Camping as the means to an end

There were a few short summer seasons in our family history where we camped as an "activity". Getting away from it all, camping in the woods, that was the end in itself.

That was a short season in our life because we don't actually like that kind of camping. It's buggy and boring.

We are not sit around kind of people. We do a lot of sitting at home because computer work is stationary work. But if we're going to go to the effort of packing up the car, driving somewhere, and setting up tents we're not there to sit around, we're there to see and do - usually on foot.

Our camping destination is often the woods, in which case we're backpacking to our campsite and the see and do is the hike and the whole experience.

But just as often our camping destination is somewhere beautiful within a day's drive of where we live. The see and do might be a day hike, a beach experience, or touristy experiences like meandering in towns and enjoying local cafes. Often we meet my parents for these excursions.

And sometimes our camping destination is simply a spot in a field that gives us easy access to either a music festival or a fair.

Camping for us is a means of travel. Camping enables our family to go places and do things. Once you have the gear, it's the cheapest travel option available next to hitting up friends and family for places to stay.

I'm working on a post right now for Toe Salad all about our gear for next year's thru-hike. Even if you never do a long distance hike you're going to want to read that post (I'll let you know when it publishes), because here's the thing - the gear we use for backpacking is essentially the same gear we use for car camping.

Here's why our backpacking gear does double duty:

  • We can't afford to own multiple sets of gear for car camping and backpacking.
  • We like to keep our lives simple.
  • All our backpacking gear for five actually fits in our car. (Duh! It fits on our backs so of course it fits in the car!) Regular camping gear for a family our size would require us to have a bigger vehicle or a roof rack, neither of which we own.

At one point in our lives camping itself was a bit of a novelty, especially since early in our family life we swore off camping - can you believe it?!

Now camping is the means to an end. It's the way we've been able to go and do things all summer, on a really tight budget.

When we backpack, camping allows us to spend time in remote and beautiful places and to have incredible experiences with our kids. Camping in those scenarios is simply our shelter.

Because we've been doing this for a while (practice makes nearly perfect, we always forget something) camping is not a big hairy deal of preparation or clean-up either.

This past weekend we joined my parents in Perce for two days. We started packing Friday after lunch. We were out of the house by 5:30.

We came home Sunday night and didn't start clean up till Monday afternoon but by supper time Monday all the gear was stored.

The fact that we have three able-bodied children helps tremendously. They know the routines, they pack their own stuff including their sleeping gear. They love going camping (because camping means we're going somewhere cool and doing something fun) and so they are motivated to get out the door.

That doesn't happen overnight, it comes with years of the parents doing a lot of work. Which is just like the rest of parenting. You start off taking care of all the needs and doing all the heavy lifting and gradually you shift responsibility to kids and then finally you reach that sweet spot of truly helpful offspring. And then, well, there's no stopping what you can do. And it's best to make the absolute most of these years before the kids fly off and start their own adult journeys.

If you want to go places as a family and have cool experiences, but don't have a Disneyland or truck and trailer budget to do that, there are other options. Camping is the option that has worked best for us.

« An end of summer camping trip at Perce
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  • Mackenzi

    Mackenzi on Aug. 28, 2013, 2:58 p.m.

    Love this! I always feel encouraged and inspired when you talk about keeping it simple, streamlined and moving little kids into big kids that can do things. We are attempting to get our kiddos used to hiking/camping at a young age (5,4, 1 and one on the way) so that we will big kids that are used to it! Thanks for the encouragement! Have you ever done a post on how you pack, prepare and eat while you are camping like this? I would love to hear that to! Thanks, Mackenzi


    • renee

      renee on Aug. 28, 2013, 3:02 p.m.

      I haven't written about that on FIMBY (that I can remember). I have a few food related posts at Outsideways here. 

      My next skype chat, after next week's personal growth one will be about family outdoors. And I will be happy to answer any questions, food related or otherwise, about that.


  • Sarah m

    Sarah m on Aug. 28, 2013, 3:28 p.m.

    I so agree! We are a huge camping family because the price is right. Last year, when we took our kids (aged 3 & 5 then) on their first big camping trip, 5 days, we drove 7 hours to our destination: Lake of the Ozarks. We had awesome hikes, saw great wildlife, went swimming in the lake, etc. and the entire vacation was $200. That included our regular food budget for the week ($100 that we would have spent home or away), gas to get there and back, campsite, and a touristy thing--a tour of an underground cave called Bridal Cave. That is one cheap vacation! 

    I guess I just assume this is how people camp, that you go and do things when you camp. The sitting around thing is wonderful by the fire at night. We've gone on lots of campouts this year because we are in a great location and want to see everything. My husband and kids and his buddy (and his kid) all went camping last weekend and it was great for me, too. ;) We have one more trip planned and it's this Friday, hopefully before the rain starts in for the fall. 

    Sarah M  


  • Trace

    Trace on Aug. 28, 2013, 8:19 p.m.

