Saturday, July 31, 2010

Free and online: “Top 25 Hikes for Kids”

I recently tried out AMC’s online guide to the White Mountains. I’ve been intrigued before but haven’t taken the time to register. What finally got me to take a look at it was a new list of “Top 25 Hikes for Kids” that includes maps and detailed, printable trip itineraries.

As I’ve said here before, I’m attached to my guidebooks. My favorites become decorated with sticky tags and annotations, guides to my life outdoors. Still, the chance to put maps and hike descriptions together, and to print out only what I need for a particular trip seemed attractive.

After I became a member of the White Mountain Guide Online community, I clicked over to the map of the White Mountains and selected “Hikes with Kids” in the “Suggested Hikes” category. The list of 25 hikes showed up on the right side of my screen.

These hikes are culled from AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the White Mountains guidebook. I recognized such family favorites as the trail to Lonesome Lake from Lafayette Campground and the easy walk to Elephant Head ledge on the Webster-Jackson trail. The list focuses on hikes to waterfalls, lakes, and the classic family-friendly summits like West Rattlesnake in the Squam Range.

I printed out maps and routes for several hikes we’d like to try this season. I noticed that the online community also contains reports from members, updates on trail conditions and, especially, the ability to create and print out custom routes. I’ll check back during my 30-day free trial.

Trying out the White Mountain Guide Online doesn’t mean I’m ready to pack up the guidebooks on my bookshelf. Whatever hike we choose, I’ll still read their longer descriptions and essays for context and history before we actually hit the trail.

Learn more
... White Mountain Guide Online

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

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Blessing of a Broken Arm?

On a recent Saturday morning, Jim and I stood at our kitchen counter and looked at the weekend puzzle, trying to figure how we might fit the chores, the errands, and a bit of work into a day. I needed to be in town for a few hours; he was hoping to finish a project.

“Would you be OK if I let Ursula and Virgil ride their bikes to Cam’s house?” Jim asked. Cam lives at the far end of our dirt road, about five miles away. Neither of our children have ridden their bikes that far alone. I rode down the road in my mind, counting the steep downhills (three) and uphills (none of note), the traffic (minimal), the route-finding (pretty straightforward). I could imagine Ursula handling all of it. She’s 12; she’s taken shorter solo rides. It would be a fun adventure for her. Virgil? At 7, he’s an enthusiastic but wobbly rider.

Jim and I made a pact about safety issues before Ursula was born. We agreed that the person with the lowest tolerance — the person who said, “I’m not comfortable with this” — got the final say, no questions asked, no debate. It’s worked well for us. So when I said I didn’t feel comfortable sending Virgil on such a long and difficult bike trip for his first bike ride without one of us, Jim didn’t press the point. But I was fine if he accompanied them on the ride, and then rode back home to work.

Problem solved, hazard avoided — right?

I was on my way home when I got the call: Jim and Virgil were headed to the emergency room; Ursula was safe at Cam’s. Virgil had taken a pretty bad fall right before they reached Cam’s house. He hadn’t crashed on the downhill — he’d shown impressive caution and control, Jim said — but trying something new. Jim had showed him how to stand up on his pedals to get more power going uphill. Somehow, his front tire had clipped Jim’s back tire and Virgil and his bike had tumbled down a steep, wooded embankment.

A young resident at the ER gave us the official diagnosis: dislocated elbow, fractured ulna bone in his left arm. In the days since we brought Virgil home with that arm in a cast, I’ve been thinking about what happened, wondering if we should have done something differently.

Several years ago, as part of a book discussion through the kids’ school, Jim and I read The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by psychologist Wendy Mogel. I liked the parenting book, which draws on Mogel’s years of experience as a family counselor and her knowledge of Jewish teachings. After Virgil’s accident, I pulled it down from my shelf and turned to the chapter of the same name.

“There is a Hebrew phrase, tzar gidul banim, that refers to the ubiquitous pain of raising children,” Mogel writes. “We parents go through years of emotional anguish as we raise our kids, but tzar gidol banim also refers to our children’s pain. Without it they cannot grow strong.” That is, a parent’s duty is not to protect children from every conceivable situation where they might get hurt, but to let kids take reasonable risks and learn from the consequences. I felt better after reading the chapter, but still, it was about the blessing of a skinned knee, not a broken arm.

