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Americans Need to Go Camping More
My family recently returned from our annual week-long camping trip to a local State Park. The trip, besides being an annual affair, also serves as a sort of family reunion as we are joined by uncles, cousins, and siblings. Now, taking 4 young children (and a pregnant wife) camping is no easy task, even the tame sort of “rustic cabin in the woods” camping we do. As my wife has told me more than once, growing up, her idea of “roughing it” was a motel without air conditioning. How she’s changed.
And, of course, camping with children brings its own challenges. The younger ones screaming for attention while you’re desperately trying to pack up and clear out before 11am; keeping track of them and hoping they don’t wander off into the woods while you’re not looking; the 2 year old jumping off the same concrete step over and over no matter how many times he falls down, cries, and gets picked up (see dictionary: “perseverance”). The six year old boy is simply a perpetual motion machine, who just wants to chop wood with an ax (unaided), throw darts (my uncles’ contribution), and hurl stones without looking who’s around. The week was often chaotic, noisy, busy, tiresome, and exhausting. It was also a lot of fun.
Increasingly, it seems like a sort of fun that Americans are denying themselves. My father once suggested that he’d noticed this for years. When he was young, campgrounds would be filled all season round. State parks would fill up on the weekends with families looking to get someplace cooler outdoors and have some outdoor, summer fun. More and more over the years this seems to be less the case. This is, admittedly, only an impression and not a scientific study or census of park visits per year, but parking lots that my father remembered as full now have a great many empty spaces and I suspect he was right in his speculation.
In our recent trip, the tent sites were fully occupied on the weekend, but utterly empty in the middle of the week. I can’t help but find the decrease in camping a shame. And I think it worth reflecting on a few possible reasons for that.
First, camping is a specifically family-friendly activity. This is not to say that it is an easy activity for families (I was only partially in jest earlier), but still, camping has long been an activity well suited toward people with families of different ages. A major reason is cost. The cost of a tent site in many state parks is minimal, especially compared to almost any other form of accommodations. A family of six or more can pull into a tent site at $20 per night, but could easily spend many times that on multiple hotel rooms for the same night. There is no need to buy expensive plane or train tickets for 5, 6, or more people; everyone piles into the car and drives to a state park or other campsite: a closer one if gas prices are high, a further one if they are lower.
In a time of larger families, camping was almost the only vacation many average American families could afford. Today, things have changed. Families grow smaller and smaller; the birthrate grows lower, the divorce rate higher. Many parents no longer have to worry about affording a vacation for 5 children; they only need worry about themselves and one child, making more expensive vacations more of an option.
The decreasing size of the American family is inversely connected to another reason for the decline of camping: an increasing love of luxury. I still remember when my brothers and sisters and I were young and a neighbor was surprised at my parents having had 5 children (she and her husband had 2). She sought to excuse herself by explaining that she and her husband only wanted two children because they wanted “to eat steak rather than hot dogs.”
There is a great deal in that expression. But, in brief, it expressed the clear idea of a love of and desire for luxuries and the sense that, in order to have those luxuries, it was necessary to have fewer children. Now on one hand, the expense of having multiple children is often exaggerated (clothes are handed down, thrift shops are helpful, children share bedrooms, etc.).
But there is some truth in this. Camping is family-friendly, but not always parent-friendly; it is tiring, often stressful, and one gets home and unpacks to the feeling that, now that we’ve had a vacation, we need a vacation from the vacation. If one wants “steak,” that is, comfort, convenience, and luxury, children will be an obstacle.
And we live in a world that increasingly wants that “steak.” We want to be comfortable. We want to pretend we are wealthy and can enjoy luxury. We want to stay in nice hotels, go to Disney regularly, go on cruises, which are really just floating luxury resorts. And so we don’t want to have many children, who might get in the way.
And that is what is most disappointing about society’s apparent move away from camping toward more luxurious vacations. It seems to reflect a society where the family is in decline, where children are less valued and seen as obstacles to one’s enjoyment of life. They get in the way of the “steak” of life.
And this is a shame. The chaotic, messy, noisy family vacation is not only a great deal of fun, and not only budget-friendly, it is good for the family. A vacation does like this (and I remember many like it growing up) does good that the modern luxury vacation does not, even if it isn’t always obvious at the time. The shared struggle of parents wrangling alternately cranky, alternately over-excited children, the play of children in a new activity/situation, the challenges of planning, packing, relaxing, all develop the family in a shared effort. Humans bond over shared struggle and shared fun. And it makes better memories. The modern luxury vacation simply doesn’t provide this. The “steak” of life isn’t always to be desired. Sometimes a can of beans heated over a campfire can be better.
Incidentally, my mother’s answer to her steak-eating neighbor was simply to tell her that “we like hot dogs.” Of course, they make great camping food.