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.

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.

Canoeing the Minnesota River

In my three years as a scoutmaster our small troop has gallivanted all across Minnesota, traversing sections of the Superior Hiking Trail and the St. Croix Scenic Byway, and making a ruckus in a dozen or so state parks. Of all our journeys, including our 20-mile hike, uphill both ways on our knees, none was as adventurous or life-threatening as our canoe trip down the Minnesota River.


Our scurvy crew consisted of four gung-ho boy scouts and three fearless leaders, distributed in three heavy canoes with an assortment of hiking packs and duffel bags full of clothes and food, a few fishing poles and tackle boxes, a 5-gallon water carrier, and a variety of last-minute items tossed into plastic grocery bags. Most importantly, we had sunflower seeds of all flavors, including dill pickle. Our waterproofing consisted of wrapping everything in black garbage bags. The scouts were certain that no amount of water could penetrate a Hefty bag with a triple granny knot.

We budgeted four full days of paddling to complete the 70 miles of waterway from the north end of Lac qui Parle to Vicksburg County Park 2. With the river flowing at about two miles per hour, even if pirates stole our paddles we could float the distance in about 8 hours per day were it not for the dam portages, which cost us a couple hours each. Portages are sections of a water trail that you cover by foot to reach a different waterway, or in our case another section of the same waterway. We had three portage points and, fortunately, there weren’t many pirates.


Our biggest challenge, besides staying afloat while defending ourselves from the ravenous insatiable mosquitoes, was finding shelter. When the Department of Natural Resources says that they maintain the free campsites interspersed along the river, what they mean is they’ve abandoned them all to overgrowth so that you couldn’t find one if you were standing in it. There’s a good reason they’re free – they don’t exist.

Our first night on the river, as the sun disappeared and the zombie apocalypse mosquitoes attacked, we parked our canoes on the only piece of private property we could find. Another leader set off to ask, or, if necessary, beg the owner to let us camp on his shoreline. Our only other options were to continue paddling, in the dark, until the next imaginary DNR campsite, or bushwhack through the overgrowth with our pocket knives. Either way, we wouldn’t be roasting mallows or telling ghost stories around a campfire.

But Randy, the owner, saved the day. In addition to not chasing us off with shotgun a-waving, he welcomed us and even offered us his stash of firewood. We thanked him profusely and later marveled at how his simple kindness had saved us from a sleepless night with much blood loss.

As expected, the challenges continued. On day two the current slowed to nothing and no matter where we turned we always had a head wind. Each of us was certain he was paddling more than his weight. We all wanted a break but were too proud to admit it. During our longest portage, carrying canoes, gear, and our tired selves through the town of Granite Falls, Betty from the VA insisted on buying us pizzas and soda. The scouts consumed the pizza instantly, and we rested in the shade for an hour and shot the breeze with some classic war vets. Also in town, we accepted three watermelons and 24 ears of sweet corn from an insistent fruit stand owner. A scoutmaster couldn’t ask for better examples of generosity.

Day 4, the Last

Despite the exhaustion the scouts were optimistic and things worked out well, at least until the last day of the trip – I had returned to the Twin Cities the night before, so the details from here out are all second-hand.

With one fewer person, one fewer bag, and only a day’s worth of food, the group had consolidated all the gear and people into two canoes – the third they towed, empty, with a rope. This worked out well until the current picked up and they came to a section full of debris. In the most treacherous spot downed trees obstructed much of the river, and though the towing canoe made it through safely, the towed one did not. It snagged on a tree and couldn’t be shaken – the only option was to cut it loose!

Unfortunately, as soon as their canoe was freed it lost balance and was flipped by the current. The two scouts and one leader capsized. The remaining canoers paddled upstream with all their might and rescued one scout and the leader, as they struggled to hold on to nearby trees. The other scout successfully body surfed through the rest of the chaos and was collected a quarter mile down river.

In Conclusion

No serious injuries, but what a disaster! I regret not being there to help. A gear bag, tackle box, two fishing poles, some clothes, and many sunflower seeds were claimed by the river that day, along with the empty canoe. The DNR campsites were also never found.

Yet, despite all the trouble and suffering the trip was a success – the scouts earned their sea legs and two merit badges, we met some of Minnesota’s finest, and we got really tan. Most importantly, we immersed ourselves in the wilderness, took a serious thrashing, and came out on top, humbled but empowered. That’s what outdoor adventures are all about.

Here’s a text file of the itinerary, created by one of the scouts.

Camping with Kids: A Simple Gear List

The two oldest on their first trip with dad

Below are 5 critical camping with kids items – forgetting them could potentially lead to frustration, tears, and even going home early. For a kids’ personal gear list, see the 7 essential items that kids can pack and manage on their own.

This fall I took the kids camping at Interstate State Park, Taylor’s Falls, MN, for a quick overnighter. It was totally spur of the moment, the moment being right when I got home from work, about 4:30 PM, and the spur being a cabin fever of 110°.

As an aspiring purist/minimalist camper my camping-with-kids gear list started out very short – clothes. Sticks and rocks can replace any toys or games (except a frisbee – I haven’t found mother nature’s equivalent). Action figures? In the great outdoors, we are the action figures! Electronics – mostly inappropriate. Along these lines, we were on the road by 4:45.

I learned the hard way that kids need more than just clothes to have fun. I’ll never forget their pullups again. Here are a few additions to my camping-with-kids gear list:

  1. Pullups/diapers – Not just for the recently potty trained. Sometimes I wish I had one, on those cold rainy nights.
  2. Baby wipes – Camping is all about getting dirty, but there’s a limit to the type and amount. While I unpacked the van my daughter unpacked the fire pit with her hands. She emerged in a cloud of soot, like a chimney sweep. Wipes, though environmentally unfriendly, would have been so much easier than mother nature’s wipe, wet grass. And the alcohol “sanitary wipes” could double as firestarters!
  3. Extra clothes and shoes – While I set up the tent the kids set up a splash competition, throwing rocks into the river (video below). It’s nice to have a set of dedicated camping clothes, i.e., hand-me-downs and thrift store treasures, ones you wouldn’t mind throwing away or using as firestarters when you run out of wipes. Polyesters are optimal outdoor fabrics – lightweight and fast drying. Cottons, e.g., jeans, are heavier and harder to dry.
  4. Extra warmth – Kids are warm-blooded creatures. Either fill the tent with blankets, or strap them into their sleeping bags with bungee chords. Pajamas are necessary, contrary to what’s been said about less clothing being warmer at night. I’ve found that temperatures below 50° require additional nighttime accommodations (e.g., sweatshirts, socks, liners, winter bags). See here for more on sleeping gear.
  5. Good food – The kids should decide, partly, what constitutes good food: hotdogs, marshmallows, candy, soda, etc. Make camping as enjoyable as possible and they’ll come back for more.