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CAMPING WITH KIDS: Get out there and have fun
Dark clouds closed in and fierce winds whipped the sides of his family’s tent, but Jackson Reese, 2, seemed oblivious, intent on banging a battered Matchbox car into the dirt.
His parents, Rob and Georgette Reese, snacking on Teddy Grahams at a nearby picnic table, smiled.
Family campout No. 1 was a success.
It wasn’t exactly what they’re used to. They were much closer to town than when they went camping as a couple; they were five minutes' walk from a playground; and they could see people in nearby trailers watching TV at night. But they’d made it through 36 hours “in the wilds” without a meltdown – Jackson’s or theirs.
The Castle Rock family joined friends at Cheyenne Mountain State Park over the June 2-3 weekend for their son's first camping trip. And they'd checked their "outdoor cred" at the door.
"We're backpackers, used to heading out for miles and seeing no one for a few days," said Georgette Reese, 34.
"We were backpackers," added Rob Reese, 36. "We will be again, in a few years."
"But we took my mom's advice and lowered our expectations for this trip," Georgette Reese continued. "She said, 'Just go with the flow and have fun. Being outside is more important than being far away. Smiles are more important than miles.'"
So, for this first family outing, the lightweight backpacker's tent and Jetboil stove stayed at home. In their place: a tent Rob Reese can stand up in, a two-burner stove, an air mattress, a shoebox of toys. And a campground 15 feet from a Jeep Cherokee filled with extra food, extra clothes, extra juice boxes, extra everything.
The key to a successful camping trip with an infant, toddler or young child is taking baby steps, say locals with years of family camping experience. Loosen up, they say. Car camp. Lower your expectations. Don’t plan to “rough it.”
It's better to spend a weekend car camping in a state park, joining a nature talk and letting your kids ride their bikes to the playground down the road than packing in five miles from the trailhead and then leaving in the middle of the night because your kid is too spooked to sleep in the forest.
“The important thing is getting kids outside,” said Gerry Dunphy, 62, as he set up a pop-up trailer at Mueller State Park and watched his grandkids ride their scooters back and forth. “This isn’t what I would’ve called 'camping' a few years ago, but they love it. And each time we come we go on a longer hike, we spend less time in the trailer, they need fewer gadgets.
“They’ve got to have fun. And if this sets the framework for getting them out, enjoying a campfire, breakfast over a grill, that’s great.”
If it’s been a while since you’ve been camping, or if you’ve never been, don’t think a trip is beyond your reach. This is a great time of year to get started; there are free classes to help you with the basics of camping and June 23 is the annual Great American Backyard Campout.
For example, this month's free and low-cost classes at the local REI gear store include “Camp Cooking Basics,” “Introduction to Geocaching" and “Map and Compass Basics." In addition, the store is organizing a group of newbie campers for its “Great American Backyard Campout at Homestead Ranch" event.
If you can't make it June 23, Colorado State Parks is teaming with The North Face gear company to offer "Let's Camp!" a low-cost program designed to make beginners feel comfortable on an overnight camping trip. It's a hands-on program designed around a stay at either Chatfield State Park or Golden Gate Canyon State Park.
Above all, local campers say, be flexible. The important thing is to spend time with your family and to enjoy Colorado's great outdoors. What you eat and what you sleep in is secondary.
Add your tips for newbie family campers at the end of this story, at Out There's Facebook page or by adding your own "blog" item at OutThereColorado.com. You can load photos from your trips there, too.
TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME CAMPERS
Out There Colorado readers Sue Applegate, Dave Ruckman and Brad Clay and others shared these suggestions for a successful family camping trip.
* Set up a tent in your backyard - or living room, even - for your first trip. You can get the kids to help you, if they're old enough, and everyone can practice the routine of campstove cooking, singing camp songs, no TV or videogames, and "lights out." (Be sure to fire up the campstove outside, for safety.)
* Visit local parks and go on extended hikes. Take advantage of free nature programs to learn about identifying trees, plants and animals. Join a moonlight hike. You'll get in the habit of spending time outdoors before you ever spend a night.
* Plan your first camping trips with extended family or friends to ensure there are other kids around and adults to lend a hand, and to make camping “normal."
