Lots of Camping

kids at the campfireWhen I was a scoutmaster our troop resolved to camp out twelve times a year, but given the usual logistical and meteorological complications we were content with six. As a family I think we can do better. My first resolution for 2011 is to take the family camping twice a month, rain or shine, in sickness and health. Twenty-four campouts in 2011!

fern hutSome stipulations: Camping consists of sleeping overnight in any structure designed to bring you closer to the outdoors, regardless of accommodations or distance from home. With this definition, an RV would be valid, but not at an RV park in Las Vegas, where a stretch Hummer taxis you to the strip. A cabin, houseboat, and yurt are all legit, as is a natural shelter like this fern hut, a quinzee, or no structure at all.

Some specifications: I think we can agree that another defining feature of camping is a reduction in the less essential comforts of our city or suburban home – some amount of deprivation. Normally I’d say RVing, with plumbing, AC, and a flat screen, doesn’t count as camping. But everyone draws the line differently.

My line is often close to depravity, with many comforts being nonessential (e.g., shoes? wimpy). However, I grew up camping in trailers and RVs, and loved it. Whether we have cakes on the griddle or cold gruel depends on the purpose of the trip. And, of course, related to comfort is cost. Currently, we’re stuck with a tent and whatever we can fashion with our own hands. Depravity works out nicely when you’re aiming for minimal spending with maximal adventure.

Backcountry Snow Campout

hiking in the snow
Yours truly, posing for a pretended candid shot by the bonfire.

Last week we kicked off the new year with an overnighter in the “wilderness” of central Minnesota – Sand Dunes State Forest. In our three years here I’ve always settled for the state parks, despite the multiple expenses: $16.00 campsite + $8.50 reservation fee + $5 parking. The last straw is paying $10 for two bundles of approved firewood. Contrast the state park with the state forest: $40.00 vs $0.00. No fees, permits, or amenities.

My first attempt at dispersed camping with the kids was a hard-earned success. The main obstacle was finding an entrance and a place to pitch our tent. The DNR offers little help. In fact, they discourage camping outside designated sites. We found a parking lot on the state forest map, but it turned out to be a dirt road which subtly reduced to a trail the further you went. So we opted to park near the highway and hike in.

hiking in the snow
Starting the walk in with kids and sled.

We hiked for about a mile, at about one mile per hour. You can do the math. The kids were tired and whiny. I was relieved to finally find a spot where the snow was cleared down to the dirt. Some trucks and tractors had apparently come through to do a little deforesting, which meant solid ground and ample, free firewood. Ample frozen, free firewood, that is. I had to use my stove like a blow torch to get it going.

Besides finding a spot, the main challenge was keeping a three-year-old and five-year-old warm and happy when there’s not much to do. My daughter was grouchy most the time. She wanted to go home. She wanted her mom. She wanted more fruit snacks. While my son and I cooked and ate dinner, she cried in the tent for an hour.

Still, weather permitting, I’m glad we went. It was a “good experience.” Camping, with its discomforts and unfamiliarities, doesn’t come naturally to kids. They’re used to heating and air conditioning, backup and double-backup menu options, and generally getting what they need/want when they need/want it. Outdoor trips, in their different forms, can approximate the comforts of home. But the unprocessed, organic, backcountry provides the most nutritious outdoor experience. Most importantly, the kids were proud of their accomplishment.

How to Build a Lego Clock

The holiday spirit is already wearing off. The tree and decorations are down, and there are no more parties, treats, or tasty meals to distract us from the inevitable – the onslaught of cold. We need a project. And since my ideas are mostly limited to things that should probably take place outdoors, such as wrestling, hitting things with sticks, and lighting things on fire, I’m looking to the internet for inspiration.

A quick image search for “lego creations” reveals that nearly everything on this earth has been reproduced at some point in Lego form, from Mount Rushmore to the Sydney Opera House, a time-traveling Delorean with functional flux capacitor to a full-scale vehicle with a 5-star safety rating. The problem is, we don’t have the time or brick supply that these masterpieces require.

