Family Camping Makes Great Memories (And Meals!)

Now 16, and still a camping fan, the author’s daughter relaxes during a recent family camping trip 

Our daughter took her first steps at a campsite deep in the Appalachian Mountains shortly after her first birthday. She was standing on the rug outside the door of our family tent when she took two steps and quickly wobbled to a stop.

Perhaps that’s why she loves to hike and camp even today, some 16 years later.

My wife and I both grew up in the country. I camped as a Boy Scout, and eventually honed my skills as a hunter and angler. She spent a stint in the Army. From the start we used family camping as an inexpensive way share quality time outdoors with our children. Nearly two decades later we’re still getting away for the same reasons.

Everything about camping appeals to me. I like meals prepared and taken outdoors. I love water and we often choose to camp near rivers or lakes. I can sit for hours and stare into a campfire. I like sleeping in cool weather, and not having a cellphone buzzing or beeping provides a much-needed break. I like the smell of the lantern burning, the look of my old enameled coffee pot steaming over the fire, and the night sounds as they envelope the day’s activities and flush the stress away.

In the Midwest where we live we often try to work in the first camping outing of the year as early as late March or early April. This year we tried for six weeks to find an available Friday and Saturday to visit a nearby state park. On our first two attempts we purchased the groceries and gathered the supply boxes near the workshop door. But by the time Friday rolled around rain showers would push through the area and keep us indoors.

But this past Saturday we woke up to a cool 50 degree morning and promise of a high only in the mid-60s with plenty of sunshine and a light breeze. By mid-morning I had convinced my wife and daughter that this was our chance. We attend church on Sundays, so we’d have to rise early and break camp after breakfast in time to make it home, clean up and get to service on time. We all agreed it was worth the effort.

Our camping trips usually revolve around time spent in the river or lake, maybe a little hiking, and a lot of eating and relaxing. Early season camping is usually not conducive to jumping in the creek just yet, so our spring and fall trips are more about the eating and relaxing. That means taking along the Dutch ovens, iron skillets, various roasting sticks and coffee pot.

This time we made it to the campground at about 5 p.m. As my wife and daughter popped up the camp chairs and carried the food boxes and water jug to the picnic table, I unloaded a supply of firewood and my camp axe. Within a few minutes I had a campfire going and we gathered around it to relax and plan out the evening. Before we left home we called some friends, who agreed to bring their children out to the campsite for the evening for supper and fun around the fire. For us that means breaking out the guitars for a sing-along and jam session.

Supper was a slight variation from the usual camp fare. At home we diced meat and vegetables and strung up several kabobs on skewers. We also packed some bratwursts, and hot dogs for the kids. What kid doesn’t like roasting a hot dog over a campfire? Of course they followed the main course with roasting marshmallows over the same flames. I put the meat and vegetables on the grill, and some beans in a sauce pan. By the time our company arrived the meal was ready to be enjoyed.

Before we ate I filled my blue enamelware coffee boiler with water and set it over the flame on the grill grate to heat for coffee and hot chocolate later. I fired up some charcoal briquettes in my charcoal chimney, and by the time I polished off my second kabob and a bratwurst the coals were hot and covered in white ash. I placed 15 coals in the far end of the fire ring and set a 12-inch Dutch oven in place. Using 15 coals on bottom and 15 on top of a 12-inch oven will heat the inside to about 380 to 400 degrees.

Inside the oven I placed a cast iron trivet, and then set a pie pan full of bake-and-eat pre-packaged cinnamon rolls on the trivet. I put the lid on the oven and placed 15 coals evenly spaced on the lid. After 10 minutes I rotated the oven and lid 45 degrees in opposite directions to promote even heating, and five minutes later the first batch of rolls were golden brown. As my wife squeezed out the icing onto the hot rolls I put a second pan full back in the Dutch oven. We had eight mouths to feed and everyone was already talking about seconds.

As nighttime enveloped the trees around the campsite we played and sang for more than an hour. The youngest kids played flashlight tag until it was time for them to go home. My daughter, my wife and I climbed into our bunks for the night and faded with the sounds of peep frogs and insects offering up a midnight serenade.

Getting the coffee on for Sunday morning camp breakfast.

Next morning, with a lot to accomplish before church, we were up and gathered around the picnic table by 6:30 a.m. I fired up the camp stove and set a 10-inch Dutch oven with no legs, sometimes called a “stew pot”, on the first burner.

I fried up several thick slices of sugar-cured bacon until they reached sizzling perfection. I removed the bacon and set it on a towel-lined plate and filled the bottom of the oven with grated potatoes. With the lid on the oven and the potatoes frying and steaming in the bacon grease, I set up my well-used folding campfire toaster on the other stove burner, where my daughter placed four slices of bread on the toaster. I returned my attention back to the stew pot.

After turning the potatoes a couple times, I deemed them nearly done and cracked in four eggs. As the eggs were firming up with the potatoes, I crumbled the bacon and dropped it back in the pot. A couple more turns with a spatula and the main course was ready. On the other burner the toast had turned a light brown and been flipped over to finish the second side.

With three cups of cold milk poured and plates full of one-dish breakfast scramble and buttered and jellied toast we were ready to say Grace and enjoy the morning’s fare. After a leisurely meal and some good conversation, our daughter headed out of camp to prepare for her duties at church. My wife and I broke camp and packed away the gear and tent. The sermon was a good one that morning, but we were ready for a nap by the time lunch was over.

All told, we paid $13 for our overnight site at the state campground, and less than $30 for groceries for two great meals shared with friends and family. Most of our camping gear we’ve had for the two decades we’ve been married, and some of the equipment like the hatchet and one Dutch oven I’ve owned since my days as a Boy Scout some 34 years ago. Even if you’re new to camping and have to buy the basic gear, the cost is usually relatively inexpensive and the items will last a lifetime with proper care and handling.

Nowadays our son lives near a university some distance away to pursue his career goal. We have one more camping season with our daughter after this one before she, too, will need to move away to pursue higher learning. When we look back at family photos, we discover many of them were taken at campsites. When it’s all said and done the most valuable thing we can have are our memories of the times we spent together.

Our camping days will not end when our kids have moved on to have families of their own. My wife has already told them they’ll need to live someplace with good campgrounds nearby … because we plan to visit the grandkids often, and take them camping!

About doug smith

Doug Smith is a small town newspaper managing editor. He has also been a freelance writer for rural living, country life, tourism, and hunting and fishing publications for the past 12 years. He lives in an 1880s Victorian-style home in the Missouri Ozarks. He drives an old pickup truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, they have two beautiful and successful children, and he can be found any given day around town wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat.