Experiences, anecdotes, tips, how-tos, hiking, nature, motherhood, memories.

Adventures in Camping with Kids

Camping with kids is like pitching a tent upside down. Both are bound to fill with laughter and raindrops.

--Victoria Marie

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Filling the Heart with Memories

Our children at the Pocono House
Although we never camped outside in the wintertime, we would take the family to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania seeking snow.  Usually we’d leave December 27th for a short respite after the Christmas rush.  We rented a small home and needed our camping skills to make it work.  

            Sleeping bags for the children tucked into a loft.  Sharing food preparation and clean-up.  Yes.  It takes longer, but how else can Mom find a break.  Hide and go seek with a flashlight at night.  Star gazing in a crystal clear night sky.  Snow gear and sleds crammed into the van, tobogganing and sledding down the local hill.  Ice skating and sliding on the frozen lake.  Check to see how long temperatures have been below freezing before venturing out on a lake.  Also check for cracks on the ice surface.  

Yes, we hiked in the wintertime, snow covering the mountainside of Hickory Run StatePark, ice coating the tree branches, icicles clinging to waterfalls.  Keeping feet dry is a must when hiking in winter.  Snow/ski pants, thick socks, and waterproof boots are not just for skiing.  When hiking in winter use layers of clothing and wear a hat.  We lose most of our heat through exposed heads.  Gloves are a great idea, too.  

For just a few days, we had no computers or cell phone checking.  It’s a good idea to attempt this kind of break at some time.  A chance to rediscover what it means to actually be a family.  

Merry Christmas to everyone.  May you all have a healthy and happy 2014.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Towering California Redwoods

California Sugar Pine, Sequoia,
and Redwood pinecones
No search for the massive in California is complete without visiting the coastal Redwood trees, the tallest living thing on earth.  These Christmas tree evergreens reach into the very atmosphere, parting the clouds and tickling the California sunshine with their tassel tops.

Camping in Sequoia, Yosemite, and Redwood National Parks as we oooed and aahed our way through the magnificent forests, I became obsessed with discovering these massive trees’ pine cones. 

We had just set up camp at Sequoia National Park when five children and I wandered off in search of pine cones.  I thought I’d use this opportunity to teach them about nature.    

“All pine trees have pine cones,” I told the children as they followed in my wake down one of the paths at the campground.  “That’s where their seeds are.”  I glanced back at them.

They nodded while excitement danced in their eyes.

“Now, since these trees are so massive,” I said, all knowingly.  “Their pine cones must be huge.”

The children nodded again.  They looked up.  The sunlight filtered through the towering pines and covered their faces in lace patterns.

“Let’s see if we can find some to show Daddy.”

Further down the path, we came to a group of pines amid huge ferns, rocks, and fallen branches.

“Stay around here and bring back what you find,” I instructed.  They dropped away from the mother tree faster than the pine cones we were searching for.

Carefully, I searched through the underbrush at the base of a huge pine, working my way further from the tree.  Then I discovered it behind a rock in the thick ferns, a huge pine cone thicker and longer than my forearm. 

“Look, look,” I cried to the children, holding the pine cone aloft with both hands.

The children scrambled out of the brush.  Some had New Jersey-sized cones but sturdier and thicker.

“Let’s show Daddy,” they all shouted.

But as I gazed at the vastly different cones, I realized I was no expert.  “Let’s take these over to the ranger station, so we can tell Daddy exactly what they are.”

I was glad we did.  The huge pine cone I found was not the mighty sequoia pine cone.  It was a sugar pine cone, a huge tree yes, but nowhere near as massive as the sequoia.  That cone was the egg-shaped, woody cone my son found.  And the towering redwood?  Its pine cone is the size of a quarter, thin and spidery. 
What I taught my children that day was to check with an expert when they’re not sure of something.  As much as we parents would like to have all the answers, many times we don’t.  The best thing a parent can do is help find knowledgeable resources for their children and then learn along with them.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Real Live Giant: The Mighty Sequoias

On the Trail in the Valley of the Giants
Peak your children’s interest in family vacations with attention-grabbing questions.  Like a math equation, you need to factor in the age of all children present.    