Believe it or not, there is a scarcity of instructions online for building your own analog Lego clock! Turns out it’s a simple and inexpensive project, great for a Saturday morning indoors.


  1. Clock movement kit, found cheap online or at a local craft store. I got mine at Michael’s for $6.
  2. Good assortment of Lego plates and other flat bricks.


  1. lego clock baseThe moving part of the clock movement takes up precisely one dot – pretty slick, but this forced the dimensions of the base to be odd, 13 x 13, since I wanted it symmetrical. With only a mediocre assortment of plates and flat pieces, I was constrained to a smallish, gray clock base.
  2. lego clock backThere’s a small nut and washer which thread onto the front of the clock and which cinch it onto the rest of the movement. As a result, you don’t need any support on the backside, so long as the face is relatively small and light.
  3. lego clock completedAgain, working with odd dimensions made it hard to center things. The number plates here are 4 x 5 and 5 x 4. Next time I’ll make things even by giving the movement a 2 x 2 space on front, rather than 1 x 1.
  4. Finally, the hands – the white pieces are superglued onto the flimsy metal hands that came with the clock kit. I had to tweak the hour hand downward so they wouldn’t collide. The second hand wasn’t strong enough to support a Lego piece, so I settled for a single dot and just twisted off the rest of the hand.

The best part is the kids can destroy and rebuild, with some help, as often as they like – change the colors, give it a medieval theme, use Harry Potter pieces, whatever.

Let me know how yours turns out.

Campout in the Quinzee

Last week my son and I built a snow cave, more precisely a snow hut or quinzee, in a massive snowbank near our apartment building.

digging the snowcave    snowcave

Then, we spent the night in it!

snowcave    inside the snowcave

We had been waiting for a low temperature of at least ten degrees, and Tuesday was the mildest forecast we could find – it never went below fifteen, with most of the night in the twenties. A neighbor had started the entrance to the cave and we finished the excavating in about an hour, with dimensions just large enough to hold our air mattress.

snowcave mattress    snowcave mattress

Our supplies:

  1. A lot of snow – In our case, a parking lot, plowed by a backhoe. The snowbank was at least eight feet tall and maybe twenty wide.
  2. Shovels – We used a regular old digging shovel to break the snow free, and a small flat snow shovel to scoop it out.
  3. Air mattress – You’d think it would be colder than a regular sleeping pad, but the air makes for nice insulation.
  4. Sleeping bags – My son was in a Kelty Mistral zero degree adult bag, with synthetic fill. To keep him from squirming out (a problem on our last campout) I cinched the drawstrings around his neck and head. And to keep his toes warm I folded the bottom half up as an extra layer and tied it in place (empty sleeping bag space is cold space). I was in a Lafuma Warm n Light twenty degree down bag.

We both slept like babies, toasty warm from 10:30 PM to 5:30 AM. However, the mattress had deflated slowly through the night, and I woke up feeling more like Benjamin Button. It was a great time – definitely worth the trouble, especially for my son. Every night since he has asked if we can go “camping.”

Some notes:

  1. If it’s your first attempt with a kid, plan the campout close to home so you can abort in an emergency.
  2. Use a snowbank or drift if possible, otherwise budget at least three hours for completion.
  3. Building a quinzee from scratch you’ll want at least a six foot mound – one to two hours of shoveling. Aim for wall and ceiling thickness of at least a foot.
  4. Any ice crystal precipitation will do. All the shoveling, mixing, and tossing will get even the most powdery snow to harden, or sinter, once it’s piled.
  5. Start the entrance downwind, and keep it as small as possible.

Next time we’re trying an igloo.

Merry Christmas

Our first nuclear Christmas! That is, our first Christmas as a nuclear family. Our first winter break without a trip home to CA to see the extended fam. No hangin with Mr. Cooper, grandma and grandpa, the auties, uncles or cousins. No tennis, soccer or frisbee, no campouts at the beach, and no free babysitting.

This December we’re keeping it simple, we’re laying low, and we’re saving some Gs on airfare. We’re also mixing up the nativity scene reenactment.

barbie nativity
Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes

A merry multicultural non-discriminatory Christmas to all!