Tent Camping? Yes, You Can, and Yes, You Should!
Prior to Christmas 1995, we had camped only once, in a borrowed tent, but that year my wife surprised me with a Coleman cabin tent, dual burner stove, and liquid fuel lantern. The following spring, we found ourselves planning our first real family camping trip, and a few weeks after the new school year had begun, we headed for Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. We loaded up the Jeep, tied most of our gear to the roof rack (without the benefit of an enclosed car top carrier), and off we went. We really looked like the Beverly Hillbillies.
We drove up the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, not having a detailed travel plan or having chosen a specific campground destination. Once on the parkway, we saw a sign for the ‘Mt. Pisgah Campground.’ My wife Cheryl was driving at the time and said, ‘This looks good,’ and turned into the entrance. Our novice camper family would spend the next eight nights there, in our brand-new tent.
Being homeschoolers, we had scheduled this trip in September, when most other kids would be back in school. Consequently, we had the campground practically to ourselves. It was peacefully quiet.
Perhaps, like us, you live in suburbia, where (sadly) you don’t leave anything unlocked for a moment and always have to keep the garage door down so someone doesn’t swipe your bike right out from under your nose. On our first night at the campground, sleeping in a thin-walled nylon shelter that had no locks or any other means of keeping anything, or anyone out, I was terrorized by the feeling of vulnerability! I also quickly noticed that out in the woods, away from city lights, the definition of ‘night-time darkness’ was a few shades darker than that of our constantly backlit urban environs. For the first few nights, I kept the lantern burning all night long, thinking of it as some sort of streetlight, security system, bear deterrent, etc. (Cheryl explained that this really was not necessary and undoubtedly deduced that I was not cut out for this camping stuff.)
We spent the days together enjoying short hikes, picking berries, visiting waterfalls, and exploring other sites along the parkway. We went fishing and enjoyed the cooler weather, going into town only a couple of times. We cooked our meals at our campsite. There were no showers available, and Cheryl gave the girls (aged 6 and 2) baths in a 5-gallon bucket that we filled with water heated on the stove.
Now, fourteen or so years later, I recall with immense fondness the memories of that first camping trip—
both the challenges and joyous moments! Every year since then, we have camped somewhere as a family, sometimes twice a year, learning a bit more each time. The stove and lantern still work good as new, though the old Coleman tent had to be retired in recent years.
Looking back on all of those camping adventures, what have I learned?
- Camping is truly a training exercise in family cooperation, because you are living in a tent smaller than one of your bedrooms back home, minus a lot of the daily conveniences.
- You do not need another lecture on the physical fitness dilemma in America, but suffice to say, outdoor activities are better for us than many other forms of highly commercialized entertainment. In addition to hiking, we have ridden bikes on beautiful trails in the mountains. Rafting is another fun activity that is quite popular, though a bit commercialized.
- Most of all, you may be astonished to discover that your kids (and you) can be perfectly content playing for hours in a shallow stream while looking for salamanders and minnows, climbing trees at your campsite, or just sitting around the site throwing leaves and twigs into the campfire—all without an iPod, Nintendo or Facebook.
Our trips started me realizing how much of what the world makes us think is important is actually counterproductive to our Christian lives, an utter waste of time, energy, and money, and as the Book of Ecclesiastes often states, ‘vanity, and a chasing after the wind.’ (See Ecclesiastes 1:12, 17; 2:11.) I believe most kids have a natural yearning for nature and the outdoors that is often squelched or suppressed in our quest to ‘chase after the wind.’
Like most everything, tent camping has its challenges. These are character-building opportunities. Camping will help your kids (and their parents!) overcome some of our irrational fears, whether its fear of the dark, spiders, or getting wet in the rain.