             “How would you like to hug a real live giant?”  My husband asked his eager children during one of our vacation planning sessions. 

            It was the 7th grader, the realist, who finally rolled her eyes.  I saw her considering my husband’s words first.  “Dad,” she said.  “There are no real live giants.  That’s just pretend.”

            The young twins, on the other hand, were holding their breath, their blue eyes eager for some real giants.

             Then that familiar twinkle crept back into my husband’s eye.  “Oh yes there are,” he said, and I could see the excitement rise in our children’s faces, even the realist’s. 

            “And they’re in,” he hesitated long enough to pop the children out of their seats to surround him.

            “Where, where, where?”  They chanted.

            “In California.”

            Squeals of delight filled the dining room as the children danced around the table.  Then our son suddenly stopped the parade.

“I don’t think I want to hug one,” he said, the twins bumping into his back.

“You’ll want to hug this giant,” I told him.  “You’re a tree hugger, like me.”


“These giants are trees, the mighty Sequoia trees,” I informed all the children.

               Once you get the children hooked, have them do a bit of research because sometimes with children, seeing is believing.  In the old days this meant a trip to the library.  Not any more.  Now we just pull up the internet and search for Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park.

            “The largest living trees in the world,” our oldest daughter read.

“These trees are thousands of years old,” the realist told us. 

            “That’s right,” I said. 

            Once the children saw these massive evergreen trees in real life, these broccoli-topped giants; their mouths hung open nearly as wide as the tree trunks.  The children did in fact hug the soft cinnamon-colored bark of these gentle giants, even though they could only reach about four feet of the 68 foot circumference.  

One trip to these magnificent National Parks is not enough.  In the cacophony of life, it may be that nature is the only place to find the peace needed to turn inside oneself to reflect on what’s important.  What do you think?  Peace and inspiration can be found in many places.  I could spend a lifetime in the Giant Forest and never be bored.  
Let’s hope those in charge of the United States government come to an agreement soon so that visitors may enjoy the beauty of our national parks.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Colorado Rockies: Here We Come!

Snowball fights in July at Rocky Mountain National Park
During our long cross-country drive to Rocky Mountain National Park from New Jersey, after many a camp side sunset, we kept the children’s interests peaked by discussing around the campfire the Rocky Mountains.

“These mountains are taller than any other mountain you children have been on,” my husband told them.

Their eyes widened in awe.

“There won’t be any tall trees on the top,” I informed them.

“Mom,” our 5th grade boy scout informed me, “all mountains have trees.”

He’s a tree-hugger, like me.  “This time,” I told the children, “we will be hiking in the tundra.”

“A tundra,” the children repeated.

“What’s a tundra?”  One of the twins asked.

“We’ll be hiking above the trees,” my husband said by way of explanation.

“Not only that,” I said, “but we could be playing in the snow.”

“Mom.”  It was my 7th grade daughter’s turn to correct me.  “It doesn’t snow in July in North America.”

“No,” I agreed.  “But it’s colder up in the tundra, and snowfields could be tucked here and there on the mountaintop.”

The chatter increased.

“I forgot my boots.”

“I don’t have my snow pants.”

“We don’t have gloves.”

“I didn’t bring my sled.”

I raised my hand to stop the flow of chatter.  My husband was laughing.

“Sledding, son,” I said looking at him.  “On mountain tops?”  I looked at the girls.  “We’ll just have to make snowmen or have snowball fights in sneakers and shorts.  That’s all.”

            The excitement rose to a fevered pitch as we moved inside the tent and attempted to prepare for bed.  Nobody slept with the children firing questions at me and my husband all night long.

Luckily the next day the Rockies loomed up ahead along the roadway into Estes Park and our campground.  We were there. 

            Many times, camping with the family entails much driving.  Keep the children excited about their destination by feeding them small bits of interesting information while around the campfire or at dinner.  We didn’t tell the children about the snow until we were almost at Rocky Mountain National Park. 

