So you got your shit in a van, your kids in their car seats, and your spouse on board. You are finally taking your family camping/paddling/fishing/backpacking or whatever outdoor adventure the internet and those awful, outdoorsy mom-bloggers talked you into trying. Yay, you!
Or maybe you’re just trying to recreate those beautiful memories from your own childhood (or early twenties). How hard could it be?
Whatever your motivation, just remember one thing: the first night camping with your family always sucks.
With all three of my kids still under the age of seven, and the oldest one with about 20 nights of camping under his belt, I can promise you that we have never had a great first night camping. Yup, the first night in a tent under the stars is often Gitmo-level torture, no matter what you see on Instagram.
Don’t get me wrong, my kids all adore camping. They love the campfire, the tent, the sleeping bags, the stories and the snuggles, but at no point in the idyllic, headlamped reading of Mo Willem’s newest stroke of pre-school genius do my husband or I ever assume that we will get a sufficient amount of sleep that night.
There will be cries for bottles and pacifiers. There will be emergency pee sprints or emergency moonlit diaper changes. And if you are lucky enough to be camping with a human under the age of three, then they will probably yell after every REM cycle. The first night on a family camping trip is spent being absolutely sure that you aren’t sleeping at all, despite being super-pissed every time you are woken up.
And may God have mercy on your marriage if one of you snores.
You will undoubtedly start the next morning gritty and grumpy, woken by the damn birds, the other campers, or your own sadistic internal clock. By this time, your kids will be sleeping like angels, of course.
You will want to quit and go home, abandoning your carefully researched second night of ‘Best Campfire Meals.’ I mean, you can probably make dutch oven lasagna in an actual oven, right?
But please, oh brave parent, oh lover of challenges and the outdoors, she/he who believes in that crazy-wonderful vision you have of your kids growing up with dirty fingernails and adventure feet…please stay another night.
Make the coffee black, the breakfast greasy and the itinerary chock full of everything you want to do and nothing you don’t. Swim, hike, climb, explore, swim some more, throw rocks in the river for five hours, whatever makes you love the outdoors and your family. Do it all. Bribe with candy, hand out the marshmallows, whatever it takes. Because, for those who have real staying power, for those committed to the experience- the second night camping with your family is wonderful.
The boring explanation for this mysterious phenomenon is that your kids are so goddam exhausted from all the cool stuff you did that day that they will sleep like you drugged them.
The bigger explanation is that it just takes time to adjust. You and your family need to time to find your rhythm, your flavor of living outside your comfort zone.
Whatever the reason, they will crawl gratefully into their sleeping bags, and be asleep before you finish your second reading of Goodnight Gorilla. They will look beautiful. Your back may hurt like a sonofabitch, but you won’t care as much while you and your spouse exchange proud and loving glances as you silently apologize for all the mean shit you said to them that morning.
Believe me, even though two nights sounds crazier than one, if you go home after one night, you may never come back. You already did all the hard work packing and planning, and all the arguing while getting there anyway, so stay a while. The second night is all the best about family togetherness, but you can’t get to second without first.
In fact, your family camping trip is a perfect metaphor for parenting, one which we all can recognize. Raising kids is the absolute worst right before it becomes the absolute best. If you give up when you’re down, you’ll never know what you, partner, and your kids are capable of. Right when it seems impossible, or stupid, or pointless, if you can remember why you’re there, why you’re trying, and keep trying, the payoff is worth it.
So stay for at least two nights, maybe three, and get to know each other all over again.
But then definitely go home and take a shower because four nights is just ridiculous.
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