I was never into camping. I went with my family when I was a kid (because I had to), but as I grew, so did my distaste. It’s not that I’m precious or high-maintenance—I can go days without checking a mirror—it’s just that I don’t like to work. And camping is work.
My husband, Dan, is the rough and rugged type. Having been a Boy Scout as a kid, he is the ideal person to be with in the woods should we encounter a wild animal or want a perfectly roasted marshmallow. Before we had kids, I thought camping with him might be kind of romantic. What I didn’t realize was that, for him, camping requires a minimum one-hour canoe ride to get to some remote area in the wilderness, where we hang our food on ropes between trees. You know, so the bears don’t get it.
Worst of all, we have to bring our own shovels, if you know what I mean.
I played along for a few summers, but on one trip I was kept up all night by bears going at the food. And while I cried, Dan simply snored. The next morning, I paid the guy two tents over in bacon to get us back to the mainland in his pontoon, towing our canoe. For a while, the camping trips stopped. But then we had kids.
The benefits of sending your kid to overnight campWe settled on a rule: No canoe camping. We also arranged to go with friends we had met through our children. Our collective four kids, then ages eight and six, were all good friends, and we were in the process of bonding with the parents. Dan chose a place he deemed remote enough (two hours away) that was still accessible by car. Everyone was excited to go. I was just praying there would be a bathroom so I could finally retire my shovel.
The weekend got off to a bad start. On the morning we were due to leave, my son woke up with a raging fever. When we eventually set off the next day, Dan made a wrong turn, ended up trespassing on private property and then, three hours into our two-hour trip, drove to the wrong end of the park. We had to turn around and make our way to the other entrance using a combination of back roads. After a total of almost five hours in the car, we finally arrived. I saw a bathroom as we drove in, but it was little consolation at this point. It had just started to rain.
We got out of the car, Dan and I barely on speaking terms. But the kids? They were completely enthralled—and oblivious to the rain. They ran to their friends, who were eager to show them everything they’d discovered during the preceding 24 hours.
It rained the entire time we were there, but that didn’t seem to matter. While I hid in the tent, Dan taught the kids how to fish, which they loved. He showed them how to tie bowline knots, find good walking sticks and build a fire, though they were too young to try it on their own. He was teaching them actual survival skills. I still wasn’t in love with camping, but I recognized the charm it held for the kids.
We went camping again, many times over several years. The next summer we went with a large group of neighbours and friends to a KOA campground in Lake Placid, NY. KOA campgrounds are like camping lite: You get to set up a tent and sleep in it, but there’s a snack bar, a video arcade, an outdoor pool, mini golf, indoor bathrooms and showers, and a general store. Dan was mortified. This was akin to sacrilege, but he understood the value in the kids spending time outdoors—and us bonding with friends.
The first morning at that campground, I woke up around 6 a.m. to hear Dan rummaging around outside. There he was over the campfire, tending to a pot of boiling water for coffee. I turned to my left and pointed, where 10 to 15 people were waiting in line at the snack bar. He gave me a look I’ll never forget.
Even at that KOA, again in the rain, he got all the kids together and took them for a hike, although there wasn’t much of a trail.
Time passed and the trips continued, but my initial tolerance slowly turned to dread. I’d spend a week shopping, preparing and waterproofing the tent (it rained every time) and then a week unpacking, doing laundry and cleaning up. In between were three days of hardly sleeping, doing dishes at a communal sink in very cold water and waking up in a puddle, regardless of how many times I waterproofed the damn tent.
But the kids haven’t lost their love for camping. They love being outdoors and having the freedom to explore. The beach swims, canoe trips, s’mores over campfires—it’s like heaven to them. One summer, my daughter caught, cleaned, cooked and ate her own fish. I don’t think she’d ever been prouder. And when my son successfully lit his first campfire? My heart may have burst. It makes us feel good as parents, knowing we’re giving them something valuable, along with memories they’ll carry forever.
As the kids got older, I got wiser. In the summer of 2016, instead of a camping trip, we rented a cottage in the Laurentians. We kept the main activities intact—hiking, fishing, canoeing—but also had a roof over our heads. We’ve been doing that ever since, and it’s been a pretty good compromise. The kids and Dan still get their campfires and s’mores, but I get a dishwasher and a comfortable bed. Oh, and did I mention a real bathroom?
This article was originally published online in June 2019.