Camping with Kids: It’s In Tents!

Sorry, but you know I had to!

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Telling you about our first family campout has been on my radar for a while now, but I’m still trying to figure out how June has come and gone so fast…let alone how I’ve only managed to write less than a dozen blog posts this year. Regardless, that time is now, my friends.

First, the backstory: our original plan was to take the girls camping for their birthday back in May and work their camping-themed party around the trip. We booked a site at the state park near our house and sent out the invites, yet it became clear as the weekend approached that A) the weather pattern was not in our favor and B) Trying to plan a camping trip AND a birthday party was a tall task, even for our resident supermom Missy.

So we postponed the trip but had the party anyway, and all was well.

However, once the party was over, going camping with the kiddos still remained a priority. So after some longs discussions and hours of researching we blocked off our next available weekend, picked a destination, and made it happen.

Guess what? Despite the overuse of the word, it was EPIC. Our first campout has easily become one of my favorite memories so far as a family. Not only did we survive a night in the woods with four young children, but I’d honestly do it again in a heartbeat.

That said it was still a new and educational experience for us all, so here’s full report of what we learned while camping out with our four girls:

Packing is More Than Clothes: You would think that we were packing for a two-week excursion into the Alaskan backcountry rather than a weekend 45 minutes from home.

Between the tent, sleeping bags, coolers, toys, chairs, cooking, and cleaning supplies, our clothes for the trip took up only marginal space in our trunk. It sounds counterintuitive, but even with Missy’s immaculate packing skills…when traveling with kids, clothes are the easy part.

This is (Still) Iowa! Rather than going to the state park close to home as originally planned, we decided to travel a bit further abroad for our trip and check out one of our great state’s most popular summertime destinations: Ledges State Park.

With wooded trails and 100-foot cliffs, entering Ledges feels like entering an entirely different ecosystem. This foreign landscape is closer to the woodlands of western Maryland than the endless rows of corn and beans of the Iowa prairie.

Maybe that’s why I liked it so much.

The shallow creek that carved out the famed sandstone ledges not only offers a great place to hike and picnic, but it also gave the girls a place to splash and explore without fear of being swept away by fast currents or being swallowed up in deep pools.

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The main road through the park traverses the creek in several spots, making for a particularly odd scene of kids encouraging drivers to go through it at high(er) speeds in order to be splashed by their tire wake.

This seemed a bit dangerous to me at first, but the drivers knew what they were doing and the parents proactively kept their children at safe distances, so no harm came of it.

Plus I could listen to those giggles for days.

Kids Will Sleep Anywhere in a Tent

Seriously, our girls love tents. We could put up a tent in our backyard (we have) and they would be entertained for hours on end.

When we set up our camp and told them that’s where they would actually be sleeping for the night? They lost their collective minds with joy. The imaginary play sounds emanating from the nylon walls throughout the afternoon warmed my heart, and even though it was well past bedtime by the time we actually settled them into their sleeping bags for the night…

…I didn’t mind at all when I looked back from my chair at the campfire and saw the dim glow of their flashlights and heard their hushed laughter through the night air.

And Campfires are the Best: Our girls love a good camp fire, almost as much as they love sleeping in a tent!

In all honesty, I think the campfire would have been their favorite part if it wasn’t something we do on a semi-regular basis at home during the summer months. Even so, they were all totally captivated by collecting sticks…

…cooking all our meals…

…as well as our late night snacks, natch…

…the old fashioned way.

Bonus! You could light sparklers with it too (but we ended up using a candle for that instead because safety first.)

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Kids also totally captivated by sparklers 😉

You Can’t Choose Your Neighbors: As fun as 90% of our trip ended up being, not everything was sunshine and rainbows…especially when it came to our sleeping situation.

The Iowa state park camp sites tend to book up fairly quickly in the beginning of spring, so we were stuck with taking our chances and snagging a “walk up” campsite…which actually ended up working out because we arrived early and snagged a good spot. However, throughout the course of the afternoon, the remaining spots filled up with “regulars” who with little regard for other families wishing to enjoy their time in the woods…especially at 2:00 AM. Between the yippee dog, the belligerent yelling, and the rock music blaring, Missy and I didn’t get a wink of sleep.

Thankfully…somehow…the girls managed to sleep through it all and were still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning.

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Missy was really thinking ahead when stocked up on all that instant coffee, of which we consumed quickly as we cooked breakfast and cleaned up camp.

Barbecue Tastes Better After a Night in the Woods: Our second day arrived overcast and cool (and early, obviously), so after cooking a skillet breakfast and making our own fun…

…we broke camp and headed back into the gorge. We packed a picnic lunch and spent the afternoon exploring other parts of the park we didn’t see our first day, including a nature trail that gave us breathtaking views overlooking the Des Moines River.

By the time we arrived back at our car from the hike, the afternoon was wearing on and the girls we clearly bushed.

So we decided that was probably enough fun for one trip and packed up the van and headed back to Des Moines…

…but not before stopping in nearby Ames for some legendary Barbecue and homemade ice cream, of course!

Bottom Line: Plan Ahead: In the end, we were only away from home for just under 36 hours. We had intended to stay a second night, but after closely monitoring the weather all week before heading out, we realized that severe storms were once again going to be a threat. We made the executive decision to limit our trip to two full days of playing and exploring, but just one night out in the woods.

It turns out that we made the right call. Our campsite ended up in the epicenter of said severe storms (near Boone, IA)…

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…and I can’t image how a 1:30AM wakeup call would have gone down with our already tired crew.

Regardless of our weather shortened trip, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that didn’t have a blast, and I can’t wait to pack up our gear and do it all over again!

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About Tom Hardinge

Loving husband to my wife Missy, loving father to my four daughters Sienna, Rowan, Jovie, and Lola. I'm a chronic over-packer who loves good coffee, good music, running, waffle tee's, fleece pants, and Jesus Christ!

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