It was early summer. Our vacation budget for the year had already been blown on a Spring Break trip to Guatemala, but we looked at the calendar and spotted an opening for a week-long family vacation in August.
“Well, we could camp,” I told my travel-loving but skeptical husband.
A lifelong Anne of Green Gables fangirl, I had always wanted to go to Prince Edward Island. My husband had had his eye on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Our children had tried tent camping at sleepaway camp and enjoyed it.
“What have we got to lose?” we reasoned.
So we borrowed a ten-person tent (which was just right for five people) and some basic camping supplies from my brother, bought a camp stove and some other missing items, and packed the car (and car-top box) full of sleeping bags, coolers, not-so-nice clothes, and a smattering of dishes. Then we drove north. (Naturally, with the audiobook Anne of Green Gables over the car speakers.)
We found both locations well worth a visit, with plentiful hiking, biking, beaches, and plenty of ice cream cones to go around. The rugged, rocky shore of Cape Breton Island contrasted with the red dirt, lighthouses, and sandy beaches of PEI, and we thoroughly enjoyed both locations. We would recommend them as destinations to anyone.
And we learned as we went about tent camping. It was far outside of our comfort zone, but that challenge was part of the fun. Like many things we try for the first time, a decent amount of trial and error was involved. Veteran campers may roll their eyes at this list, but this stuck out to me as I think back to our trip.
1. Quality Bug Spray and Sleeping Bags Matter
The importance of a good bug spray became our first lesson as we entered the realm of tent camping. We had purchased a more natural option and quickly ran to the nearest gas station for Deep Woods Off. We had pre-purchased a mesh tent to cover and surround our picnic table, which ended up being very helpful for keeping bugs away from us while we ate.
Similarly, we learned that investing in quality sleeping bags is a must. My brother had provided a few high-quality sleeping bags, and we added a few cheap old ones of our own to the mix as well. We quickly discovered that a $15 sleeping bag is great for sleepovers and not nearly warm enough for tent camping! We quickly grabbed a much better one from a camping store in Canada and were thankful we did.
2. Embracing the Un-Glamorous Side
Our camping journey also introduced us to the unglamorous side of outdoor life. Public bathrooms and showers, while functional, lacked the comforts of home. We quickly learned the value of bringing shower shoes to protect our feet and maintaining a sense of humor when faced with less-than-ideal facilities. We also found that sleeping on a thin, 2-inch camping mattress was less than ideal for two adults around 40 years old. The kids didn’t seem to mind at all, however!
3. The Midnight Quest for Bathrooms
The midnight quest for a bathroom in the dark proved more challenging than anticipated. Tripping over tent lines and fumbling with flashlights underscored the importance of knowing the lay of the land – especially when nature calls at inconvenient hours or in the rain. Again, what can seem like an adventure when you’re 12 is a serious annoyance at age 39.
4. Is it Actually Cost-Effective?
Tent camping emerged as a cost-effective way to travel, especially once the initial investment in equipment was made. With appropriate gear, we found ourselves liberated from the expenses of hotels and dining out. However, since we were rookies, start-up costs were involved: a camp stove, a tent, and camping dishes. If we do it again, however, we’ll be pretty well poised to enjoy a very inexpensive vacation. We cooked a lot more of our own food than we usually do on vacations and found pleasure in trying out “camping friendly” recipes and meals with only basic cooking equipment: pizzas over the fire, “hobo pies,” and morning eggs, just-add-water pancakes, and bacon. Also, our per-night fees were around $30 per night and were hard to beat. Thank you, Canadian National Parks!
5. The Digital Detox Dilemma
Disconnecting from the digital world proved to be both a challenge and a blessing. While we relished the opportunity to escape our screens, we also discovered the practical need for phone charging and the quest for elusive Wi-Fi signals to stay connected to work and family needs.
6. Camping’s Simple Joys
I fondly remember camping as a child, which is partially why I suggested we try it out this time with our own kids. My three have now experienced the simple joys I remember from my childhood: freely riding a bike everywhere, discovering hiking paths and swimming holes, making countless s’mores over a campfire, making friends with neighbor kids, and embracing a less-than-clean aesthetic for the week.
6. Hard Work Made for Family Bonding
Tent camping was not for the faint of heart. From setting up camp to cooking meals over a camp stove or open fire, every moment required effort and teamwork. Yet, this hard work led to some of the most meaningful family bonding we experienced on the trip. As we navigated challenges together, we discovered the joy of achieving goals as a unit. Our kids will have memories of lugging dirty dishes to a campground-provided sink a few campsites away — and how it wasn’t all that bad. They’ll also remember that time we couldn’t get a campfire lit and how getting sleeping bags back into their sacks takes a herculean effort.
In conclusion, our inaugural tent camping adventure opened our eyes to a world of challenges and charms. From bug spray and sleeping bags to culinary escapades and midnight bathroom quests, each experience left its mark.
While we have embraced the joys of tent camping, we also acknowledge its demands. As a family, we’ve decided to make camping a special occasion, recognizing the balance between adventure and the comforts of home. Our journey into the world of tent camping has taught us resilience, togetherness, and the simple pleasures that can be found when we venture beyond our comfort zones. And next time, I’ll be purchasing a better air mattress.