamming doors, and bouncing flashlights keeping you awake at night.

The campground may also offer bike trails and educational talks. Thanks to the ranger talks at Cape Lookout, we learned to identify bird calls and were impressed to hear that the local raccoons could open ice chests and pry open six-packs (apparently they love Mountain Dew--seriously).

Raton laveur, Amnéville Zoo, Metz, France by Myri Bonnie

Yet even if you reserve the best campground, you'll start off miserably if you arrive at dusk. Putting up a tent is hard enough in daylight! Plus you don't want to find that your spot has been given away.


Items to Smooth Your Stay:

Find out if you need to obtain a parking pass in advance. Many state parks require them.

Pack fantastic meal ingredients, a dutch oven, a pitcher, and a skillet. I suggest including eggs, coffee, s'mores ingredients (a requirement for exchange students to try!), fruit, trail mix, meat or rice & beans, bread, and water bottles. It seems that everyone has dietary limitations these days, but even a gluten-free graham cracker with a vegan marshmallow and non-dairy chocolate tastes amazing!

Jesus feeds the five thousand today

Jesus feeds the five thousand today

This is not an exhaustive list, but consider bringing a propane stove (it's easier to control than the unbridled heat of a campfire), towels, a rope for drying towels, a tarp for beneath your tent (or over it, in case of rain or heat), a lantern and flashlights, hats and warm clothing for cold nights, a deck of cards, and earplugs (because just when the campers around you finally go to bed, someone accidentally sets off their car alarm).

Our Experience Camping in Oregon

The last two years we camped at Cape Lookout, not far from Tillamook, Oregon. It's a dune away from the Pacific Ocean, and you can hear the waves at night. Our daughter played for hours in the sand and slept like a baby after a day of fresh air and outdoor play. Our son was only seven months old, but he, too, slept well. (We didn't need to bring much baby gear except for some cloth diapers and a backpack-style baby carrier). The restrooms were basic but the showers were hot and strong. This year we'll head the other direction--up Mount Hood--and enjoy the lakeside view. My five-year-old daughter can't wait to go fishing with Daddy again!

My daughter fishing near Mt. Hood last summer (photo taken by  my husband )

My daughter fishing near Mt. Hood last summer (photo taken by my husband)

A Word About Camping in Europe

In Take Your Kids to Europe (a really informative read!), I learned that family camping in Europe is often an extremely nice experience. According to the author, French campgrounds are quite safe--theft is nearly non-existent. Plus there are often great amenities like a pool, snack bar, billiards hall, and laundry facilities. I think camping in Europe would be a great way for children to make friends regardless of any language barriers.

Do you have a favorite campground memory? Is there somewhere you are itching to camp? Do you prefer a tent trailer, RV, or yurt instead of a tent?

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