Family Matters

How To: Camp With Kids

Don’t forget to pack the kids.

By Cooper Levey-Baker April 5, 2016 Published in the April 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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The author with baby Theo on St. George Island in 2012; his wife Rachel with sons Felix and Theo last year.

People probably thought my parents were nuts. Six months after my older sister was born, they took her camping. My dad couldn’t miss opening day of trout season, of course, so he and my mom packed her up along with all their gear and headed out to a site along Oregon’s Deschutes River, hours away from any type of real emergency assistance.

When I was born a couple years later, they didn’t even wait until the six-month mark. We camped at the mouth of the Deschutes when I was 4 months old. It was hot, maybe 90 degrees, so hot that my mom dressed me in just a diaper to keep me cool.

Were those trips relaxing for my parents? They weren’t nearly as stress-free as they must have been before my sister and I came along, of course. But they made the treks nevertheless, refusing to abandon a tradition they loved just because a couple babies had come along.

All through my early years, we camped. I still remember the slick, mossy rocks that poke out of the Deschutes near the shore, the shock of the frigid flowing water, the smell of sagebrush that floats among the steep hills that frame the canyons. We saw rattlesnakes and bats. We shot BB guns. We pulled crawdaddies from wire traps. They’re memories that fade but never disappear. Even today, on a dark night, if I hear bats whipping about in the trees above, I’m suddenly 10 again, sitting on the bank of a riotous river.

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The author and his father camping in Oregon in the late 1980s.

Before my first son came along, my wife and I fretted that we might decide that camping with a baby would prove too difficult, that we’d just stay home and stay inside. That was unacceptable. So before my son was born, we booked a campsite more than six hours away, in the Panhandle, at St. George Island State Park. Our strategy: Force ourselves to camp, even if it killed us.

We went in late May, when our son, Theo, was 3 months old. He had a ball. He lay on his back in his portable crib, gurgling at the pines that soared above us. Around sundown, we walked to the Gulf side of the island, where the wind whipped what little hair he had. He gasped with joy.

My wife and I… well, it wasn’t quite as fun for us. I forgot a crucial tentpole, which left our domicile sagging in the middle. Bugs snapped at us day and night. A bird ate our bacon. And then when I woke up, nightmare of all nightmares, I realized that in the rush to pack diapers, wipes and PJs, I had forgotten to bring along the coffee. Normally, we’d never make the drive into civilization, but we had no choice. Suffering through pounding caffeine-deprivation headaches, we drove into Apalachicola to suck down coffee and gorge on oysters.

As miserable as the trip was, my wife and I laugh about it now, and it hasn’t stopped us from camping a few times every spring, even now that we’ve got two boys to pack up. Theo, now 4, loves camping even more now than he did as a baby. He cavorts in the tent for hours—“playing tent,” as he calls it—and he rotates marshmallows just above the coals like a pro. He and his 1-year-old brother, Felix, love sitting by the fire, orange flames lighting up faces streaked with dirt and plastered with marshmallow goo. Putting them to sleep, I wonder, when they’re 35, will they remember this? I like to think so. And I like to think they’ll take their babies camping, too.

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