Since first learning my wife was pregnant back in early 2013, I dreamed about the first time I would take my child camping. Over the past four years, our son, Benjamin, has watched me lay out and look over equipment; test fuel canisters and batteries; portion out food, water, and first aid supplies; and finally load up a backpack with gear before heading out to the mountains. Though I’ve only gone on an average of one major hiking or camping expedition each year since his birth, clearly they left an impression on him. He knows that the outdoors — mountains, woods, wilderness, that is, not just stepping out the front door — are something I value and cherish. He has wanted to share this with me, and I with him.
And we finally did just that. A week and a half after my son turned four, and two days before I turned 35, he and I went on our first father-son camping trip. It was every bit as much a pleasure as I had let myself dream.
In the past, most of my camping has been informed by mountaineering expeditions. That means my fellow trekkers and I traveled as light as possible, carrying every bit of gear, every bite of food, and all of our apparel on our backs. My average pack weight for a mountain climbing trip is around 45 pounds. That’s about the same weight as the Coleman X-Cursion grill Ben and I brought along for this weekend outing. Then there was the collapsible rocking chair, a double-sized air mattress topped by three sleeping bags (one thick, luxurious bag unfolded to approximate a pillow topper, and mummy bags for each of us atop that), and all the other amenities I brought along to make sure our campsite was a cozy home away from home.
I figured that if you’re bringing a four-year-old camping, you should make the experience as low-impact as possible. It turns out that I over-thought things by a factor of 10. Ben took to the woods and the camping lifestyle at once.
We arrived at our campsite at the Fahenstock State Park Campground in New York at around 1 pm and immediately began to set up camp. Benjamin “helped” me get the tent poles ready by popping them back out of joint a few times after I had them assembled, but of course I commended his efforts and expressed gratitude for the assistance. Then I set him up in a chair and plied him with trail mix while I set the tent up as quickly as I could. We had brought my Kelty Gunnison 3 three-person tent, one of those rare tents that can comfortably accommodate the number of people it says (most “three-person” tents are ideal for two adults, e.g.). The tent is easy to pitch and offers plentiful room for a four-year-old and adult male, along with way too much stuff the adult male brought along.
With the tent pitched, the grill set up, and the cooler latched shut to ward off nosy animals, Ben and I set off on a hike. This was no ordinary hike, though: this was a stick hunt. Once we had found the perfect long, slender staves, it would be time to roast marshmallows, another exciting first. After about a half-hour of woodland rambling, Ben and I had found sticks we both agreed were up to the demanding task of marshmallow toasting. Back at camp, I adeptly made a fire (oh, it was adept) and we waited for the flames to grow while I explained the finer points of marshmallow roasting. (“Try not to let it catch on fire. But also it’s okay if it catches on fire.”)
Ben was hesitant to take his first taste of roasted marshmallow, which makes sense, objectively. They look weird and the preparation process is totally unlike anything one would have heretofore seen. After one tremulous bite, though, the child was sold. We cooked 10 or 11 marshmallows then and there, eating them as soon as they cooled. The sweets didn’t damper our appetites, though. For dinner, I had brought some veggies (because health), macaroni and cheese (because of course), and shrimp (because Ben loves shrimp like the flowers love the rain). We grilled up our meal and ate off our laps, spilling surprisingly little food and filling our bellies with simple, tasty nourishment.
After dinner, I cleaned off the grill, wiped down our cookware and plates, and asked Ben what he wanted to do next. He opted for a sunset hike (I’m adding the sunset part, but hey, it was at sundown). We trekked about the autumnal twilit hills, leaves crunching beneath our feet, birdsong mingling with cricket chirps, and the drunk guys a few campsites over really starting to get after it. (Which was totally cool; there’s enough campground for all of us.) Our evening hike turned into a wood hunt, as we had already burned through most of our logs during our all-afternoon campfire. I found a few stout logs and Ben found a few fine twigs. Together, they helped us enjoy another 45 minutes or so of firelight, during which we talked about the kind of things men talk about by the fireside. Like preschool and mommy and our cats and books we like to read and such.
As the last sunlight faded and night took hold, I let the fire die and poured on a bit of water so Ben and I could retire to the tent. It was almost 8 pm, and high time for some sleep. But first we played three rounds of Uno by the softly glowing light of our lantern and read Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride, a gripping narrative about a pig who goes for a ride in a car. I tucked Ben into his sleeping bag (the one atop another sleeping bag atop a queen-sized air mattress, yes) and then lay beside him until he fell asleep, which took about four minutes.
I snuck back out of the tent and built back up a small fire, then spent the next hour or so reading a bit, having a quick call with an old friend, and alternately staring into the glowing coals, into the darkness of the forest, and up at the handful stars I could see through the canopy. It was a good way to spend a bit of time, in other words.
Later, after I had settled down on my side of the tent, I heard Ben’s sleep-heavy voice through the haze of the dimmed lantern light saying: “Daddy, will you come snuggle me?” Now that’s a request you grant, dammit, and woe to the father who realizes one day that he has heard said entreaty for the last time. I clambered across the tent, laid out my sleeping bag beside his, and we spent the night huddled down in what I really must say was comfort. Until sunrise, which is when Benjamin decided he was done sleeping, so I too was done sleeping. (I’ll get some good rest in my forties, I’m confident.)
The morning consisted of another campfire, grilled sausages and buttered toast, some instant coffee for me and ice cold water for Ben (thank you Coleman cooler), and another few marshmallows. Then I broke down camp, a process I could tell genuinely upset Ben, though he hid it well, despite him calling the process a “bummer” and asking if we could camp “for 88 days next time.” I’m not sure where he got the 88, exactly, but we both agreed on a compromise of two nights.
The campsite cleared and all of our gear packed back into the car, we decided to go for one more hike. Our morning trek took us past massive outcroppings of rock, through shaded glens, up and down a few towering hills (to the kid, folks, to the kid), and finally back to our car. The drive home to Port Washington, New York took only about an hour and 15 minutes, yet brought us from a place a world apart. I didn’t know how I would feel or how I would respond if Ben didn’t enjoy camping; I suppose it would have simply remained my personal hobby, and one I would enjoy with less frequency as time went by and the demands of life grew ever more numerous.
The fact that he loved the experience means the opposite. I’m sure that, in the coming years, I’ll head out to the woods ever more often, and with my son beside me. Soon, he might even be assembling the tent poles rather than deconstructing the damn things. And, who knows, maybe in a few years he’ll have me on belay as we ascend the Owens-Spalding Route on the Grand Teton. Probably stick with roasting marshmallows and wood hunt hikes for now, though.
Photos by Steven John.