Oh June, how I have been waiting for you. Warmth has finally found the upper Midwest, school is out and the sky is light well past a preschooler’s bedtime! Why not take advantage of these things and go camping? It can be a lovely way to spend time with your family and enjoy the great outdoors. I think because camping is not something I do often, I look to spend the least amount of money I can and still have a good time. Here are a few things to think about if you are not a veteran camper yourself.
Where: I have usually chosen to camp in state and national parks. I find the prices are great (even with entry stickers) and they are well maintained. There is also usually a natural attraction that resulted in the park’s creation to keep me occupied. Most parks have an on-line reservation system that can make it easy to pick the site closest (or farthest) from the potty. The times I have camped in a campground were lovely as well. I know families with children have enjoyed staying at campgrounds that have lots of things to keep the little ones busy. Be sure to ask about any discounts they offer when you make your reservation. If you are going with another family, you may be able to get a group site for less than 2 individual sites. There is no harm in asking! If you don’t have a place in mind, ask friends and family for recommendations.
Stuff: Camping stuff can be tremendously expensive. I had no idea there were tents priced at a full month’s salary until I wrote this post! A family needs a place to sleep, stuff to cook and eat with, and some ways to keep occupied. All those things can be as fancy or as plain as a family wants them to be. I have slept in the back of a van and eaten off of paper plates and had just as good of a time as folks who have full-blown vacation campers. It is up to you to decide how dedicated you are going to be to camping and how much you want to invest in gear. If you are just going for a weekend to see if your family likes this kind of thing, see what you can borrow from friends or use from your house. If you are looking to make this a regular activity, try Craigslist and yard sales for tents, coolers and other things you might want to have. If you are thinking this is going to be something you do quite often, you will want to look at end-of-season sales for the best prices. I am thinking I have seen camping stuff go on clearance about the first of August when the back-to-school supplies come out. You may also want to give camping things as birthday and Christmas gifts.
Activities: Just because you are in the wild, wild wilderness doesn’t mean you just hope everyone will be busy on their own. If there is body of water where you are camping, you will need swimming stuff and you might need fishing gear. A family might want to take some outdoor games to help keep the bickering to a minimum. (not that any of your kids would bicker, dear readers, I am talking about other people’s children, clearly) Most parks and campgrounds have events campers can attend. Parks usually have a naturalist who will give a program or two that you might want to attend. Campgrounds get in on the event action by having theme nights or weekends. I was once at a campground on the 25th of July and got to celebrate Christmas. Yes, in July. If that isn’t your gig, make sure you ask if the place you are staying is going to have an event before you make reservations. The long and the short of having something to do while camping is that you should make the most of where you are but have a back-up plan to make sure this is actually fun.
Food: Food at campgrounds is super pricy so I highly recommend a written menu before you start to pack. If you know you are going to have hotdogs over the fire and there is no ketchup to eat them with you when you pull out the buns, you will kick yourself. Write down each meal, what you will need to make it and any tools you need to cook it. I forgot my pudgy pie maker on one trip and I regret it to this day. Also, plan snacks and drinks. You will be outside, moving and grooving. You will get hungry and you family with be thirsty. Having a box of snacks ready to rummage through will save you a $20 trip to the cantina.
Being ready for the unexpected: What if it rains? What if there are black flies? How about skinned knees and slivers? I have found an emergency tote with some first aid supplies, some trash bags, sunscreen and bug spray in it to be invaluable. If you worry about rain, throw in a Uno deck. Being ready for the unexpected can save you from paying the high prices at a store you are unfamiliar with and help keep everyone happy.
All and all, camping can be great, cheap fun if you do a little preparation before you hit the trail.