The move to Northern California awoke within me a passion for the outdoors I never knew existed. I recall my first trip to Tahoe, the roads winding up through the mountains and my head out the window like a dog on the way to the park. I was in love. My new church had a camping group, and I remember standing at the kiosk after services as the leader of Bayside Adventure Sports told me about the fun, fellowship and communion with nature. At the time, it seemed like the empowering setting I was seeking.
I stood in Wal-mart looking at the various tents and sleeping bags, my preschooler pulling on my arm. She can’t handle 20 minutes in Wal-mart I thought to myself, how am I going to handle three days without SpongeBob to save me from her mood swings. I left Walmart overwhelmed and empty-handed.
The next day I searched online for what I should bring. I ran into extensive lists that included survival knives that could kill a bear and first-aid kits that could replace an ER. I pulled up Google maps. My campsite was less than 20 minutes from several restaurants and less than 15 minutes from a large grocery store. I am a single mom on a budget, and though it was tempting to purchase the travel trailer complete with a refrigerator I just wanted to know three things, what do I need, what do I want and what is being marketed to me that I do not need.
After talking to several people and figuring out some basics my little and I were ready to go. I watched in awe at how natural it was for my child, (frequently surrounded by electronic screens and plastic toys while constantly complaining of boredom) to be in nature. I put my phone away and watched my daughter and her new friends play with dirt, rocks, and sticks for hours until dinner time. The next day at the lake we arrived at 9 am, she happily played in the sand until we went home at 5. That night she escaped her sleeping bag and crawled into mine. She cuddled into me, and I held my child as we slept. In a house surrounded by ‘things to do,’ my child and I are more entertained by the wonders of nature. Some of my favorite moments as a mother are camping with my kid. I watch the girl I treat as oh so fragile, scale rocks, climb trees and roll in the dirt. I see her as more independent and capable. I fall in love with my child more and more every day but there is something about camping with her that also makes me fall in love with being her mother.
A talk with a Master:
Erik Allen and his wife are lifelong campers. Erik works for a local camping ministry. He has guided several campers (including myself) on their first trip into the wilderness. He said, “A cool thing someone once told me in relation to bringing kids and doing things as a family in general” Start small, short, easy and often. As they get older, or when you decide to do a big trip, it won’t be such a shock. It will become just something that you do.”
Erik is a self-proclaimed ‘gear lover.’ He told me that you want to be sure to have insulation between the ground and yourself. He bought a cheap foam pad at Walmart for each member of his family to help keep warm at night. The pad goes under your sleeping bag. He told me he likes this better than an air mattress alone because ‘an air mattress doesn’t have insulating properties.’ He went on to say, ‘I love my 2-burner camping stove’. He suggests bringing pots and pans from home before investing in a camping set.
He wanted to impress the importance of camp etiquette. He told me once he was camping and his youngest was crying at night. They put on the portable DVD at 2 am and watched cartoons with him. He laughed and said he couldn’t believe he was watching TV at 2 am in a tent. But whatever works. People will understand when your kids are crying, but you still need to be respectful if they won’t stop. He suggested taking them for a car ride.
Questions to ask yourself:
-Why are you camping? If you just want to try something new vs. you want to immerse yourself in nature be sure to take that into consideration. The joy of camping in Sugar Pine, Lake Tahoe is there is a grocery store 20 minutes away. In fact, not just a grocery store but also a casino, hotel, movie theater and anything else you could want. It is amazing to wake up in a tent and hike down the lake and back then drive to breakfast at Denny’s. You feel immersed but not isolated. If you are looking for an in-depth immersion into nature, perhaps backpacking is more up your alley. Just make sure you research local wildlife and necessary permits if any.
-Who are you camping with? For first-timers, I highly suggest linking up a group. I am lucky enough that my church started Bayside Adventure Sports. They do all the legwork and have a great staff to help with gear, and they even have gear they loan out if you want to try before you buy. Another great option is joining a meetup group. Check meetup.com to see if there is a camping group in your area. There you can look for locals that already know the area and perhaps are willing to let you join up on one of their trips. If you can’t get a group of friends do some research on popular places to camp in your area. Ask for a more populated area, so you are not isolated if you have questions.
-What is your fitness level? Are you interested in biking, hiking, kayaking? Be realistic. I have been on hikes with people that get in over their heads. You may drive up a mountain to get to your campsite and go on a downhill hike. Remember that you have to go back up that hill to get back to your tent.
