Treat Them With a Camping Trip


This was one time Nancy Ritger and Mark Dindorf were pleased to discover how much they’d overpacked for a vacation. All the gear they were convinced their children needed never made it out of the car.

“We didn’t need all of those toys,” said Ritger, the New Hampshire mother of a toddler, a preschooler and a second-grader. “There was so much for the kids to do: catching frogs, swimming, bug-hunting. They got excited helping to stir the macaroni and cheese in the big pot.”

That’s not to say that camping with young children (especially those in diapers) is a piece of cake, even for Ritger. She makes a living developing educational programs for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a 70,000-member nonprofit conservation and outdoor recreation organization.


“Sure, camping with young kids is exhausting, just like being at home,” she said. “But it’s a chance to do something together you wouldn’t do at home--to share new experiences as a family, like looking at the stars or popping corn over an open fire.”

It’s also an opportunity to separate the kids from television and video games. And to separate parents from their voice mail and e-mail. Even better, it’s the cheapest vacation going (except for visiting relatives), with some campsites costing less than $10 a night. Maybe that’s why local and national park campgrounds are so crowded in the summer.

“It’s better not to go between 18 months and toilet training,” says Kate Day, a Seattle landscape architect who has camped with her two children since they were in diapers (they’re now teenagers).

Some other tips for would-be campers:

* Wait on the fancy gear. Rent or borrow what you need. Needs will change as the children grow older.

* Consider signing up for a guided trip in which the outfitters provide much of what you need and do a lot of the work. Moab, Utah-based Sheri Griffith River Expeditions, for example, offers a two-day Introduction to Family Camping on a Colorado River float trip so placid that it’s appropriate for children as young as 4. The trip costs $195 per person for adults and $165 for children. For information call (800) 332-2439.)

On the East Coast, the Appalachian Mountain Club also offers Introduction to Family Backpacking and Camping weekends in the White Mountains and the Catskills. Prices start at $75 per person for adults and $10 per child. Call (617) 523-0636.


The Sierra Club offers many family camping programs. Call (415) 977-5522.

* If group trips aren’t your idea of a great time, think about joining forces--and chores--with another family. The kids will entertain and motivate each other.

* Wait on the ambitious itineraries that require a six-mile hike to the campsite. The kids won’t care if they’re in the nearest state park, Yellowstone National Park or the backyard.

* Go when the weather is warm, but pack for the cold anyway.

* Opt for a campsite close to real bathrooms, hot showers and a body of water. Take a plastic potty, just in case.

* Get the kids involved in the planning and packing. Don’t forget cooking utensils for making sand cakes; plastic containers with lids to (temporarily) keep the creatures that the children have caught; a well-equipped first-aid kit; bug repellent; water bottles for every member of the family; and rain boots because the kids will splash in every puddle they see. Here are some campgrounds that families around the country have told me are winners:

* Mt. Desert Campground, just outside Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. Ask to reserve a site close to Somes Sound. Call (207) 244-3710.

* Cinnamon Bay Campground in Virgin Islands National Park on St. John Island has white, sandy beaches and plenty of quiet coves. Make reservations here months in advance. Call (809) 776-6330.


* Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a 30-minute drive from Mt. Rushmore. Make sure to see the 1,600-member bison herd. Call (800) 710-CAMP.

* National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., offers accessible campsites and nature trails for those with disabilities at the Bonfils Stanton Winter Park Outdoor Center. Call (970) 726-1540 and ask for Gigi Dominguez. Reservations are recommended.

* Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in California, near Monterey, will give the kids a chance to get up close to sea otters and giant redwoods. Call (408) 667-2315.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.