As I was about to close the book, I noticed the word “broken” in the epigraph: “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” I thought of Virgil, how he’d handled the long wait in the ER and all its accompanying poking and prodding, his stoicism when the residents had to redo the first cast, his bravery after the fall. I considered how well he’s moved on and found new joys in the summer.

I’d still choose a successful ride to Cam’s over the accident if I could. But I would say that Virgil’s spirit has grown a bit because of this broken arm. And the cast comes off, we hope, before school starts.

Learn more
.. The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

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

Monday, July 26, 2010

Junior Naturalist: The Alpine Zone

The most extensive alpine zone in the eastern United States is in the White Mountains. I’d say that we knew this before our recent hike up to Mt. Lafayette, but not exactly. I’d pointed out to Ursula and Virgil the line between forest and treeless slopes on Mt. Washington, the Presidential Range, and Franconia Ridge from plenty of vantage points down low. But the hike to Greenleaf Hut, below Mt. Lafayette, gave them their first real chance to stand above treeline in New England.

On our hike up to the hut, Jim introduced Ursula and Virgil to one of the best words in the White Mountains: krummholz. This German word does some poetic justice to the stunted, twisted, tough balsam forests that mark the boundary of the alpine zone.

It took joining a talk by Brian Fitzgerald, the naturalist at Greenleaf Hut, however, for me to make a deeper connection between being above treeline and the alpine zone. Fitzgerald, a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire, explained that the alpine zone in the White Mountains is the remnant of a tundra ecosystem that existed after the last glaciers retreated in what is now northern New England. As the climate warmed, the plants and animals of the tundra retreated to higher elevations. They’ve existed in the zone above 4,500 feet for the past 10,000 years.

Plants in the alpine zone have adapted to its harsh conditions, Fitzgerald explained, by growing in tight clumps close to the ground, like pincushions. It may take a plant up to 8 years to gather enough energy to produce a single flower, and decades to cover a patch of ground as big as a footprint.

He passed around photos of plants that grow in the alpine zone, including diapensia, whose five-petaled white flowers we’d see the next day on our walk up Mt. Lafayette, and dwarf cinquefoil, a federally endangered plant that grows only on Mt. Washington and Mt. Lafayette. We didn’t see that tiny plant, or its ¼-inch yellow flowers, but I gained a new appreciation for the fragile beauty of all plants in the alpine zone.

No kids sat in on the after-dinner talk that night. Ours were more interested in playing cards with some of the other kids at the hut. I asked Fitzgerald later how he teaches children about the alpine zone. Lots of school and camp groups come through the hut, he told me. “I give them a lot of the same information,” he said, “but I just do it in a slightly different way” — by making it a game of Jeopardy and splitting the groups into teams. Among the questions he asks the teams: list 3 characteristics of plants in the alpine zone, name 2 flowering plants in the zone, and give the length of the growing season, name one location where you can find the alpine zone. (Wonder about the growing season? 60 to 70 days…)

In Fitzgerald’s experience, the boys and girls who play “Alpine Zone Jeopardy” also come away with an appreciation for the fragility and beauty of life up high in the White Mountains. “I tell them we didn’t know even a generation ago how much it harms those plants to walk on them. They’re growing up knowing this.”

Fitzgerald also tells them that plants in the alpine zone don’t have any options if the climate continues to warm. “It would be a real loss” if kids could no longer hike up to a high hut and see a small bit of the arctic.

Learn more
Greenleaf Hut
Mt. Lafayette
White Mountain Wildflower Program
Mountain Watch Program
AMC Field Guide to the New England Alpine Summits

Photo from Mount Washington Observatory: Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla Robbinsiana), is federally protected and is the rarest alpine plant in New England; found only on Mount Washington and the Franconia Range. The plant appears to grow out from under the rocks. Bryan Yeaton Photo.

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

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gearing Up: Outdoor gear for kids

In an ideal world, I would have read “Youth Gone Wild: Essential outdoor gear for kids,” by fellow AMC blogger Matt Heid, before our recent hut trip. Heid, who writes AMC's "Equipped" blog, knows a thing or two about gear — and about kids, too. (Here’s the start to his article: “Those dang kids. They’re small. They’re tall. They’re everything in between. And tomorrow they’re completely different all over again.”)

