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Tag: family camping

Quit While You’re Ahead On Outdoor Adventures, Or Risk Family Mutiny

Well, it happened. We went on an outdoor adventure and we called it quits, due to weather. Surprisingly, this has never actually happened to us before. Sure, there have been days where we cut a walk short or chose an alternate activity, but we’ve never committed to a big trip, undertaken it, and then bailed when the going got tough.

Of course, that’s not to say that it’s a bad thing, though. In fact, I would say we left at the exact right time. You know what they say about quitting while you’re ahead. Well, we quit at the pinnacle and everyone left happy and excited to do it all again. That’s what matters most.

Let me back up.

Winter Cabin Camping

For the last two winters I have been mildly obsessed with winter cabin camping. I’m definitely not ready to commit to sleeping in a tent on the frozen snowpack quite yet, and honestly the idea of winter camping in a tent with children who still, despite every warning, KEEP THEIR SHOES ON WHEN THEY GO IN THE TENT, is distressing.

So when I first discovered winter cabin camping through an article in Outdoor Families Magazine, I was immediately hooked. And lo and behold, it took just a quick search on Reserve America to find winter cabin rentals within a few hours’ drive.

We booked our first trip for last January. It was a bitterly cold weekend, and the cabin was more a dirt-floored shack-closet to which the captain vowed he would never return. Yet still, the forever-memories won us over.

Just look at the kids exploring the magic of a frozen lake and then roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over a fire while the sunsets across the ice. It was beautiful enough that we all wanted to give it another try.

A late afternoon ice hike with daddy.

 

Cooking hot dogs on the fire.

 

Late afternoon memories on the frozen pond.

This year, I booked us at some cabins just down the road from the closet we stayed in last year. From what little information I could find online, they looked significantly newer, cleaner, and more civilized. They even had electricity, which I argued actually made this less winter cabin “camping” and more winter cabin “retreating”. In any case . . .

Come November, I knew I wanted to escape and I chose inauguration weekend because I knew we’d all appreciate being unplugged then. We gathered some friends to book the cabin next door, dusted off our trusty camping packing list, prepped some meals, and then proceeded to shoehorn enough gear to reach the north pole for the weekend into every last crevice of the minivan. We were ready.

Mohawk Trail State Forest

Three hours and several potty stops later, we arrived at Mohawk Trail State Forest, picked up our key at the ranger station, and found our way to Cabin 7. We pushed the heavy door open and with the flick of a switch, we illuminated the entire spacious cabin, finished in fresh white pine, complete with built-in cabinets, granite countertops, and a 3/4 wall separating two spacious sleeping areas.

Sleeping area: Bunk bed and single twin separated from a double bed by 3/4 wall.

 

Kitchen area (no running water), kitchen table, and woodstove.

This was not winter cabin camping. This was . . . bordering on luxury. As we unpacked, the boys got to work with their trucks to build ski jumps, sledding hills, and parking garages in the snow piles by the front porch.

That night, we sat with friends, eating bowls of hearty chili and sipping on hot toddies around the outdoor fire while the kids stuffed themselves with s’mores. We fed the wood stove inside to keep things downright steamy, and everyone slipped into a long, comfortable sleep broken only by the occasional draft that reminded us to keep the fire going through the night.

Little Bear scouting for kindling.

In the morning, we cooked bacon and eggs on the wood stove and us adults fortified ourselves with dark coffee to make it through the day. We hiked to a small summit and followed deer and coyote tracks along the way. Then we descended to a shallow valley with a thawed river bubbling through it. The boys threw snowball after snowball into the current.

Family picture at the mini-summit.

 

Boys walking with daddy.

 

Little Bear surveys the river

After some quiet time in the afternoon, the boys were ready for some carefully plotted sledding through the trees behind our cabin, gathering firewood, and then foil packs of veggies and potatoes, and sausage cooked on the outdoor fire.

