BY CHERIE SPINO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
My husband and I decided that if we wanted to see the country with our four kids, we had one affordable option: tent camping. Our youngest was just 3 on our maiden trip — a 17-day odyssey out West.
People ask us, “Were you out of your minds?”
Quite the opposite. After eight years, 31 states, 20-some campgrounds, and more than 20,000 miles, we learned that camping, as much work as it is, works for us. Getting up for a 3 a.m. bathroom trip and looking up into a night sky dripping with stars is a fit reward for using a vault toilet.
We love spending weeks at a time outdoors, driving through buffalo herds, waking up to crisp air and the smell of frying bacon, and yes, getting a little dirty (and aromatic).
And talk about cost cutting. We figure we’ve spent almost 60 nights camping on our vacations and saved thousands of dollars. Compare $10 campsites to the cost of two hotel rooms.
We’re not alone in our preference for tent camping. According to the 2011 Special Report on Camping, sponsored by the Outdoor Foundation, Coleman, and KOA, the majority of the 40 million folks who camped in 2010 — 86 percent — used tents.
If this sounds like an attractive alternative, heed these tips from some families who have worn out a few tents.
Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
Beth Barrow, of West Toledo, spent nearly every childhood vacation at a campground. Her husband, Beau, even proposed to her in a tent at East Harbor State Park on Lake Erie.
Now they’re making sure their two children know their way around a camp site. “Camping seems overwhelming but when you have the right materials and tools you can do it,” she says. “It’s a ton of fun.”
If you’re a novice, your first trip should be to the library for books about camping. Here you’ll find exhaustive lists of what to take and plan for.
If you’re not sure camping is for you, borrow some equipment and take a weekend test trip to a nearby park. Observe the folks around you. We pick up a lot of tips by watching other campers.
Better yet, enroll in a state First Time camper program. In Michigan or Pennsylvania, for just $20 you get two nights of camping at participating state parks, and Gander Mountain will lend you equipment for four people. A ranger will even help you set up. You can also Rent-a-Camp at some Ohio state parks. (Check the state parks’ Web sites for participating locations. )
Ready to buy your own gear? Look for sales in winter, advises Terry Walters. The West Toledo father, who says he was raised around a campfire, snagged a 9-10 person tent at Target for $25 in the off-season.
Or ask for gear as gifts. The Barrows add to their camping stash every Christmas when Beau gets a new piece of equipment from her parents.
Where to go?
Planning is the fun part. We get as much enjoyment out of exploring all the possibilities as we do taking the trip.
Think about your family’s interests. Are they water babies? Hikers? Sand-castle builders? How far do you want to venture?
Paula Watkins, of Sylvania, honeymooned with her husband at a Myrtle Beach campground 27 years ago and returned with their three kids years later. “There was always something to do and other kids around,” she says.
We’ve found that our kids do well if our camping experience includes any or all of these things: rocks, water, and wildlife.
It’s amazing how our kids perked up after a long day in the car when we hit Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and spotted elk and mule deer.
The camping report found that 69 percent of campers pitch tents in local, state, or national parks. The national parks alone hosted more than 3 million tent campers last year.
State parks often have nicer rest room and shower facilities than national parks, which often charge for showers or don’t have them.
Depending on your outlook, private campgrounds such as Yogi Bear or KOA can be fun, too. They may charge a bit more, but you often get better facilities along with a pool and children’s activities.
If you have smaller children, think about staying a little closer to home, Ms. Barrow says. If the weather turns nasty or the kids don’t do well, you can pack it up and get home quickly.
Choosing a campsite
Many park Web sites have pictures of campsites and maps that show where sites are in relation to bathrooms and playgrounds.
Seclusion and shade are good. It’s also nice to have a tree or two to string your clothesline on.
Weigh your priorities. Playgrounds and bathrooms can be noisy, but if your kids are young and you’re going to be making a lot of trips to the rest room or hanging out at the playground anyway, you may want to be closer than you think.
This is the part that can throw inexperienced campers over the edge. It’s all in the organization.
Everyone has his or her own system, but the one best friend of all campers is plastic tote bins.
Ms. Barrow and Mr. Walters keep all their gear in marked bins. “We can grab the containers, stop at the grocery store and we’re camping in an hour and a half,” Mr. Walters says. The containers are also good for keeping out pesky raccoons and birds.
