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CAMPING WHILE PARENTING: A Mother-Son Adventure

About the Author

Monica Lopez Magee is the Children & Nature Network's Director of Family Initiatives. With sixteen years of nonprofit leadership, she has turned a love of the outdoors into a career promoting nature exploration, environmental education and stewardship. Monica fosters partnerships with large-scale family serving organizations to provide culturally relevant resources designed to break down barriers to natural world. She also guides our network of Family Nature Clubs, and is the founder of a Family Nature Club in her own community.

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“It’s just the two of us moms and four boys.” This is the sentence I repeated dozens of times earlier this year when describing my summer plans to friends and family.

Usually, a series of question would follow: will you sleep in tents? (yes); on the ground? (yes); your husbands won’t be there? (not for much of it); who will set up camp? (hmm, I think we will figure it out); will there be showers? (maybe); do you think it’s safe? (I hope so).

Inevitably, friends and family would move past being surprised and alarmed and simply shrug. I’m still not sure what they thought about our trip, but we thought it would be awesome.

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Our group consisted of Jen, my best friend of 24 years, her five-year-old twin sons and our two eight-year-old sons. The plan was to road trip from Texas to Utah and Colorado. We would tour Arches National Park, spend a week immersed in the San Isabel National Forest in Central Colorado and head to Rocky Mountain National Park for a grand finale where we would be joined by our husbands, another friend, and her family.

Even though Jen and I only started camping as adults, a camping trip seemed an obvious answer to our summer vacation requirements: affordable; family friendly; an opportunity to visit somewhere new; and, if planned right, a reprieve from Texas’ scorching heat. By all calculations, the trip would cost little more than everyday expenses and far less than placing the four boys in summer camps.

So, with an old-school atlas in hand and a minivan packed inside and out, we started out.

Of course, there were mishaps. Three days on the road (screen-free) included fingers slammed in a car door, an epic backseat fight over a tiny stuffed animal, boys whacking one another on the head with one of the bazillion sticks in the van (even after our negotiation of five sticks per child). There were countless hammock falls and rock slips — albeit, these were self-inflicted. There was also the time I mistakenly thought the one-way distance on a hike was for a round trip, so we had to go twice as long as expected. Then to test us to our limits, one of us encountered food poisoning at12,000 feet in the San Isabel National Forest far from any cell phone service. Thankfully, it passed in a few hours, and everyone else was fine.

But among the mishaps and tears, was laughter, and many awe-inspiring moments. We spotted countless chipmunks, hummingbirds, and an impressive set of bear tracks. Arches offered a routine of established hikes followed by afternoon swims. But it wasn’t until our second week that we were able to truly feel free —of schedules and our devices (so no, there was no cellular reception). Our campsite home for this week included two streams and a mini-island nestled in Central Colorado. Here, we had the luxury of endless amounts of climbing, rock skipping, fort building, hammock swinging and treasure collecting — along with some pretty scenic views for Jen and me.

The truth is that the camping felt easy. The real work, as it is daily, was in the parenting. Nature, if anything, made parenting easier.

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In the end, the good —or great, as it was— outweighed all else. There were no fights or negotiations over screen time. Yet there were many picnics and play, lots of play in fact. Though I had ambitious plans of reading, I found so much joy playing with the boys or simply watching them play. It was the type of play that could only happen when there is no schedule. The longer we camped, the more the boys entertained themselves. They created cairns, stories, and a very involved game that included a hierarchy of pine cones, sticks, and rocks.

Giddiness ensued at the unexpected. One day the boys wanted to touch the snow we could see from afar. We drove until we saw a small patch on the side of the road. We assumed the novelty would wear off after five minutes, but our Texas children played in that snow patch enthusiastically for two hours — until their clothes were wet and their hands hurt.

While we didn’t have a schedule, we did find a rhythm in preparing meals, pumping water from the well, and on nightly hikes to throw away the trash. On days when we were feeling ambitious, we cooked pesto pasta with broccoli over the fire. Other days, we served PB&Js from the front seat of the van. And anything cooked over a fire, namely hot dogs and marshmallows, was always a go-to favorite. With no running water, we embraced a new definition of clean, for dishes and for ourselves.

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I am grateful our sons were able to experience that their moms are fully capable of setting up camp, building fires, cooking over a propane stove, and managing life outdoors — some of which were firsts for Jen and me. While we had seen some of these things done dozens of times, our partners had always assumed the lead with us in a supporting role. The boys gained new skills too: better coordination from creek hopping and rock climbing; cooperation with parents and each other; masterful creativity in games; and even sometimes sitting still and enjoying nature. I can safely say we all built our confidence in many ways.

With this new sense of confidence, we’re making plans for our next trip(s): Big Bend for Thanksgiving; spring break at a state park; or next summer in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t know where yet, but I can guarantee it will be sooner rather than later.

Photo credit: Monica Lopez Magee 

Additional Reading & Resources

TOGETHER IN NATURE: The Impact of the Family Nature Club “Family”
MOTHER’S DAY: Mom’s Gifts of Nature
Force of Nature: Putting Women Front & Center Outdoors – REI.com
CHOOSE NATURE, TOGETHER: And Know When to Press Pause
Family Nature Clubs
Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit


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