My youth was filled with camping experiences. Whether it was visiting the Grand Tetons and other state and national parks in the 80’s with my parents in their custom-built Ford van, or joining the church youth group’s pilgrimage to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness each summer, or my one-month backpacking trek up (and back down) Mount Kenya with the National Outdoor Leadership School, you could say I had the opportunity to experience multiple forms of camping, and soak in at least a handful of the world’s most beautiful natural places. Growing up this way, with camping as an intrinsic part of my upbringing, meant that I never questioned the reason for or meaning of camping. It was just a given.

But recently, I started to think about why people go camping. I mean, let’s face it, it’s expensive and time-consuming to gather all that gear, it takes quite a bit of advanced planning to book the site you want or procure backcountry permits, not to mention planning, shopping for, and packing meals, and again, all that gear! We laugh in my house at comedian Jim Gaffigan’s bit on camping: “Oh, that’s what I forgot, my house!” (More later on tips for minimizing gear – see For Parents).

Some answers to the question of why we camp are obvious: getting back to nature, breaking from daily life and technology, bonding with friends and family. But I kept feeling like there was something more to it. And then, – as the universe is want to do – my thoughts were verified and articulated as I tuned into one of my favorite podcasts, TED Radio Hour. The episode, which focused on the topic of “Becoming Wise,” featured tracker and storyteller, Boyd Varty, who grew up on a game preserve in South Africa surrounded by and immersed in nature. He said:

“I think that a lot of the anxiety disorders and depression that we see in the world are actually an undiagnosed homesickness for a sense of belonging. And that sense of belonging… [is] what it means to be human, what it means to be a part of the natural world… I believe that in the cathedral of the wild, we get to see the most beautiful parts of ourselves reflected back at us.”

He posits that we experience our own humanity through nature, specifically through watching wildlife and by recognizing that we cannot be human in a vacuum. Personally, I would extend that thought beyond just wildlife-watching to include all nature-watching or simply being in nature. Being outdoors connects us to our role in the ecosystem and reminds us of the beauty, the ferocity, the magnitude of nature. That’s why we go camping. And that’s why it’s so important to get out there. (Despite all the gear.)

Hear the entire segment with Varty, including his story of Elvis the Elephant, here:

You may also be interested in knowing why the National Park Service thinks we go camping. Or these 14 reasons from

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Campfire Craft

Favorite Camping Books

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For Educators:

Overnight Experiences for Students

No need to pack the tents – several Nature Net sites to offer hands-on, overnight experiences for you and your students in dormitory or cabin settings. Hike, paddle, rock climb, or take part in other engaging programs led by environmental educators during the day, and spend the night in the relative comfort of a bunk bed.

Though Bethel Horizons offers over a dozen school programs, it is probably best known for its High or Low Ropes Challenge Courses which are designed to build team cohesiveness and boost confidence. Bethel has several options for dorm-like sleeping with varying amenities, including either kitchen use to prepare your own food or an add-on fee for full meal preparation. Find out more HERE.

Upham Woods offers multiple water experiences on the Wisconsin River, including canoeing, kayaking, or paddling a 35-foot Voyageur Canoe. Alternatively, you can sign up for one of over 30 on-land programs to explore the woods and shoreline or Blackhawk Island. Upham has dorms and rustic cabins with a newly updated bath house, and offers full family-style meal service.

The Department of Natural Resources’ MacKenzie Center has many options for learning about the natural world, hunting, fishing, and Wisconsin history, including several self-guided courses. Students and chaperones stay overnight in the Lodge and have access to the commercial kitchen for meal preparation.

If you’re not in the south-central Wisconsin area or are looking for even more options for overnight excursions, you can find camp facilities listed by state on the American Camp Association website.

For Families:

Making Camping Easy

If you think about it, all you really need is food, water, shelter, and a cozy little campfire – maybe some stars overhead. Some camping enthusiasts encourage paring down your gear to eliminate “luxuries” and thus, do away with the extra hassle of packing and cleaning up. One website called Under the Open Sky even discusses how to engage in “ultralight backpacking,” for the camping enthusiast who wants to drastically limit their load. According to Trail Sherpa, the following items (slightly edited by me) fall under the essentials list:

  • Shelter – tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, dry clothing
  • Fire – lighter, matches, fuel
  • Food – water storage (and filtration if needed), prepped meals, stove, plates & utensils, cooler (if not backpacking)
  • Tools – knife, hatchet, flashlight, clothes line
  • Security – First Aid kit, cell phone

I also bring plastic bags for packing out trash, a dish cleaning kit, and bug repellent. (Does that count as “security?”) also has a nice list of essentials and makes the distinction between camping and backpacking which vastly impacts your packing: “Campers drive somewhere and camp out of that location. Backpackers hike in and then make camp with what they’ve brought.”

Meal planning can also feel overwhelming and of course, depends on the type of outing your taking, but with tips from REI and my trusty standby, the NOLS Cookery (this is what my version looked like circa 1995), you can make tasty camp-side meals in a cinch. The updated NOLS Cookery – 7th Edition is packed with “time-tested NOLS recipes, new internationally-focused options, ration planning strategies, and nutrition science.”

While at camp, keep younger kids busy with simple activities such as those suggested by I like the idea of a “dig site” and assigning chores like gathering kindling, or going on a scavenger hunt. My older kids like whittling, telling stories, playing cards, or lounging in the hammock.

Looking for ideas on where to go camping? The Dane County Parks system, which manages over a dozen campgrounds, is now taking reservations for the 2019 summer season. Pick your site HERE and gear up for your connection with the outdoors!

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.