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Go Wild

Even if you've never pitched a tent, here's how to have a great time camping with your family

One of our best family camping trips started out with a movie and pizza.

There we were, splashing through a steady rain in the harbor town where we'd stopped for lunch. We'd made it halfway to our planned destination of Acadia National Park when the veteran campers in our group decided, "We're going home. We'll try again tomorrow."

At the time, we lived just a few hours from Acadia so we went back to our house, built a crackling fire in the fireplace, ordered pizza, and laid our sleeping bags out on the floor to watch "Iron Will." In the clear, dry dawn of morning our happy crew headed back out, and had our tents up by lunchtime.

Our family has camped together for years. Despite the occasional rainy nights, leaky tents, and burned pancakes that are a normal part of camping, we've found that our times spent tucked in to toasty sleeping bags or gathered around an open fire have been some of our favorite family memories.

My fellow camping friends all agree that the best part about camping with our families is being together in a place apart, sharing what Henry Van Dyke called "unbought pleasures." We put away our watches, we snuggle deep in our sleeping bags and listen to the rain, we sing more, we laugh about dirty clothes, we soak in the glory of creation, we rediscover awe and eternity as we hold our children close under the stars. As my friend Judy says, "It fills your cup."

Whether you're a seasoned camper or you're wondering if you have the courage to sleep out in your back yard, let our family-tested, kid-approved "Trailblazing Tips" fire your enthusiasm for heading outdoors with your family.

Trailblazing Tip #1:

Be Willing To Change Your Plans

Our trip to Acadia is a perfect example of the need for flexibility. You can't always miss the rain—you don't always want to—but sometimes when camping with children, you decide it's better to seek shelter than soak all your gear on the first night out. Yes, it's smart to have some concrete plans about where you're staying and what kind of facilities you'll find there, but the whole point of camping together is to enjoy each other's company and grow closer. You can do that even if you end up in a cheap hotel for a night.

My camping friends Judy, Janie, Kathy, Joan, and Jean (and their husbands) also creatively adapt the usual camping routines to fit the needs and ages of their children. Young children might not tolerate more than a night or two in a tent. Older kids might want more time to explore. Pay attention to everyone's emotional temperature on your trip and be willing to adapt.

Trailblazing Tip #2:

Take Joy in the Journey

Camping happily as a family involves finding the adventure inherent in heading off to a new place. Think of camping as a big game. A hike can become a scavenger hunt or a game of hide-and-seek through the trees. Dinner around the fire can become a history lesson when you name your little campers and their food. ("Lewis and Clark, how do you like your bearmeat stew?") Remember, camping is "re-creation." Here's how to play when you're away:

1. Fill your kids' pockets. Little toys and snacks can turn an outing into a real adventure. A child's fishing vest or a fanny pack can hold fruit snacks, bubbles, a bug box, a mini-football, and miniature cars. Older children can carry a map and compass, a camera, small nature guides, a harmonica, maybe a sketchbook and pencils. This "play-as-you-go" strategy engages children and encourages them to explore happily.

2. Make sure there's water nearby. Water can be splashed in, sailed on, swum in, scooped up—you name it, a kid will think of it. Whether it's an afternoon at the beach or a campsite beside the stream, putting water and children together—safely, of course—is a win-win combination. Cups and digging tools are indispensable.

3. Find a special place to build "houses". Use sticks, moss, leaves, stones, bark, shells, and other natural materials. This kind of activity "baptizes the imagination," to borrow C.S. Lewis' words.

4. A tent is a fantastic toy from a child's point of view. (A tent with a flashlight is even better.) Take time to tumble, tickle, giggle, roll, and snuggle inside of it.

5. Bring toys. Pack a Frisbee (for night play, get the kind with battery-powered blinking lights); a collapsable kite or foxtail; and Matchbox cars (Children can easily turn your campsite into an engineering marvel of roads, bridges, and obstacle courses with a few of these. Miniature plastic animals are great additions to the scene.). Keep your choices on the small and light side so children can tote them around your campsite on their own. Stick with just a few items, because. …

Trailblazing Tip #3:

Less is More

Camping endears us to our children because they have us all to themselves. "I like camping because it's just us," Jean's daughter told her. You want your kids to have something to do, but don't bring so much from home that you all miss out on the chance to spend time in the simple pleasures of the outdoors.

And don't worry about having all the "right" camping gear. You don't need a top-of-the-line tent. You don't need clean clothes every day (just dry clothes if you get wet). You don't need high-tech sleeping bags—a pile of blankets can make a cozy nest, too. There are plenty of ways to maximize your experience with minimal equipment and effort:

1. Simple, fun foods are best. Leave the ten-pot cooking set and four-burner propane stove at home. (We carry a single burner stove, and use it mostly to heat water for hot drinks.) Our kids love trail foods like GORP ("good old raisins and peanuts". … with M&M's, of course), cheese and fruit with bagels (bagels travel well), and flaps (see the sidebar for our recipe for these homemade granola bars). Make what you can ahead of time to avoid spending too much time with prep and clean up on site.

