The greatest adventure ever had: camping with toddlers

Jun 18, 2014, 6:53 PM | Updated: 6:53 pm

My husband and I decided to take our 5-, 3- and 1-year-old boys camping over Memorial Day weekend.

It was my idea, actually. My sons love being outside, exploring nature and all things adventurous, especially “sleeping over,” which means sleeping anywhere but their bed. This can include sleeping on the floor, the couch, with Grandma and Grandpa, or in a hotel.

Camping is the ultimate adventurous sleepover. Because of their ages, I guess I figured we’d wait a few years before introducing the whole “let’s be homeless for a night” concept. But for some reason I got really excited to try it out on the unofficial First Weekend of Summer.

To begin with, I figured we needed a tent. That was kind of important. We had a tent but one of its poles was broken, so I hauled the boys in the car and went to a sporting goods store to find the perfect one.

About two hours and 25 phone calls to my husband later, I found the perfect one — on sale! — only to discover it was out of stock. At this point, my 3-year-old had decided he’d had it and decided to camp out right on the floor of the store, kicking off his shoes, sprawling himself across my feet and beginning to cry. A bunch of well-meaning customers tried to help me cheer him up, but in the end, we walked to the car with one shoe on, one shoe off. I listened to about an hour’s worth of more screaming and kid-cursing. (“Stop it! No! You’re mean!”)

I handed the task of finding an outdoor dwelling place over to my husband, which he took care of during his lunch break … easy as pie.

Then it was on to yet another sporting goods store to find sleeping bags for the boys. You would think that would be another easy task, but so many stores were either out of bags, had only one or two styles left, were too expensive, too big or too girly. Finally, after the 53rd phone call to my husband, I found the perfect ones at the perfect price.

Once again, into the car, and now on to the grocery store to get food, firewood and marshmallow skewers (perhaps the most important item). After all, what’s camping without s’mores?

Halfway to the store, I reached down to grab my phone and call my husband for the 103rd time that day. It wasn't there, and out of nowhere, a fuzzy image emerged of my hot pink phone lying on the bottom of the forest green shopping cart.

I had left it, outside, in the cart. And it was beginning to rain.

By the time I turned the car around and drove back to the store, the cart — and my phone — were gone. I hurried in to customer service and frantically asked if anyone had turned in a pink phone. No one had. I tried calling on the store phone, but no one answered.

I was getting all ready to officially freak out when all of a sudden a very pregnant woman came “running” over to me, waving my phone in the air.

“Is this it?” she asked, huffy and out of breath.

“Yes!” I exclaimed, thanking her profusely.

I finally made it to the store. I got (most) everything we needed. Later, we packed the car and drove up the canyon with some good friends of ours. We tried two campsites before finding the perfect one.

It was now dark. And bedtime. My 1-year-old was over it. We hadn’t even pitched our tent.

I looked at my husband and said, “So, is this worth it?” He just laughed and said, “We’ll have fun.”

“Fun,” I learned that night, meant trying to get three kids to sleep in a loud, crinkly tent on the rocky ground. Fun meant having to squat under the stars while going to the bathroom outside in the middle of the night. Fun meant freezing my face off because I forgot a hat and pillow to sleep with. Fun meant my 1-year-old throwing up in the middle of the night and then sleeping with us. Fun meant listening to the sounds of coyotes barking and yipping and yowling way too close for comfort and wondering if they could chew their way through our tent.

Well, six of the longest hours of my life and one rainstorm later, it was morning. We got up and made pancakes and bacon while the boys searched for sticks with their friends. Watching their excitement and pure wonder of the world made me think of what a good experience for them — and a good learning experience for me — this camping excursion was. I learned that it’s easier to throw all our camping gear in big plastic bins rather than a flimsy Ikea bag. I learned that no matter what season it is during the daytime in the valley, it is always wintertime in the mountains at night. I learned that if my 1-year-old gets hold of my hairspray and sprays a few shots into his mouth, it will result in a midnight puking.

But I also learned how much my boys need the outdoors. They need the challenge of the mountains. They need to run and scream and be brave and throw rocks and tough it out. They need to learn to cook outside, to adapt to difficult circumstances and to make the best of a situation. They need to appreciate not only the breathtaking beauty of the earth — the brilliant sunsets, the slow sunrises and the sound of the birds — but also how much we really have. It’s amazing what being away from TV, phones, warm heaters and running water will do for a person.

My boys spent the drizzly morning hiking. My oldest cried when we left. I couldn’t believe how they didn’t even notice that their feet were muddy or that their food had dirt in it or that they had to pee on trees. In fact, those things probably made the whole thing better.

After we got home and spent the entire day cleaning out our dusty mini-van, drying out our tent and doing about five loads of laundry, I once again looked at my husband and said, “So, was it worth it?”

“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “You know, the boys aren’t going to remember how hard we worked to make this happen. They aren’t going to remember the pain of loading everything up, driving all the way up there, hauling everything back home and then getting everything back in order. They just remember how much fun they had. They are just going to remember spending time as a family and being outside discovering their world.”

I have a very wise husband, and he’s right. Camping, like life, is not perfect most of the time. Most of the time it’s a little rocky, a little dirty, constantly changing and a lot of work. Sometimes you get a little rain, sometimes you deal with illness, sometimes you have unhappy campers and perhaps sometimes you think, “Is this worth it?”

And then I remember the songs we sang around the campfire, the laughter of children and the company of good friends. I remember being together and struggling together and working together and growing together as a family. I remember catching a brilliant shooting star.

And those good things make all the difficult things worth it.

Carmen Rasmusen Herbert is a former “American Idol” contestant who writes about entertainment and family for the Deseret News.

Beckham, Briggs, and Boston in the great outdoors. (Photo: Carmen Rasmusen Herbert) Beckham, being an un-happy camper. (Photo: Carmen Rasmusen Herbert) Boston hiking with friends Beckham and Ivy Clark. (Photo: Carmen Rasmusen Herbert)

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The greatest adventure ever had: camping with toddlers