I love camping. I love playing in the mountains, exploring, seeing new country, and doing activities that toughen myself and my children. With six kids, spending time in the outdoors can be a challenge. Whining, filthy little brats tax your patience, and yet spending the quality time is a great way to see them learn and grow.
I say two weeks, as that is about as much time as I have done. However, several years ago, my brother lived with his family at our 5 acre campground, without power, running water, or cell phone coverage for about 7 months. During that time, I saw a dramatic character improvement in his three kids. They built zip lines, panned for gold, built a cabin, rope swings, and cleaned up the camp. The boys went from typical suburbanite video gamers, to some really cool kids. The girl developed cooking and crafting skills. All of them became more personable.
Nothing ruins a camping trip faster than a cold, sleepless night because you bought the cheap Walmart sleeping bag on the thought that you don’t go very often so why spend the money? What happens is, if you don’t get a decent sleeping bag, you will dread camping and you will not use it. Get a decent $60 sleeping bag and an inflatable mattress. At the moment, we have 14 sleeping bags for the eight of us, some are older, but all are decent quality. If your kids don’t sleep well, you don’t sleep well.
As for me and the missus, we have a queen sized inflatable mattress, two good quality identical rectangular sleeping bags (they can zip together if they are identical), and a tent for privacy. The boys get a tent, the girls get another. We put the baby in a foldable playpen with heavy sleeping clothes. The kids don’t need an inflatable mattress, but a foam ground pad will help in colder climates.
Everyone Has a Responsibility
As the dad, you will be tempted to run the show with all chores. If you do so, you will become a servant, rather than the leader and teacher. Make sure all capable kids are doing their part, even if it takes them twice as long. We go out one several short weekend trips throughout the year, and the kids can set up their tents, clean up camp, collect firewood, or whatever. If it is simple food like hot dogs or oatmeal, they can do that too.
Hygiene and Laundry
If you are going for an extended trip, hygiene is vital. Not showering for a couple days at home is one thing, when you are in the dirt, sweating, or sitting over a campfire, the need to get yourself clean takes on a whole new meaning. Have a hygiene bag and clean yourself up daily if possible, not to exceed every three days.
Laundry is a huge part of it, especially with the kiddos. They love to play in the dirt, get chili down their shirt, or whatever. If they are kicking off their shoes and going around like that, take the shoes away and keep them stashed and available for when you are going in public. I don’t know how many hours we have spent looking for shoes.
Keep it simple stupid. Many fall into the trap of getting the latest and greatest gadgets for everything. No, you don’t need a campfire heated popcorn or a wind up radio/walkie talkie/flashlight/corkscrew/generator. The modern comforts are nice, but they are one more thing to haul, one more thing to worry about getting broken, one more thing to set up. Often, we will crash on the side of a lone highway with no more than a bed roll after getting a sub sandwich at the last grocery store.
Relax and Enjoy It
Camping is a great way to allow kids to be kids. They are naturally curious and will explore and try out new things, so long as you confiscate all electronics. Let them have fun, let them get hurt a little. So long as they are not annoying the neighbors, or doing something life threatening, they are going to learn new boundaries. Meanwhile, you can relax with your wife by the campfire.
Push Them a Little
Best thing about camping is to be in a place that you can explore new territory. A simple creek can offer new sights and wonders to behold. I try to avoid the popular sites where thousands come to take their picture and move on. Instead, get off the beaten path, and look for smaller features that offer more isolation.
Although more intense, I love backpacking with my kids. Every year, we will go to some lake, some canyon, or some mountain peak that pushes them. It helps them see their capability, and helps them improve their self confidence.
Near Zion National Park in southern Utah, is this place called Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. Unknown by most everyone except the local residents, I thought this offered more opportunities to hike around and explore than the main attraction where you are confined to the parking lots and crowded hikes where you go, take your picture and drive on.
Often, the unnamed logging roads, the canyons that are overlooked, and the vast expanse of National Forest or BLM land offers more opportunity to see what you want, that is a growth in your kid’s character.
Often, we are tempted to plan out our trip to the point that there is little room for freedom. Part of the fun of camping trips is doing unplanned activities because something looks fun.
Last year, we stopped at the rim of Glenn Canyon at this overlook. I walked up there, and noticed this sandy bank about 4 feet below the edge, out of the view of my family. I told them to take my picture. As my wife had the camera, I backed up and pretended to trip off what they thought was a 1000 foot drop. The screams were hilarious.
Another time, we were driving on this lone highway in northern Idaho. We stopped at this out-house to have lunch at. My son who was about 10 at the time was in the outhouse taking care of business. I threw in a pack of lit firecrackers while he was on the pot. He comes out all mad. The funny thing was, it wasn’t 2 minutes later that some maintenance worker drives up to clean up the site. He opens up the door and all this black powder smoke rolls out, he looks directly at me and says “looks like somebody was playing with fireworks”. I love being a turd.
While tiring, and often expensive, family camping is often one of the funner activities you can do. It offers many real life experiences to your kids and helps you grow closer together as a family. Plus, you sleep well when you get home.