After reading Heid’s article, I might have tried harder to talk Ursula out of hiking in a cotton T-shirt. Cotton, Heid reminded me, gets wet, stays wet, and loses any heat-retention capability, while synthetics and wool hold onto body-warmth, even when wet. (We were hiking in hot humidity, so I wasn’t really worried about Ursula losing body heat — but it would have been nice if her sweat-soaked shirt dried overnight.) At least I packed the polypro long underwear that Heid suggests, and the fleece and the rain gear.

Heid offers common-sense advice on shoes, hiking pants, and backpacks, too. It’s taken us several seasons of trial and error to arrive at his recommendations on pack size and type for younger hikers. On last week’s hike, Virgil was proud to carry a small hydration pack that had enough additional room for snacks, a windbreaker, and a whistle. Ursula, four years older and a more experienced hiker, carried all her personal gear in a daypack, total weight about 15 pounds, and felt a similar pride.

By the time I had children, I had two decades of experience in the outdoors. I knew what to take on a backpacking trip in any season. I’ve learned, though, that bringing children up on the trail requires rethinking gear for all of us. And sometimes in the middle of the family circus I forget what I used to know.

Reading Matt Heid’s article made me realize that a dash of parental wisdom is also “essential outdoor gear” for children and reminded me that I have some lessons to communicate to Ursula and Virgil. Next time, we talk about the cotton T-shirt.

Learn more
"Youth Gone Wild: Essential outdoor gear for kids" (AMC Outdoors, July 2010).

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

Notes from Higher Ground

A few lessons learned (or re-learned) from a recent family overnight at Greenleaf Hut:

The best all-time motivating method. Our youngest and most reluctant hiker can still be motivated by what we call the “Hansel and Gretel” ploy. His sister runs ahead with a bag of treats. He follows, searching for those she’s hidden along the way. Sometimes the treats are on top of a rock in the middle of the trail, sometimes in little nooks and crannies of the sort that would appeal to a woodland elf. Ursula kept count and so did Virgil: Some large number of M&Ms, raisins, and crackers later, they were off by only one — an M&M Ursula found still in its (too-good) hiding spot on the way down!

Best new motivating method. The Trail Mini-Olympics grew out of a game we made up to keep Virgil cross-country skiing last winter. He tweaked it for the hike: push-ups with packs; hopping on one foot; running in place; you get the idea. We rotated events, he kept score for all of us. It got him through the tough middle of the hike up to the hut.

Items we’re glad we packed.
Working headlamps for each one of us. Fun play for the kids (and safety for the middle of the night); reading lamps for the adults. No need for the extra batteries, but glad we had them, just in case.

Item we wish we’d packed.
A small washcloth or hand towel would have made the four of us a little less grimy and a little less sticky, for not that much more weight.

Item envy moment, again. Upon seeing other bunks laid out with lightweight sleeping sacks, I said, not for the first (or second) time, “We should make some of those.” Now if I can just hold onto the thought long enough to sew sheets into sacks before the next trip….

High point of the trip for the kids.
Staying up until lights out playing the card game B.S. with new friends.

High point of the trip for the parents. Hiking (almost) to the top of Mt. Lafayette on a cloudless, blue-sky morning after breakfast.

Greatest family moment.
The final push had gone on a while, and we were just about out of steam when Virgil caught sight of the hut. He ran ahead and through the door. Moments later, he ran straight back out again and right into Jim’s arms, where he exclaimed, “This is sooo worth it!”

Learn more
• Games, tips, and ploys for motivating kids on the trail: “The Right Trail and Candy Motivate a Reluctant Hiker” and “More Tips…
Greenleaf Hut information
White Mountain Huts Fact Sheet: includes a list of what to bring (wash cloth and hand towel mentioned…)

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

Friday, July 16, 2010

Leeches, Bullfrogs, and other Marvelous Monsters

“It’s a leech!” The cry came from the kids in the water. Friends of Ursula and Virgil were visiting, and all of them were down at the pond.

“Catch it! Catch it!” That was Anna, or maybe Amber. The two girls had buckets of water on the dock and had set up a leech farm. A half dozen of the sinuous creatures swam in each bucket already, but Amber and Anna were happy to add to their stock. Amber scooped a leech out of the bucket. She held it up close to her face. It curled into a fat ball, then lengthened in attempted escape. She expertly turned her hand along with the leech, watching it. “Can I try?” asked one of the smaller kids.