            My prayers are with those navigating the floods in Colorado.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Arches National Park, Utah

Hiking the desert of Arches National Park
Maturity showed in our five children as we drove westward.  They had changed their cry from “Are we there yet?” to “How many miles on this road?” 

“Too many, guys, too many,” my husband said.

Journal writing gave the children a place to record some amusing things found along the highways; a change of landscape, funny things being transported on the highway [like a huge purple polka-dotted pig, part of an amusement park ride], and how many truckers they could make honk their horns by pumping their arms up and down.  Remember that?

Hiking in deserts.  This was something new for the children.  Mom was a tree-hugger and enjoyed the coolness of the forests and mountains.  Dad knew the beauty of the rock structures in all its majesty.  And he was right. 

The sun-bleached plains of Utah in Arches National Park lay before us in a desert of pink, orange, golden, and tan sandstone.  Beautiful, spectacular.  Pinnacles precariously perched, just begging to be climbed in the wilting desert sun.  And climb we did, until I became too fearful of edges even though the children were older.

As we trekked along marked paths, careful not to disturb the fragile desert pavement, a crustal ecosystem, we read about the culture of the landscape on posted signs.  Then I started giggling.  There, standing in the blazing sun, hat of little help in keeping my sweaty body cool, the sun bleaching out the remains of some claylike brick dwellings before me.  It seemed funny to me to be hiking in these extreme conditions.  I continued to giggle when the children asked me what was so funny and didn’t stop giggling when I husband asked me the same question.  

My husband put my giggle fest down to heat exhaustion, an easy thing to happen while hiking in the desert.  It is important to remain hydrated and to wear sunscreen and lightweight clothing, long sleeve and pants if possible, and not to hike too long under desert-like conditions.  All of which we did, except for the long-sleeved shirts. 

I stopped giggling once we returned to the air-conditioned van and headed back to camp.  I guess I’m more of a forest hiker.          

Another thing the family discovered on our trip across the country:  the trailer seemed to get smaller by the day, especially in the heat of the desert. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Keeping the Children Entertained While Travelling Cross-Country

Dad entertaining the troops
Long, long, long driving days ensued when we took the family of seven camping across country, from New Jersey to California.  Oh, we tried to break the driving days up a bit with smaller side trips, the beginnings of the Oregon Trail in Missouri, Arches National Park in Utah.  However, we were excited about getting out west and seeing the Sequoias and Redwoods and the Pacific Ocean. 

Aside from our other travelling fun and games [read it here], we all longed for the chance to stop and stretch our legs and breath in the outdoor air.  Rest stops became fun stops.  While I walked around the rest stop, the children all ran after their father to the gazebo of vending machines in hopes that he’d buy them something, like they didn’t have a van loaded with snacks and food. 

My husband was buying coffee, the fuel of many long distance drivers.  The children crowded around my husband at the vending machines, chattering away as he put the money into the vending machine.  They continued to chatter as he made his selection of coffee, sweetner, and cream.  But the chatter stopped as the coffee sprayed out from the machine and they all jumped back about a foot.  Then the sweetner spritzed out.  Then the cream dribbled into the machine drain. 

“How do you like that,” their father said.  “No cu…”

Just then a cup shot out from the machine and landed onto the concrete.

My husband returned to the van empty-handed, the children belly-laughing in his wake.

“Where’s your coffee?”  I asked him.

“They’re all out,” he said climbing into the driver’s seat, but he couldn’t hide the smile.

“The coffee squirted out of the machine before the cup,” our son reported through laughter.

The twins giggled.

“What?”  I asked.

“Yea, Mom,” our oldest said.  “The cup came out last.”

“After the cream and sugar,” the second oldest informed me.

We all climbed back into the van and buckled up.  My husband pulled the van and trailer away from the rest stop and entered the highway once again.  I watched him.  The children’s laughter filled the van.  The smile never left his lips.

