In August 2013 I was in Las Vegas for the Capsule Show and it just so happened to line up with our family vacation in LA, right after the show. Always looking for a reason to camp out West, I decided we should try to turn my business trip into a family vacation, and a camping trip. The challenge though:
if you’re already packed for a trip to the city & beach how do you camp without bringing the kitchen sink?
Whitney had Charlie’s needs & schedule perfectly dialed-in at this point so with a little planning any family outing can pretty easily roll into an impromptu camping trip.
BE REASONABLE & COMMUNICATE
Luckily Charlie is a pretty amicable kid but he still needs lots of meals, snacks and one nap a day. Whereas my typical approach to camping is to strong-arm and push through all the logistical hiccups to just “get out there,” having Whitney with me was a great encouragement to slow things down and enjoy the whole journey–start to finish.
As much as I love California, I’m also a born & raised East coaster so I had no idea where good camping spots are close to LA. After querying our friends and Facebook, I found Point Megu State Park–a short drive up the PCH to Malibu. We rented a car for two days from LAX using Hotwire (one of the joys of renting a car outside of NYC is it’s usually dirt cheap). After a short run to Trader Joe’s, we were heading up the coast for Charlie’s first camping trip.
SLOW DOWN & CALM DOWN
Unless you’re A. a sociopath or B. some kind of extreme organizational rock star, toddlers and family tend to slow travel down more than if you were heading out solo. My timetable was blown so we left late, took longer than I thought and didn’t really arrive at my target time. I’m really learning over time that this is always going to happen, and I need to plan better for it and get over it. My NY driver side came out leaving LA, and I almost spoiled our lunch being too uptight to enjoy the awesome food and scenery at Neptune’s Net. First don’t be that guy, but secondly mixing in those little local destinations on your trip makes way better memories than just getting somewhere on time.
PICKING YOUR CAMPSITE
This was Charlie’s first trip, and my wife hadn’t been out in a long time so I didn’t bother looking for a deep-woods, extreme backpacking adventure. Point Megu is a car campground at the mouth of a canyon that dumps directly into the Pacific. It also seems to have somewhat regular wildfires that keep it pretty barren and dry except for a few choice hedges and the occasional tree. Our site was close to the entrance (noisy), but also had a nice crab apple tree that we could set the tent under. If you’ve read the blog for a bit you probably know my go-to is a Hammock, but for the family I brought my Nemo Losi 3P.
Unless your toddler can talk (Charlie didn’t at this time), they’re probably not going to tell you that they’re hot or cold so it’s definitely best to err on the side of comfort (and safety) when picking your tent spot.
Normally I think the Deuter / Kelty / etc. child carrier backpacks are great, but I definitely didn’t want to bring one on top of everything else we took along for the vacation. We knew that we would not be hiking more than a handful of miles, so we actually just opted to use our Ergo carrier, which weighs nothing and can be balled up into a stuff sack. Charlie stayed awake for the hike up the bluff, but then passed out for the entire descent. I recommend that the more experienced hiker carry the kiddo, because it does change your balance a bit having a little 25lb’er hanging on your back.
Also being from the East Coast, we had to stay particularly aware of dehydration and made sure to give Charlie water whether he was asking for it or not. The same goes for you and your partner–passing out from dehydration is no joke.
THEY GET INTO EVERYTHING
We setup our tent under a crab apple tree, which meant the ground was littered with crab apples. Charlie tried to eat every single one in the campsite, along with rocks, sticks, handfuls of dirt–I don’t think anything was spared. He also was quite fond of the dusty dirt (which I guess we don’t have in Brooklyn?) so making dust clouds was one of his first orders of business.
I was slightly concerned about him finding rattle snakes, scorpions or other Western treasures I don’t have to worry about on the East Coast. Just make sure you know what could be out there.
Rather than a playground where there’s a bit of an implied “right” way of interacting with things, I really liked watching him figure things out, explore and go wild. I’ve always thought of Charlie as a bit of a caveman and that our role as parents is really just training him to be human. In this context, I think he encouraged me to be a little more wild myself.
