We went into the wilderness last weekend, and it was everything we thought it would be.
The list of reasons to not go camping is long: gas is too expensive, it might rain, the kids might be scared, we don’t have a tent/stove/sleeping bags, I got plenty of that in Girls Scouts/the Army/my twenties, we are so busy on weekends, I’d rather do chores around the house etc. Those are all valid, but after extensive field research the Our Kids Nature Team can report that family camping is imminently doable and immensely rewarding. Camping does not have to break the bank or even take up your entire weekend. Your kids will be likely to love it, and even if they don’t, well, at least you’ve given them an experience they will always remember.
Here’s the Our Kids Five Step Guide to Painless and Fun Family Camping:
Stay in the area
You don’t need to drive two or three hours to the Shenandoah to have an authentic overnight camping experience. The Washington DC area offers a bunch of decent campsites well within commuting distance. Skip the long drive, the expensive gas, and the investment of a whole morning just getting there. Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland, and Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun in Virginia all offer county, regional or state parks with overnight camping. Montgomery County gets the award for closest in legal camping sites: a limited number of hike-in sites are available (for Montgomery County residents only) in Glen Echo Park, inside the Beltway.
For what it’s worth, OK spent their first family camping trip at Little Bennett Campground in Clarksburg, MD. It was a short drive, but we felt like we were away from home and “in the natural element.” The campsites have a tent pad, fire ring, picnic table, parking spot and lantern post. Nearby there are restrooms with toilets, sinks and showers. The park has a variety of trails and a small nature center staffed by a friendly naturalist.
Just go overnight, at first
Building on #1 above, an overnight in the area will let you set up the tent, start a fire, cook with a stove, and sleep in sleeping bags after doing all the Saturday morning stuff – coffee, the paper, the soccer game, and picking up shirts from the laundry. Wake up Sunday morning, have breakfast, break camp, and you still have Sunday afternoon for all those honey-do’s that you’ve been looking forward to. After a few overnights you’ll have figured out what to bring, how to pack and what to do. You’ll be ready to do a two or three night camping trip, and can safely plan to go farther away and take time off from work. Start out slow and build the family’s outdoor stamina over time.
The shoulder seasons are fine
Thanks to climate change, even early April is fine for soft, sedentary nomads like us. Sure it was chilly at night during our early April field test, but that is what hot chocolate is for. Our little campers did not complain a bit. OK says April-May and September-October would be fine for family camping, less crowded than the “high season” and less bug-gy.
You don’t really need to bring alot of stuff.
Remember to bring the tent, sleeping bags, stove, fuel, and food and you are well on your way to a successful trip. Print a checklist from any of a hundred sites just to be sure, of course, but those are the basics. There are a bunch of things that you probably don’t need to bring, and many of them have batteries. Let the kids experience life “off the grid” for a little while.
“Tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to drink; but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”
Hotspur had it right. There are lots and lots of dangers lurking in the woods, everything from ticks (do check your kids and spouse after walks) to bears (keep food away from the camp in a bear proof container, if in a bear area), poison ivy and nettles (recognize it and avoid it) to snakes (walk loudly and don’t reach into logs or rocks blindly) and rabid animals (don’t touch wild animals, definitely ones who have no fear of humans). Instead of wishing natural dangers away, teach your children about them and how to avoid them. Show your kids that they can see in the moonlight, and that flashlights are fun but not always necessary. Teach them that there are some strange and even scary noises out there – and then explain what causes those noises.
There have been entire books written about camping, the wilderness, and backpacking, so we’ll leave all that to the experts and focus on some pointers for families heading into the wilderness, or at least into a tent overnight.
- Use a decent checklist before you visit StuffMart. Some stuff will be obvious, but other stuff you might not think of until it is too late. We worried that we should have brought balls, frisbees etc. but just being there was fun enough…the time went fast, and the little campers were too busy absorbing the experience to need to go play something they can play at home.
- Set up the tent at home the weekend before, for practice.
- Prep your little campers by explaining what you will be doing, and what the camp rules are. One of our interns spent most of last year very concerned about bears (as well as volcanoes) but said not a word about the possibility of a bear encounter when we went out. If your children have fears – strange noises at night, thunderstorms, animals, fire, whatever – then talk them out before you go.
- Skip the camp sites that feature power hook ups. They are more likely to be noisy, and you are more likely to end up bringing stuff that plugs in. What is the point of camping if you bring all that stuff with you?
- By all means have a campfire and make s’mores. Note that most camp ground have dry wood for sale, and some prohibit bringing your own because of the possibility of invasive pests.
- When it is time to get into your sleeping bag, consider reading “A Walk In the Woods” before you doze off.
If you are asking yourself “aren’t my children better off at home playing computer games or spending quality time with our flat-screen babysitter?” then you probably need to make a change. OK says spend a weekend in the woods with your kids!
Here are a few websites we found useful when getting organized for our first family camping trip: