Roughly half my life ago, my next-door neighbor gave me the nickname “earthchick,” and it stuck. At the time, it fit. I was what you might call “crunchy” – an earth-loving, tree-hugging, back-to-nature, vegetarian hippy-type (another friend called me “granola gal”). I was into hiking, camping, backpacking, contra dancing, recycling, and the Indigo Girls; I wore long crinkly skirts and Birkenstocks. You get the picture. I suppose I still have a crunchy sensibility (though I’m no longer vegetarian), but in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that is so far inside the mainstream as to be pretty unremarkable.
Also, I haven’t camped or backpacked in awhile.
It was a bit of a shock to me recently to realize exactly how long it had been since I’d been camping. I camped a little as a kid and a teenager, and a lot as a college student and twentysomething. I always imagined that once I had kids, I would spend entire vacations with them camping and hiking, maybe even backpacking. Then I actually had kids, and lots of my ideas about what life would be like went out the window.
In retrospect, I also realized that I always, always went camping or backpacking with at least one other person who knew more than I did about what to do. So I never really needed to know how to pitch a tent by myself, for instance, or how to start a fire. The idea, then, of taking my family camping, became a bit daunting.
Enter the Cub Scouts. My kids both decided to try scouting this year, and so far it’s been a good experience. In Cub Scouts, everything is pretty family-oriented, so for any camping, at least one parent comes, too. And with so many other parents around, not to mention the cubmaster, I don’t have to worry about not knowing how to build a fire.
Last fall, we went on our first campout, but my family didn’t yet own a tent (something else I always relied on my camping friends for), so we opted to stay in the cabin. The cabin turned out to be a bit of a disaster (heavy mold smell plus rodent infestation), so in the end, we slept in the minivan (its own adventure, but not remotely “camping”). For the spring campout, I bought our first very-own tent:
I’m so in love with this tent, y’all! This is the Coleman 14×10 Foot 8 Person Instant Tent (affiliate link) and I adore it. This brings me to the first thing I learned while camping with the Cub Scouts:
1 – Comfort is way more important to me than it used to be!
When I was younger, I loved being able to just strap everything onto my back and go. I didn’t care how small the tent was – small quarters was part of the fun. My priorities are different now. Give me comfort! Give me convenience! I also needed something I could set up basically by myself if I needed to. This tent is called an “instant tent,” and that’s not far from the truth. In the video on Amazon, two adults are able to assemble the tent in less than a minute. Working with a 9 year-old, it took me about 10 minutes. At 6:00 the next morning, I collapsed it by myself in about 5 minutes. I figure that most of what we’ll be doing as a family, at least for a little while, is car camping, so I’m willing to deal with the extra weight and bulk.
Another thing I invested in:
Until I started backpacking and using a lightweight sleeping pad under my sleeping bag, I always just slept with my sleeping bag directly on the floor of the tent. Apparently people don’t do that anymore? REI is having a huge sale right now, and with my 20% member discount I bought this Kelty Sleep Eazy Air Bed. It comes with a rechargeable pump (so you don’t have to have electricity at your campsite to use it) and it was super easy both to inflate and deflate. It was also comfortable, though I wouldn’t recommend sharing it with two 9 year-olds. And here’s a pro-tip: take the deflated air mattress out of the tent before trying to collapse the tent when you’re done. Trust me, it’s a lot easier that way.
2 – I have mixed feelings about fishing.
As a kid, I loved fishing with my dad. It’s one of my favorite memories from the first time he ever took my brother and me camping in Virginia (I caught four brim!). But my dad always baited the hook for me, and he also removed any fish I caught. The same has been true of what little fishing I’ve done as an adult – My Old Man has always baited my hook (as well as the boys’) and removed any fish for us. So it was a brand-new experience for me on the Cub Scout campout last fall, which I went on without My Old Man, when I had to put the worm on our hooks by myself. It’s not something I felt I could ask another parent to do – on a Cub Scout trip, I really should be modeling self-reliance and resourcefulness, right? – so I went ahead and got my hands dirty (and bloody). On the spring campout last weekend, though, one of my kids actually caught a fish, and that’s where things kind of broke down for me. It’s one thing to teach myself how to tear a worm in half and put it on a hook; it’s quite another to get a live fish off a hook without harming it.
