Spring has sprung, the weather's great and the outdoor season is finally back. Now's the time to reserve your campsites before yet another year goes by without family campfires, roasted marshmallows and smores all around.
Parents, do it before the kids are gone, serving as public defenders, working with the Peace Corp in Africa, starting student teaching or confined to a wheelchair. That's the current roll call of my kids—who spent a lot of time in the outdoors—and even the latter's challenges haven't stopped her from continuing those tent sleepovers, hikes as long as the batteries in the chair hold up and fishing. The other three are so far away busily building successful lives that it's doubtful I'll ever sleep under the stars with them again. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, though.
Our best times together were around a campfire, at least the ones I remember most vividly. There was the boyfriend of our 5'0" daughter who was 7 feet tall. He had no choice but to sleep with his legs and feet stretched through the door and outside the tent. A son wandered into the wrong campground after visiting the outhouse. We all watched the fun, and only intervened when the other campers worriedly inquired, "Are you Lost?" Toldja outdoor people care. Sneakers once melted because they were too close to the campfire. We warned him. Coyotes singing at dusk. Full stringers.
Flaming marshmallow was requisite, although I prefer mine a little less carboniferous than the rest of my clan. Cake a daughter sneaked out for breakfast once reappeared during a long hike. An ancient tent got some extra holes as another son drilled them to watch for bears. OK, the last pair aren't really a good stories, but you get the idea.
Fun is out there, waiting. The memories, for better or worse, sweeten with time. I'll spare you the awesome stories from my youth with my parents for now, and just offer some simple beginner tips for now.
If you haven't "pitched a tent" before, take heart. You won't be the only novice in that campground and virtually everyone there will be eager to help if you have problems. That's a guarantee.
Rest assured, there will also be plenty of "official" aid. Campground hosts keep everything orderly and help in an emergency, Forest Service or National Park Service employees enforce the rules, Fish & Wildlife staff patrol and if you run into a problem, have a question or just need info, they're there.
What about food? Don't think exotic. What you grill at home qualifies for dinner. Think hot dogs, hamburgers, brats. Microwave potatoes before you leave, coat in butter or margarine, wrap in aluminum foil and put on the side of the campfire to re-warn (not close enough to melt your sneakers, please). Use the same approach for chimis and burritos. Make a big batch of chili before you leave and the first night's covered. That'll free time to set up camp and explore. Campfire cooking will hit the spot on night two. Donuts or Danish for breakfast, cold cuts for lunch, and you're golden.
The "kiddest" friendly Dessert is chocolate bars, marshmallows and graham crackers—smores. The above photo doesn't do the process justice, but I have high hopes more people will grab a copy here and uses it to convince a few more families it's time to reserve your campsites. Don't forget the hot chocolate or you'll hear it in the morning, by the way. Instant tastes unbelievably good in camp.
It's not complicated and when you make it so, it usually falls flat.
Don't Break the Bank
You don't need to spend a ton of money on gear, either. Go inexpensive at first or, better yet, borrow. Yes, those $200 tents and cooler have all the bells and whistles to survive a freak July blizzard, but wait two or three trips before you invest. Even then, watch for sales.
Don't get overly ambitious. Do you really want to drive 400 miles on the first day, pitch a tent, cook, go to sleep and spend day two walking around like a zombie from The Walking Dead? I've done it, and even for a veteran looking to photograph a special spot it's not my idea of entertainment.
Plan a short, nearby weekend outing. Leave weeklong, sometimes shower-free assaults on popular National Forests to everyone else, especially when kids are involved.
It's Time to Reserve Your Campsites
Each state runs parks and campsites. Do a Google search, find one near you and check to see if any are available during a weekend the family is free.
National Forests and Parks have a wonderful reservation system as well. No, it's not free, like when I went camping with my parents across most of the Western U.S. for about a dozen years in a row, but today you do know the campsite will be waiting, you know how close it is to nearby waterways, whether it's handicapped access and how big it is.
It's a ton better than the times when no spaces are left, disorderly neighbors are up until 2 a.m. (now you understand the campground host thing), and the tiny spot our tent occupied was next to a dirt roadway that led to a local watering hole—all things I experienced with my parents. I'll spare you those stories for now, because I swear those are the best memories from my childhood. Away from phones, TV, work and school, alone with my family.
How awesome is that? Get out there and make some memories. It's time to reserve your campsites.