Camp Outs

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1998

Camp Outs

Whether you hike for miles to pitch your tent or just drive up in your car, it's true — the marshmallows do taste better out there
By Karen Karbo


Happy Trails
From an all-day jaunt to a weeklong trek, seven kid-tested routes to the wilderness

Ten drive-up campsites with a backcountry feel

Backpacks To Grow On
Seven packs for every size hiker

Leave No Trace
Teaching your kids these simple skills, and get them involved in protecting wild places

Boots Made for Mileage
Five tough hiking boots for kids and adults

All the right stuff for camping

When I was a child we never went camping. My mother's response to my pleas was to blow smoke rings and say, "It'll be a cold day in hell." I vowed then that when I had children of my own, we would be campers. I had a curious fantasy: We would be like the Von Trapp family, marching across alpine meadows, swinging our arms in unison, maybe even singing.

Now when my family goes camping, the hills are alive not with the sound of music but with the sound of complaining. This is not to suggest that my kids — ages five, seven, and 12 — don't like camping. If you ask them, they will say they love camping. What they mean is, they love looking forward to the camping trip, and they love bragging about their exploits on the camping trip. The actual camping is always less than advertised.

Unless you've unwittingly given birth to the reincarnation of John Muir, your children probably don't have the urge to flee civilization; they aren't bogged down by dull jobs or e-mail. They don't pine for peace and quiet, or think food tastes better cooked over an open fire. Gummi Worms and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish taste the same everywhere.

Our first family camping trip with all the kids was in the rolling country east of Mount Hood at an isolated lake in the Cascade Range. Taking into account the infamously short attention span of children, we thought we'd discovered the perfect spot. The lake is encircled by a half-dozen short wooded trails (the operative word here is short; a 60-pound five-year-old can get very heavy), a shallow place for kids to swim, a good barbecue pit (complete with a few abandoned wire hangers for the all-important marshmallow roasting), and the general store/gift shop where we could buy bait, ossified Screaming Yellow Zonkers!, and Carvings by Local Artists. The lake was accessible only via a seven-mile-long logging road that required a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Hired Hands

REI Adventures (800-622-2236) offers a nine-day camping trip in the Canadian Rockies. Highlights include trekking through wilderness areas of Banff National Park, whitewater rafting down Yoho National Park's Kicking Horse Canyon, and canoeing in Jasper National Park. Departures are June 20, July 18, July 25, and August 15. Cost is $995 per person, plus a $15 membership fee; minimum age is 14.

Sierra Club Outings (415-977-5522) invites families with kids two and older on its ten-day Rambling Around Sitka Family Camp in southeastern Alaska. From base camp in Tongass National Forest, parents and kids explore Sitka by foot, kayak, bicycle, and rowboat, while learning about the history of this fascinating area. The trip begins June 21. The cost is $1,195 for adults and $1,050 for kids 2-17.

Backroads (800-462-2848) leads a six-day multisport camping trip in the San Juan Islands that includes cycling on country roads, sea kayaking in Puget Sound, and hiking the islands' dense forests, flower-filled meadows, and rocky shorelines. The family departure date is August 16. The cost is $898 for adults; rates for kids under six are 40 percent off; kids 7-12, 20 percent off; and kids 13-17, 10 percent off. — KARA RYAN

"Four by four!" shrieked our five-year-old as she was tossed around the backseat. It was her favorite part of the trip because it most resembled an amusement park ride.

The only thing our son could talk about for days before the trip was the fishing. Just for the occasion he learned to recognize several different species of salmon. When we arrived, we didn't even take time to set up camp before we set out to fish. Then, once we were out in the dead center of the lake, lines baited and cast, Kenny's lips started trembling.

"We're going to sink!" he whimpered. His eyebrows went up and down like a drawbridge. "We're going to sink!" he shouted. Then he started screaming. Worried we were going to saddle him with a lifelong fear of water, we rowed like Olympians all the way back. While my husband tied up the boat, Kenny begged to rent a paddleboat.

At the end of the trip, I took the kids up a trail hardly worth the name, but the kids were thrilled to find a tiny forest of delicate yellow mushrooms growing in the crotch of a small tree. How did the mushrooms grow out of a tree?! How could they grow with no dirt?! Who watered the mushrooms?! They stopped and stared at them, their heads together. It was an unexpected moment of joy, there on a shabby trail within spitting distance of the picnic tables. I watched them, thinking, OK, this is why I bother. Climb every mountain.

They, of course, have no memory of the tiny mushroom forest. Nor the alpenglow, nor the elk sighting, or even the s'mores. The morning of the second day we awoke to discover that we'd left the dog food out in the rain and the pebbly kibbles had expanded to the size of golf balls. The dog watched miserably while the kids lobbed them at each other over mossy logs.

Now that's camping.

The Hysterical Parent
What if my child gets lost?

Don't think it can't happen. Smart parents take precautions, and make sure their children are prepared to handle themselves properly.

  • Tie bells on shoes of toddlers. If they do toddle off, just follow the tinkling sound.
  • Equip each kid with a fanny pack or daypack stuffed with a plastic garbage bag with holes cut for the head and arms, a brightly colored (for high visibility) Polarfleece shell, snacks, and a whistle. Explain precisely what all these provisions are for. In the event that kids get lost, the plastic will keep them dry, the fleece will keep them warm, the food will nourish, and the whistle will alert rescuers. Three toots is the univeral signal for help.
  • Should your kids get separated from the group, they should try to stay calm and hug a tree. Stationary targets are far easier to find than moving ones, and they won't risk wandering even farther afield.
  • Finally, encourage your kids to help themselves. Tell them to make themselves big and leave huge clues, like giant arrows constructed of limbs, rocks, and leaves, that will show rescuers the way. Make sure that bright outerwear is visible by day. This can be of immense help, particularly in an air search.

As for the parents back at camp, the priority is to find help. The sooner search-and-rescue efforts get underway, the better the likelihood of finding a lost child. Parents have even taken to packing a cell phone on trips. While you may not be able to raise a line at the campsite, you might be able to get a dial tone as you near civilization before reaching the trailhead, thereby saving hours. And as difficult as this is, don't panic while waiting for help to arrive. Crashing about frantically in the woods could destroy clues that might otherwise lead rescuers to your child. — Lisa Twyman Bessone

Illustration by Greg Clarke

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