Having just returned from four nights of camping in the cold wilderness, I once again wonder why we bother (as I put in the eighth load of laundry, with about ten more to go).
We camp primarily because it’s the only way we can afford to take our entire family anywhere. This last week we camped with twelve people; one son was missing because he’s on an LDS mission. It cost us around $200 for the campsite and showers. That amount would barely get us two rooms for one night at a motel.
While it’s certainly cheaper, camping is a logistics nightmare—all meals, bedding, and cooking/cleaning/living supplies must be planned and packed. (We rarely camp anywhere within close driving distance of a Walmart; the point is to “get away from it all,” especially Walmarts.) It takes me a full two days before we leave to get everything ready, then another two days after to wash and put it all away again.
Every day I fret that I forgot something important: sunscreen or the phone charger or the string cheese. Each day there’s some minor disaster: a son contracting the stomach flu, or a baby starting to teeth, or two quarreling teenagers deciding they want to sacrifice each other to the nearest bear.
There is no such thing as a “relaxing camping trip.”
Camping is a physically, mentally, and even emotionally exhausting venture. (Did I mention there were twelve of us this trip? All trying to get along?)
So why bother?
Over the years of dreading camping, I’ve also discovered there are a few aspects that I love. It’s a fine line between “have to” and “get to,” and a slight shift in thinking keeps me willing to throw together yet another trip each summer. (Just never more than one, though.)
So here are my four reasons why I hate/love camping:
1–We have to/get experience nature.
- We have to experience nature: It was bison mating season in Yellowstone last week, according to a park ranger.
It was also squirrel mating season, according to the activity above our tents in the wee hours.
And also for the coyotes, who at 4am decided to call to each other for a romantic rendezvous about 100 feet away.
The great outdoors isn’t always so great. One night a massive thunderstorm hit, with lighting and thunder from 9pm to 11pm.
Yes, I timed it.
There was little else to do as I cradled our three-year-old son in our tent, he so terrified that he eventually fell asleep with his hands firmly over his ears. That’s when we discovered the tent was leaking, and the foam cushions we slept on were absorbing water like the spongers they were. Half of our family retreated to our vehicles, curled up on benches and bucket seats with their dry blankets, while the rest of us slept in ever-smaller sections of the cushions, looking for dry patches until dawn finally came.
When I woke up that morning, I was royally ticked off at Yellowstone. How dare it pour rain on me and my babies?! I took a walk to Yellowstone Lake to evaluate if the sky was clearing up, and was greeted by the most cheery and apologetic sunrise.
I had no choice but to forgive the park. The day was glorious, and by lunchtime we were completely dried out. That’s when I remembered that I actually enjoyed nature.
The deep night sky punctured with more stars than we remember. The smell of trees, of earth, of water, of nature. You can’t get that rich scent from a candle, trust me. You have to sniff nature around the clock, and let it seep deep into your tissue. Everyone needs to suck up nature at least once a year, to find again our roots next to the roots of the pines. Last year we couldn’t afford to camp for even one night. My soul mourned that loss for an entire year.
- Bonus: My standards of cleanliness are suspended for a few days, and my appreciation for vacuum cleaners skyrockets when we get home.
2–We have to/get to sleep outside.
- We have to sleep outside. When I was a kid and we went to Yellowstone or the Tetons, we stayed in the lodges or cabins. Full working bathrooms were a must, as was a hot restaurant breakfast. “Roughing it” to my mother was a Motel 6. One year I asked my dad to drive through the campground at Canyon to see what tenting was like. My mother shuddered in sympathy at the thin nylon tents, but I thought they were the most romantic things in the world!
Years later, when we took our four little kids camping for the first time in our new tent, I realized how silly my earlier notions had been.
The ground is HARD. The air gets COLD. Nature is NOT QUIET.
When we woke up —probably for the thirteenth time—after a miserable night to realize it was finally dawn, and I discovered that mosquitoes had thought my toddler’s forehead was tasty and had left over a dozen bites across his head, I wanted to burn that tent and all things associated with it. But my sisters and neighbors gave us suggestions (two-inch foam cushions are a MUST), and while I’ll never love sleeping outside, I do have a new perspective.
- We get to sleep outside: There’s something very real and almost primal about being outside in the summer night. Some places we’ve camped the heat and humidity were nearly unbearable and we sweated all night. Other places, like Yellowstone last weekend, are shockingly cold (two nights were at 32 degrees at 6am).
But leaving my climate-controlled house for a few nights reminds me that the world heats and cools, rises and falls, inhales and exhales, and when I spend the night in it, I feel a sense of connection that I’ve lost being so sheltered. I forget that the earth is alive, and when I spend a full day and night in it, I remember it has a heartbeat.
- BONUS: The first night back, when I take a hot bath and slide into my cushioned bed, I feel like weeping for joy.
3–We have to/get to eat outside.
- We have to eat outside. The first rule in camp food is, No matter how hot you cooked it, it’ll be cool and congealing in five seconds. There is no such thing as a warm meal outside, even if it’s 95 degrees. Nature abhors a hot dish.
Nature also likes to add protein to everything you eat. Just ignore the bugs that drop into your food, flail gamely for a few seconds, then give up and melt into the sauce (or create their own). It’s just easier to pretend the food was once hot enough to kill whatever germs they were carrying.