Lots of kids, and adults, too, are afraid of leeches and other creepy crawly slimy animals. The leeches in our pond can be long, six inches or so, with two lines of bright orange or red spots along their tops. They often travel in squadrons of five, like fighter pilots, the lead leech slightly out in front, its mates in formation on either side. Otherwise brave people have fled the water after catching sight of a leech squadron heading in toward our beach.

But not these kids. They fanned out with nets, buckets, and bare hands, looking for the coolest, grossest, most scary animals they could find. Liam, Ian, and Evie hunted crayfish that lurked in the shadows of overhanging bushes, hoping to find the big one they’d glimpsed earlier, the one they’d dubbed “Mr. Pinchy.”

Rayna and Adam stalked the sentry bullfrogs along the shore. They had discovered that captive bullfrogs needed to be kept in isolation, or the larger would take the opportunity of imprisonment to eat the smaller. “No cannibalization allowed!” Rayna declared.

What repulses us can also attract us. The slick green frogs with their wide hinged mouths were beautiful when they croaked, the yellow pouch below their jawline pulsing out with each deep note. But not when the bottom half of another frog squirmed in that same mouth. Then they were monsters — real-life ones, not the ones in books or on TV. And the realness, I think, was a big part of the attraction for the kids. They stared at the creatures from two inches away and studied the colors, felt the textures in their wet hands, tried to mimic sounds and motions. The edge of fear added a thrill, a sense of the visceral, the elemental.

“I used to be afraid of leeches,” eight-year-old Adam said, to no one in particular and to everyone. “Used to” might have been that morning, or the first 20 minutes on the dock. Now he said, “I gotta go catch more things that scare me.” Off he went, looking for more marvelous monsters.

Learn more
… about leeches
… about crayfish. (Ours, I'm sorry to say, is likely an invader species, the rusty crayfish, and probably introduced to our pond by a fisherman.)
… about bullfrogs. (This National Geographic video shows bullfrogs eating, well, just about anything.)

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

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Loon Family, Loon Festival

When we bought our house here on Orange Pond 13 years ago, motorboats buzzed circles around the shoreline on sunny summer weekends. Down at the public landing, which runs through our land, we filled trash bags with discarded bait containers, fouled fishing lines, broken bottles and plain old garbage.

At times, we worried that we weren’t really getting the front row seat to wild nature that we hoped this place might someday provide for our kids. We put up a sign at the landing introducing ourselves as the landowners. After that we saw less trash. A couple of years ago, the pond received an electric-motor-only designation. The lake quieted. Loons began to visit.

At first the big black-and-white diving birds came only to dine out on the trout that a New Hampshire Fish and Game truck dumps into the pond each spring. (Our neighbor, a hunter and savvy observer of wildlife, is convinced that loons actually follow the boxy “fish van” from lake to lake.) Then they seemed to use the pond as a stopover to and from their breeding territories in the spring and fall. We saw them make their characteristic bellyflops onto open water when the pond is still half iced over. Sometimes, they even graced us with their haunting wails and tremolos. Finally, we started seeing pairs together on the water, seeming to check out the neighborhood like newlyweds looking for a good place to raise a family.

This year, the pond apparently passed the test. Two loons settled down in May. They built a nest at the end of a marsh. Lucky for us, they were just close enough to our dock that we could check on them through binoculars, but not so close that our presence ruffled their feathers. Also lucky for us, Ursula and Virgil are old enough to be interested, too.

We watched them on the nest for a month, all the way through the Fourth of July weekend. Loons are water birds — they spend a good portion of their lives under water, catching fish — and we could see how ungainly they were on land every time they exchanged nest duties. Last Monday, we heard the loons calling and calling in a frenzy we hadn’t heard before. We hurried down to the dock and saw a little dark fluffball tumble from the nest to the water and immediately be folded under its mother’s protective wing. (Dad was still on the nest, making all the noise, as if to say, “We have a baby!”)

The second egg in the nest did not hatch, in spite of Dad’s efforts. Susie Burbidge, a field biologist from the Loon Preservation Committee who tracks loons in the western part of New Hampshire, explained to us that the biologists like to give loon eggs some extra days beyond 30, just to be sure.