KEEP THE COOKING SIMPLE
Keeping an eye on the little Tasmanian takes enough attention that I definitely don’t recommend complicating things by adding any involved cooking processes. He was pretty captivated by the fire, and like any young boy wanted to put whatever he could find into it, including his own little hot poker stick (watch out for burns). We stocked up on basic camp fodder: cheese, sausage, Clif bars, some fruit and instant oatmeal for breakfast. To be safe, stay away from anything that might encourage more diapers than necessary or throw your kid’s stomach off-kilter.
THE SWEETEST MOMENT OF ALL TIME
One of my favorite things about the West Coast is watching the sun set on the ocean. I’ve seen the sun rise on the Atlantic my whole life, but for whatever reason the Pacific sunsets still fascinate me. In the evening, we walked under the highway to access the ocean; the tide was up so I carried Charlie through the surf. When we got to the beach I stood him on a sand shelf and he stared at the sunset and was so enamored with it that when I looked down he was actually welling up with tears and crying. If that wasn’t enough to melt my heart, he didn’t turn away or look for his Mom or me to pick up him, he just kept watching it with little tears streaming down his cheeks.
To me, that moment was a huge victory. Not because Whitney and I had tailored a nice experience for him, but because in that moment I think we saw that Charlie had connected with something that was much greater than anything he had ever known. It was “awe” in the true sense of the word. It was incredibly endearing to see him face something that was both beautiful and scary at the same time, and not turn away from it.
CAMPING IS LIKE A KNOCKOUT POTION
I’ve never seen a young child that didn’t absolutely conk out at the end of the night on a camping trip. After the beach, we went back to our fire and stoked it to keep warm in the cool California night. Whitney and I chatted in our A-Lite chairs until we looked down and saw Charlie had passed out while sitting in my lap. We bundled him up in the sleeping bag in the tent, and joined him a little while later. Overnight, he woke up when he got cold, so I just grabbed him and tucked him into my bag. We then slept all the way through to the morning.
WAKING UP IN A TENT = CHRISTMAS MORNING
Waking up inside a tent was apparently the coolest thing that had ever happened in Charlie’s life. Once he stirred and realized he was outside, he went crazy inside the tent and started naming and pointing at everything outside of the no-see-um walls. It definitely set the pace for his whole day. We let him out and he went back to eating crab apples and piles of dirt, but he had a blast.
After heating up water for coffee and oatmeal we packed up and rode out. Camping trip tacked onto our LA vacation was a huge success. We’re still enjoying these memories and looking forward to more this summer, once the 9 month, New York winter-from-frozen-hell goes away.
WHAT TO TAKE: THE GEAR LIST
There’s definitely lots of basics to take on every trip, but here were my big-wins that let me pack as little as possible for the hybrid outdoor / city vacation. Links to everything:
- Small 2-3 person tent: Confession–I have lots of tents, this trip it was my Nemo Losi 3P
- 2-3 light sleeping bags: I have down bags because they pack down to nothing and weigh nothing too. Charlie ended up in my bag overnight so try for as few bags as possible
- 2 sleeping pads: pack small, but are big enough unfolded to fit 3 people (especially a toddler)
- 2 Flat Pack Bowls: fold down to nothing so they were perfect for cutting boards & eating bowls
- 1 Cooking Pot with handle: boiled water for coffee, and held Kuksa cups for drinking
- 3L Water Jug: filling up water as few times as possible was ideal. Collapsible
- A-Lite Chairs: I don’t like coddling, but I do love these burrito-sized beauties
- 70L Seal Line Bag: this is my go-to travel bag because it’s waterproof, indestructible and cheap. All of my gear for the trip fit into this with plenty of room for my other trade show / trip needs as well.
- Tacking on a camping excursion to a business trip or city vacation is possible if
you pack properly
- Family camping is probably not the high-performance backpacking you may be used to
- Slow down and enjoy the journey of it all, don’t get stuck on the itinerary
- Mind your surroundings – keep people hydrated, comfortable and fed