Finding Our Adventure: Camping With Kids

By the time my second child made her debut in our family, I was longing for a sense of what used to be. Pre-kids, my husband and I would venture out into the wilderness for days on end, wearing everything on our backs, seeing very few people (or maybe no one at all) for days at a time. Backpacking the wild gave us a sense of peace and adventure. Now, the only adventures I was having consisted of poop-plosion diapers and daycare drama. So when child No. 2 was only three months old, I proposed the perhaps hair-brained idea of taking the kids camping.

We booked our campsite at Big Bend National Park – one of Texas’ two national parks and our personal fav – for over the New Year’s holiday, when the baby would be seven months old. As time passed and the trip got closer, I could only think: This will either be a great success or a complete disaster… and the worst idea I’ve ever had.

The Big Adventure

The day before we left, a historic snowstorm socked the Big Bend region. The in-laws, who we had enlisted to travel with us, called and the excuses flowed:

  • It’s too cold (nights below freezing).
  • It’s too far (10 hour drive. Through West Texas. Are we there yet?).
  • This idea to take a baby and 4-year-old to a remote National Park is too crazy (Crazy = Little-to-no cell phone service, no TV, no hospitals or clinics nearby, no easy way out or hotel to retreat to if the diaper hits the fan).
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Setting up camp on night one at Big Bend National Park

Yeah, so there were a lot of theoretical or, some may say, logical reasons not to go. But we stuck to our guns and loaded the car on the afternoon of Dec. 28th with a mountain of gear. We spent the evening in a motel halfway to our destination and drove again that next morning. The car was filled with excitement and trepidation when we saw the wooden brown sign announcing the park boundary. Big Bend National Park … home of the Chisos Mountains, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Rio Grande cutting canyons through two countries, and more stars in the sky than you can ever fathom. Almost immediately after passing the sign, the roads started to wind and the density of cactus on the rock outcroppings intensified. Reality was sinking in. Two kids. Camping. In the middle of nowhere.

Our campsite consisted of a large family tent that we had purchased. We lovingly call it our “starter home.”  The tent was for my oldest daughter, Daddy, and Grandpa. The campsite’s amenities also included a picnic table, awning, and a parked 17-foot Casita camper owned by the in-laws. Truthfully, without Casita, this trip may not have happened. Casita had a toilet and a seating area that could be converted to a bed, a few small stovetop burners and a mini-fridge. Most importantly, Casita had a heater that would keep little baby toes from freezing right off. The baby slept in Casita at night with me since I was still breastfeeding. Casita was our solace, our comfort-mobile, our relief from the chill of night. For first-time campers-with-kids, this heated plastic shell was the thing that kept complaining at bay and enabled grandma to come along. If you’re taking a camping trip with kids, the essentials are as follows: food, water, shelter, grandma.

Finding Our Happy Place in Nature  

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Hot Springs at Big Bend National Park

Mother Nature took pity on us, and the snow melted away in the daytime, leaving only a powdered-sugar dusting on the highest peaks of the Chisos Mountains. The weather was great for hiking, which is what we had come to do. On our rambling wanderings — the longest was about 3.5 miles — the children really shined. The baby, who was worn on mommy, was so calm, like she was born for the outdoors, and my 4-year-old daughter impressed me by scampering up steep sections of rock and asking numerous questions about her surroundings. She took note of the animals and plants she saw so she could draw it back at camp in her naturalist notebook. We sang, told silly stories about dinosaurs, butterflies, and ghosts, and played games. No hike is complete without a game of “I Spy.” Aside from hiking, there were other adventures. With the kids, we drove the bumpy one-way gravel road to the international boundary river that separated us from a barren and rugged Mexico and, without a care, slipped behind the reeds to change into our bathing suits. I stripped the baby down to her diaper and a rash guard, and we eased gently into the naturally-heated spring-fed mineral bath along with fellow families and travelers from around the globe.

There was also cooking. Cooking at camp after the sun goes down is definitely an adventure. I don’t know how we managed to have delicious meals each and every time. I think grandma had a lot to do what that one, too. I’m telling ya… grandmas. Gotta love ’em.

All good things must come to an end, though, and we packed up a day early when another arctic storm threatened to blow in. On our way out of the park, we stopped at headquarters to turn in my daughter’s completed Junior Ranger notebook. She shot me a biggest smile when the park ranger pinned her Junior Ranger Badge on her jacket. I don’t know if she will remember this when she grows up, but for me, it was one of those moments that will forever be ingrained in my memory. I was one proud momma!

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Trail to Homer Wilson Ranch at Big Bend National Park with my two Girls

Our first camping trip goes down in our family history as a great success. Despite doubting myself and having been presented with plenty of excuses to just stay home, this was definitely not the worst idea I’ve ever had … In fact, it might have been one of our better judgements to just take the plunge and go for it!

Things change when you become parents. At least for now, gone are the days of backpacking alone with my better half. These days, hiking with my kids gives us sense of peace and adventure. Now, with my growing family, I look forward to the good times that are sure to come… and making ’em happen. The next trip is already planned for this summer! Rocky Mountain National Park, here we come! I want my children’s memories to be filled with the great outdoors. Let me tie my boot laces and load my baby up on my back. The wonders of the world await.

(P.S. Have a fourth grader? Here’s how you can visit any national park for free.)

Inspired to take an outdoor adventure with your children?        

Here are our tips to get you started:

  1. First thing first … Just get there. If you are driving, break up the drive into manageable pieces. A few hours one day, followed by a few the next. Yes, we know it can take two days just to get out of Texas using this method, but there are enough Texas sites to see. Start there! On a related note, start traveling with your kids early so they get used to extended periods of time in the car. Play observation games, listen to music and stories, and for older kids, let them kill a few hours on the iPad. Pack tons of food! Depending on where you are, access to potties can be a challenge, so just be on the safe side and take along your own!
  2. Be Prepared. Glow Sticks, bubbles, games, Frisbees are all good things to pass the time at camp and entertain your children. Adequate clothing choices are a must. You will never hear the end of the whining if your child is cold. The same goes for hungry. No hungriness allowed. Kids eat a lot when they hike. Four year olds become bottomless pits. Equipment such as baby carriers, even for larger kids, ensure that you will be able to complete a hike.
    #FindYourPark during National Park Week.

    #FindYourPark during National Park Week.

  3. Choose a destination you are comfortable with. While my husband and I chose Big Bend because we have a relationship with that park, having been almost every year for the past 15 years, driving ten hours to a remote national park is not for everyone. Locally, we have Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge just south of Alamo and Palo Alto National Battlefield near Brownsville, where the cactus bloom this time of year is fantastic. This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Parks System and April 16 through 24, 2016 is National Park Week. During this week, entrances fees at parks, national historic sites, battlefields, monuments, etc. are waived. Furthermore, if you have a fourth grader in your family, through the Every Kid in a Park program, your family can get a free annual pass that’s good at every site maintained by the NPS. Learn all about your National Parks and #FindYourPark by visiting www.nps.gov. And of course, don’t forget that there are tons of great state parks as well, many with convenient camping facilities and modern conveniences. Check the Texas State Parks website for details.
  4. Bring the Reinforcements and Take it Easy. That might be in the form of grandma or a recreational vehicle, or some kind of modern technology your kids think they can’t survive without. Ease into it. Don’t pretend to be survivalist family if you’ve never spent a single night out of the air conditioning. The trick to liking camping, hint hint, is to make it fun. Do whatever level of camping is fun for you. No judgments here. 

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