“They should put a note on that machine so others don’t lose money trying to get a cup of coffee,” I said.

“Remind me to bring a cup to the vending machine at the next rest stop,” he said.  And then he laughed.  He laughed so hard, his eyes leaked.  So did mine.

That comic episode kept us going for the next few days of driving.

Do you have any funny driving stories to share? 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Connecting with Family: Leaving the World Behind to Camp with Family

Thinking of charade behind the bed curtain
Why do you go on a family vacation?  For us, it’s a chance to place the world on hold and totally enjoy being with the family.  To learn from each other; to listen to each other. 

            With no television, computers, or cell phone use most times, we become our own entertainment when camping.  Aside from campfires, read my story here, and storytelling, read here, we played charades in the camper at night, adding just one rule.  The charade must deal with our present camping trip or a previous trip.  This could get quite comical, with the children on one wavelength and we parents on another.

            The six of us crowded around the larger dinette table in the cooled-by-a-fan pop-up trailer to watch our son, whose turn it was to be first according to our charades schedule, pace back and forth in the tiny space in front of the smaller pull-out bunk.  Sometimes the children use the bunk to perform on their knees the actions necessary for us to “understand” the clues and guess the charade.   
Suddenly our son stopped pacing.  He grabbed his throat, hopping up into the bunk, and thrashed about in the bed.  Then he lay very still.
My husband and I stared at each other in disbelief.  How could this have something to do with our family camping trips?

The night was warm.  A cacophony of insect noises could be heard from outside.  The fan hummed, oscillating inside the camper.
The girls looked at each other for only a moment and then shouted in unison, “Peanut butter and jelly sandwich!”
The boy sprang from the bed and pointed at them.  “That’s right!”
My husband and I exchanged glances.  Okay, so maybe the children were a bit tired of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the trail, but they were healthy and the only things the children would eat.  They didn’t like granola bars or trail mix or nuts and they needed energy to hike.  We sighed and tried to brainstorm a different healthy, mid-day meal.  Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated by the troops. 

We try to leave all work and outside "connections" at home when we camp with the family.  It’s important to leave the rush-rush of daily life behind when vacationing, even if it's only for a few days.   On “Good Nature” the blog about natural habitat adventures, Candice Gaukel Andrews questions the need for internet service at National Parks.   How important is it for you to stay connected during your vacation?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

5 Steps to the Perfect Family Camping Trip

The crew's ready to help
Step 1:  Start planning your trip before the campgrounds open for the season.  Meet with the family to get everyone’s input.  Determine the type of camping experience your family wants, a family campground with lots of amenities or a primitive campsite with no electricity or showers. 
Consider everyone’s abilities at this stage of your planning; hiking, rafting, horseback riding, town festivals, and amusement parks.  Don’t forget to include the ability to travel for long distances in a car/van.

Step 2:  Gather details about things to do in the states, parks, or areas that you plan to visit; brochures, websites, and tour books from travel clubs.  Don’t forget to factor in driving distances and travel times.  Time zones or ferry schedules need to be considered in addition to the amount of driving time per day if you have a long haul to make.  Rest stops are crucial for tired drivers, children who need to use the restroom, or having an unhurried picnic lunch.  

Step 3:  Check your camping equipment to be sure you have what is needed to make the type of camping experience desired.  Families can stay at larger campgrounds with cabins available.  Some cabins have barbeques to use for meals.  All you need are sleeping bags, towels, and kitchen utensils in addition to personal items. 

Step 4:  Once you have a vacation plan and the dates for the trip, begin reserving your campground site(s).  If you are camping in several places during your vacation, remember to consider breaking camp and travel time and distance and alert your next campground of your possible arrival time so they hold your campsite for you, especially if you’ll be getting in late.

Step 5:  Packing.  Get everyone involved to build excitement and family experience.  Make check lists for kitchen, bedding, clothing, food, and toiletry.  Don’t forget the bug spray, sun screen, hats, and raincoats.  Load the vehicle and/or camper prior to the day of departure, except for perishables.  Bring any reservation material you have made, a global positioning device [GPS] and maps.  Always bring current maps of the areas you will be driving through or staying in. 

