Go Wild…and Bring the Kids

Why on earth would any parent go camping with their kids? Between the packing, the hauling and the dirt, it’s enough to send you running to the Holiday Inn. But it’s these very same rustic realities that make a weekend or even a week in the woods the perfect glue for a great family bonding experience.

“Unlike other types of vacations, you aren’t led around, signs don’t tell you what to do or where to go, there aren’t lines to wait on,” says Rick McClintock, executive director for the National Association for Therapeutic Wilderness Camping. “As a family, you have to depend on each other to create the activities and the structure for the day and to provide the necessities you all need for living.”

Camping isn’t just about working together as a family, of course. It’s about having a blast in a world where the regular rules don’t always apply. Things that may be taboo back at home -- starting campfires, skinny-dipping in the moonlight or sliding in the mud -- may be perfectly OK in the woods. “My daughter Zoe and I fight so much less when we’re camping, because I’m no longer “the enforcer” that I am at home. She’s more relaxed, I’m more relaxed, and we can both enjoy bending the rules together,” says Jamie Scurletis, 49, of Rumson, N.J. Sound interesting? Here are some tips to get you started:

Cut  your teeth with car camping Hiking into the woods with kids and setting up a backcountry camp is a recipe for stress if you’ve never done it before. Find a campground that allows you to park your car right next to the spot where you’ll pitch your tent. That means your supplies -- and your quick escape -- are seconds away.

Start short and stay close Think in terms of two nights away and two hours from home. There’s less at stake and less to pack. Save big, long trips for when you’re more confident campers.

Choose a campsite with care Campgrounds range from pastoral and peaceful to downright dreadful. Ask friends and family who camp what campgrounds and campsites they suggest. You can also find campground reviews online.

Borrow what you can There’s no sense in investing big bucks in all the gear only to find out camping isn’t for you. Ask friends or relatives if you can borrow the basic stuff. Check out The Coleman Company for a laundry list of basics (as well as other good beginner camping tips).

Do your homework Find out ahead of time what facilities your campground does and doesn’t have. It’s no fun showing up, for example, and finding out that everyone else has bikes because the woods are laced with great backcountry carriage roads. Do some research about local attractions, such as hiking trails and white-water rafting, as well as rainy-day bailouts like movie theaters and bowling alleys.

Stage a backyard dress rehearsal A dry run just a handful of yards from the house can help everyone get comfortable with the idea of camping. It’ll also give you a chance to get acquainted with the tent and other equipment. Now’s the time to discover that the air mattress your neighbor loaned you is flat as a pancake a mere 10 minutes after you blow it up.

Even with careful planning, camping can present real challenges: drenching rains, mosquito swarms or fishhooks in the hand can test even the heartiest camping clans. “There are definitely times that you’ll be sitting under a tarp playing cards as the rain pours down, and thinking, ‘wow, this really stinks,’” says McClintock. “But when you think about it, when’s the last time you and the kids actually played cards together?”
by Peg Rosen