Outside in nature, things boil slower, burn faster, become charred on the outside while remaining pink and spongy in the middle . . . I’ve pretty much given up on camp cooking. Breakfast is cold cereal. Lunch is sandwiches. Dinner is canned beef/mosquito/dragonfly stew.
But sometimes it’s better than that.
- We get to eat outside. People claim that camp food tastes better than regular food, but I think that’s only because you’re so desperate for sustenance that anything is good. But for me, food tastes blander in the wilderness (cold and congealing does that), yet still just about anything I cook is close to palatable.
Some things are just plain great, though. Tin-foil dinners, for one. Always our first night’s meal. I put them together at home the day before, and here’s the key: pre-boil the sliced potatoes and carrots until they’re half done. Then when you bake them in the fire with the hamburger patty, they’ll actually be fully cooked. Some of us like to toss in peas, or green beans, or spice it with Worcestershire sauce, or Montreal Steak seasoning. I also bring shredded cheddar to toss over the potatoes, and ketchup to hide the congealing gray bits. It’s the easiest meal, with the easiest cleanup, and the only thing that tastes better are s’mores.
I have some kids who have perfected the roasting of the marshmallows. There should be badges awarded for that skill. Certainly it should be a criteria for marriage. Can she roast a perfect marshmallow?
Yep. She’s a keeper.
- Bonus: After washing dishes in cold water in a small sink twice a day, loading a dishwasher at home feels like a luxurious indulgence.
4–We have to/get to live in interesting places.
- We have to live in interesting places. Just as in real estate, the key to good camping is location, location, location. That’s the difference between becoming drunk on the beauties of nature versus becoming annoyed at your drunk neighbors.
A few times we have camped at private campgrounds, little more than grassy fields where tents and trailers were crammed together, and no one dared tell the boozers that belching contests past midnight were keeping awake the babies. We’ve even cut short some of our trips because the nature of the neighborhood felt downright dangerous. I’d rather face a hungry bear than a redneck who just discovered his buddy finished off the last six-pack.
Now we camp only in national or state parks. It seems that the more remote a place is, the more likely we are to find like-minded individuals who are there because they really love nature, not just a drinking party. If it were a formula, it may look like this: the correlation of quiet and respectful campers is proportional to the distance it takes to acquire more alcohol. I also unbiasedly believe that camping in the wild west is far better than the crowded east, where we encountered those private (and not-so-private) campgrounds.
Put it this way: if the pizza place will deliver to your campsite, you’re not yet “far enough away from it all.”
- We get to live in interesting places.
On the flip side, camping in national and state parks—away from convenient pizza and beer—means that we sleep in fascinating areas. Besides Yellowstone, we’ve camped at Arches in Utah (where jackrabbits chewed through the electrical wires of our trailer), in Mesa Verde in Colorado (where we found pottery sherds in ancient midden piles which we turned in to astonished park rangers), in Craters of the Moon in Idaho (where we stacked lava rock into bunkers for a pinecone war) and in Nauvoo, Illinois (where we were startled the first evening to hear what sounded like distant angels singing . . . but it was a choir rehearsing outside for a later performance).
But the most magical place was Del Norte Coast State Park, California, in the heart of the redwoods. Our campsite consisted of mammoth ferns and massive tree stumps. For our Star Wars obsessed children, it was like living on the forest moon of Endor. You can’t get that kind of experience in any hotel.
- Bonus: Our kids get an international experience without the international costs.
One more plug for Yellowstone: there’s nowhere in the world that feels as international as that massive park in Wyoming. I’d estimate that fully one-third of the tourists are from Asia, and of the remainder, less than half are American. That put us in the minority.
Our kids have contests trying to discern the languages we hear on the trails around us. Last week we heard Russian, German, Spanish, a few Slavic languages we couldn’t narrow down, a couple of Norse languages we weren’t too sure of, Chinese, Japanese, another Asian language that sounds like blue jays bickering with each other, and a multitude of accents: a man with a lilting French accent offered me the next use of the Laundromat dryer he was using for his wet sleeping bags, and the woman coming out of the outhouse in front of me commented on its condition in an Italian accent.
As much as camping exhausts and stresses me, how can I deny such an adventure for my kids? In a way, it’s our civic duty to camp. In the sites around us were people from other countries experiencing “The American Vacation.” Certainly there needed to be at least one legitimately “American Family” demonstrating the proper way to tarp a tent or hang laundry lines for towels to dry, right?
Besides, there are additional bonuses for me: When I come home, I’m appreciate so much more hot water on demand, separate bedrooms, refrigerators that don’t require bags of ice, my wonky 75% operating stove, my old cracked microwave, my soft couches, my firm chairs, my washer and dryer that don’t require quarters, and a bathroom door that I can lock.
Maybe I camp to renew my gratitude for the luxuries I have, such as carpeting.
Maybe the entire point of embracing nature for a time is to come home and more fully embrace all that isn’t natural. You know, kind of a yin/yang thing? Good thing we camped next to Chinese. I’m feeling more well-rounded already.
Every neighborhood in Edge had the appearance of an adventurous fishing trip; people shared stories late into the night as they sat around fires roasting pieces of animals until the outsides were burned but the insides were still raw and chewy.
But Camp Edge included amenities most families weren’t accustomed to. . . . Temperatures plummeted to near freezing. And, in the case of the Shin family, a long sofa appeared outside near the fire in the back garden. ~The Mansions of Idumea, Book Three