    I'm dying to hear now about why you swore off camping at some point! Maybe you learned something I need to know? We would love to start, but with 6, 4, and 2-year olds, we're pretty hesitant. I know other people do it with younger kids, but I'm fairly certain those are mostly parents who know the ropes of camping already,


    • Sarah m

      Sarah m on Aug. 28, 2013, 8:34 p.m.

      Trace, it was my personal preference to not camp until my youngest was 3 and firmly out of diapers, putting things in her mouth, etc. It just made our life much easier if we didn't have to worry about some of those things. I've heard friends say camping with a newborn/non-crawler is easy and great fun, but the walking-toddler stages are hard. I dislike the prep. of camping, but it is a fabulous way to vacation, when hotels are out of the budget. Just one opinion, though.

      Sarah M


    • renee

      renee on Aug. 28, 2013, 10:16 p.m.

      We swore off camping after a fateful church group camping trip when Brienne was a toddler, still in diapers. It took two car loads to transport all that stuff and we got wet and didn't sleep well. (the kids had a blast).

      We didn't own any of our gear then and had to borrow everything. It took forever to get ready, weeks and weeks and the whole thing was stressful. We decided camping wasn't for us, even though we loved being outdoors. There's always B&B's and hostels, right?

      Well, the following summer we came to our senses and realized that given our income and our desires to go and do things the best way to reach our goals was to re-consider camping. Damien, ever the researcher, looked for better solutions and gear and proposed that if we invested in our own gear, and good gear, we wouldn't get wet (I haven't slept in a wet tent since), we'd be able to fit it all in our car and we might actually enjoy it. 

      We haven't looked back since. Eight years ago (Brienne was just over 2.5 and had just weaned, not related to camping but I remember that summer for that reason) we started with car camping gear and then eventually upgraded to backpacking gear. 

      You can read the whole story here. I still love to tell it because I can't imagine our life without camping, backpacking and the outdoors. It's been so worth it!

      Trace, just to encourage you, we knew a few ropes of camping when we started with our 2 1/2 yr old but we weren't experienced by any means. Damien camped as a teen and in our early marriage years we did a little bit but we had about seven or eight years with nothing before we started camping with our kids. 

      In our case it helps that this is a real interest of Damien's so he did a lot of the research and getting us out the door in the beginning. And now, it's just who we are. 

      Your kids are the perfect age to start because little bodies need less expensive gear. For example sleeping pads are totally unnecessary with littles (I'm assuming you're not going arctic camping) because they always slide off them anyway.

      You can start with easy destinations like campgrounds with pools close to home or something like that and then ease your way into the greater outdoors. Your kids will grow fast, promise. We have 3 summers, maybe, left with Celine at home. I'm so thankful for all the years of camping, going and doing we've had together (smile). 


  • Nina

    Nina on Aug. 29, 2013, 1:02 a.m.

    We car camp for two weeks every summer on Cape Cod. We have been doing it for eight years and go with my sisters and their families which makes it really fun and the work a lot easier. We eat communally and meal plan dinner for the first four or five days then all bring enough other food to wing it. We started when my daughter was two and although I was an experienced camper, my one bit of learning was to keep the tent zips at the top of the door to prevent any unsupervised escapes at night!

    We all look forward to it, especially the kids. There are six cousins, and the oldest just missed his first year with us as he was interning prior to his senior year in college. He missed us though, and called on our first day to see how set up was going. We car camp in every sense of the word, complete with tarps to keep the soaking rain away. Nothing minimalist about it, but it works for us and we have a nice compound with our shared sites. We also have many 'traditions' that we do each year: low tide exploring at the estuary, campfire on the beach, visits to the main town, a boat ride to the end of the cape, bike rides, and great beach days. If we miss one of the traditions, the kids get very upset.

    We also came to the realization that it was an easy, affordable way to be able to do the things we wanted to do and for us, the only way to ever take a two week vacation anywhere.


  • Nova

    Nova on Aug. 29, 2013, 2:07 a.m.

    Sounds perfect! We have a young-ish family (kids are 7, 5, almost-3, and 2 months) and we're in the process of very, very slowly acquiring camping gear, we're all getting sleeping bags for Christmas this year! I love to travel, and camping is the only way we are able to achieve that. Tramping is hugely popular here in NZ, but I think it's a little different to in Northern America.. most camping places are at the beach, so nearly all activities are beach/sea based, and in summer there are fire bans so camp fires are not allowed. Toasting marshmallows just isn't the same over a butane stove! (Or worse still, in a camping ground kitchen. We don't do s'mores either, though they are catching on thanks to Pinterest)

    I smiled when I saw your lighthouse photos, because I remember you mentioning once that you'd like to visit New Zealand, and right at the northernmost point of the country is a little lighthouse, very similar to the one you visited! Though I suspect possibly a little warmer, at an average 18.3C! ;)


  • Nana

    Nana on Aug. 29, 2013, 11:52 a.m.

    Thanks to your family's influence - i.e. if we wanted to "vacation" with you, we needed to join your camping/tenting scene - we have discovered and learned to love the experience of tenting. I concur: the right gear is all important (I love my sleeping bag) and the whole process of setting up, crawling in and out of the tent, dressing in confined spaces helps one stay flexible!