* Don't travel too far from home for your first trip, in case someone has a total meltdown. And don't consider it a "failure" if you bail. Just learn from the experience and try again.
* Consider staying in a designated campground with picnic tables, grills, showers and bathrooms. You can wean yourself away from these conveniences as your camping confidence grows.
* Let your kids take small toys – action figures, cars, plastic animals - they can play with in the dirt.
* Explore the campground and beyond with your kids. Familiarize older kids with its layout so they can navigate a trip to the bathroom by themselves. Take books to help you identify flowers, animals, constellations.
* Take advantage of a campground’s nature hikes or talks. Let your kids sign up for the Junior Ranger program.
* Take Frisbees, playing cards, games, and musical instruments (plastic kazoos and harmonicas are fine). Play together.
* Make sure kids stay warm and dry. Pack as if it will rain. And if there’s a chance they’ll be playing in water, pack even more dry clothes and shoes.
* Let kids get dirty beyond all belief. They can take a long bath when they get home.
* Take them camping someplace they can fish - someplace they’ll catch fish. It’ll be more fun and they’ll want to do it again.
* Take bug spray, sunscreen and plenty of snacks and drinks.
* Take your bikes, scooters, skateboards. The kids will get more activity and you probably will, too.
* Play charades, tell stories and sing around the campfire.
* Try geocaching. Your kids will enjoy the thrill of following “clues” (coordinates) to reach a “treasure” (a cache). If you’re unfamiliar with geocaching, take a class. REI regularly offers classes in geocaching basics.
Out There Colorado member Ginger Littleton shared these ideas for taking successful family hikes once you’ve set up camp. Read more locals' tips for hiking with kids.
* M&M hike: One adult hikes ahead and places brightly colored M&Ms (or other sweets) in prominent places along the trail. The kids will forge ahead to find them.
* Map hike: Create a map for an out-and-back trail: Draw a basic straight line on paper. Mark your starting point. As you walk along, ask your child to identify landmarks or memorable events – clump of yellow flowers, dead tree, place where I pee’d, fallen log where we ate a snack - along the trail and then draw/name them on your “map.” On the way back, the child can carry the map and identify the places as you go along.
CAMPING TIPS, EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES
This program is a low-cost way to learn about camping, offered by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and The North Face, a gear maker.
Overnight trips are planned at Chatfield and Golden Gate Canyon state parks and cover all the fundamentals of camping, from setting up tents to cooking a tasty meal to packing up camp. You can even borrow equipment, including tents and most cooking gear.
“Let’s Camp!” will be held from about noon on Sundays through noon on Mondays July 1-2 and Aug. 5-6 at Chatfield State Park and July 8-9 and Aug. 5-6 at Golden Gate Canyon State Park.
Cost is $25-$30 for up to six people. Register online.
Great American Backyard Campout
The annual Great American Campout, June 23, raises money for the National Wildlife Federation's programs aimed at getting kids outdoors. The group’s website includes information on setting up camp, camp songs, recipes, outdoor activities and more.
Family Outdoors Club
This free program offered through El Paso County Parks allows two or more families to become a club and register at Bear Creek or Fountain Creek nature centers for benefits, including free kids T-shirts and free Nature Bucks to spend on nature programs. Learn more!
* Storytelling Hike & Campfire
June 15, 7-8:30 p.m.
Join a naturalist for a fun evening hike filled with great nature stories, songs, and s'mores around a campfire; $4/members, $5/others; reservations required, 520-6387.
* Foothills Safari Nature Camp (Grades 1-5)
June 18-22, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Campers will hike through the foothills, learn about outdoor safety skills, pitch a tent, play games, prepare a snack over a campfire; full day $120/member, $130/others; half day $80 or $90; discounts and scholarships available; registration at 520-6387 or email@example.com.
* Firefly Celebration & Night Hike
June 22, 7-9 p.m.
Make a firefly craft, learn about the fascinating lives of fireflies, and hike to find these elusive
natural wonders in the park; $4/members, $5/others; reservations required, 520-6745.
Colorado State Parks
Learn more about camping in our state parks and reserve a spot.
Learn more about camping and make reservations.