I stepped out from the tipi we had rented for the night—an early-rising baby in my arms—and was met by a faint glow rising behind the red-orange monuments toward the east. My husband joined me, and soon a few more children, as the fiery orb lifted its sleepy head from the earth and silhouetted one of America’s iconic landscapes. That sunrise is forever etched in my memory, and even though my children can’t remember the moment distinctly, they remember the feeling. They remember the beauty of nature, the sense of adventure, and the closeness of family that our week-long road trips provide.
Each year, we seek adventure as we explore a new area of the country. Tents, cabins, tipis, and even a covered wagon have been our home away from home as we travel east, west, south, and north on a journey of discovery. The inexpensive nature of camping allows us to indulge in a week-long vacation, and sometimes even include a special excursion, such as a train ride in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. Camping also allows us to stay in beautiful places. We have slept beneath the pinnacles of Zion, under a canopy of redwoods, and at the edge of mountain lakes. We have seen deer, toads, a squirrel carrying her babies into a tree, a bird with a fish in its talons, and many other sights that a hotel simply could not offer.
Camping is certainly a more rugged experience, but there are benefits: There is no need to corral the kids and keep them from destroying a hotel room as you pack up to leave or shush them as you attempt to load multiple plates at a continental breakfast. Instead, they can run and play in nature while you load up the tent or cook the oatmeal. There is a peace in being far removed from stop lights and neon signs and road noise. The sounds of a brook or a bird singing offer a slower, gentler pace of living.
Shared adventures can also be a wonderful bonding experience for families. Stories such as: “Remember that time we were hiking and it rained on us and then a beaver popped out of the bush and you screamed!?” or “Remember when we found the meadow with the creek in it and an island?” become enshrined in your family’s history. When you travel together in God’s creation, you weave a tapestry of adventure and wonder that unites your family in unique ways.
On a camping vacation, the majority of your time will be spent outdoors, exposing your family to the wonder and beauty of God’s creation. A butterfly’s wings, a hummingbird’s jeweled colors, and an elk’s massive antlers can teach many lessons about a powerful God who is intelligent and wise, creative and loving. Like the hymn says: “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings, the music of the spheres.”
Have you ever sat and looked at the stars in a place where no city lights dull their brilliance? Many nights, while camping, our children have stayed up late to watch the stars come out. We have shown them the Big Dipper and the Milky Way, a shooting star, and perhaps even a planet. They acknowledge in this their smallness and they express awe at the bigness of the God of the Universe holding it all together.
When I was a child, I had the advantage of camping every summer. Skipping a shower, cooking outdoors, and using less-than-elegant facilities is not new to me. I realize that not everyone is accustomed to this and it doesn’t come as easily to all. However, I believe that everyone can do it, in their own way, and there is much value in the attempt. Here are some tips I have learned along the way that have helped our family as we have camped with infants, toddlers, young children, and even while pregnant.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Not all campsites are created equal. Before camping, research the different options available. Read reviews, look up images online, or even call the parks department for more details. Some campsites are more rugged than others. Some require you to walk your supplies in, while others provide parking. Some come with fire pits, barbecues, and picnic tables—some do not. Some have flushing toilets and showers, while others are more primitive. RV parks often have campsites or small cabins that, while furnished, still require you to bring your own bedding, though they often have a pool, a playground, or other amenities. This could be a gentle introduction to camping. You don’t want your first time to be so difficult that you never want to repeat the experience!
Camping does require appropriate gear. If you don’t own the equipment, perhaps you can borrow from a friend or rent. There are many companies that rent out travel vans outfitted with pop-up tents and even small kitchens inside. If you are ready to dive in and obtain some gear of your own, keep it simple: tent, bedding, cookstove, and cooking supplies (check thrift stores instead of bringing your kitchen supplies), lantern, a percolator or plastic french press—we may be camping, but we still need coffee. You’ll need to be able to make a fire and wash your own dishes. Before you go, sit down and make a list of all the ingredients and cooking items required, otherwise you may find yourself trying to cook hamburgers without a spatula. The good news is that you won’t need toys—nature provides its own entertainment. A few audiobooks for the drive, some art supplies, and even some nature field guides are sufficient to occupy your child’s time.
Never camped before? Perhaps a week in the Sierra mountain back country wouldn’t be a good idea. It’s best to start small. Grab a pizza on a Friday night and camp close by so you can ease into your first experience. One year, when we had an infant, I requested an ‘easy’ camping trip. We camped in Tahoe at a site where we could walk to pizza and Starbucks, then stayed with friends for a night before heading to our next location. I didn’t even bring a stove on that trip! We grocery shopped for all of our breakfast and lunch foods (yogurts, granola bars, sandwiches), but ate our dinners out to keep the trip more simple and relaxing.
BE A DETECTIVE
Many of the places we visit are completely new to me. Since we usually travel every few days as we camp, I like to zoom in on the map as I trace our route to find interesting stops. This breaks up long drives and reveals hidden gems. We have found living history museums, wild cat sanctuaries, and natural hot springs using this method. Campsites can be found from locations as varied as the beach to the mountains. Seek out a place you and your family will love.
There isn’t one way to camp. Make your trip your own. You may prefer to stay in a pre-erected canvas tent that boasts a king bed with a down comforter. Maybe your family enjoys visiting a KOA campground and participating in their movie nights. Perhaps you like to hike ten miles in, with all your gear on your back, to be farther away from all civilization, or go on ranger-led walks and observe birds. Whether your tent has twinkling lights and afghans or bedrolls and hand-me-down sleeping bags, the beauty of camping is that your family can make your own traditions that work for you.
Food: Many items can be cooked and even frozen prior to leaving—think spaghetti, meat, sauce, chicken for tacos, and hard-boiled eggs. You’ll be glad for anything that simplifies cooking! Oatmeal is an easy breakfast as well—just add water.
Water: Besides being necessary for life, it’s also an excellent source of entertainment. Creeks, lakes, and rivers can supply all of the inspiration your children need to stay busy for hours. Consider this when choosing a location.
Clothing: Bring old or stained clothes (I even save some specifically for camping, rather than throwing them out), or purchase clothing at a thrift store. If they get destroyed, you can throw them away at the end of the trip with no guilt and no laundry.
Friends: Does camping overwhelm you? Are you worried your children won’t take to it? Go with friends! Share the cooking load, pool your supplies, and provide friends for your kids to enjoy.
Imagine a weekend or a week away with no cell phone service, no highway noise, no schedules to keep, and no distractions—just you, your family, and God’s creation. This is the heart of camping. It’s a way to simplify life and focus on the essentials. Our culture is busy and hurried; take a load off and get away. Seek the peace of nature with your family and you’re sure to make memories you will treasure for years to come.
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