As the evening got quiet, we began to ponder the weather forecast. We had had no phone or internet since our arrival on Friday and when we left, there’d been rain forecast for both Saturday and Sunday. We had gotten lucky on Saturday with a mild, overcast day free from rain, but we weren’t sure about the outlook for Sunday. We had big plans so we crossed our fingers and headed to our bunks early enough to get a jumpstart on our Sunday morning.

Cooking sausages and foil packs of veggies and potatoes.

The boys roast marshmallows with help from the Captain.

Second night fire – you can see that the snow has melted quite a bit during the day.

Sunday dawned dreary and damp. The air felt cold and wet. We had a full day of skiing booked at the little, local mountain four miles down the road. The kids were taking all-day lessons and we were finally going to have a day to ski together as adults.

The rain started on the drive to the ski hill. It was pretty light at first but soon the drops were falling in giant dollops that landed with a smack on the windshield. We hurried into the ski school and got the run down of options and even a peak at the radar.

It might stop, it might not. The staff were very accommodating and offered refunds if we decided to skip the lessons. Instead, we opted to cut the full-day ski school down to just an hour in the morning, skip the adult skiing, and then call it by ear. Honestly, the ski day wasn’t going to be cheap and I wasn’t about to drop $400 on a day of family fun that simply wasn’t.

Checking out the rain before ski school.

 

Ready to conquer the rain for an hour!

It was the right choice. The kids skied an hour and were absolutely soaked. Afterwards, they trudged into the tavern looking (and acting) like freshly flea-dipped cats.

We stripped off soaking jackets, rung out mittens and neck warmers, and hung everything by the fireplace. Over a lunch of fried kids’ meals, we took the opportunity to go online and check the weather forecast. The afternoon called for more heavy and consistent rain that would turn to sleet and freezing rain overnight. The next day called for ice.

It didn’t take much conversation to decide that we should just call it quits. If there had been snow in the forecast, we’d have happily stayed to bunker down through the worst and wake to a white wonderland, ripe for exploring the next day.

But we couldn’t face an afternoon of being wet and cold, followed by the rigor of packing up in freezing rain and the stress of driving home through it the next day.

So we quit while we were ahead. The kids were sad to leave. We were sad to leave too. Even the ranger smiled in a sad way and remarked, “Going home early to beat the storm, huh? Sorry about that.”

We’ve found it’s always best to quit before it gets bad, but it’s often a fine line to walk, especially with kids. They can go from having the time of their lives to wailing like mateless coyotes in just a matter of seconds, so our goal is always to get out of there while they’re still having the time of their lives. This also makes it much easier to convince them to go back again another time.

This time, I think we nailed it. There’s no shame in heading home when all signs point to impending misery. The real shame is in sticking to a plan that’s only remaining strength is its title of The Plan.   

Is a Family Campground Right For You?

An early morning walk along the pond with friends.

An early morning walk along the pond with friends.

A few weeks ago, I packed the boys and what seemed to be the greater part of our earthly possessions into the Honda minivan and joined the northbound traffic from Massachusetts to Maine on a Sunday in August. The minivan parade slowly thinned as we passed first Kittery, then York, Cape Neddick, Ogunquit and Kennebunkport. By the time we exited and turned our course inland, just north of Portland, the steady stream of minivans had trickled down to a fleeting few, mixed mostly with pick up trucks pulling pop up campers or fifth wheels.

Through the power of peer pressure, the boys both completed the hike to Pulpit Rock from the pond below on their own two feet.

Through the power of peer pressure, the boys both completed the hike to Pulpit Rock from the pond below on their own two feet.

We were headed for a legendary place – one we’d long heard about and often seen photos of, but never once set upon with our own eyes. We were heading north to meet my moms’ group at Papoose Pond Family Campground.

A few years ago, when one of my awesome mom friends invited the whole group to tag along with her on her family vacation to this fabled place, a few brave souls joined her for a week of fun, friends, and family. Last year a few more joined. And this year, we along with 8 other families made the trek 3 hours north to experience it for ourselves.