We use bins and a three-drawer plastic cart for our cooking stuff. When we stop for lunch, we open the trunk, and it’s all there.
After a few trips, you’ll find what works for you. Everything will have its place in the car when you pack and you won’t even have to think about what goes where anymore.
Are we there yet?
If your trip requires multiple days of driving, plan for some fun rest stops along the way. We like to stop and eat out of our car at city parks or rest areas. The kids play ball or run around the playground. You may think you don’t want to waste so much time at a pit stop, but it really helps if everyone can let off a little steam.
We’ve even stopped at city pools to break up a day of driving. It wears out the kids so they’ll sleep on the next leg.
Books on tape can be another diversion. Since Ms. Watkins’ family often started out at night, it became tradition to pop in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as they set off, she says.
Making the most of it
If you’re staying at a state or national park, take advantage of park programs. One of the best-kept secrets of our national park system is the junior ranger program. Kids can earn patches or pins by completing a booklet of activities . They may have to do puzzles or go on a hike or a scavenger hunt.
It’s fun for the whole family because you inevitably learn a ton about the places you’re visiting, from the ecology to the history and wildlife.
Also, the rangers at these parks are founts of information. Talk to them. Ask questions. Go to the night programs. We’ve dissected owl pellets, watched old Wild Kingdom episodes on a big screen in South Dakota, and been serenaded by a guitar-playing ranger.
When planning hikes, be mindful of your family’s abilities. Shoot for hikes with big payoffs, like waterfalls or lakes.
And don’t forget to bring the M&Ms. They’re the ultimate bribe for whiny kids.
As much as we plan, we stay open to spontaneous stops, especially roadside greasy spoons and ice cream stands. That’s how we found Clyde’s, just over the Mackinac Bridge in St. Ignace. It’s a dumpy little drive-in, but the kids love their shakes and burgers served in paper cars with fruit snacks for dessert. Now we can’t go that direction without a Clyde’s stop.
And remember, if you forget something or you burn dinner, you can always hop in the car and get a pizza in town (if you’re not out in the boonies). There’s no shame in that.
Ms. Watkins, whose husband passed away last year and whose kids are now adults themselves, remembers all their camping trips fondly. “My kids loved it. We have so many memories,” she says.
● Don’t leave home without matches, bug spray, sunscreen, and a first aid kit (kids are always scraping something).
● Bring heavy aluminum foil and cook over the fire. Throw in your meat and veggies or breakfast fixings, wrap it up, and in 15 or 20 minutes you’ve got a meal with no messy pots to wash up.
● If you’re fussy about your drinking water, you may want to bring your own thermos from home. Campground water can be less than tasty.
● Get your kids involved in setup and cleanup. It keeps them busy and lightens the load for everyone.
● Save some money and get your firewood outside of the parks or campgrounds.
● All kinds of foods can be made ahead. Whip up some pancake batter and put it into a clean milk jug in your cooler. Bring batches of precooked spaghetti in plastic bags. All it takes is a dip in boiling water and you’ve got a hot meal. Make ice in milk jugs. When it melts you’ve got extra water.
● Mohican State Park, Loudonville, Ohio (www.mohicanstatepark.org). This park, halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, has pretty much everything an avid outdoor family could want: hiking, biking, canoeing on the Mohican River, fishing, and a heated pool.
● P. H. Hoeft State Park, Rogers City, Mich. (http://bit.ly/QtCztg). This is our favorite spot a little further from home. Just 5 1/2 hours north of Toledo, the park is on Lake Huron. Campsites are a short walk to sandy beaches that are rarely crowded.
● Hartwick Pines State Park, Grayling, Mich. (www.michigan.gov/hartwickpines). A great spot for beginners with its open, flat campsites. Nice, easy hikes and an interesting logging museum.
● Nickerson State Park, Brewster, Mass. (http://1.usa.gov/2FjYfd). Campsites at this state park are just $15 to $17. The forest park, within walking distance of the ocean, features great bike trails and eight fresh water ponds.
● Custer State Park, Custer, S.D. (www.gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer). This is hands-down our favorite park. It has it all — swimming lakes, herds of bison, wild turkeys wandering through your campsite, and amazing hiking and scenery. You’re also within a short drive of water parks, Mount Rushmore, caves, and plenty of other attractions.
Help for novices