For supper, we usually cook around the fire. It's part of the fun of camping to search out your very own stick for cooking hot dogs and brats. Making Indian fry bread (see recipe) over the coals is a sure-fire winner, especially when served up with butter and honey. Our campfires aren't complete unless we have graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows for "s'mores."

Breakfast? Joan and her family consider breakfast the highlight of the day when they're camping. "The smell of morning campfires and coffee is something else," she says. Everyone pitches in to cook a huge breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and eggs over the fire.

Our family likes to get up and get going, so we prefer hot drinks with cereals and fruits, made-ahead sweetbreads, or a pot of trail oatmeal (see recipe). We make our breakfast plans the night before, and consider it perfectly acceptable to go out for a pancake breakfast if there's a town nearby. (I know, I know. If you're a camping purist, this kind of heresy makes you bristle.). The way I look at it, if your family is enjoying unhurried time together, it doesn't matter who's cooking the pancakes.

2. You don't need a tent to go camping. Cabins are nice options, especially with smaller children, or if you just prefer a sturdier shelter. Many state and national parks offer simple, rustic cabins at very reasonable rates (try www.amfac.com or www.americanparknetwork.com): Book early, though, as these accommodations tend to get snatched up. Usually you'll need to bring your own sleeping bags, so children can still consider this "camping."

Many Christian camps offer Family Camps with a variety of lodging options (go to Christian Camping International, www.christiancamping.org or call 719-260-9400). These camps usually provide meals and activities too, making this a great way to go family camping.

3. Leave as much as possible at home. That includes cell phones (yours and the kids'), GameBoys, laptops, and anything with headphones. Camping strips away everyday encumbrances and gives back a precious gift: time together with your family. This is your chance skip rocks, catch fireflies, and read stories by firelight.

Trailblazing Tip #4:

Build Critical Mass

In nuclear physics as in camping, you need a certain amount of material—critical mass—to release energy and sustain the reaction. We've found that camping with another family sometimes gives us this essential "critical mass." Having other children to play with fuels our children's energy, cuts down on the work we have to do, and we are sustained by the pleasant companionship of other like-minded parents.

When planning this kind of a trip, choose another family whose ideas about camping fit with yours. Make sure you're clear about the balance between planned activites and freetime, time as a group and time as families, and who's bringing what. You don't want two stoves and no matches.

Trailblazing Tip #5:

Create Celebrations

We don't go camping merely to "get away," but to "go to." We go to experience what the Lord spoke of to Hosea: "I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her" (Hosea 2:14, RSV). Kathy goes mountain backpacking with her family because "in that vastness I feel small. The Lord reminds me that I'm created and called by name." When her family reaches the summit after a challenging hike, they sing a "summit song" of praise. (After sliding in the summer snowfields, they also celebrate by making snow ice cream from snow, sweetened condensed milk, and hot cocoa powder!)

There are many ways to create celebrations while camping. I have a basket of rocks—yes, rocks—that our son has collected over the years. To me, they are like the Israelites' "stones of remembrance" for all the ways in which the Lord has led us.

Peeling and carving a walking stick, reading Psalm 8 under the stars, singing around the fire or along the trail, taking home campfire sticks so your children can toast marshmallows in your fireplace next winter—these celebrations can evoke life-long memories and create meaningful traditions. Through these, you can also give to your children a heritage of reverence for the Creator God. This truly is "My Father's World." (That's a great one to sing around the campfire!)

Trailblazing means finding a new way, off the beaten track. Camping draws you off the world-weary path so you can rediscover new ways to grow as a family. "Camping recalibrates our family," Judy says. "It gets us back to what's real." C.S. Lewis once said, "Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?" I know I can't think of one.

Nancy Cripe and her family have camped in Europe and much of the U.S.

Indian Fry Bread

At home, put the following ingredients in a

plastic bag:

4 1/2 cups flour (part wheat, if desired)

1/2 t. salt

2 t. baking powder

1/3 cup dry milk powder (optional)

Write on the plastic bag in marker, "Indian Fry Bread: Add 2 cups water." When you're camping, add the water to the dry mix and knead the dough inside the bag with your hands. Pat out and fry small circles of dough in butter or oil in a pan over the fire. Turn once. Serve golden brown with butter and honey to your own Hiawatha and Minnehaha.


2 cups margarine

2 cups brown sugar

1/3 cup honey

1/3 cup light corn syrup

10 cups oats

Melt the margarine. Add the brown sugar, honey and corn syrup. Stir in the oats. Spread and pat firmly into a well-greased 11x17 cookie sheet (with edges). Bake at 250 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Cut into bars and remove from pan before the flaps have totally cooled.

Trail Oatmeal

At home, put the following in a plastic bag or container:

2 cups quick-cooking oats

3/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 t. salt

1/2 t. cinnamon

1 cup dry milk powder

a handful of raisins (optional)

On the trail, put the mix in a fireproof bowl. Add 4 cups water and bring to a boil over the fire or cookstove. Simmer, covered, for a few minutes, then remove from heat and let the oatmeal set for at least 5 minutes. Serves 6.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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