Camping Traditions Provide Best Family Memories

The author, on the trail at five. Taking kids camping is a great way to encourage them to explore the outdoors and connect with nature. (Photo: Mary Burnette)
Camping comes in all styles but traditional camping trips are perhaps the most special.

When I was young, my parents took me and my two older sisters for three weeks of backpacking in the high country of Yosemite every summer. Yosemite was my Dad’s Mecca. My father rented two burros from the stables in Yosemite Valley to carry our gear and off we went.

I think I was about 4 when I joined this family tradition and was allowed to let the burro carry me when my legs got tired of hiking (my sisters were always jealous).

When my own children were young, every Columbus Day weekend we would head off  to Assateague Island National Seashore to join the wild ponies at a great campout on the beach. Assateague is an island on the coast of Virginia. My kids still remember the year we woke up early one morning to the sound of ponies munching away on a bag of apples I had put in the screened section of our tent. The ponies used their hooves to tear the screen so they could gain access to a tasty breakfast.

Then there is my husband’s family camping tradition, affectionately called “Mud, Blood and Beer.” I’ve now been part of this tradition for 27 years. My husband grew up on a cattle farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  There is a river that runs through the bottom land of the farm.

Every summer the family gathers for a long-weekend camping adventure on the banks of the river.  It started with my husband and his siblings over 50 years ago. Over the years wives, children and a bunch of friends and their families have joined the festivities. I think last year we counted 40 people and about 15 tents in all. Grandkids can’t be far behind. The favorite activity is riding the rapids down the river on a float when the dam up river from the campsite lets out water about every 2 hours.

Singing Around the Campfire

As I think about these camping traditions, I’m reminded that music was always an important part of the experience. My father played the harmonica and I can still hear its jaunty sound when Dad would play as we gathered to watch the sun set over the majestic Sierra Mountains. At Assateague, there always seemed to be a neighboring campfire where someone played the guitar and all were welcome to join in to sing the old children’s classic campfire songs like “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” “Do Your Ears Hang Low,” “Down by the Bay” and “Frogie Went A Court’n.”

Music at Mud, Blood and Beer is always a treat. My brother-in-law is a talented musician and some of the friends he brings camping are equally musically inclined. There are always several guitars, a banjo, a mandolin and a fiddle. One year Henry even brought his giant base along. The music plays on through the night, depending on how much “libation” we have all enjoyed. Sometimes I conk out earlier than the others and there is nothing better than snuggling down in a sleeping bag and dozing off to the sounds of great campfire music being played in the background.

Another group of talented musicians and story tellers was recently brought to my attention. “The Okeedokee Brothers” and their CD “Can You Canoe would make the perfect accompaniment to any camping trip when live music isn’t an option. Songs like “Campin Tent” and “Thousand Star Hotel” capture the magic that sleeping under the stars is all about.

Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing spent summers at their neighborhood creek, building makeshift rafts, fishing for crawdads, and dreaming of great river adventures. In 2011 those dreams came true when they spent 30 days canoeing down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to St. Louis. During their journey they camped, canoed, filmed and most importantly, composed the songs that make up their album for kids and families. They hope their project and songs will inspire kids to take an active role in their lives, get outside and make their dreams realities.

The Gift of Camping

The OkeeDokee Brothers exemplify what NWF’s Be Out There campaign is telling parents: give kids time to explore the outdoors and connect with nature to encourage creativity, and let kids play with their own imaginations and gain a respect for the natural world, all while having fun and engaging in activities that benefit their health.

Giving kids a tradition of camping is one of the best things parents can do for their children. A perfect place to start is by participating in National Wildlife Federation’s Great American Backyard Campout on June 23. The Campout web site is loaded with ideas and tips to make your camping experience one that your family will want to repeat year after year.