By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 5, 2007
"Camping is one of those times when it's okay to get dirty and wet, to laugh and not care," says Richard Carter, who volunteers with the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville.
Getting out in nature, hiking, exploring in an electronics-free environment, telling stories around a campfire, then falling asleep to the sound of frogs and crickets help build lasting family memories. What better time to start than in October? Cool days and nights, no mosquitoes, uncrowded campgrounds and glorious fall colors all await you.
Sam Jenkins, 5, began camping when he was 2 and has spent nights in Yellowstone National Park, along the Appalachian Trail and on Assateague Island. His dad, Jim Jenkins, a fifth-grade teacher in Purcellville, says: "Be ready to live in the moment. Don't have a firm schedule. Stop and see things kids are interested in."
What is most memorable to your children may be quite different from your expectations.
Maggie Chamberlain, 9, of Alexandria says of her family's year-round outings: "When we go camping, we get to see animal prints in the snow, herons, beautiful waterfalls and lots of stars. We also get to burp out loud and play with our pudding."
What's not to love about that?The First Step: A Backyard Camp-Out
Although some children are gung-ho for anything, others will need a bit of help getting comfortable enough to spend the night outside, away from the comforts of home. Darkness adds a new dimension to even the most familiar setting. Sounds are magnified, and the same crawly things that are ignored during the day may loom large in a child's imagination at night.
One of the best ways for children (and fearful adults) to gradually work their way into the nighttime world of the outdoors is through a backyard camp-out. To enhance the feeling of being away from home, set the tents up facing away from the house. Take a night hike around the block. Turn off house lights and flashlights, let eyes adjust to the darkness and then talk about what you can see.
Sing songs and tell stories, nothing too scary for the first outing.
Finally, when you nestle into your sleeping bags, see whether you can identify the sounds of the night.Setting Out: Always Be Prepared
Children of all ages can help plan and set up a camping trip. The more they do to get ready, the better the chance they'll enjoy the outing, but match their assigned tasks to their age levels.
For first outings, stick to within an hour or two of home. Try to go for two nights because it's nice to have one full day when you're not setting up or taking down the campsite.
Pack light: This trip is about getting away, not taking everything with you. (For what to take, see Page 27.)
Clothing: Remember, the weather can change quickly. Always take rain gear, two pairs of shoes and extra socks. Layered outfits will get you through most temperature changes. Pajamas are easier in a sleeping bag than nightgowns. Teach children to change all clothes before going to bed -- even underwear. Otherwise, body perspiration accumulated in day clothes can cause a severe nighttime chill. On cool nights, a cap will help retain body heat.
Selecting your campsite: Most campgrounds are first-come, first-served, so arrive early to get the best selection and to help children familiarize themselves with the surroundings before dark. (See Page 28 for suggested campsites.)
Help children check your site thoroughly for such sharp objects as sticks, rocks or broken glass before setting up your tent. Look overhead. Make sure there's no deadwood hanging above, ready to drop in the next breeze.
Is there a large group nearby that might be loud until the wee hours of the morning? Quieter sites are usually toward the back of the campground.
Some families with young children like to be close to the bathrooms; others find that location too noisy and too bright at night.
Speaking of bathrooms: Restrooms can vary, from heated bathrooms with flush toilets to portable toilets to old-fashioned latrines. You may want to opt for the first on your initial trip, and be sure to let children explore the setup before urgency calls.
Aim for low-impact camping: Following the mantra "take only photographs, leave only footprints. " Stick to existing trails and keep campfires small and confined to established fire rings. Take out whatever you bring in.The Tent Is Up. Now What? Time to Build a Fire
It is more environmentally friendly to cook outdoors using a propane camp stove or a charcoal grill, but the art of building a fire is a good skill to have. Most campsites have established fire pits, but many parks prohibit collecting wood from the forest or even bringing your own, so check first.
Be sure that long hair is tied back, loose clothing is reined and no running is allowed near the fire circle.
Instead of using liquid fire starters, kids can make their own by scraping candle pieces with a carrot peeler. Then put a tablespoon of the shavings in the center of a square of wax paper. Fold two sides over the top and twist the ends to make a piece shaped like saltwater taffy.
Keeping these and your matches in a waterproof container with a tight-fitting lid will help you get things going on damp days.I'm Hungry: No Foraging Necessary
Keep it simple. You might want to pack sandwiches or other no-cook meals for the first night because everyone will be more interested in exploring than in cooking.
A simple breakfast can be made by dipping cinnamon bread in beaten eggs and milk, then frying over the fire. Skip the syrup; it's a mess to clean up.
Lunches can be finger foods, such as vegetable sticks, celery stuffed with peanut butter or hummus, or cheese and crackers -- anything to provide nourishment without curtailing explorations.
Look for other kid-pleasing meals that take little preparation and require little cleanup. You can double-wrap dinner (a chicken leg, potatoes, onions and carrots, or maybe a vegetarian packet) in foil and place it directly on the grill or in the coals. Use long-handled tongs to turn the packages periodically. Cooking times will vary, so you might want to test your recipe before leaving home.
For dessert, try banana boats. Slice a banana through one side of the peel, pack with chocolate chips and mini marshmallows, then wrap in aluminum foil and place on the grill for about five minutes. Yum! You'll need a spoon for this one.
Another option: Core an apple; fill with cinnamon, raisins and brown sugar. Wrap in foil and bake on coals. And, of course, there's always that perennial favorite: s'mores.
Never store food in your tent, and caution kids about sneaking munchies into their sleeping bags or pockets, unless you want mice, bugs or other animals to pay you a nighttime visit.
Oh, and if you want the grown-ups to be pleasant in the morning, don't forget the coffee.Sun's Out: Time to Play
Although summer is full of ranger-led programs and other activities at many campgrounds, fall is a time for quiet discoveries. Hiking just to enjoy the scenery is great, but for children, hiking with a purpose can avoid the "are we there yet?" syndrome and can enhance a child's powers of observation.
Try an alphabet hike to see who can match the most letters to things along the way or a shape hike to hunt for natural triangles, ovals, spirals, etc. An oddities hike may interest older kids. They might notice a two-trunk tree, unusual tree bark, signs of animal gnawings or interesting animal tracks. All ages can enjoy a "look under" hike: Use a sturdy stick to peek beneath logs, rocks or leaves.
At night, play a favorite board game by lantern light.Rain, Rain, Go Away: Don't Let It Dampen Your Fun
Be aware that some fabrics are prone to leaking when disturbed while wet, so it's important not to touch or pile things against the inside walls of your tent. A rain fly (a waterproof tarp suspended above your tent) will act like an umbrella, directing rain away from the top and sides.
Cards, board games and books are family favorites, but rain doesn't have to stop activities. As long as there's no threat of lightning, pop on ponchos and go exploring. Where does the water go? What kind of bugs are out and about? Look for worms. Animal prints show up better in mud. What made the prints? Where was it going?Be Secure: Safety Comes First
Security at the campground is synonymous with "using common sense." Be aware of your surroundings. Teach your children to be observant and to notice landmarks at the campsite and while hiking. Occasionally turn around to look at the trail behind you so it will be familiar on your return trip.
If they should get lost, teach children to remain where they are and stay calm. Having a whistle and knowing the distress signal of three loud blasts may come in handy, but understand that signal is to be used only in a real emergency. Know where your children are at all times.
Never feed or approach wild animals, no matter how cute. Observe them from a distance. (Bring the binoculars.) By observing patiently and quietly, your kids may catch a squirrel's hording for winter, an ant's industriousness or a bunny's timid exploration.