Children on camping trips doesn't have to be a stressful experience
Brian Weiss didn't grow up in a camping family; neither did his wife, Richel.
But they learned as they went.
That didn't change when kids came along. Daughters Miranda, 14, and Mikayla, 11, are veteran campers, and youngest daughter Megan, 3, is well on her way.
"My big thing is getting out in nature and getting the kids into it, too," said Weiss, 41, a hydraulic modeling engineer for Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services in Grand Forks. "As we got kids and they got older, we started car camping with a tent."
Last year, Weiss said, the family made the switch to a 19-foot camper that has such amenities as a fridge, stove and air conditioning.
They might be more comfortable, he said, but the trips are still about spending time outdoors as a family.
"I really enjoy being outdoors and exploring new places," Weiss said. "For my girls, they like to get away from home and spend time with Mom and Dad and not have any distractions. My kids like the nature thing. They like to get out, they like to go swimming. That's a big thing with them.
"They also like to go to the state parks and do the interpretive activities in the mornings and evenings."
Keeping the girls busy but being flexible and not cramming too many activities into a camping trip helped foster his daughters' enjoyment of camping, Weiss said.
"They actually want to go," he said. "They like the 'getting out there and doing it,' and they like it."
In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources in 2011 launched a program called "I Can Camp!" aimed at getting families or first-time campers into camping. The program, which includes all of the gear from tents and mattresses to camp stoves, is basically a "try before you buy" for prospective campers.
According to Amy Barrett, a spokeswoman for the DNR's Parks and Trails Division, the program has grown from 582 participants in 2011 to 877 last year, and interest this year is strong, as well.
A two-night "I Can Camp!" event is scheduled for Friday through next Sunday at Lake Bemidji State Park and is filled to capacity.
"It's been widely publicized nationally there has been a declining interest in outdoor recreation participation," Barrett said. "The DNR did some research in 2007 to see what's going on here in Minnesota with that, and what came up again and again was the barrier of not having the equipment or knowledge and having something affordable to do with kids.
"This program set out to knock down all of those barriers."
Programs can accommodate 10 to 15 reservations, Barrett said, and each reservation is for a tent that can hold as many as six people. Two leaders are on hand for each "I Can Camp!" event to provide instruction on everything from setting up the tent to lighting a camp stove, in turn reducing any apprehensions novice campers might have.
"It helps prevent parents from struggling in front of the kids," Barrett said. "The leaders are there to lead activities and programs, provide instruction on some easy but tasty camp meals, and they're there all night long.
"If something comes up, you want to have someone nearby that knows what to do, just to reassure people."
Barrett said the program seems to be making a difference; daily and annual state park permit sales and overnight visits have increased.
"We hope that's a trend that will continue and a sign, perhaps, we are turning the corner among that next generation," she said.
Barrett said the program targets school-age children.
"If you have an infant, there are a few more challenges, and you probably can't relax and enjoy it quite as much as a parent," she said.
Tips for parents
For parents camping with kids on their own, Barrett recommends picking the "right" park. Several state parks in Minnesota, North Dakota and elsewhere have naturalists on staff and offer family-oriented interpretive programs.
"One park might be offering digital photography or monarch butterfly tagging or Archery in the Park, so then you can tap into your kids' interest and get them excited," Barrett said. "Or if they like to swim, find a park that has a beach. If you want to try canoeing, find out which parks rent canoes or find out about the excitement of geocaching.
"A little bit of advance research online or by calling will help identify the right park to fit your family's interest."
Weiss of Grand Forks said the family takes most of their trips close to home. Icelandic State Park near Cavalier, N.D., is one of their favorites, he said, along with Turtle River west of Grand Forks, and Old Mill, Lake Bronson, Lake Bemidji and Itasca state parks in northwest Minnesota.
Bike trails and swimming beaches are family favorites, he said; ditto for geocaching.
"Kids like to ride their bikes, and state parks have some really nice bike paths," he said. "We try to take the bikes everywhere we go."
Not every camping trip is a walk in the park -- so to speak -- and Weiss said they occasionally had to put up with "a little water" during their tent camping days. Another time, he said, they were camping at Lake Bemidji State Park in August and woke up to a 30-degree morning.
"We've been fortunate not to have any real rain issues," he said. "My whole thing is if it gets really bad, just pack up and go.
"I think the biggest thing is to try and make everybody comfortable and then also, my wife always says, don't plan too many activities and just be flexible and go with the flow and how you do things."
Keep it simple
The DNR's Barrett says parents sometimes forget how easy it can be to keep kids occupied outdoors.
Something as simple as skipping stones can while away an afternoon.
"Don't over think it," she said. "There'll be plenty of things to interest them along the trail or at the beach.
"My parents always had my two brothers and I gather kindling while they set up the tent. I think kids can be involved in planning the menu. It's good to let kids experience the fun of cooking the hot dogs and roasting the marshmallows.
"There's something really gratifying about that."
As his daughters get older, Weiss said he is beginning to explore more remote kinds of camping experiences and eventually would like to tackle a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
"I think the girls would like that," he said. "They want to do it, and for me, it's just getting them to like and enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. I think in the future when they have kids that they will enjoy the same things."
Those are the kinds of stories Barrett likes to hear, as well.
"I really believe families who get outside with their kids are going to make some memories that last a lifetime," she said.
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