We are not new to camping but this trip was unique in two ways:

First, it marked the first time I’d brought the boys on anything close to a camping venture without The Captain along to help. 

And second, it marked my first experience with a family campground. 

The boys bike along with friends under many watchful eyes.

The boys bike along with friends under many watchful eyes.

These facts almost canceled each other out. On the one hand, I was the only parent responsible for the packing and patrolling of my little crew, but on the other I had the hands and eyes of many trusted friends to help me out. In many ways it was the perfect experience to ease into solo-parent camping with my boys.

So did we like the family campground experience?

Family campgrounds aren’t for everyone, but I definitely saw the appeal and the purpose they serve. Our group was more or less centrally based along one dirt road leading down to the pond. It was easy enough for the kids to run amuck under loose supervision. There were hours of bike skid outs and wood gathering missions. There were squeals of childhood oblivion as our crew of 19 kids splashed one another in the pond, prodded fires with marshmallow-laden sticks, and ventured onto the beach in the early morning glow, mugs of hot chocolate in hand.

It wasn’t what camping has always meant to me, but it wasn’t a resort vacation either. It was somewhere in between.

Is a family campground right for your next family adventure? Here are some points to think about as you decide.

Our hutnick, with bunkbeds in the enclosed cabin space and eating area outside on the covered porch.

Our hutnick, with bunkbeds in the enclosed cabin space and eating area outside on the covered porch.

Decide how much privacy you really need. Papoose Pond is really well set up to accommodate a wide range of comfort levels. They have plain tented sites, but also have cabins, huts and campers. We stayed in a “hutnick” which had a cabin-like sparse room with bunkbeds inside and an open porch with picnic table, sink, and electric stove outside. It provided us with so much added privacy and convenience and it didn’t break the bank. We had a separate dark place for sleeping, the boys could easily nap as needed, and bonus- there was no need to light a fire every morning just to make my coffee. Many of the tented sites had private vestibules (commonly called ‘the garage’) set up off the tents where people could change clothes, store gear, or just sit in peace. The sites are very, very close together so the only privacy will be the privacy of your accommodations. Choose wisely!

Moving logs was serious business for this crew.

Moving logs was serious business for this crew.

Decide how comfortable you are letting your kids run wild, even out of your sight. The boys spent much of our time at Papoose digging in the dirt and riding their bikes crazily down the slope of a gravel dirt road. Most of this was done in combination with feral shrieks of glee. There were many scraped knees but surprisingly few tears. I was lucky to have the added security of knowing that many other eyes were watching and knew my kids, but even without all the company, it would have been nearly impossible to keep the kids within sight and under my verbal control all day. They immediately made new friends and took off in packs like wolves on a scent. There was a very casual communal supervision over them all which is more than fine by me, but it may not be for everyone and I can imagine that it would not be fun to be the one parent chasing down the pack of kids every five minutes, squawking about staying close to the campsite and not getting dirty. If you have trouble letting go of that control, this may not be for you.

All day every day.

All day every day.

Decide how much peace and quiet you need. Is the answer very little? Then you should be good. Papoose Pond had quiet hours between 10PM and 7AM which we found were generally well respected. We also found that in the middle of the day our site, which was somewhat set back from the beach, stayed relatively quiet since most people were out doing activities. But for the most part, there was a low background noise throughout the day, pierced regularly by screaming kids. I normally enjoy the quiet solitude of camping quite a bit, but when most of the ruckus is being created by your own kids or the rest of the pack who you love like your own, I found it didn’t bother me as much. On the flip side, had I been camping without my crew of close friends, I think I would have found it exceptionally grating. Then again, I’m not sure who goes to family campgrounds looking for peace and quiet. There did seem to be multiple extended families and groups camping together so maybe there is safety in numbers on this. If you are looking to simply get out into the woods and enjoy the birdsongs, this won’t be your jam. That said, we did enjoy a silent night on the beach after putting the kids to bed, watching shooting stars and the amazing Milky Way.

