When Nature Calls

Camping with kids takes extra effort--but it's worth it

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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, our kids have used it as a playhouse, guesthouse, and train depot. And one recent summer, my husband, Jamie, and I, along with our two kids, actually used it as a tent. After five years of day trips carting bags of diapers, we were pining for some bigger expeditions. 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 with another couple to Colorado and Utah for a month and a half of adventure.

Our kids became budding birders. 'Look, Dad, there's the grateful heron!' said 5-year-old Ben on the San Juan River. Two-year-old Annabel learned to spot the nests of cliff swallows, and together we watched peregrine falcons soar past sandstone walls. Ben worked on his spin-casting, while Annabel developed a flair for hopping across boulders and peeing in the river.

Yet achieving moments like these is a little like engineering Caesar's conquest of Gaul. There's a tremendous amount of advance work, from finding routes to planning snacks to packing emergency boredom-busters. There's the mountain of gear and supplies; then there are the logistics of moving the mountain. So why do it? Besides the clich?d but true reasons--Family Togetherness! Memories for a Lifetime! Instilling 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.

We found that the logistics became less daunting with every new adventure. We now keep a checklist of essentials: first-aid kit, sunscreen, bug spray, munchies, stuffed bunny.

My, our lives have changed.

Before we left for Colorado, I had 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 (Wilderness, 2006). 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 kids 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 were considerably less relaxing. One evening in the desert, our toddler suffered heat exhaustion. 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 a trip like this with a smile. 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 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.

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 markers. One afternoon, after a drizzly short hike, the moms took the older kids into town for ice cream and shopping. 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. I had canoed a nearby section of this river with him when I was 14. With my kids and my dad aboard, 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 of the day. '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 Helena, Montana. Reprinted from Backpacker (Feb. 2007). Subscriptions: $19.97/yr. (9 issues) from Box 7590, Red Oak, IA 51590; www.backpacker.com.