Thorin Rehkopf is a former computer and network analyst who traded in his day job to focus on his adorable daughters as a stay-at-home dad.After spending more time with his kids and seeing how limiting a life in the suburbs really was, he determined he would give his kids the world through experience. ...Find out more!
Ask the average person about camping and I'm sure they will regale you with tales of overloaded backpacks, frostbite, sunburns, mosquitoes, dangerous wild-animal encounters, and slogging through god forsaken wilderness without end as they try to bond with some long lost inner child thing. As the parent of a two year old, just imagining this type of “vacation” has me reaching for the phone to contact a mental health professional for a fresh Xanax script and some back-away-from-the-ledge time. Trekking through the hinterlands, screaming child in-tow, just doesn’t meet my expectations for a relaxing family vacation. So how does an aspiring parent of the year introduce his electronics loving, air conditioner acclimated, comfort seeking offspring to the enduring majesty and wonder of the great outdoors? Two words: car camping.
Until we set off on our first vehicle enabled adventure I had never seriously thought about how to travel to anywhere that didn't have "four stars" somewhere near the name. Car, or more accurately, vehicle camping allows this savvy dad a variety of stealth out-of-doors options based not just on the desired level of convenience but on how much, or how little, “nature” my wee ones can handle. The camping experience can include lots of modern amenities like Internet access or hot showers; but, if I so desire, we can find the appropriate level of wilderness to act out my most dirt encrusted, Bear Grylls with a Volvo, camping fantasies. Like most things, car camping comes in a variety of flavors: private campgrounds, publicly funded lands, and the most economical -- and daring -- option, free camping.
If you’re looking for a convenient way to get outdoors and start camping look no further than a local private campground. These facilities are often chains, like KOA, but there are legions of individually owned and operated facilities that offer much of the same experience under a non-affiliated banner. Private facilities usually include lots of conveniences similar to what you'd find in a modern hotel and some of the larger ones will even have great amusement type rides and rentals on things like horseback riding, bikes, and free shuttle service to and from popular local attractions. All this convenience comes at a price which is usually substantially more than one would pay at another type of facility. This isn't to say that they are expensive -- as they are usually at least 50% off the local hotel rates -- but the base price, and the possibility of ancillary incurred costs, usually make these type of facilities more expensive than some of the other options.
Public campgrounds are, by way of comparison, less expensive than private campgrounds but they can still provide a wonderful outdoor experience. Site prices cost between 25-40% of local hotel rates which makes these sort of facilities an easy way to try camping without spending too much. The drawback, of course, for anyone seeking modern conveniences, especially Internet access, will have a more difficult time finding an appropriate campground and most of these facilities can be a tad more “rustic” without access to showers, toilets or any on site running water. The upside to all this nature is that public-access lands are usually located close to wildlife and conservation areas so they offer a more authentic camping experience with lots of opportunities to interact with the local flora and fauna.
The most economical and, some would say, labor intensive form of camping is often referred to as “free camping.” Without putting too fine a point on it, fortune, and the free camping scene, favor the bold. If car camping is about relaxing and getting away, then free camping is about testing your mettle against the camping divinities. A combination of Internet savvy, guts, and possibly a history of mental illness is what it takes to succeed at free camping. Those willing to put in the effort will be rewarded with one of the most inexpensive nature experiences in the continental US. Some of the “sites” are little more than parking lots, while others are out of the way state or local facilities that don’t charge you to plop down a tent. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for, so don’t expect any amenities and be prepared to bring what you’ll need to survive.
Vehicle camping in all its permutations has the advantage of being a relatively inexpensive way to break out of the day-to-day grind of channel surfing while you wait for the microwave dinner to go from totally frozen to periodically cold with the possibility of scalding inedibility. By combining the convenience of your car with the ability to get out of the house and into the woods you’ll find new ways to entertain yourself as the kids discover the natural world that we so often overlook.