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Trial by Campfire: Braving the Great Outdoors — With Kids


Published July 31, 2017 at 3:00 p.m.

  • pat lewis

We'd been checked into Little River State Park campground for just 10 minutes, and already my children were covered in dirt. Four-year-old Levi rolled around on the ground, wrapped in the blanket intended for 10-month-old George, who laid stomach-down in his own patch of earth, placidly scooping pine needles into his mouth.

Meanwhile, my husband John was taking forever to pitch our tent, methodically clicking poles together, stretching fabric, inspecting every inch of where it met the ground.

"You do realize we're in a hurry?" I asked, failing to hide my annoyance.

We'd arrived at the Waterbury campground at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night in mid-May. The kids needed to eat and get to bed. Which meant I needed to go buy wood for the fire, which meant John needed to finish up the tent because somebody needed to keep our filthy children from choking on pine needles and impaling themselves on tent poles.

Perhaps fueled by my own anxiety, Levi was now running laps around the campsite, shouting out phrases from "The Octonauts" — "Jumping Jellyfish! We have a situation here!" George began to cry. Campers at neighboring sites eyed us warily.

I hardly remember dinner. But I vividly recall that bedtime did not go well. The sun shone brightly through the light fabric of our tent, while outside campers from nearby sites talked loudly, laughed and played music (it was only 7:30, after all). We attempted a bedtime book while Levi disrobed and jumped around the tent naked. George cried.

As the sunlight faded, we sang quiet goodnight songs in earnest. Levi burrowed to the bottom of my sleeping bag and tried to tickle me. George cried.

Finally, it was dark outside, and the peepers started up. "What is that!?" Levi demanded. "It's creepy!" George continued to cry. He was teething. We'd given him some Advil just two hours earlier, but he jammed a fist in his mouth, clearly in distress. I offered him my finger, and he bit down so hard that I cried out in pain myself.

At 9:15 p.m., we called it. Still in pajamas, we loaded the kids and the cooler into the car and drove home, leaving the tent, our sleeping bags and our camping dreams behind. The next morning we returned and dismantled the camp.

I was bummed. This was our test run for a weeklong camping trip we had planned for Acadia National Park in Maine, and it was a pretty enormous failure. Pre-kids, we had loved camping and went several times every year. Post-kids, it seemed, we were terrible campers. How did other people do it?

Lessons from the Experts

  • pat lewis

I spoke with Luiza Bloomberg of Shelburne, mother of three kids ages 12, 10 and 7. Her family has been camping since the youngest was around 2 years old. How do they manage bedtime, with three kids in one tent?

"I drag them all over the woods, building fairy houses, finding stones, making crowns out of flowers, exploring, just constantly keeping them busy. And because we are so busy, they fall right asleep at night," she told me.

It helps to create a familiar sleeping environment, Luiza added. She brings everyday sheets and blankets and creates a bed for the whole family on the floor of the tent.

Luiza's mess-management system is pretty well-developed, too. Turns out she doesn't want dirty children in her sleeping space any more than I do. And she has a system.

"We set up a separate tent for the kids to play in. And if they want to sleep out there, I don't care. You sleep in that. I don't want dirt in my tent."

The family sleeping tent is a much more tightly controlled environment. "It has a little alcove, and you can leave your shoes out there. No shoes in the tent!" she said. She even provides a damp cloth for wiping off dirty feet.

Luiza didn't have experience camping with a baby, though. For that, I turned to my friend Heather Chernyshov of Burlington, who was actually the reason I assumed we could go camping with young kids. Her family has been camping since the oldest kid was 7 months old. He's now 7 years, and his little sister is 4. Their family of four goes camping nearly every other weekend, all summer long. So I asked Heather about the sleep thing. How did she manage it with a 7-month-old?

"I just nursed him and put him in the Pack 'n Play in the middle of the pop-up, and he was fine," she told me. "We never tried a tent." Of course. The Chernyshovs had a pop-up trailer complete with beds, a kitchen — the works.

That got me thinking. Maybe our tent was the problem. It was awfully bright in there. I started looking online. Pop-up rentals start at $100 per night. Yikes. I settled on a $90 blackout cover for the Pack 'n Play. My husband was dubious. He was ready to scrap the camping idea altogether, but I wasn't. We agreed to try again the following weekend — this time in our backyard.

Take Two, Closer to Home

The day of our backyard campout arrived. That morning we brought the kids to Shelburne Farms and gave them plenty of exercise. Back at home, the tent went up right after lunch so they could acclimate to it. George took his afternoon nap out there, the new blackout curtain stretched across his Pack 'n Play. It felt a bit odd zipping George up into an all-black cube, and I joked that we were crate-training him, but it worked! The dark, plus a battery-powered noise machine, seemed to do the trick. He napped for an hour and a half.

That evening George went to sleep at his usual bedtime, in his "crate." We let Levi stay up until 8:30, and he also went to bed easily enough, aside from refusing to wear the hat and snow pants I'd brought out for him on the cool May night.

At 11 p.m., George woke, crying. I fed him, then tried to put him back in the Pack 'n Play. He cried. I brought him back to my sleeping bag. He cried. I tried feeding him again. He was happy so long as he had a boob in his mouth — and I have certainly managed to get through many a night that way before — but it was too cold, and the ground was too hard, for that. I scooped up George and headed back into the house.

In the early hours of the morning, I woke as John and Levi joined us inside. The cold had gotten to Levi. By the time the sun came up, George had popped another tooth.

I asked Luiza how she handled a crying child while sleeping in a tent. "I think there was one time when one of them was crying, and I just sat in the car with them so it wasn't so loud," she recalled. "It was the middle of the night." I tried to imagine getting out of our tent and holding a crying baby in the car. It didn't appeal to me.

The Road Ahead

The following night, John emailed me an Airbnb listing — one of only three still available in Acadia for the week we were traveling. We booked it, and I'm so relieved we did. Two days before we left, George came down with a severe ear infection. And then it rained almost every night. My husband called the week a "parenting marathon." My kids thrive on regularity, and vacation is, by its very nature, a departure from the norm. Just surviving was exciting enough.

I haven't thrown in the sleeping bag just yet, though. We have reservations at Burton Island later this summer, and, while my husband is skeptical (George still has 14 teeth to go, and it's an island for Chrissake), for some reason I'm eagerly anticipating it. And, really, isn't that irrational optimism what makes parenting an adventure?

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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