You’ve always loved to pitch a tent on a sandy beach, to fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves and to rise to the glowing sunrise on the edge of Lake Superior.
But did the arrival of the stork make you roll up your sleeping bag?
Don’t put away that gear, say five families who introduced their children to camping from an early age.
They share five ideas for when you take kids along on the adventure.
1. Comfort Is an Option
When Chris O’Brien was young, his family traveled from St. Cloud to Minnesota’s North Shore every summer, camping at state parks to save money.
Chris fell in love with Temperance River State Park. “I remember running down the shore and jumping the rocks at Temperance, looking for agates. I used to walk in the woods by myself, exploring. Those childhood memories are really awesome.”
So when Chris and his wife, Catherine Meier, now of Duluth, had their son, Dylan, five years ago, they started taking him camping at Temperance River before he was even 2 years old.
“I decided to create some of those same memories and instill that sense of wonder,” Chris says. “Nature introduces this other dimension of life. Being out there brings this alertness we don’t usually have. … It also allows us to be quiet and sit by ourselves. It’s important for us to learn how to do nothing.”
For Catherine, camping is an essential key to her happiness and introducing Dylan to the fun is part of being a good parent. “If we’re not happy as parents and doing the things we love to do, we’re not being fully ourselves.”
They do bring along a playtime distraction – a large rug decorated with road streets and a backpack full of toy cars. “The rug gives Dylan an area he knows,” says Catherine. “It’s comfortable and familiar.”
For Chris and Catherine, making Dylan more comfortable also has opened a wonderful option they never used – a screen tent to set around where they eat and play. It’s more work to pack and set up, but it lets them stay outdoors no matter the weather or the bugs.
“We have a screen tent? Seriously?” laughs Catherine at their “luxury” purchase. Her second reaction: “Maybe we should have gotten one of those awhile ago!”
2. Up the Fun Factor
Camping with Kids
Avesa Rockwell helps daughter Silvia navigate a driftwood log by the shore of Lake Superior.
Jeremy Kershaw and his wife, Avesa Rockwell, have done many camping, backpacking and adventure trips all over the world, but their outdoor style changed now that plans include their two daughters – Esme, 7, and Silvia, 4.
“We make sure to keep things as simple as possible,” says Jeremy. “I want my girls to enjoy camping, so we keep the fun factor high. We swim, bring bikes, have a big tent that we can play cards in. We always bring a ton of stuff with the girls.”
On their own, Jeremy and Avesa would have dismissed the idea of loading up with activities from home, preferring strenuous hikes to a game of Go Fish.
“We think, we’re not going to be ‘those’ campers,” Jeremy says, smiling, “and then we turn into those campers.”
With young daughters, they see the value in introducing outdoor life in smaller, less exhausting increments. “I’m going with the belief to make it fun at first,” says Jeremy, “and then it can get hard later on.”
Fun can even mean camping in the backyard. “They don’t know the difference yet,” says Jeremy of pitching the tent in their Duluth backyard. “I do, but they think it’s fun and sort of scary.”
Jeremy and Avesa started taking their kids camping when their oldest daughter was still in diapers. When she was 1 year old, they drove around Lake Superior, camping all the way and letting Esme play on the shores. “There are so many different beaches around Lake Superior. There were beaches in Ontario, we felt like we were in the Mediterranean.”
They now find that a municipal campground in Herbster, Wisconsin, is a perfect fit for their young kids. With grassy campsites for tents right near the sandy beach, it offers safe swimming and spectacular views looking north, with both sunsets and sunrises.
3. Use Family Campgrounds
Camping with Kids
The author’s son, Rafael Schneiderhan, enjoys a few toys along with the nature-provided sand.
From the time their daughter Mikayla was a preschooler, Nick and Nicki Bennett began bringing her from their home in Chaska, Minnesota, to Lamb’s Resort and Campground in Schroeder.
“Even when she was that young, we were hiking, swimming, sitting around the campfire,” says Nicki. “Outside, there is so much to do. There is no boredom.”
The fact that other children might be available for play also made the visits more festive.
Mikayla, 14, still loves to go camping and is building her outdoor skill set.
“We do more hiking,” says Nicki. “She can use the hatchet and axe to chop firewood. There are always new things to try.”
Vicki and Chuck Faegre of Duluth raised their children, Mitchell and Bridget, now both teens, to be campers, often in groups with other families from the Duluth area.
There are many benefits to camping in groups, Vicki says. If you forget something, other parents are likely to have it. You can trade meal preparation to break up the menu and the work. And, of course, it’s great to have other kids to play with.
The Faegre children often camped with other families year after year. They formed lasting friendships, and as youngsters thought they were all more than friends.
“Our kids spent so much time together they didn’t realize we weren’t related,” Vicki says. “They thought they were cousins. One year they asked me, ‘Why don’t they come to Christmas with us?’”
4. No Need to Suffer
A torrential thunderstorm doesn’t mean you have to – or even should – suffer it out in a wet tent. At certain ages for children, a more trying outdoor experience just doesn’t benefit them and may turn them off camping.
Vicki recalls one night when friends with small children telephoned from their tent at Jay Cooke State Park. “Can we come stay with you?”
By 10 o’clock they were all camped out, comfortably dry, on the Faegres’ living room floor.
Nearby friends, of course, aren’t usually an option. It’s smart, therefore, to budget for an emergency night at a motel when on a long trip.
5. Go with the Glow
Camping in the great outdoors is a good time to shed the schedule and let life flow as it happens. Do you need to eat right at noon? Probably not. Do you have to sleep through the entire night? Not when opportunity lights up the sky.
Deb and Mark Frederickson have taken their daughter, Sammy, and son, Spencer, camping since they were quite young, exploring all the Minnesota state parks from Grand Marais down to Duluth, and the Michigan parks west through the Porcupine Mountains up to Copper Harbor and over to Marquette. They started in a tent, graduated to a pop-up camper, and now camp in a trailer.
When Sammy and Spencer were young, Deb says, camping with friends who had like-aged kids, like the Faegres, was always good.
Now that they’re older, she says, “they enjoy the outdoor aspect of camping. They appreciate getting away more than what they did before. It was a lot of fun and excitement when they were little, now it’s more about appreciation.”
One spectacular memory for both families was late in the evening at Lamb’s Resort campground. They were lingering around the campfire when they noticed a strange white glow appear in the north.
Everyone hiked down to the shore to lay on a jetty of rocks in Lake Superior, silently watching a phenomenal northern lights show above them.
“We saw every color changing, glowing,” Deb recalls. “All of us lying there, none of us said a word. It was one of those surreal experiences.”
Camping moments like that are burned forever in the memory, Deb says, but still, “sometimes you wonder if kids are enjoying it or not.”
Deb got her answer recently when their 17-year-old daughter, Sammy, filled out her college applications. One question was “What do you like to do for fun?”
“Camping,” Sammy wrote.
Deb asked her daughter why that response and not one of the other myriad activities Sammy does.
“Mom,” Sammy said patiently, “those are some of the best times in my life.”
Duluth writer Felicia Schneiderhan grew up camping the backwaters of the Mississippi near Cassville, Wisconsin. With a new baby due in September, she and her husband, Mark, will be taking all three children on plenty of backpack excursions around the Big Lake.