On Friday, Ursula and I paddled out with her to take a look at the nest. It’s been a good season for “her” lakes — ours is one of several new ones in the area with nests and babies. After Susie had collected the egg from the nest (the Loon Preservation Committee will freeze it for later testing, to see if something inside went amiss), we floated for a while in the canoe, watching the loon family on the other side of the lake. The chick, a bigger fluffball now, rode on top of a parent’s back, then bobbed alongside, then followed in parental wake like a tiny water-skier. Ursula asked Susie what it was like to be a field biologist, nodding at Susie’s answers (yes, she spends a lot of time outside; yes, she’s been in other beautiful places; yes, she loves animals).

The Loon Preservation Committee understands the importance of raising new generations of loons, which are considered a threatened species in New Hampshire, and of raising new generations of human beings who care about loons and other wildlife. The nonprofit is hosting a family-friendly Loon Festival at its headquarters in Moultonborough, New Hampshire this Saturday, July 17, from 10 am to 2 pm.

Last summer I took Virgil, then 6, to the festival. He ate his fill at the cookout, spent an hour at the crafts table, got his face painted and balloons twisted into cool shapes, answered loon biology questions for the chance to dunk a field biologist, and didn’t want to leave when it was time to go. Neither of us knew that a year later, we’d be celebrating loons again — without even having to leave home.

Learn more

... Junior Naturalist: "What's black and white all over (with a spot of red)?"
... the Loon Preservation Committee's Loon Festival

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

Friday, July 9, 2010

Let’s Move Outside: Junior Rangers at National Parks

I’ve written here before about Michelle Obama’s efforts to address childhood obesity by encouraging children and families to spend time together outside. Last month, the First Lady unveiled a program through the National Parks Service called “Let’s Move Outside, Junior Rangers!”

As government programs go, it’s not much. Kids who participate in at least one physical activity in pursuit of a Junior Ranger badge at a participating national park will earn a special sticker designating them as a “Let’s Move Outside” ranger.

I don’t knock stickers — they’ve motivated my children to get their immunization shots and their teeth cleaned, both of which seem much less fun than doing something physical outdoors. And I certainly don’t knock the long-running Junior Ranger program. Ursula still has the badges she’s earned on trips we’ve taken to national parks. Each time, she spends several hours — sometimes more — going through the activities in each park’s Junior Ranger booklet. The books teach her about the park’s plants and geology, and about safety and Leave No Trace guidelines. She answers questions, draws pictures, goes on the scavenger hunts, even prepares for a final quiz from a ranger. Her badge from Mt. St. Helens touched off a fascination with volcanoes that hasn’t subsided, and she’s collected others from Mt. Rainier, Yellowstone, Yosemite. I think part of the reason she cherishes her Junior Ranger badges is that she feels she’s really earned them.

But the First Lady’s program doesn’t seem to be carrying over to the parks themselves, at least not on their websites. Of the 20 parks across the country that are supposed to have put the “Let’s Move Outside, Junior Ranger!” program into practice, I’ve taken a look at the websites for three near the AMC region — Great Smoky Mountains and Fort Dupont and Rock Creek in Washington, D.C. — and see no mention of the program or of Michelle Obama’s call to (physical) action on the part of America’s children. Stickers or no, that seems a lost opportunity to me.

That said, I found an event listing, just by looking around one park website, that I think our kids would enjoy. It’s “The Long Arm of the Law” at Minute Man National Historical Park in Lexington, Mass. Several times on Saturday afternoon, July 10, a “motley group of offenders” will be brought before a Colonial-era magistrate. The description asks, “Will the defendants be fined, sentenced to be flogged, or perhaps exonerated?” I might have to explain flogging and exoneration, but I have no doubt that Ursula and Virgil would want to check this one out.

And maybe checking it out is what Michelle Obama’s program is all about — there’s a surprising amount of fun stuff to do with kids at our national parks, with or without the stickers.

Learn more
... about what's happening this summer at the national parks

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

Friday, July 2, 2010

Camp Cooking with Children

We've heard it from the experts: Families don't eat together any more; children don't spend enough time outside; parents and children spend too little time together. Here are two experts who have discovered a time-honored ritual that solves all three problems: Cook a meal — or two, or many — with your children outdoors.

Learning the Basics

Sara DeLucia, AMC's adventure programs manager, oversees Camp Kitchen 101, an introduction to backcountry cooking that goes from soup to nuts — and also from stove to pot, and water filter in between. She says that cooking outdoors with children presents adults with the "opportunity to be mindful."

