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February 2007

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.

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