I took the family camping. Here's what I learned.

I (finally) took my kids camping. Want to know what I learned?

Well, summer has come to an end. My girl started school this week. The first hunting seasons have opened and I'm even seeing some of the green fading out of some of the leaves. And though I didn't accomplish all I wanted to do this summer, I did finally get the family out camping a couple times. I even learned a few things in the process.

First, I have a confession to make. After trying for a good while to get the family to adopt tent camping, I stumbled across a sweet deal on a vintage pop up camper. So without much thought, I bought it (which goes against every tenet of financial discipline I've been trying to cultivate - but that's a subject for another time).

Our "new" camper. A 1973 Jayco with all original decor.
And when I say "vintage," I mean it. This 1973 Jayco is all original, right down to the green and yellow floral print curtains. The slide out canvas is the stuff Army tents are made from and literally disintegrating in some of the corners. But all in all, it's a solid unit and after leaving it set up in the driveway during a heavy rainstorm, I've discovered it's still water tight.

The day I brought it home, Girl (age 4) fell in love with it. She explored every nook and cranny, crawled over the beds, tested all the zippers (all of which, to my continued astonishment, still work flawlessly), and checked behind every door and drawer. I suggested we test it out by sleeping in it right there in the driveway that first night and she enthusiastically agreed.

But I had heard that before. We tried several times to tent "camp" on our front porch only to have her pull the plug at the end of the last bedtime story. I figured we'd toddle our way back to the house about the time it got dark. And that would have been fine.

So we put sheets on the beds and brought out her Elsa pillow and her stuffed animals and her blanket and we bid goodnight to mom and little brother and snuggled in just as the sun dipped below the trees. I reached deep into my repertoire and pulled out some bedtime stories I'd never used before (she loves hearing stories of my hunting and fishing adventures from when I was young). Her rapt attention soon dissolved into sleepiness followed by full-on snoozeville. I smiled, pulled the blankets up higher and followed suit. Though I still wasn't convinced we'd make it through the night.

Turns out, I was blissfully wrong.

Despite a howling pack of coyotes riling up every dog within a mile of our "campsite," a rather boisterous barred owl in the woods behind our house, and the occasional pickup passing by on the gravel road, we (well, she) slept peacefully through the night. Her only stirring was to occasionally reach out to make sure I was still laying beside her or to pull the blankets up tighter around us (it had been unseasonably - but most welcomely - cool that week which made for great camper sleeping).

Waking up after our first night in the camper.
The next morning we awoke at a decent time (I was expecting her to wake at sunrise but she slept about as late as usual) and we were both excited to have stayed the night in the camper - her, I assume, for the novelty of having slept outside, and me for finally having gotten my kid to camp with me, hopefully making the first step toward a lifetime of outdoor memories together.

Now I just had to get Wifey and Boy to join us and we'd be on our way to becoming the camping family I dreamed we'd be.

The heat returned shortly thereafter and I discovered that our vintage camper was ill-equipped for it. The little window A/C unit that a previous owner had installed was no match for the greenhouse effect of hot sun on green canvas. So it took us a couple weeks before we headed out on our first "official" campout together as a family.

Backed in to our spot at Shimek State Forest.
We met my brother and his 10-year-old son one Saturday afternoon at Shimek State Forest between Donnellson and Farmington, Iowa. Our 2013 Ford Explorer (aptly named Dora) pulled the little camper just fine on the 45-minute drive and we were set up well before dinner. We killed the time by blowing bubbles, kicking a ball around, and trying to keep Boy from toddling off into the giant patches of poison ivy and stinging nettle that grew thick anywhere missed by the mower. We tried a trail hike at one point until a meltdown of epic proportions put a quick halt to that endeavor.

Anyone that has, or has ever had, a one-year-old knows what I'm talking about.

After a dinner of hotdogs, Mac-n-cheese, and Pringles, I took Boy to bed at his usual time (around 7:30PM). It was still plenty light outside, but we have a pretty set routine so even despite having to sleep in his Pack-n-Play, he went down fairly quick. Girl asked to be taken to bed too just before 9:00 (which was an hour past her regular bed time), so we bid the others goodnight and turned in.

Boy made it until 3:00AM. Assuming he was cold, I lifted him up in bed with me since Wifey and Girl and commandeered the other bed. Unlike Girl, Boy is not a snuggler. He's more of a kick-dad-out-of-bed-and-sleep-sideways sleeper. He went back to sleep pretty quick and slept well the rest of the night. I did not. But hey, we were camping, so I was more than happy to endure some hardship to get the habit started.

The next day we were packed up and ready to hit the road for home before the morning dew burned off. Wifey and Girl had slept fairly well, but Girl is not a morning person so the bickering was escalating quickly. No use sticking around. Better to get everyone home and resettled into the routine, I figured. Our first true camping excursion had not been a disaster thus far, no use pushing our luck.

So, what did I learn? Several things. Here are a few:

Camping with Kids: What to Bring

  1. An area rug or ground tarp, or something to put on the ground for the little ones to crawl on. Sure, I'm all for letting kids eat dirt, but Wifey is not. And this particular campground wasn't well manicured. Even in the mowed areas, sprigs of poison ivy could be found. Plus, it was an equestrian area, so I'm sure the ground around the sites was well fertilized, if you get my drift. We hadn't brought anything to put down on the ground, but luckily my brother had a big blue tarp with him that worked great. We now have two stashed in the camper for next time.
  2. Plenty of things to do. Balls, frisbees, bubbles, whatever. Kids, it turns out, need constant stimulation. Left to their own devises, they may well find your brother's firewood hatchet and start hacking away at things. Like picnic tables. Or bugs. Or their toes. At home, they have all their stuff and can (sometimes) keep themselves entertained. At the campground, they only have what you bring - or what you can find for them. Sticks are great for a while. Until they're not. Bring plenty to do. 
  3. Food they like. My girl is a picky eater. I knew she wasn't going to eat anything that she doesn't normally eat at home. So I brought what I knew she liked. Hence the Mac-n-cheese.

Camping with Kids: What to Know (or Not)

  1. It won't go like you think. Whatever romanticized version of a fun-filled family campout you have in your head right now, forget it. Your kids will fight, scream, cry, throw things, get mad, laugh, smile, sleep, wake up, wake you up, wake up the entire damn campground, wreck the weekend, make the weekend, make you wonder why the hell you ever thought this was a good idea in the first place, and make you want to do it again next weekend. Just remember, however it goes, that's exactly how it should be. 
  2. Locate the restrooms. But still teach your kids (girls too!) how to pee outside. It's a life skill they'll appreciate when they don't want to walk to the bathroom in the dark. Tents and vintage popup campers lack restroom facilities. 
  3. It's okay to not have all the answers. I work for a conservation department and employ some of the most knowledgeable people when it comes to the natural world. Yet we all admit we don't have the answers to every question kids ask. And that's perfectly okay. Learn together. Take a picture of every "Dad, what's that?" and look it up later. Or bring some field guides. Or just make it up. Ask your kid, "What would you name that? And why?" You can always find out later what some scientist a hundred years ago thought it should be called. 
I'm sure there were other takeaways from our first outing, but that's what I remember most. As we get out more, I'll continue sharing our experiences here. Maybe it'll make your own outings just a bit easier.

What tips or tricks have you learned from your family outdoor adventures? Share them in the comments.