When our children were young and money was tight, camping was our only affordable vacation option. While other families we knew jetted off to exotic destinations, went on cruises, or escaped to some tropical sandy beach, we loaded up our trusty Volvo wagon, stuffed to the brim with a myriad of camping supplies—tents, sleeping bags, coolers, backpacks, etc. And despite years of trips and our best attempts at organization, inevitably, we would forget to pack something. Not only that, we usually never noticed that missing ‘something’ until we went to pull it out, and by that time, it was too late to purchase another. Who forgot to pack the air mattresses? Where’s your pillow? No, that’s not bug repellant; that’s deodorant!

Our kids never noticed or cared, of course. To them, our camping trips were an opportunity for carefree adventures during which they could run with abandon, stay up long past their bedtime, and get dirty without being scolded for it.

Looking back, I’m afraid I was never much of an enthusiastic camper—give me a condo any day—but I did my best to make our camping weekends a memorable time for our sons, and I bet if you were to ask them today what some of their favourite childhood memories were, they would list camping as one of them.

In planning our trips, we always attempted to camp near water, whether it was a lake or the ocean. What is it with water and kids? Put them together and it’s a magical combination. I can still remember the laughter and shrieks as our sons caroused in the lake, their splashing and dunking hijinks a source of endless amusement.

Let’s face it though, camping isn’t exactly a relaxing vacation for parents. There’s the packing for one thing. I used to write out long lists of supplies and equipment, all of which had to be located, cleaned and re-packed. Sometimes, I’d dig up stuff that had been packed away the year before only to discover it had been tossed into storage dirty, wet—and thus, now mouldy—or worse, broken.

Then there were all the groceries that had to be bought and all the food that had to be prepared, pre-cooked, and packaged. I don’t know about other families, but the fresh air and exercise always seemed to stimulate my young sons’ appetites. They were forever rooting through our food bins on the hunt for something to munch on at all hours of the day. If unsupervised, they would have mowed through our food stores in no time.

And finally there was the setting up of the tent. Let’s just say there were a few choice words expressed in attempting that task. Our tent was so large, our friends jokingly dubbed it “the condo,” and in truth, it was a beast to set up. It always riled me that those friends were able to enjoy a coffee by the camp stove long before we finished driving in that last stake.

Despite the work involved, I loved the fact that our camping trips allowed our sons the freedom to play without restraint. They always managed to find things to do and other children to befriend. Even chores weren’t tedious; they eagerly collected twigs and branches for the fire or helped to fill the water container. (How was it that chores at home were always met with such resistance?) With more space to run around in, the boys got along better—well, for the first day anyway—slept like logs, and actually sat down to enjoy a meal rather than wolf down what they were served and plead to be excused.

Although we camped for years and managed to get pretty adept at it, it wasn’t always smooth sailing—there were the times when we were rained out. There’s nothing worse than having to make that decision to abort a trip and witness the stark disappointment on your children’s faces as you call it day. Not only that, but you then had to pack up soggy camping equipment and stuff it back into the car. It made for an uncomfortable ride home with all of us silently brooding while the windows kept steaming up, and the car smelled like wet dog for days afterwards. Then there were the times when one or more of us were sick. One such incident has gone down in our family history. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, my older son gorged himself silly on a whole bag of marshmallows just before bedtime only to wake in the middle of the night and throw up all over himself and the sleeping bag he shared with his little brother. Thank goodness we were in a provincial campground where there were full washroom facilities, but trying to rinse off both a messy sleeping bag and a howling child at 2 a.m. in a shower stall was not exactly my idea of fun. Frankly, I was amazed none of the other campers came to investigate what I am sure sounded like a torture session.

I may have grumbled over the years that camping was a lot of work, but in hindsight, I look back with nostalgia and I treasure such simple family times. Nothing can compare to cuddling your child, their eyelids heavy with sleep, while sitting beside a campfire watching the sparks drift lazily up into a cloudless sky strewn with twinkling stars.

Camping fun? You bet.

Susan Gnucci is a local author and a proud “nonna” to an adorable two-year-old grandson. She enjoys sharing her experiences as a first-time grandparent.