First Family Camping

I was less than a year old when I went on my first overnight camping trip. I have no memory of it — but my parents remembered it well. They were young, still finding their way in the grown-up world. My father, a new engineer in his first job after college, was learning his way around a plant floor; my mother faced her own learning curve with me and a house they’d stretched to buy. When money ran low at the end of the month, which was most months, they scrambled stale bread ends and ketchup into their eggs.

Newlyweds in a new place, they approached their first family camping trip in the same way that they approached the rest of their new lives — determined to override a lack of money and experience through sheer youthful energy. They aired out the Army Surplus pup tent they’d used on their honeymoon. (The canvas had smelled of mold ever since they’d stored it damp.) The tent barely fit the two of them, much less a baby and her stuff, so they borrowed a second squat A-frame from friends. My mother pulled sheets and blankets from their bed for their bedrolls. They piled it all into a sedan and drove an hour into the hills of western Pennsylvania, to a state park. They carried me, the two tents, and the rest of the gear several miles down a forest trail and set up camp. Rolling up towels and blankets, they fashioned a crib for me in the borrowed tent, which they set up about ten feet away from their tent — about the same distance my bedroom was from theirs at home.

That night storms rolled in. Each thunderclap woke me in my pup-tent crib; each time I wailed, my father crawled from their tent to mine to comfort me. Eventually, soaked clear through, he crawled into my makeshift crib with me and fell asleep.

My parents told this story many times while I was growing up, always in vivid detail — the booming thunder, the downpour that quickly turned the space between their tent and mine into a muddy rut, our mutual exhaustion — and also with frank pleasure.

It’s a pleasure I see better now that I go camping with my own children. I can guess, for example, why my parents set up my tent a fair distance from their own. It isn’t just that theirs was a generation that would have scorned the notion of a family bed. Every time they told that story, they were young again and in love, at the beginning of a life in which all things seemed possible.

Jim and I came to family life in middle age, after youthful adventures of our own. We've prided ourselves on becoming experts in our outdoors activities; lacking expertise, we've sought advice. We’re careful about safety. We bought new camping gear, including a top-of-the-line four-person tent, when Ursula was born, looking forward to family time more than privacy.

But I try to carry forward some of the same spirit my parents had on that first overnight trip all those years ago. When our family goes camping, I’m not after perfection or even comfort. I want to pass on something more important — a sense of fun, a sense of adventure.

Going camping as a family concentrates two experiences wonderfully well, it seems to me. By camping together, we discover a shared experience of the natural world, and we can use the world to discover something about our own family.

Learn more

- Tips for first-time family camping

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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