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When Sleeping Inside Just Isn’t Enough

When we say we’re going camping, my daughters, who are both under 4, light up with a joy like it’s Christmas morning. And I kind of don’t.

You see, I want my kids to spend time outside, and I want them to see so much of the outdoors, to experience it in such an intimate way from such a young age that they are as comfortable and capable in the wild as they are in the mall. And to do that, they’ve got to spend time outside, a lot of time outside.

But that’s not easy. Camping with kids is nothing like camping without them. Mosquitos are a pest to me, but to my daughters they are a crying jag that can completely derail lunch. S’mores seem like a good idea until I’ve spent the last 30 minutes chasing my kids in a circle around a fire, and when we finally get the marshmallows cooked just right, they spit them out and say the don’t like them. 

And sleeping with kids at the age mine are in a tent or a camper is like being trapped in a small space with a dozen hyenas. It’s not good. They don’t sleep until they pass out, sometimes while still standing up and jumping on my bed. Most of the time when we camp, we’re up until one day turns into the next because my daughters somehow seem to run on batteries that last longer than any flashlight I’ve ever owned. 

Watching toddlers all day is tiring at home. Watching them all day camping is like being partially blindfolded dancing around knives. Nothing is safe. Everything is something to jump off, put into our mouths, or pick at for no apparent reason. We love to find bird poop and poke it. We love to stick our hands into sap and then stick them in dirt until we become some kind of monster that’s impossible to get clean. And if there’s a bug, we’ll suss it out, just so we can cry about it being in our general vicinity. 

It’s a lot of fun. But really, it’s a lot of fun. 

My oldest daughter’s face the first time she woke up next to me in a tent at a campsite tucked against the New River in West Virginia is etched into my memory like rings inside the trunk of a tree, so deep I carry that moment in my bones. She was 10 months old, but she looked like she had somehow already found one of the secrets to life, like she knew there was a joy here that couldn’t be bought or stolen or traded for. 

The first time we took my youngest daughter camping, she was eight months old. We went to Assateague Island National Seashore on an unseasonably cold weekend. It rained almost constantly, and I had to layer her in so many clothes that she looked more blob than human. I don’t think I took her hat off the whole trip. But she got to see wild horses right on the beach. She got to watch them prance through the sand and turn into the wind, manes blowing like ribbons. When I held her in bed next to me, tucked along my side, I had nothing else to do but watch her face as she slept and listen to the waves as they beat themselves to sleep too, pulling the moon like a blanket with them.

Even at the end of last summer, when we made a final trip to Cape Henlopen State Park along the Atlantic seashore in Delaware, they suddenly had both become old enough to suck the life out of the days at the beach, to walk holding hands through the Delaware Bay at low tide, and point to hermit crabs and study little tiny fish. When my husband and I tucked them into the camper at night, sun kissed and still a bit dirty, they smiled the whole time they fought going to sleep, and when they woke, they stretched into the sun, reaching for another day in the wild.

There’s a magic to the air when we sleep outside. There’s an intimacy in the wind whispering us to sleep that draws us closer. There’s a quiet peace in the sun waking us in a heap all together to birds singing. 

Going to sleep outside is nothing like sleeping in bed at home. Camping isn’t at all like being in a house. It’s a lot more work to do it with a family. It’s planning and prepping and wrangling. And when we get home, it’s laundry and washing and cleaning and putting things away for much longer than our trip lasted. 

But for all the work, for all the challenges, and tears, and all the things that go sideways every trip that I can never predict, sleeping outside gives us something that sleeping inside just can’t. And my daughters might not know how to read or do math or cook an egg, but they already know going camping, no matter where, is the best thing we’ll do all year. 

Cover photo: Photo courtesy of the author

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