In the end, I had to ask another parent for help. He was able to release the fish and get him safely back in the water. But one of my kids was sufficiently traumatized by the experience of watching the fish almost die on the hook that he declared he was done fishing. And truth be told, I’m not so sure about it myself. I have no problem with the concept of catching fish to eat; it’s the catch-and-release business that bothers me. The idea of hurting a fish for no good reason (i.e., not to be eaten) – ugh! On the other hand, standing alongside a lake, enjoying the silence and stillness that good fishing necessarily requires? That, I love.
3 – Ain’t no cold like Michigan cold.
After 13+ years here, you would think I would know this by now. But I am still learning – it will always get colder than I think. I thought I had camped cold before. I can remember waking up “freezing” while camping before. But, y’all, I WAS SO WRONG. I have never really woken up freezing until this past weekend. I have camped in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Washington State, and I have never been as cold in my sleeping bag as I was this past weekend. And I even had a brand-new sleeping bag – the Kelty Cosmic 20 Degree Down Sleeping Bag is rated to 20-degrees, but I didn’t manage to have it cinched properly around my head, so I woke up very, very cold in the wee hours. Then I couldn’t get back to sleep, worrying about my kiddos, one of whom was moaning in his sleep about how cold he was. Their sleeping bags are not really rated for cold weather, which I hadn’t anticipated being a problem on the third weekend of May, but that’s because I am an idiot who still hasn’t learned about Michigan weather. It got down to 37 degrees, and the thing about a 14×10′ tent that only has three people sleeping in it is that body heat can’t get trapped in there to help keep you warm. Anyway, it’s time to get my kids some new bags. Another parent recommended this kids sleeping bag, now on sale at REI. It looks like a great deal (though they’ve already sold out of the blue I wanted for my kids), and I’m considering it, but I’m also open to suggestions. I don’t want to spend a lot, but I’d like to have something that will keep them warm if we ever find ourselves camping in near-freezing weather again. Any recommendations?
4 – There’s always room for a handknit hat.
What kind of knitter goes camping in cold weather and doesn’t bring a handknit hat? The kind who still hasn’t learned lesson #3, about the Michigan cold. Seriously, earthchick, pack a hat!
I was feeling good about having packed all our Mukluks (handknit slippers), which we slept in over our socks. But most everyone on the campout also wore hats once it got cold, except for me and my poor kiddos. A lot of the misery of the night could’ve been softened by the addition of a handknit hat, which I have a bin full of, of course. If you have room for a 14×10′ tent, you have room for three 2oz. hats.
5. I need to come up with a better emergency coffee plan.
I have found that most people don’t make coffee as strong as I like, so these days I always travel with my own set-up. I bring my Bonavita Bona Voyage 0.5-Liter Electric Travel Kettle (y’all, I LOVE this kettle!!), my super-cheap, super-easy, super-effective single cup pour over cone (Melitta 64008 Red Ready Joe Filter Cone), and a little ziploc of my favorite coffee (Seattle’s Best Level 4 Ground Coffee, 12-Ounce Bags) (LOVE). All of this packs very small and works basically wherever I am to make my perfect cup of coffee very easily and very fast.
But without electricity, using my travel kettle wasn’t an option (even a car adapter wouldn’t help, as I had to park roughly half a mile from our campsite). I brought my pour-over cone and baggie of coffee (gah! I know I sound like a total junkie with my baggie), but figuring out the hot water situation was a problem. I had to break camp at 6:00a to leave by 7:00a, whereas everyone else was staying to hike. The cubmaster said he’d be up in time to make coffee, but it didn’t actually work out as early as I needed my fix.
I don’t know how to build a fire (lame, I know), and I don’t currently have my own little camp stove set-up. But obviously I need to step up my plan. I’m wondering if any of you could recommend a small camp stove or even some kind of tiny burner that could heat up enough water to make a cup or two of coffee. I’m interested in all recommendations, especially for very small, very easy set-ups. If you want to recommend a small camp kettle, I’m interested in that, too.
So those are a few things I learned while camping with the Cub Scouts this past weekend. I suppose in the future I should try to learn things like:
- how to build a fire!
- how to get a fish off a hook!
- how to get my kids to haul their share of gear!
But for now, I’m happy to have learned these few lessons. And I’m very eager to hear any of your recommendations for kids’ sleeping bags, small camp stoves, or anything else you think would be useful for an aging hippy chick to know about getting back to nature, family-camping-style.