Family Camping: Good for the Whole Family

Why a life outdoors is so important for your kids–and for you.

Let me sing the praises of the big tent. Nobody else does. The talk is all about ultralight bare-bones micro-nano-peanut-schmeanut. Nonsense.

Our tent is so big, we can–and have–put a portable crib in it. Our kids have used it as a playhouse, guesthouse, train depot, crêperie drive-through (yes, the yuppifying small Montana city where we live actually has one of those), and beauty parlor (that's my boy, the 5-year-old budding makeup artist).

And as of this past summer, my husband Jamie and I, along with our two kids, actually used it as a tent, and slept in it–and slept, well, quite a lot. On river trips and hiking-biking-camping trips, the kids got used to moving around. And, happily, so did we. After 5 years of doing day trips and carting around bags of diapers, we were ready for some bigger expeditions. More accurately, we were pining for them. The wilderness had been a big part of our lives, pre-parenthood. So with a sense of thrill, we dusted off our gear, upgraded our mattress pads to the "deluxe" models, purchased a couple of wee sleeping bags, and headed out to Colorado and Utah for a month and a half of adventures.

Our kids became budding birders. "Look, Dad, there's the Grateful Heron!" said 5-year-old Ben on the San Juan River. His little friend Caroline called it the Great Blue Karen. Our 2-year-old daughter learned to spot the nests of cliff swallows, and together we watched peregrine falcons soar past sandstone walls. Ben swelled with the joy of achievement after hiking 2 miles up the canyon's steep Honecker Trail (fortunately, his dad brought a kid carrier to haul him down). Ben worked on his spin-casting, while Annabel developed a flair for hopping across boulders and peeing in the river.

Yet achieving such moments out of doors with a young family is a little like engineering Caesar's conquest of Gaul. There's a tremendous amount of advance work, from routefinding to snack-planning to packing emergency boredom-busters. There's the mountain of gear and supplies; then there's the logistics of moving the mountain. There's a lot of making camp, breaking camp, and making camp again, all while keeping the foot soldiers safe and the morale high. It might take just as long to plan the adventure as to actually have it.

So why do it? Besides the clichéd but true reasons–Family Togetherness! Memories for a Lifetime! Instill a Love of Nature!–there's the future to think about. Starting little ones out early will help them (and us) be more comfortable and competent on bigger and better trips down the line. We do it for them and we do it for us.

One afternoon as we were pulling our raft over to the bank on the San Juan, our daughter looked at the welcoming spot and said, "Mom, is this where our home is?" I felt a smidgen of guilt–children need stability, the experts intone–but then I realized that stability is an indoor concept, and didn't we evolve with a little taste for exploration in our blood? As long as she had her family and her blankie, our toddler was ready for action. And I swear if we rationed out enough lollipops and apples, she could march right up Ama Dablam.

We found that the logistics became less daunting with every new adventure on the trip. We got to the point where we could pack for a 2-day river float in two hours. My husband typed up a checklist of essentials that we used over and over again: first-aid kit, sunscreen, bug spray, munchies, stuffed bunny.

My, our lives have changed.

Packing for the multiday river trip that began our big adventure, I thumbed through a copy of Scott Graham's excellent book, Extreme Kids: How to Connect With Your Children Through Today's Extreme (and Not So Extreme) Outdoor Sports. His advice is sage. "Slow down," he writes. "Leave the how-many-miles-did-you-run/hike/bike/paddle mentality at home." Right-o. But how to while away the slower times? "Pails and shovels, of course!" Why didn't I think of that? And so the four kids on that trip, all under 5 years of age, spent hours making "peppermint" mud cakes and throwing rocks in the river. They got muddy, sandy, and as happy as I've ever seen them. I actually sat in a camp chair with a margarita and read a book one afternoon.

Other moments are considerably less relaxing. One evening while camping in the desert, our toddler came down with classic signs of heat exhaustion. The day was hotter than a furnace, and I hadn't realized she wasn't swimming or drinking as much as the rest of us. I plied her with water all night and kept her in the shade as much as I could the next day. Fortunately, she bounced right back to her boulder-hopping ways in no time.

Flexibility, we found, is the key to surviving these trips with a smile on your face. The weather doesn't always cooperate, and neither do road and trail conditions, children's moods, and GI tracts. One weekend, we were forced to improvise when a campground we'd aimed for lay beyond a closed road. It was just above the town of Gothic, Colorado, elevation 9,500 feet. We figured most of the snow would be melted, but we hadn't planned on the road crew. It was late, we were hungry, and thunderclouds were gathering. Still, we decided to ditch the cars. We popped open a bag of cheese puffs, loaded the kids and gear into bike buggies, and pedaled into camp ahead of the storm. The kids thought it was a grand adventure, and we grownups were giddy with our instant sense of remoteness. We ended up in sudden backcountry, with an entire campground and its trails to ourselves. Life doesn't get better than that next day: kids snug in the bike trailer with their apples, mom and dad and friends pedaling past dramatic Mt. Baldy in the verdant Elk Range.

That weekend, the rain fell and fell. But the best thing about a big tent is that it holds everything you need for such a time: the shockingly unprogressive Sleeping Beauty storybook, the duffel bags full of pull-up diapers, socks, stuffed animals, and washable magic markers. One afternoon, after a drizzly short hike punctuated by brief washes of sunshine, the moms took the older kids into town for ice cream and shopping while the younger ones napped in camp. It wasn't a strict wilderness trip, but everyone was happy. And Crested Butte has great ice cream.

One week my father, now in his late 60s, joined us for a paddling and camping trip down Ruby and Horsethief Canyons of the Colorado River. Near Grand Junction, it's a gentle stretch with serpentine side hikes, perfect for kids.
I had canoed a nearby section of this river with him when I was 14. Through many years of river running and other adventures, my father taught me that there's nothing like a childhood spent outdoors to build confidence and gain a sense of wonder and perspective, and that it's always fun to go camping with good friends and other kids.

The gear has improved since then. Now wee ones wear splash shirts, kiddo waterproof sandals, even mini-hydration packs. We've outfitted our raft with a huge John Deere tractor umbrella for shade, and Annabel naps under it on a bench padded with Crazy Creek chairs. Being here now with my kids and my dad, our raft felt whole.

"What's your favorite river, Dad?" I asked as we drifted by smooth sandstone walls. We had just finished our 15th application of sunscreen for the day. My father has a tendency to get a little poetic now and then, and we usually roll our eyes and change the topic. "River trips are great not because of the river, but because of what happens on them," he said. I thought my kids might douse him with their Stream Machine Hydrobolic Water Launchers. But they just seemed to consider him for a moment. Then Annabel asked for another lollipop, and Ben went back to fly-casting his yellow plastic fish into the Colorado.

Florence Williams lives and writes in the yuppifying city of Helena, Montana.