Little Bear takes advantage of the nightly carousel.

Little Bear takes advantage of the nightly carousel.

Decide how involved you want to be. Papoose Pond is made for mingling. Throughout the week there are various tournaments to be entered ranging from tennis and ping pong to volleyball and washer toss. There are also structured events throughout the day – kids’ kickball, sand castle contest, limbo, tie dying, and nightly entertainment including an old carousel which runs for an hour each evening. All of the activities are casual and done out of the way so they don’t intrude on anyone’s scene, but that also means that if you want to participate you’ll need to be proactive in reviewing the schedule when you arrive and seeking them out during the week. We especially enjoyed some of the kids’ sports since they provided an opportunity for the boys to get out some energy without me having to facilitate. And it didn’t hurt that they were given free slushies for their troubles.

Any occasion for s'mores is a hit with these boys.

Any occasion for s’mores is a hit with these boys.

All in all we had an amazing time and would love to go back. Family campgrounds aren’t what I think of when I think of camping but they are an awesome way to ease into the camping experience and they are a wholesome family vacation with something for everyone if you can get by without the peace and privacy of your own home. They make it easy and they make it communal. I don’t foresee The Captain choosing a family campground for his next outdoor adventure, but when the pressure’s all on me to provide the experience, it’s nice to have the friendship and support of a group trip to Papoose Pond.

Morning fishing trip - this lasted surprisingly long considering there were no nibbles.

Morning fishing trip – this lasted surprisingly long considering there were no nibbles.

How to Camp With Kids: 5 Secrets to a Successful Adventure

Camping in Tasmania, the night after we got engaged.

Camping in Tasmania, the night after we got engaged.

When the Captain and I got engaged, we were camping in Tasmania. We had flown there without a shred of camping equipment, stayed in a hotel for New Year’s Eve, and then hit an outdoors store on New Years Day, both feeling a bit hazy and under the weather from the festivities the night before. Though we were completely unprepared in terms of gear (or reservations) we didn’t have a worry in the world because camping was no big deal to us. The idea of hitting a down-under version of Dick’s Sporting Goods and then heading into the wilderness for a week didn’t phase either of us in the least. And when it hailed all night our first night out there, we obviously decided that this boded well for our future and promised to spend our the rest of lives together. We were at camping level: expert.

Wild and free kids in their natural habitat.

Wild and free kids in their natural habitat.

But camping with kids is a different story. I’m all for letting my children embrace their inner jungle creature during normal waking hours, but in the round-the-clock eternal lavender glow of the summer solstice wherein free range kids are up until midnight and wake with first light at 4AM? No thanks. We are still admitted novices at family camping. We have only brought the kids a few times. And each time, it takes days of planning, packing, and forethought before I can comfortably wrap my head around our plans. But we’re getting better at it and each time is a little easier than the last. In fact, I’m developing a system to simplify the process. Someday, we are going to be able to decide that it’s a great weekend for camping on Friday afternoon, chuck our camping bins in the car, and hit the road. Here are my top tips for family camping so far.

The dish team puts the buckets and bins system to double-use.

The dish team puts the buckets and bins system to double-use.

  1. Pack in bins. Duffel bags are for air travel and sporting events. Backpacks are for backpacking. Plastic lawn bins and beverage tubs? Totally for car and boat camping. They are sturdy enough to get knocked around, they hold tons of gear and they can double as wind, water and animal-resistant storage at the campsite. Think about it: bags would need to be packed into the tent each night to keep them dry and safe. Bins and buckets can stay outside. They also stack easily and can double as kitchen area worktops when they have lids on. Large beverage buckets are similarly great for hauling things like sleeping bags, pads, tents, etc and then can double as dish buckets at the campsite.

    Boat packed with bins and buckets for camping.

    Dedicated camping gear means grabbing an already-packed bin from the basement and putting it straight in the boat.