When you take your family camping, you are creating memories for your families that will probably be more meaningful than a trip to Disney World or Gatlinburg. My daughters are now 20, 16, and 14 years old. They have been camping since the oldest was 6. I trust that when they are mature adults they will have many positive (and humorous) memories of our many family camping trips. For example, on our first trip to North Carolina, we were hiking on a trail as dusk approached, and a somewhat large, black animal came ambling down the side of the mountain and onto the trail about 50 yards in front of daughter Noelle, who was in the lead. Apparently forgetting that we were in North Carolina, it took Cheryl and me several seconds to realize that it was not a large, black, Great Dane that had escaped its owner’s leash. In excitement, I yelled out, ‘It’s a bear!’ to which Noelle responded with an ear-shattering scream. The bear took off down the trail at nearly the speed of light. Yes, bears can, indeed, run very fast!
Tips for Newbie Campers
Although ‘surprises’ are part of the fun in anyone’s camping experience, let me offer some tips that may prevent disaster and add to your fun:
- If you are just starting out, visit parks where facilities are more developed and include things such as showers, day rooms, camp stores, close proximity to groceries, and Ranger-led programs. Family campgrounds today range from ‘barely camping’ with cable TV and free Wi-Fi to ‘fairly primitive,’ with no showers, pit toilets, and only seasonal camp hosts or no on-site staff at all!
- Look for offsite activities with a local flair, things that you can’t experience back home. During past camping trips, Cheryl has directed us to an outdoor Revolutionary War drama in Boone, North Carolina
(www.horninthewest.com), and also to a kangaroo conservatory (or Kangaroo Conservation Center) in Dawsonville, Georgia (www.kangaroocenter.com)! These stand out in my mind as great experiences for our Floridian family. In other words, make a conscious effort to do things you aren’t used to doing back home.
- Take a break from the electronics. Encourage (or mandate) the family to put away their phones, iPods, iPhones, Blackberries, etc. Leave your portable TV/DVD players and amplified music at home or in the car. Instead, pack some playing cards and board games the family can play and enjoy together at the campsite. If you put away the electronics, you will facilitate personal communication and interaction, which is fast becoming a lost art these days.
- It takes effort from both Mom and Dad to make these trips successful. Both need to be supportive of each other. Having a good attitude is paramount. Cheryl has been a great partner and support over the years on our family adventures. She has also helped our adventures maintain a balance against my tendency to want to make our trips a boot camp! Thanks to her, my girls still like camping!
- Expect some things to go awry. Don’t assume it won’t rain. My shortsightedness in this area has resulted in my wife’s sleeping bag getting wet on more than one occasion. If you camp, you will get rained on. If you camp enough, you will get rained on heavily, but you will also learn how to waterproof a tent! We have learned that rain really does not inflict any serious injury—except maybe to your iPod!
Get Ready for Fun!
I love hiking. It is my personal favorite. It provides good exercise for the body and the soul.
Assuming you have not selected a hike that is truly beyond the overall capability of your family, hiking can be a great family team builder. As we know, complaining and whining has a contagion effect. Likewise encouragement and enthusiasm are also contagious in a group.
Once on the trail, you may note that each person may be drawn to different things. For example, I am interested in wildlife, observing and identifying tracks, scat, etc. When our daughter Julia started hiking with me, it was immediately obvious that she was intrigued with plants, flowers, and butterflies—things that did not normally attract my attention. However, her interest and knowledge in butterflies opened my eyes to beautiful things to which I had previously been oblivious. Some kids might not care much about botany but be fascinated with different types of rocks. Others may view an old home site with fascination about its history and former inhabitants, while another sibling (or parent) may see the same site and only see a derelict chimney where rats live. As a family, learn from one another and learn with one another.
If you are thinking about giving tent camping a try, or tried once and were discouraged, I hope that this will serve as an encouragement to you. Go for it!
Lenny and his family live in Tampa, Florida. Lenny and his wife Cheryl have three daughters: Noelle, Julia, and Olivia. We are homeschoolers from day one. Cheryl’s background is in Christian elementary education. She directs our homeschool group, which by the way, has gone on a semi-primitive tent camp-out under our direction every year for the past six years! Lenny is an employee benefits consultant and spends his free time outdoors, trying to help others to appreciate God’s natural creation.
Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Spring 2011.