-Is the site safe for kids? Camping right on the water is a romantic idea if you aren’t going to have to worry about your child running into the lake the entire time. My favorite campsites are near the water but not right on the beach when camping with the kids.
Questions to ask others:
Make sure your desired lodging is accommodated. If you are bringing an RV or travel trailer, be aware some campsites may not have the required hookups.
At many National parks, you may need to book six months in advance as spots are in high demand. About 50% of campsites are first come first serve. If possible, scout out sites in advance. Go by yourself and note what site best serves your needs. (IE away from the dumpsters is nice, but also walking distance to bathrooms is a big plus). There is almost always an info board or kiosk with how to make reservations posted at the entrance to the park. It is always good to do a scouting trip.
Ask if there are toilets and showers and what your proximity will be?
Are there any rules unique to your campsite (i.e. regarding wildlife, alcohol, pets, etc.). Do not assume your pet will be allowed at the campground. Also, many campsites require the use of bear boxes. You will want to know the dimensions of the bear box before you arrive. My first time camping I brought an oversized cooler that would not fit in the bear box. It was a huge inconvenience to leave the campsite to drive to the store to find a smaller cooler. Call the site ahead of time tell the ranger station that you are a first-time camper and would simply like to know of anything they want to say to you in advance. The staff at the campsite is a great resource. They want you to be prepared. Be considerate and learn the rules.
Another helpful tip, clean and vacuum your car before you camp. Bears have very sensitive noses. Every season bears destroy cars trying to get in when they smell food.
What Gear should you get?
If you can borrow a tent for your first-time camping, then do so. If you are going to buy a tent, then I suggest splurge on the pop-up tent. It may cost a little more, but you will be glad you did so when you see others around you wrestling with those annoying little poles. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, SET THE TENT UP BEFORE YOU GO. You do not want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere and have the profound realization you are unable to set up your tent.
Sleeping bag or air mattress AND a pad. (If you require a pump for the air mattress I suggest a foot pump as many campsites do not have an outlet for the electric pump). There are many sleeping bags out there. I camp in the summer usually at places like Tahoe. I have a $30 sleeping bag from Walmart, and it works great. Extreme temperatures or backpacking will require specialized sleeping bags.
LAYERS! I have camped Tahoe, Santa Cruz, Yosemite and Burning Man. Being outside you feel the fluctuations in temperature. I love baggy yoga pants over my shorts. Zip up hoodies help that transition from morning cold to afternoon heat. Erik noted that people often get holes burned into nice coats from a stray campfire spark. Be aware that fleece will melt. So around a campfire, he likes to stick with flannel and jeans.
GLOWSTICKS!!!- at night kids like to run around. I cover my child in glowsticks. So I can always spot her quickly in the mess of playing children.
Toys- Nerf football, Frisbee, if you are brave a slingshot (hey where else can they use one). My daughter has a big toy dump truck that is a camping favorite. She loads it up with dirt for hours
Cooking Stove. I have a small tailgate stove. It works great. But if you plan you can get away without cooking. Sandwiches, Lunchables (DIY or store bought) as well as prepackaged breakfast can save time and space. If you do want to cook, even a jet boiler can help you with premade stews and save on space.
Never forget a can opener.
Flashlights or lanterns
baby wipes (wipe down hands, face, surfaces)
When camping with kids I like do as much as I can ahead of time. My friend is a master at finding little cheats to save time during meals. He pre-scrambles his eggs and has most everything chopped and ready before he leaves the house. I have taken note, and one of my easy camping dishes is below.
1 can black beans drained
1 can corn kernels drained
1 can rotell tomatoes
1 package taco seasoning
Mix ahead of time and put in a plastic container in your cooler.
Bring tortillas and shredded cheese. Simply heat up the taco mix and serve. Simple and quick.
Picture Frame Craft:
I love this because it is simple and allows the kids to create a keepsake from the trip.
In advance, you only need to buy some craft popsicle sticks and wood glue.
Have the kids glue the sticks in a square to create a picture frame. They can then use the glue to decorate the frame with rocks, shells, sticks, leaves, whatever they find meaningful to them.
I like to take fun pics and selfies and later glue them to the inside of the frame. Add magnets when you get home to put it on the refrigerator.