Then enjoy your family camping experience.  Make the memories that count.       

Thursday, March 28, 2013

How to Entertain the Family at Camp Without a Car

Always the Fisherman
Whereas our son is a born fisherman—mosquito bites and all—his father is not.  However on vacation in New Brunswick, Canada, everyone needs to enjoy his or herself.  So while the men drove off in the van to go fishing, we ladies stayed at camp and tried to entertain ourselves. 

            No pool or playground at this campground, and the mosquitoes were indeed biting.  It was a hot and sticky evening, so the four girls and I sat around one of the dinette tables, two to a bench seat, the youngest pulled up the port-a-potty at the head of the table.  We chatted about our options for entertainment while a small fan dried our backs slightly as it swung from side to side.

            “Let’s play go fish,” the twin on the potty suggested.

            “Great idea,” the oldest girl agreed.  “Where are the cards?”

            “They’ve got to be somewhere,” I said.  “Everyone off your perch to search for them.”

            The girls scattered.  We searched in the dinette drawers.  I rummaged through the bench seat storage compartments.  The girls dumped their backpacks and raked through the contents.

            We all returned to the dinette table, dripping and exhausted.  We sat, breathing heavily, allowing the fan to dry some sweat.  No one spoke.

            Once we regained our wind and cooled down slightly, I said, “The cards must be in the van.”

            The girls nodded in unison.  “Daddy has the van,” they said. 

            “It’s okay,” I told them.  “What else could we do?”

“How about drawing or coloring pictures,” my artist, one of the twins, suggested.

No one moved this time.

“I think I have colored pencils in my backpack,” the artist said.  She still didn’t move.

“No you don’t,” her twin countered.  “You…”

“Don’t tell me,” our second daughter said.  “You left them in the van.”

“Right.”  We all agreed.

Night was falling and a cacophony of insect noises ensued.  The only sound in the camper was the rotating fan.

“How about Hang the Man?”  One of the girls suggested.

Everyone sat there and thought, for it was too hot to exert ourselves again.

“Pencils and paper are in the van, too,” I said.

“Probably,” the girls agreed.

“Wait,” I said and stood up.  A smile crossed my sweaty face. 

The girls looked up with anticipation.

“Let’s go to the camp store and buy some ice cream.  I know the laundry money’s here.”  I turned to open the silverware drawer by the sink.

“I think I have some money, too,” the oldest piped up.

“Me, too,” said our second daughter.

“Bring it all to the table, girls,” I said as I lifted out the plastic silverware tray.  I heard coins plunking down on the dinette table behind me as I raked my fingers along the drawer bottom only to find 50 Canadian cents.  When I returned to the table, I saw pouty faces and 53 Canadian cents on the table.

“I must have done laundry recently,” I said.

“About two days ago,” my oldest reminded me.

I nodded and sighed.  “I guess the money’s in…”

“The van,” the girls said in unison.

I hated to see the girls so disappointed.  “We’ll all go to the camp store when the men returned,” I promised.

They nodded.

“But until then,” I said with a smile, “I’ll tell a story.”     

            Finally, smiles returned to their faces. 

Impromptu storytelling, especially when camping with the family—no outside distractions—can be fun.  Just as when entertaining the children on long road trips, the stories do not have to make sense.  This is a time to let your imagination soar.  If everyone would rather listen to one storyteller, as in my situation, take audience requests.  Allow the children to give the storyteller the plot details.  To enhance visualization, pepper the story with familiars that the audience knows.

The girls wanted to hear a romance between star-crossed lovers and a millennium dance.  Our romance story continued until the men returned in the van from their fishing expedition covered in mosquito bites.

While our son bubbled over about his adventures fishing, I placated my husband’s sour mood with a suggestion for the family to visit the camp store ice creamery.  The smile returned to his mosquito-bitten face only after most of his banana split was gone.   

