As soon as I started throwing jackets, hats and instant oatmeal into an open duffel, my daughters (and the dog) sensed something was going down. They stopped playing and looked up.
“Grab your long underwear, stuffed animals and water bottles,” I told them. “We’re going camping!”
This happened a few months ago, during one of those summer lulls between road trips and scheduled events. It was the middle of the week, so we didn’t have to worry about reservations. Our roof box was packed from the last trip — with a tent, sleeping bags, pillows, sleeping pads and camp chairs — already sitting on top of the minivan, waiting for an adventure.
The only thing standing between us and a last-minute overnight at Camp Dick Campground — one of my favorite go-to spots off the Peak to Peak Highway – was about an hour or so of pulling bins and packing a few clothes.
There was a small chorus of “yays” as my girls disappeared into their bedroom while I stomped up to the crawlspace to pull out two plastic crates labeled with sharpies on duct tape: “KITCHEN” and “CAMP.” Together, they were pre-packed with cooking and picnic gear, utensils, coffee kit and also an ax, lanterns, tarp and rope. The medical kit was in its own bin in the bathroom.
The next thing I knew, we were setting up our tent in a light drizzle on the slopes of the Continental Divide. The youngest was just starting to cry and nearly melting down when the tent popped up and everyone piled in with the sleeping bags.
Columbines and wildflowers bloomed all around us as the girls giggled inside and I pulled the rain fly taut; in no time, we had a cozy nest in the pines. Breathing the cool, damp, alpine air was like medicine. When the rain stopped, we emerged for dinner, which I cooked while the girls built fairy houses in the tree roots.
Even with pre-packed camping kits, it still took an effort to make this happen. But then, there were these moments that made it all worth it.
Tips from the experts
I asked a couple of outdoor professionals about their strategy for staying ready.
- Dr. Christine McCart, assistant professor of outdoor education, at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D., said, “I am always ready to go camping. My pickup has a topper and a mattress in the back. I always carry a sleeping bag, personals bag, set of outdoor clothing (wicking, warmth, weather layers), dry shoes, headlamp, emergency road kit, first aid kit, maps to favorite areas, a compass, a knapsack, fly-fishing gear.”
- Jennifer Fontaine, managing editor of Outdoor Families Magazine, agreed with the bin system: “Creating a camping bin system can drastically cut down on your packing time and means you’re less prone to forget the little things. I recommend the three-camping-bin approach — utility camping bin, kitchen camping bin and a kid camping bin, if you’re tackling the outdoors with children — all of which include essentials for lighting, cooking, cleaning, playing and more.
“By now, most of the items in our bins are permanent bin fixtures. When we get home, they get cleaned and put back into the bin, so they are ready to go for the next trip.”