Camping with Kids

I’ve been camping all of my life, it seems. I don’t remember my first camping trip, but I know I was rather young. I do know that a couple of decades ago, I’d gone to Dinosaur Valley State Park and was telling my parents about it later, saying I’d never been there before. They replied, in unison, “Yes you have. You were three years old and had strep throat.” And I doubt that was my first camping experience.

So yeah, I’ve car camped, backpacked and canoe camped, but until I had my own, I’d never camped with kids. It’s definitely a different experience…and a surprisingly pleasurable one. That’s what took me by surprise. When my son Bryce turned four, I was itching to go camping, and hadn’t been since he was born, so we did an overnighter—at a campground less than 5 miles from the house, just in case. I wasn’t completely looking forward to dragging a kid along. What if he didn’t like it? What if he was terrified being in a tent at night.

I needn’t have worried. He did great. We hiked, cooked food, slept fine in the tent, found a turtle that had dug a hole near the lake and watched it lay eggs, and in general had a great time. The spring weather was great and everything cooperated. And I had a lot more fun than I expected.

It was several months before we camped again, though we did spend time in the outdoors traveling in Arkansas, New Mexico and Colorado, so we were experiencing at least some of the aspects of nature. I finally decided we needed to go camp again in November, and wanted to go a bit further afield to a state park that was larger (as in we couldn’t walk it all in an hour like we did the first time), and Bryce wanted his friend Abby to come along. I had no trepidation about this because I was sure her parents would say no. Wrong! So we went camping at Lake Ray Roberts.

Let me tell you about mud. Shoe sucking mud. Literally. It sucked the shoes off of them. Bryce was fairly pragmatic about it—just pulled one foot out and then tried pulling his shoe out. Abby freaked, in part because her shoes were on tighter and she couldn’t pull her feet out. I got her, then her shoes out and they went barefoot along the beach while I worked at getting that tar-like mud off the shoes so they’d be wearable again. Other than that, the camping trip was great. Roasted hot dogs and s’mores, hiked around, they caught cricket frogs, I convinced them that the lake was really their home and they wouldn’t like our homes much, did the nature trail and generally had fun. They both were ready to do it again. Another success.

Since then, Bryce and I have camped several more times, sometimes with Abby, sometimes with other friends. We’ve had rain, thunderstorms, sleet, and winds that laid the tent down so we had to rearrange kids so they weren’t caught under the nylon. None of this has fazed them much. All of them are ready to go camping again. They’re hooked to the point that one time Abby was coming over for a sleepover and complained that she’d rather go camping. And I’m hooked on camping with kids.

I’m hooked for several reasons. I’m hooked because they cause me to see things differently—to see things fresh like for the first time, because they are seeing it for the first time, and to them it’s amazing, whether it’s how the purple beautyberries clump around the branches, or watching the little fish swimming in the lakes, or deciding that they want to taste the prickly pear fruit since its ripe.

I’m hooked because you can see them learn. They challenge themselves as well as each other when they’re out there. They seem to gain more life experiences in an overnight camp-out than they do in a month at school. I let them lead. They learn a lot more by being up front and seeing things rather than having me point everything out, though I’ve been known to call them back for something they’ve missed.

I try to teach them some things. They can recognize greenbrier (it has thorns and it scratches and hurts) and poison ivy (they haven’t gotten into that…yet) and some other plants. Other things they learn by doing. We’ve gone bushwhacking and they’re learned to read the land some and find the best way to go through and around the bushes and cacti and up and down the loose rocky terrain.

I’m hooked because they’re outside. They’re not in front of the TV or computer or phone. They’re breathing in fresh air and immersed with being outside in nature. For me it’s calming, even with looking after the kids, and it seems to do the same for them. My son had behavior issues in kindergarten, but I noticed that those weekends that we camped or otherwise spent significant time outdoors were those where his behavior was good for at least the first couple of schooldays that next week.

I’m hooked because they’re having fun. That helps make it easy. If they weren’t having fun, I’m not sure how much of the other items I listed above would be happening. Even when we had the unexpected sleet storm during the night on a two-dad, four-kid camp-out and everything was covered with ice the next morning, the kids had fun and were ready to camp again even though for two of them it was their first camp-out ever. While Abby and Bryce were both complaining about being cold by the time we were fully packed, when I asked if they wanted to take the nature trail at the park entrance (it had become something of a tradition by this point), they both gave a surprising and resounding “Yessss!!!” so we stopped and took the trail.

In May, Bryce has a camp-out with his Cub Scout Pack. He has some advantages over his contemporaries since he’s a seasoned camper, but that won’t matter too much because all the kids will have fun.

Speaking of camping, we’ve decided that we should go camping at Dinosaur Valley State Park next month, and he wants to go back to both Caprock Canyon State Park and Big Bend National Park during the summer. I’m thinking about this, and if we’re hitting both of those places, we should also probably go to Cloudcroft, Carlsbad Caverns, Davis Mountains State Park and maybe one or two other places while we’re out that direction. I’m ready!