  • kyndale

    kyndale on Aug. 29, 2013, 6:23 p.m.

    I agree.  I think that getting outdoors is the funnest, cheapest activity I can do with my kids.  Apart from going to the library :-)

    I would never get car camping equiptment again.  We have a stove that Jonathan bought 6 years ago for car camping that we used once.  It may come in handy but we have so much more fun backpacking.  I like keeping it light too and would use the backpacks for car camping if we ever did that.  I guess car camping served it's purpose when the kids were small but we really enjoy the peace of being alone in nature.  It seems that when we'd go car camping, we'd have to contend with loud neighbors.  Not fun.  




  • Shelley R.

    Shelley R. on Sept. 5, 2013, 9:28 p.m.

    We just came back from a week long camping trip of see and do.    The difference this year, however, was that it was our first year of experiencing camping where we could do a lot more.  (More than one 1.5 mile hike in a day, or one canoe trip across a lake & back before lunch/naptime).  We hiked, explored, climbed, and so much more.  For any out there debating the worth of parent effort in the years of kids with young ages, it's more than worth it!  Just like this post highlights!

    I'll be awaiting the Toe Salad post.  We're discussing the benefits of tent hammocks vs. two lightweight tents for the 5 members in our family.  Our city is a starting point for what's called the Superior Hiking Trail that follows 296-miles of Lake Superior's North Shore.  By no means the AT, but very close to home and a place to practice backpacking in the next few years.


    • renee

      renee on Sept. 5, 2013, 11:21 p.m.

      Awesome! Our preference is 2 lightweight tents, which I talk all about in our gear post, which I've been writing now for weeks and weeks. It's a douzy!


  • Shelley R.

    Shelley R. on Sept. 6, 2013, 6:12 p.m.

    Thanks!  Eager to hear the about the 'whys'.  And if you allow links, we were singin' this song by the Okee Dokee Brothers on our trip called "Campin' Tent"

    the lyric "my transportable, affordable apartment" truly strikes a chord :)


    • renee

      renee on Sept. 6, 2013, 6:59 p.m.

      Shelley, Which whys are your referring to? I discuss the whys we swore off camping in a previous comment on this post. Is that what you're referring to?


  • Shelley R.

    Shelley R. on Sept. 6, 2013, 7:06 p.m.

    Actually, the whys for two tents over tent hammocks.  My husband is the gear researcher, and he's leaning toward investing in five tent hammocks.  The idea is that the kids could then travel with them anywhere once they are adventuring on their own.  I point out the need for trees (which not all areas would have ten decent trees to set them up on) and my own personal comfortablity with having space underneath me for critters to crawl under while I'm sleeping.  There's no crisis, and the investment is at least a year away, but we're beginning to think of these upgrading needs now.  Hope that helps.


  • Julie

    Julie on Sept. 8, 2013, 2:23 p.m.

    I am curious as to whether or not you use designated trails or just hike off -trail.  In Wisconsin, in the State forests we are only supposed to hike on the trail.  Also unless it is a designated camping spot (ie campgrounds or rustic camp site and most have to be reserved) we are not allowed to just stop and camp anywhere.  I am thinking that you cook your food over a burner and not a campfire?  Or do you use a campfire...  It seems like it is a bit easier for you to find hiking trails to hike on where you are.  While we do have hiking trails, there are widely used and no camping is allowed.  I am in southern Wisconsin so we do have to travel a ways to do any hiking of any length, which we like to do.  Would love to know what you are going to eat during your AT hike.  I am always at a loss for quick, light, nutritious foods.



    • renee

      renee on Sept. 8, 2013, 7:59 p.m.

      Almost all of our hiking experience has been on-trail. We want to experiment more off trail since moving to QC because backpacking on the best trails through the Gaspe peninsula costs money. So far though we haven't done any significant off trail hiking. Depending on where you live camping regulations vary. We could camp a lot of places on the peninsula, without worry. However, we've stuck to campgrounds for our brief outings here.

      When we're backpacking we rarely light a fire. Some place it's prohibited and other times it's been too buggy or whatever and often when backpacking there's just not the time, with food prep and then falling into bed! 

      We cook over a small stove. Funny you should ask. I'm writing a complete gear list for a post at Toe Salad about what we use and will be using on the trail. 

      The only time we usually light a fire is when we're camping in a campground.

      Where we live there are many, many trails and much land to be explored off trail. It's one of the reasons we moved here.

      I will be sharing our AT diet closer to the time of our hike. In the meantime though I'm planning to host another chat (along these lines) in October this time around family outdoors. It would be a Q&A type session where people could ask me questions about what we've done, how we've done it etc. and I will share what we do. 


  • Sarah

    Sarah on Feb. 28, 2014, 1:38 p.m.

    I love your pics. Completely reminded me of a camping trip we had last summer. To return the share, here it is on YouTube 

    Hurry up warmer weather... we want to go camping! 


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