Happy Easter, everybody!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Walk on the Ocean Floor

Hopewell Rocks
            “How would you like to walk on the ocean floor and not get wet,” my husband asked the children one day when he returned from work. 

            “Oh cool,” our son piped up.

            “Yes, yes, Daddy,” the girls chorused. 

            The children were hopping up and down in the hallway, while I stood in stupor. 

            “Um.” I looked at my husband.  “Are we playing a game,” I asked.

            He shook his head.

            “Where are we going, Daddy,” our oldest asked.

            “To the Bay of Fundy,” he answered.

            “Is that an island,” our son asked.

            I‘m usually not this dense, I thought, but I’m lost.

            “It’s in New Brunswick, Canada,” he informed us.

            “Ah, next to Maine,” I said.

            “It has the highest tides in the world,” he told the children

            I exhaled.  No air tanks or wet suits required, I thought.  I’m safe. 

            Always remember to factor in time zone changes when planning a camping trip.  For New Brunswick, Canada, we lost an hour simply going through the customs booth.  The children didn’t care.  They pressed their noses against the van glass, watching the coast as we drove northward.      

            “Where’s the water, Dad,” the children asked in unison.

            “It will come back in,” he assured them.

            “But the boats are on the ground,” a twin said.

            “So are the docks,” the oldest said. 

            “Where do the fish go,” our fisherman worried.

            “They stay with the water,” I assured him.

            “Do the fishermen walk out on dry land to their boats and wait for the water to come back,” he asked.

            “Probably not,” his father said.

            When we next saw the sea at Hopewell Rocks, or the “flower pots” according to the locals, it had a brick red tint to it.  We puzzled over this phenomenon until we noticed the ocean swirling around the lopsided clay “pots.”  The conglomerate mud rock was red.  These “pots” seemed more like tiny islands forested with trees and shrubs to us.

            After lunch, we climbed down to traverse the ruddy seabed.  The pungent smell of brine filled our nostrils as the towering, shaggy, green-topped sculptures we saw from above loomed overhead.  The children clambered over the rubbery seaweed base to inspect the bits and pieces of shell and rock stuck to the spindles of the pots like mosaic works of art. 

            “Mom, look at this!” rang out from every direction as I tried to investigate the sea floor myself. 

            Crustaceous arches, layered, craggy seawalls and red cliffs attracted our attention for more than an hour.  We trekked farther down the coast to find slabs of bleached rock littering the beaches.  The red cliffs dressed in thick forested caps, appeared like regiments of buzzed hair cut soldiers from a distance.

            As soon as we rounded the bend in the coast, I spotted them.

            “Oh no,” I told my husband.

            Then he looked up.  But before we could turn around the children had found them too.

            “Boulders,” they cheered and ran toward them. 

“I don’t know what the fascination is,” my husband said as he pulled up a nice, comfortable sun-baked slab of rock for us to sit on.

“At least it tires them out,” I said, sitting on the slab.  “It’s their vacation too.”    

For the next hour, we watched our beloved children scamper all over the scattered boulders on the beach in front of us, thankful for the rest. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cabin Fever

During the long, bleak winter months in New Jersey when we don’t get any snow, my family pines for the lazy days of summer and our family camping trips.  So we devised a way to remember the warmth of those summer camping adventures.  What we do is plan a dinner and a movie night, camp style.   
We have a fireplace in our family room.  The children and I prepare roast able foods like cubed carrots, broccoli, or cauliflower and chicken, steak, or hot dogs and put them in separate plastic bowels.  Then my husband starts a small fire in the grate.  We all sit on the floor in front of the fireplace and use our long camping skewers to roast one piece of food at a time.  As we allow the food to cool a little before eating it, we talk about all the fun things that we had done on our most recent camping adventure in the summertime.  We finish our meal by toasting marshmallows for s’mores, remembering the graham crackers and chocolate.
After we are finished eating, my husband closes the glass doors to the fireplace and we clean up.  Then we turn on our favorite family movie.   

How about you?  Do you have any ideas for whiling away those long winter months with the family?