We had been in the car for two hours. We had answered requests for snacks with granola bars and goldfish crackers. We had endured the “Are we there yet?” questions.
So when we threw the car into park, let everybody out and began unloading our gear, we thought the kids would be gone like lightning, exploring the creek that was running about 100 yards from our campsite along Arizona State Route 89A. Instead, they stayed, jumping from one rock to another, wondering what to do.
This is why we camp. Because kids today, even ours, apparently, need to be told to go explore.
We’re raising outdoor kids -— five of them between us -— ranging in age from 5 to 12. We know what we’re up against. Today’s kids are entangled in technology. They send snaps, post stories, subscribe to YouTube channels and lose hours of daylight to game consoles. We can’t completely avoid it, but we hope to balance it.
After hearing “I saw this video…” one too many times, we doubled down, realizing it was our responsibility to connect our children to the real world around them. We wanted to plant an appreciation within them for the public and protected landscapes that surround them so they will become ambassadors for those places in the years ahead.
Breaking kids of well-established habits — particularly electronic ones that come with socially influenced, hard-to-sever roots — isn’t easy. But it’s doable. And, we believe, absolutely necessary.
We get them out — a lot. We take them camping and hiking. We laugh through mud runs and splash in lakes and rivers. We love every incredible, dirty, wet, primitive, adventurous minute of it.
If you really think about it, kids camp all the time without ever pitching a tent. Every child has built a fort in the family room or on their bunk beds. Some even build forts in the backyard. It’s almost a primal childhood activity. Camping answers that internal craving. It removes the buffers, be they screens or walls, that exist between kids and nature. It often presents a need for them to problem-solve (try putting up a tent or finding shelter during bad weather). It instills a sense of respect and appreciation for life’s conveniences, from the fridge to flushing toilets. It puts adventure on the front burner.
The best thing about camping is that it can be a made-to-order experience. Novice campers can throw a tent, a cooler and a few sleeping bags in the car and reserve a campsite online knowing they’ll more than likely have access to bathrooms and drinking water. (Find state park campsites at azstateparks.com/reserve and national park sites at recreation.gov.) They can stop at a restaurant along the way, grab sandwiches and be set for the night.
Families with a little more experience might risk securing a first-come, first-served walk-up campsite in a state or national park, or in a national forest. Many parks that allow reservations also reserve a select number of sites for walk-up campers, which is why it’s important to talk to the rangers at the sites to see what is available. (Check fs.usda.gov to find a specific national forest, and then visit the recreation.gov site for more information on availability and walk-up options.)
Seasoned campers also might get more adventurous about meals: cooking over a camping stove or using a Jetboil cooking system to whip up dehydrated meals eaten by the glow of headlamps. Folks who want to venture further out can bring everything they’ll need, including water, and set up on public land.
There is no fee to camp on public land, but there are also no services, which means an absence of toilets and a need for biodegradable wipes. This type of camping, known as dispersed camping, takes a little research. Generally, dispersed camping is allowed within a national forest in areas that aren’t private or designated as established campgrounds. Put simply, if it’s in a forest, if it’s open and if you can access it, you can be there. It’s ours to use, and ours to protect. The forest service website, fs.usda.gov, lists information on dispersed camping options.
When camping, parents don’t have to worry about traffic and kids don’t have access to Wi-Fi. Exploring is everyone’s singular mission. When kids explore, they learn. When they learn, they connect. And it is that connection with the real world, one outside a screen, that we hope will provide valuable perspective and a lasting emotional investment in the environment around them
We take every opportunity we get to teach our kids how and where to explore, and we talk about how they fit into it all. We focus on conservation, using life moments to teach life lessons about how their decisions and actions impact the planet.
For example, every camper needs to understand that they are responsible for their trash — and it wouldn’t be horrible if they also felt responsible for picking up trash other people leave along the way. No camper should forget that we live in a dry, sometimes vulnerable desert.
Brad Widhalm, a fire prevention technician with the Cave Creek Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest, says families should always check the weather forecast before going camping. Pack a map, let people know where you’re going, and do a little research to understand fire restrictions before heading out. (As of press time, there were no fire restrictions on Arizona state-owned or managed land, but conditions can quickly change. Visit the Department of Forestry and Fire Management website: dffm.az.gov/fire-restrictions.)
When you are able to safely include campfires in your experience, Widhalm recommends following Smokey Bear’s advice: “Make sure the area is free and clear of grass, brush and trees. Dig down a few inches if possible, so that the campfire is below surface level. And most importantly, mix dirt and water together [to throw on the fire] to make sure the fire is out completely before leaving the campsite.” (Find additional tips at smokeybear.com.)
After you put out that campfire, you may find that camping has ignited a different kind of fire in your kids. Don’t be surprised if they start asking for more opportunities to disconnect from technology and reconnect with the world. It didn’t take long for our kids to get on board. They daydream about destinations. Their daypacks and fishing poles are always at the ready.
We’re not extraordinary. We don’t know everything there is to know about enjoying the great outdoors. (I’m still figuring out the compass on my survival bracelet.) But we’re enthusiastic about trying new experiences and learning from them. And we’re hoping that our successes and failures along the way prove helpful or inspiring to others.
That’s why we’re writing about raising outdoor kids. We’re also chronicling our journey on Instagram (@RaisingOutdoorKids). In the months ahead, we’ll be teaching our children to chase waterfalls, explore national parks in and around Arizona, scout swimming holes, discover hikes and try family-friendly gear. We can’t wait to tell you all about it.
Road Trip Tips: Five things we’ve learned
1. Cover any gear you leave outside at night. Dew falls, even in the desert.
2. Secure the food you bring. Critters are smart and hungry, and they’ll go after anything. Hang it high or lock it in a cooler.
3. Close your tent with the zipper up top to keep critters out.
4. Bring a trash bag. No matter where you go, you’ll be responsible for packing out your trash.
5. Talk to the ranger at the park or the campsite, even if the sign says “Lot Full.” They are the ones who can get you a campsite, give you critical tips and keep you aware of issues that may come up.
Lisa Van Loo is a freelance journalist. Ron Abelar is an avid outdoorsman and photographer. They are parenting five children in Gilbert. Follow them on Instagram @RaisingOutdoorKids
Learn to camp as a family during Arizona State Parks Family Campout Program weekends
20 ways to exercise (play and have fun) as a family
Family game night fosters togetherness, memories and skills