Planning for Car Camping

The camping season brings forth luscious images of swinging in a hammock under a huge tree, with a roaring campfire, s’mores and the comfy, cozy tent, does it not? Careless, lazy days out in the wilderness: that’s camping. However, I am about to leave for my second camping trip in as many weekends, and I admit that I have spent more hours planning, shopping, packing, preparing, pre-cooking, washing, listing and arranging than the whole of the time we will be actually at the camp site. That’s enough to discourage many would-be outdoor lovers from going. It’s work, it’s stressful, and it’s impossible to remember everything. Even with lists. There are several reasons why. But the most labor-intensive reason for me, is my child with very restrictive dietary issues and irritable bowel syndrome. Another is taking the whole family. More people equals more prep and planning. More permutations of needs. Maybe I don’t need to say more, but I’m going to spell out our operation, in case you are one of the people who dreads packing for camping, but does want to go. Because if I can do it, you can do it.

First, let me say that I am a backpacking pro. I pack myself for a five day trip to the hinterlands with little effort. I can pack myself for a solo weekend on the trails in about three hours, including food prep and shopping. I have it down to a science and I know what I like to eat, drink, take, leave. But throw in a hubby who loves his giant cotton flannel sleeping bag (it weighs as much as my whole pack and takes up as much space) and a kid who requires special food prep and handling, it’s a whole different animal. It’s nowhere near backpacking with a car nearby. It’s the whole kitchen sink, and the trimmings, crammed in our SUV. We take pillows, the huge 12 by 12 by 7 tent, at least one other tent, balls, toys, all sorts of extras. And then I do the food planning.

When I backpack, I have single portions of mostly dry foods (though, I have been known to carry diced celery and bell peppers, mandarin oranges and fresh fruit to mountain-tops). My meal making at camp usually requires boiling water over a mini stove to re-hydrate noodles, or a sauce mix. One pan, one person, easy. No, I don’t do those freeze-dried thingies – they’re nasty. And since I know you’re wondering, here’s my favorite backpacking recipe :

Thai Curry Chicken and Noodles 

1 packet coconut powder
1 packet vacuum sealed chicken
1 tsp Thai green curry paste
Rice stick noodles (2-3 inch bundle, or a quarter package)
Optional – celery and bell peppers, diced (I keep these in a snack sized ziplock)
Optional – ground garlic to taste, or garlic powder
Boil about 3 cups of water in a high-sided pot, add noodles. Just as they start to soften, add coconut powder and curry. Stir until consistent and slightly thick. Add veggies, chicken and garlic. Stir until heated through. Eat right from the pot (or share).

Even if I made enough for two other people, it would fit in the pot I made it in.
But when my family comes along, that easy, tasty meal doesn’t convert to car camping food. Why? The kids won’t eat the spice. And I don’t have the bandwidth to dump some out midstream (as I would at home) and add the curry to only half. Plus one of my kids can’t eat chicken, so I’d divide into 3 pots instead of two, and you can see how it’s easier to look for other options.

Here’s a grid of the meal planning I did for last weekend.

So we do kielbasa, which cooks up over a camp stove perfectly, with baked beans and broccoli – a perfect camping meal. Except my youngest can’t eat meat or beans. So I plan and make a whole separate meal for him on my two burner camp stove. Special veggie patty and a hash brown patty, and fruit. That works. We eat in shifts. And someone else does the dishes, fetches water and sets the table, thankfully. They’re old enough now that everyone is helpful and assertive in making camping work.

And it’s a fun meal – I don’t have to yell if a piece ends up on the ground. They quickly learn that if you put a piece in the dirt, there’s less for you to eat. You know, simple life lessons that we don’t teach nearly enough anymore. Crumbs everywhere don’t require sweeping. I can let them have soda for dinner beverage (just this once), and if anyone is grumpy, they can go wander the camp trails or take a swim. Clean-up is easier, or maybe just different. And being outdoors while doing it all is a very worthwhile reward. We talk about the crows over head, waiting to see if we’ve left scraps big enough for them. We watch the sun move across the sky, and notice new animal sounds around us.

The next obstacle, after meals, is the restroom issue. My youngest also wrestles irritable bowel (ulcerative colitis) and as a result, once he eats anything, we have very little warning before a bathroom is necessary (sometimes 30 seconds, often we’re lucky enough to get 5 minutes). This makes several camping activities difficult – getting there, namely. Don’t eat in the car. Or do it as you pull into the gas station, and just eat while stopped. Don’t hike, snack, hike some more, without a biff. Always carry toilet paper and extra undies. It’s not just camping, it’s our whole modus now, but when you’re out, away from everything, it’s more apparent, more stressful, and requires more planning. He has an awesome attitude about it, and takes it all in stride, often much more than the rest of us, thankfully.

I was thinking this morning, as I was completing the plan for this coming camp, one where there will be a handful of mommies, a mess of kids and no adult male people (we call it Mom Camp), how unfortunate it is that we all prepare individual family meals a activities when we go do this group camp. It’s a perfect opportunity to band together, save some work, pool shopping cooking and cleanup. And some of that might happen, but I’m not the only mommy of a food-specific kid. I imagine, before I open my peanut butter, that I’ll ask the camp if anyone is anaphylactic, because that is a common courtesy now. Not only that, I could not effectively prepare a meal for a peanut-dairy-wheat allergy kid. It would stress me out. I know how to do PKU and ulcerative colitis. Another wrench in the works would take me out of commission. Too much stress, and I know this is true of other moms, as well. They’d stress entirely too much over my own kid’s needs in meal planning or taking a hike. Because everyone gets used to their own necessity, their own mode of operation. It works in your own nucleus. So we take a dozen nucleii outinto the group campsite.

Last weekend we made it up to Mt Constitution, canoed in a lake, and made all sorts of other wonderful memories, the four of us, out on an island in the far corner of the country. We were all four happy, relaxed and refueling in the outdoors.

It takes planning, it’s stressful, and it never works out the way you want it to. But we do it anyway. Because the rewards of having a weekend outdoors are far greater than the toil that goes into getting there. And sometimes you have to get that far away before you remember what’s really important.