Be safe. Above all, DeLucia says, be safe. Don't let five-year-olds light stoves. Always treat water before drinking. Demonstrate the principles of the stove, and how to minimize fuel use by having everything lined up ahead of time: food ready to go, water at hand for cooking and cleaning. If using a water filter, let kids take turns pumping to fill pans and bottles. If boiling water, set a five-minute goal and let them watch the clock while the pot boils.

Reduce packaging. DeLucia encourages parents to demonstrate how to reduce packaging. She advises them to repackage food into reusable or lighter-weight containers before trips. (Resealable plastic bags are hard to beat for convenience, and can be used to hold smaller, measured quantities of ingredients bought in bulk.) Cut cooking instructions out of boxes and place them with the repackaged ingredients. Label spices and other cooking essentials — you want children to know if they're adding salt or sugar to that pot!

Think quick. When planning menus, think of quick-cooking, yet filling foods like pasta and rice. Such simple fare is often the key to turning hungry hikers into happy campers.

Leave no trace. DeLucia advises the groups she teaches to leave no trace of their cooking. Use stoves for cooking in areas without designated fire rings or where collecting firewood can harm camping locations. Don't burn trash: Pack it out.

Share your knowledge.
In all of her tips, DeLucia encourages parents not only to share the chores but to share their thinking with children, as well.

Creative Campfire Cooking

Sally Needell has led girls on camping and paddling trips for Aloha Camps in Fairlee, Vt., for more than four decades. "Outdoor cooking is a wonderful thing to do with kids when you have the time," she says.

Her camp cookery often results in bonding and lifelong memories that come from silliness, ingenious recipes, and the most elemental of heating methods — an open fire. Because some of her most inspired recipes make use of Dutch ovens, cast-iron pots with tight-fitting lids placed directly on hot coals, they may be more useful on group camping trips or on backpacking trips that set up base camps.

"Belly bread."
One of Needell's innovations — body-heated bread — has become legendary at Aloha. The recipe begins with flour, sugar, and yeast premixed in resealable plastic bags. Kids add warm water and lightly knead the mixture inside the bags. (Needell recommends bringing a back-up bag of dry mixture to add to bags that become too soggy.) Campers then carry their bags between shirt and skin for about an hour—something they can do even while hiking — allowing the warmth of their bodies to work on the dough. "The dough doesn't rise," Needell admits, "so much as it 'rests.'" To make cinnamon rolls, roll out the dough on a baking sheet or pan with a Nalgene bottle. (Needell's voice of experience: "Check that the pans fit inside ovens before packing them in.") Butter the dough, sprinkle it with brown sugar and cinnamon, roll it back up, slice it, and cook the treats in the Dutch ovens. Another lesson learned from experience: Place several heated rocks inside each oven for more even cooking. And if you want to wake up to warm rolls, nestle the ovens containing the cinnamon rolls in hot coals at the end of the evening. They'll be ready and still warm the following morning for breakfast.

Pizza dough can be carried as "belly bread" as well, rolled out, and cooked in a pan or on aluminum foil laid over a fire grate.

Pocket stews.
Many of Needell's meals are cooked in aluminum foil, a flexible, lightweight alternative to Dutch ovens. She often includes "pocket stews" on camping-trip menus. Campers chop vegetables and add cheese, beans, or meat to their foil "stew pots" as they wish. (Middle school students and older are ready for the jackknife safety talk. "If you've got the time, it's a teachable moment," she says.) Kids can twist and fold their foil pockets into shapes — swans are a favorite — to tell them apart on the coals. Again, the method is as important as the food. The experience is what counts. And as Needell points out, "Everything already tastes better on the trail."

"Cast Iron Chef."
Needell sometimes splits campers into teams of two or three for a "Cast Iron Chef" competition. She gives them the same set of ingredients and challenges them to come up with tasty new recipes. She's seen the trick — turning a chore (and perhaps a depleted food bag) into a test of skill and creativity — work equally well in small groups, too.

Like any good cook, Needell knows that the ritual of preparing a meal together can result in more than simply sharing food, whether the cooking occurs in a fully stocked kitchen or in a camp kitchen. She starts every one of her recipes with the same key ingredient: "If you have the time..."

Learn more

Read "Backcountry food tips" (AMC Outdoors, April 2009) for more on camp cooking with children.

Photo credit: Jordan Silverman, Aloha Camps.

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

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