Happy Campers

    Shouldn't You at Least Give it a Try?

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    You’ve avoided it all your life – those invitations to go out into the wild woods to camp under the stars. But now something’s different. Your kids have convinced you to succumb to your inner survivor. You think you want to tackle the challenge, but you don’t want to give up your creature comforts. If you plan it right, you’ll gain more than you give up.

    1. Embrace the full concept of getting close to nature. This means you have to be willing to sleep on the ground, or darn close to it.

    2. Tame the wild a bit by setting out with proper tools and supplies. This involves advance planning and an investment in a good sleeping bag, tent, backpack and proper clothing.

    3. Use some ingenuity to deal with the eventualities of nature. Be ready to figure out how you’ll build a fire to cook when it starts to rain and where to get clean water.

    4. Find your spirit in the woods, water and wilderness. Make time for yourself and your family to cherish nature’s simple gifts and the peace they can bring to your lives.

    When I was a kid, the closest our family came to camping was a cheap motel off Interstate 95. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about making camping trips safe and rewarding for everyone in the party. Our family appreciates the awesome wonder of nature, and we value and respect its strength.

    When I first decided to give camping a try, I was quite the novice. I had to plan ahead, pack my own gear, food and clothing, and learn how to pitch a tent. I would be responsible for my own survival – and comfort. Our designated site was Sherando Lake, a place of sublime scenic beauty in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Waynesboro. My college friends and I set up our small tents in an organized campground near the lake, slept on the hard, cold ground, cooked over a campfire, and entertained one another with amusing tales. In the daytime, we swam in the cold, pure water of the mountain lake – a startling revelation about the elusiveness of warmth on an April day. My fondest memory of this first camping trip was the bond we established among friends.

    TIP: Buy sleeping bags for yourself and your children that will keep you warm in temperatures that fall below freezing, even if you think you’ll camp only during warm seasons. Bring a pad to put on the ground under your sleeping bag. It makes a world of difference.

    On a follow-up trip to Shenandoah National Park, we came to appreciate the habits of Virginia’s native wildlife. We had enough food for a gang of hungry kids, but we didn’t plan for a middle of the night visit by a black bear with an appetite.

    TIP: Always keep food locked up in a hard container away from you and your tent and hoist it high up into a tree.

    After learning our lesson with the bear, my husband and I returned to the Shenandoah National Park to hike by way of a fire road on a warm, spring day.

    We found a perfect spot near a stream and set up camp. Following all the rules of safety, we marveled at our ability to find enough dry firewood the next misty morning to build a small fire for a breakfast of eggs. Within minutes of celebrating our success, we were visited by a park ranger who wrote us a series of citations. We were horrified. We thought we were being good stewards of the environment, but the park rules showed something distinctly different. We were camping within view of a fire road, Camping without a permit, and burning a fire directly on the ground. We learned that while many places allow fires in fire pits or on the ground, the National Park Service typically does not for conservation reasons.

    TIP: Always obtain a permit for backcountry or campground camping. You’ll be given a checklist of rules and regulations designed to protect campers and parkland, and you and your children will learn important lessons about respecting nature by knowing the rules ahead of time.

    On our next family camping adventure, we opted for beach camping in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was here, in the Atlantic Ocean marshland, that we learned the painful lesson that mosquito repellent is mandatory. Luckily, we didn’t join the Lost Colony.

    TIP: For your family’s safety and health, wear bug repellent at all times when outdoors.

    Armed with adequate supplies of bug repellent, we gave Assateague Island a try and secured a backcountry permit to camp. We packed our provisions for three days, including layers of warm clothing, and food and water for four. Unlike any other place in Virginia or Maryland, you can sit here at the water’s edge and see a band of wild Chincoteague ponies walking along the sand while the waterfowl fill the skies.

    TIP: If you’re carrying your own water, get in shape and pretend you’re a pioneer.

    After these back country experiences, we decided to make it easier on our children and ourselves and try out the conveniences that come with “car camping.” With this method, you do little more than take your supplies out of the trunk. One of our favorite spots is Douthat State Park in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia. The nearby town of Warm Springs has a natural, hot springs-fed pool that provides a bubbly, therapeutic bath with history dating to the 1800s. At Douthat, the campground is clean, well managed and well maintained. A sandy beach lines the lake where old-fashioned diving platforms provide endless hours of fun for families in the summer months. Hiking, cycling, fishing, kayaking and swimming are all within easy reach here. You can even obtain a temporary fishing license for youngsters at the camp store.

    TIP: If you’re a tent camper staying in an organized campground, be prepared to share your world with motor-home campers who enjoy the comforts of electricity and more.

    When you’re searching for a restorative experience for your family, slow down and savor the gifts of nature. Our region is blessed with thousands of acres of well-maintained parkland where your kids can teach you more about adventure than you’ll ever imagine.