Taking the family on a camping trip to the mountains or lakeside is one of life’s finest pleasures. It’s also one of the greenest vacations you could possibly take. However, even while surrounded by nature, there are those who just can’t embrace it — people who bring their enormous motor coaches to a beautiful place, then proceed to spend all their time inside watching football. Why go at all, then?
Those RVs seem like fun at first, but they can be a maintenance nightmare. Property tax, registration, storage, dump fees, and gas all cost money. So does maintaining the engine and appliances. Finding spots for camping that will accommodate an RV can be difficult. It’s an enormous, expensive toy with a huge carbon footprint that you may end up using only once or twice a year.
Instead, go to Target or Wal-Mart and get a big, family-sized tent. They often come with zip-down interior rooms and screened outer vestibules. Spread out a tarp underneath – its footprint should be just smaller than the tent’s footprint. I also like to keep a small rug right inside the door to catch dirt and rocks before they get any farther inside. Set up a small table with a lantern and a chair to one side. You’ll feel like a 19th century explorer.
Then get out and explore! A well-rounded child should be able to spend hours exploring a creek. Leave the cell phones, tablets, and handheld video games at home. (Well, you do want one cell phone for emergencies.) Read books. Take nature walks. Get a good naturalist’s field guide book, like Peterson’s, and refer to it. Learning about what you’ve immersed yourself in is part of the fun. Climb trees. Set up a hammock and take naps. Collect rocks, leaves, and bugs. Roast marshmallows and make s’mores.
Speaking of immersion, bring insect repellant and anti-itch cream. If you’re doing it right, you will end up with a fine collection of bug bites and scratches.
If you go into an area populated by bears, you will be required to store all your food and toiletries in a bear box, usually provided at the camp sites. Bears are always voracious, especially in the summer, and they have an excellent sense of smell. They will sniff out anything with a smell to it. That’s why your toiletries also have to go into the bear box. Despite all the warnings, however, every year there is at least one camper who thinks a cooler will be okay inside the car for “just a few minutes.” Polaroids of their horribly ripped-open destroyed car will decorate the campground’s bulletin board for the rest of the season: “Don’t Let This Happen To You.” Squirrels and blue jays are also very smart and fearless about getting your food. I once left a Ziploc bag full of trail mix on the picnic table and walked to my tent a few feet away. By the time I looked back just seconds later, a blue jay was merrily and violently pecking a hole through the bag!
I’ve done minimalist camping (backpacking), and I’ve done maximalist camping (comfort being key). Backpacking is great for the young and healthy. It offers unparalleled adventure, breathtaking views, a superior physical challenge, and memories for a lifetime. For those of us of a certain age or with physical limitations, I recommend car camping. If you can find a “walk-in” campground, it offers the best experience. There, you park your car at a central lot, then carry in all of your gear to the campsites a short distance away. That way, you’re away from the sight of the road and cars, fully inside the forest.
As for food, I’ve learned over the years to keep it simple. If you’re going to be near a stream, bring bottled beer, and find a sheltered spot to submerge them. There’s nothing like an ice-cold beer after a long, hot hike. Breakfast would consist of a Pop-Tart and coffee. Lunch would be a PBJ, trail mix, and energy bars. For dinner, I would have one prepared dehydrated meal in-a-bag from REI. Let me tell you how surprisingly delicious these things are. Technology is amazing. Also, with this diet, I have no dishes to wash aside from one spoon. One pot is used for boiling water.
If you really need to keep something cold, I recommend using block ice. Don’t buy it from the store, either. That stuff is just shaved ice compressed into a cube shape. Using a loaf pan, make your own solid block of ice. Fill and freeze it in layers, about one inch at a time; otherwise, the pan might warp. When it’s in your cooler, don’t drain off the melted water. Leave it in there and the block can last up to a week, especially if you wrap the cooler in a comforter during the day.
A whopping 93% of the U.S. population now lives in urban areas. Some kids have never really experienced nature for any length of time. That is a terrible shame. Get online and make reservations now at your favorite campground before the summer’s out!