  2. Have dedicated camping gear. Though it originally seemed silly to me that we would have one set of cooking ware and cutlery at home, one set on our boat and yet another set packed away and only used for camping, it really does make it so much easier. When you have a dedicated set of plates, bowls, cutlery, cookware and serving utensils, you can keep your camping kitchen bin packed and ready to go. Include your camp stove, a dish towel, sponge and dish soap. By keeping as much of your gear as possible packed and ready, your pre-camping prep gets trimmed significantly.
  3. Make a packing checklist and SAVE IT. Type your list up and each time you go camping, edit it down to delete things you didn’t need and add things you wish you’d brought. I know it seems anal and borderline obsessive, but a list takes so much of the stress and forethought out of the equation. Need a cheat sheet to get started? Check out my packing list here: 365Outside Camping List: A Work in Progress

    Just a glimpse of some of our gear - there is a lot to remember!

    Just a glimpse of some of our gear – there is a lot to remember!

  4. Prep food ahead of time. There is something about camping that makes a hot meal seem beyond luxurious. But prepping it, cooking it and cleaning it up outside makes the whole thing ten times more complicated than at home. I simplify the process by doing as much prep ahead of time as possible. I pre-cook as much as I can and freeze it before it goes in the cooler. I try to make things that can be reheated over the campfire to conserve space on the stove. Bonus points if it can be cooked in foil for no-clean-up. On our latest trip I cooked chili, breakfast casseroles and quinoa salad ahead of time. Friends brought meatloaf-stuffed peppers and onions along with foil-wrapped sweet potatoes and a ready-to-eat chicken salad. Coordinate with camping buddies and host a potluck. And include a few super easy meals like hotdogs or precooked sausages and some instant oatmeal so that you have some simple options to fall back on in a crunch.

    Little Bear, dirty-faced and enjoying a s'mores

    Little Bear, dirty-faced and enjoying a s’mores

  5. Indulge the little ones. We run a pretty tight ship around here, but camping is another story. Kids are happiest when they feel like they are experiencing something special and being given extra freedoms. When we camp, they stay up late, they run wild, they get dirt and food caked into their sunscreen and bug spray plastered cheeks. And we don’t care. They snack all day long. They stuff their cheeks with s’mores and they enjoy steady peace offerings of glow sticks and bubbles. Some may say we spoil them, which may certainly be the case, but vacation is a chance for everyone to indulge and any adult who doesn’t eat, drink and indulge more often on vacation clearly isn’t doing it right. Why not give kids the same experience we create for ourselves?
Our tent and hammock set up overlooking the beach.

Our tent and hammock set up overlooking the beach.

Our camping trip last weekend was the stuff of summer dreams. We were surrounded by good friends in a full-on multi-family camping slumber party. There was plenty of good food, indulgent drinks and relaxation. But at the same time, we were surrounded by natural beauty and removed from the chaos of daily life. The kids romped across the tidal flats, catching crabs and snails. We watched the sun set slowly and the nearly full moon rise. We sat around the camp fire late into the night with sleepy kids who eventually, thankfully, asked to go to sleep. We woke early and sipped our steaming coffee while watching the gentle water lap along the shore. We spent long hours exploring the sound in our boat. And when the last day arrived, we packed up slowly, regrettably, glancing back over our shoulders as we left the island behind until next time. It’s still a bit of a ordeal to create these moments, but it’s getting easier and it’s always worth the hassle.

The Captain wades out for a calm morning swim while the boys play onshore.

The Captain wades out for a calm morning swim while the boys play onshore.

 

Little Bear

Little Bear

 

A friend's son ponders his dad's strategic lounging.

A friend’s son ponders his dad’s strategic lounging.

 

Father's Day gifts: Woohoos. They're as fun as they look!

Father’s Day gifts: Woohoos. They’re as fun as they look!

 

Junior shows off a crab he's caught

Junior shows off a crab he’s caught

The moon rises over the bay.

The moon rises over the bay.

Junior snuggles into the hammock at sunset on our first night.

Junior snuggles into the hammock at sunset on our first night.

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