We never planned to give up on camping, it just happened. During our kid-free years, we never imagined that someday we would quit. We bought a tent big enough for us, our dog, and eventually a pack-and-play. We watched other families do it and decided that it was only natural that we would do it too. We loved being outdoors, having campfires, and hiking in the woods. We wanted to pass that love on to our future babies.

And then we stopped.

When our daughter was born, we took her on a single church camping trip when she was less than two months old. I was struggling to breastfeed her, our daughter was struggling to figure out how to eat, and our dog was struggling to accept a new family member. Throughout the weekend I precariously perched on the edge of our double-high air mattress between feeding, pumping, and getting her to sleep without disturbing our neighbors whose ears were not protected by the thin nylon walls of our tent.

I didn’t ever want to do it again.

I easily gave up on the dream that we had spent years preparing for. Then we moved to a different city, I started grad school and got pregnant with our son, and we were drowning in a sea of debt and financial struggles that were compounded by the loss of one full-time salary and a house that wouldn’t sell. The very idea of digging out our camping equipment to go out on an adventure could not have been furthest from my mind.

Then a couple weeks before our son was born, Jeff took our daughter camping on the same church campout, this time with the help of my sister and brother-in-law. While I spent a quiet weekend at home praying that I wouldn’t go into labor while he was three hours away, he was taking pictures of our daughter having the time of her life, digging in dirt, sitting by a campfire, and eating messy s’mores.

He started watering the dormant desire to go camping as a family. This time he wasn’t talking about getting the tents back out; he was talking about becoming the people we used to mock. He suggested that maybe, someday, we could consider buying a camper.

I was far too pragmatic. “But we don’t have the money for a camper.”

“Not yet, but someday.”

Less than two years later, he had me. We had just gone through Financial Peace, we were working hard to pay off our debt, and somehow he convinced me that we could afford to get a loan (the very thing we had recently learned not to do) so that we could buy a small hybrid camper.

We never looked back.

That first summer of camper ownership, we went on a couple’s weekend to Gettysburg and then spent multiple weekends over the remainder of summer getting out at every chance we had. We explored the local state parks, took the kids hiking and canoeing, climbed sand dunes, and taught them small responsibilities such as filling the water tank and husking corn.

We discovered that many of the Indiana state parks have celebrations over the weekend before Halloween and two years in a row we took our kids fall camping and trick-or-treating in the safe confines of Brown County State Park.

We started planning short vacations away from home, using our camper as a home base. When my baby sister got married at the camp where she met her husband, we took our camper and it became the central meeting spot for my other sisters and their families. We took our kids to Mammoth Cave National Park for a short spring break trip and initiated a yearly ritual of finding new NPS sites to visit, get passport stamps, and earn Junior Ranger badges. The summer before we moved to Texas we invited Jeff’s family to join us at Indiana Dunes State Park for time on the beach as a family, serving as food and campfire central for everyone else who was sleeping in a tent.

Eighteen months before we decided to purchase our first camper, Jeff and I went to the Great Smoky Mountains to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. We went to one of the many timeshare presentations available in tourist towns. The salesman did a great job with his pitch, but we weren’t sold. Our response?

“Someday we want to get a camper. That’s our real dream.”

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to visit a lot of different locations with our kids and it wasn’t that we were opposed to vacations. Quite the opposite. It was the kind of experiences we wanted our kids to have that ran contrary to the whole concept of timeshare ownership.

We wanted our city kids to grow up going out into nature. We wanted hikes and bike rides to be the norm, not the exception. We didn’t want them to be afraid of dirt and exploring on their own. We wanted them to see all that our country has to offer.

Along the way they have learned teamwork as we teach them how to set up camp, technical skills as we fix small things that go wrong with the camper, responsibilities as everyone pitches in to clean our small space, and independence as they leave the safety of our campsite to ride their bikes and play on playgrounds.

From state and national park rangers they have learned about Creation, gaining respect for the world we live in, the plants, the animals, and the precarious balance of our ecosystem. They know how to follow trail maps, look for animal tracks, and watch out for plants growing along our every path. Hiking, climbing, digging, and biking are as natural to them as going to museums, zoos, sporting events, and theatrical productions.

And thanks to an extensive nationwide network of state parks and private campgrounds, camping hasn’t limited our domestic vacation destinations. We’ve used our camper as home base at Disney’s Fort Wilderness in Orlando and camped up in the Texas mountains for our Christmas break. We’ve celebrated Thanksgiving in the secluded wilderness less than an hour from Dallas and in the populated sprawl an hour from New Orleans.

As 21st century parents, we are pretty flawed when it comes to technology use, but camping has helped us with the occasional escape from the cell phone service that keeps Jeff and me tied to our work and social media accounts. We have to pare down our choices in books, food, toys, and games, temporarily simplifying our lives down to needs and minimal wants. It takes less than a week for us to forget all of the things that we left behind, rarely missing the items that normally clutter our lives on a daily basis.

It’s far from utopian, but our kids mostly get along when we’re camping. It’s amazing what can happen to relationships when you take away all of the stuff. In fact, while we were on our recent vacation that took us all the way to Arches National Park, Jeff’s sister, who joined us in Moab, marveled at how well our kids were still getting along after over a week of vacation with just the four of us and our two dogs. After all, forcing four introverts into constant togetherness for nearly 24 hours a day seems like it would be a recipe for disaster, but for some reason, that togetherness more often than not works in our favor. Once we return to the space and freedom of home, they have so many options the fights start almost immediately.

Every family has to decide the kinds of vacations that work for them, but for us it is absolutely, without a doubt, camping centric. It has taught us more about ourselves, each other, and bonded us in ways that I never imagined when I skeptically said yes to that first tent camping trip in the Rocky Mountains the summer before we got married.

While we still occasionally shake our heads at ourselves and the fact that we have completely placed aside our tents (we are now on our third camper in six years), it is the one non-mortgage debt that we refuse to regret. Making camping an essential component of our family life has changed us as individuals, made us better parents, and brought our family closer together. I wouldn’t exchange that for the most exotic vacation in the world.

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