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Camping with the Kids

When my best friend invited me to go camping with her family in high school, I was hesitant. I remembered all those Girl Scout camping trips from my elementary days – good times, yes, but also black widows, violent thunderstorms, coyotes in the tent, scorpions in the shower and walking half a mile to use the restroom (in the rain, inevitably).
So naturally I said yes.
What was I agreeing to, exactly? Tent camping in a state park. Washing dishes at a spigot. Forgoing a shower for three days. Bushwhacking. Playing Catchphrase around the campfire. Identifying bird calls at night. And best of all – savoring the family’s famous marinated steak fajitas.
I’m still not a camper, per se, but I get it.
Priscilla Ragsdale gets it too. The Carrollton mom has been camping with her family for 25 years. She and her husband David began camping as a young couple because they couldn’t afford a “real” vacation. But after continuing the tradition with their two kids, Priscilla says they “eventually decided that a ‘real’ vacation was camping.” Her kids agree. They were 4 and 2 on the family’s inaugural camping weekend at Tyler State Park, and they have clamored for more ‘real’ vacations ever since.
Priscilla recommends her family’s model for getting started: your first outing, especially with little ones, should be “short and sweet with plenty of activities planned,” so that even the youngest in your brood will want to camp again. “A first bad camping trip can turn even an adult into a Marriott devotee.”
North Texas native Tracey Hutcherson also advises picking a time of year when the weather will be nice – not too hot or too cold. “You can never really know for sure about rain, but if you’re prepared with rain gear and things to do inside the tent, camper or screen shelter, it should still be a great experience for everyone,” she says. The mom of two has camped with kids ages 22 months to 20 years, and she knows that successful camping early can turn a child into a lifelong enthusiast.
On every trip, pack plenty of activities so the kids won’t get bored. Tracey and Priscilla both recommend bikes for keeping the family active and allowing everyone to explore the far reaches of your chosen locale. Hand out walkie-talkies to keep in touch – your kids will appreciate the chance to roam alone. “Giving our children an opportunity to be more independent was one of the reasons they enjoyed camping so much,” Priscilla explains.
Board games and card decks are also camping staples. “Whatever games you enjoy at home have a different appeal while camping,” Tracey says. There’s just something about slapping cards on a picnic table or staring down your opponents in the light of a campfire that makes every game more memorable. Just be sure you don’t throw Catchphrase in the fire in your enthusiasm. For some fun away from the blaze, grab your flashlights and play a little flashlight tag.
Packing your own amusement is important, but you should also choose a location with built-in entertainment. State parks and other camping destinations offer outdoor recreation like fishing, hiking, kayaking and horseback riding. Some state parks have a playground or nature center geared towards families. And you can always take advantage of the topography for some “good old fashioned exploring,” as Tracey puts it, such as climbing trees and spying on the native fauna.
Interspersed with free time are the chores – unusual, perhaps, for a family vacation but a necessary and valuable aspect of camping. Both moms make sure their kids pitch in with all the responsibilities at the campsite. “We believe a family activity includes the whole family with everything, from packing to setting up to cooking to taking down to unpacking,” Priscilla says. Her kids pack their personal gear and help gather group items. Once at camp, her kids are expected to participate in unloading the vehicle, sweeping the tarps and setting up the tent. Even cooking is a group effort.
The picture is similar in Tracey’s family. “Everyone participates in cooking and cleanup,” she says. “Sandwiches for lunch? Let them make their own.” Other age-appropriate tasks could include flipping burgers, washing dishes, carrying wood and keeping the fire going. And when all is prepped and packed, even the youngest camper can pick up trash. “I think our kids have gained a greater appreciation for family time and working together to get the job done,” Tracey says. “Camping has helped my kids to realize that there are many things they can do themselves without depending on mom and dad to do it all for them.”
It’s those lessons that make camping so worthwhile for Tracey and Priscilla. They have watched their kids accept more responsibilities and discard notions of entitlement. And camping is an exercise in minimalism. It’s about leaving some things at home, like air conditioning, recliners and bad attitudes. Tracey and Priscilla adamantly disallow electronics at the campsite (with the exception of family games, walkie talkies and one cellphone reserved for emergencies only). Priscilla’s kids have learned that they don’t need constant electronic stimulation. “Being quiet with your own thoughts is good,” she says.
Tracey’s kids also prefer to enjoy their natural surroundings. “The time away from the hectic lifestyle we lead is very refreshing,” she admits. And her kids understand the benefits of sacrificing, even for a time, those things they really don’t need. They even urged their mom to let go of her own tempting indulgences during campouts. “My kids decided that if they could not take electronics then I could not take my makeup. It took awhile,” she says, “but I finally gave in.”