A Family Campout to Remember

By Kent Boucher

Camping is a common ground outdoor experience for most American families at some point in the formative years. Inevitably, some of these campouts will unravel into miserable one and done experiences that will later tell the hilarious tale of six inch rainfall, relentless mosquitoes, unfathomably filthy pit toilets, and collapsed tents. But many other outings will evolve into exciting yearly escapes from the busyness of daily living where families grow closer and cell phones temporarily become distant from their users as the beauty of living outside for a weekend becomes more entrancing. So how does a family find more of the latter?

Iowa is sometimes referred to as “The Whitetail State.” This nickname is fair enough as giant whitetails can be pursued throughout most of the state, but with such a rich commodity comes the temptation to become overly protective. Many deer hunters who call the shots on their own private hunting ground become obsessive with minimizing human intrusion on their hunting property. Once shed hunting, stand hanging and turkey hunting come to an end, the only humans allowed on the property must remain in the cab of a tractor. Anyone else is just too much of a risk for educating all of the 200” bucks on the farm that humans do in fact walk the same earth as them. While minimizing human and deer interactions is almost always good for improving future hunting opportunities, practicing such hyperactive bans can take something exciting, beautiful, and fun and reduce it to a resource that can only be enjoyed during the narrowest of time frames. Instead of abstaining from this property for 8-9 months of the year, hunters should look to find other ways to enjoy it long before hunting season shows up on the calendar. Taking the family campout away from the normal manicured campground, and out to the unmowed, wild and natural landscape of a favorite hunting area is well worth the time spent. Not only will the family have a great time camping, but the trip can serve as an excellent opportunity to educate the next generation of outdoors people on some of the skills necessary for safely enjoying the diverse experiences nature has to offer. Of course the lack of campground structure may at first feel overwhelming, but in the end it will provide the sense of freedom that makes camping appealing in the first place.

A good practice is to always set up the sleeping arrangements upon first arrival at a campsite. The bickering and bad attitudes that can creep up when families have to tackle a joint task will only be intensified if the tent pitching is procrastinated until bedtime. Having a stable structure like a tent with a reliable rain fly is always wise. If the weather turns wet and windy, at least there will be a dry place to find shelter. Once a base camp is established, the first camping lesson can be building a proper shelter out of materials provided by the landscape. Allowing a young teenager to build their own shelter from pine boughs, hardwood branches, moss and dried leaves to spend the night in can be an incredibly rewarding accomplishment that will teach them a new sense of self-reliance and capability.

Once the sleeping arrangements have been prepared, a day of activities that is centered on what the hunting property has to offer should fill out the itinerary. Early morning bobber fishing for bluegills, crappie and catfish could provide the main course for lunch. Fishing for lunch also allows for a couple more valuable lessons for the kids. Parents can now demonstrate proper fire building techniques beginning with safely shaving off tiny bits of tinder from small sticks and twigs to be used as an ignition source. Once the dry tinder is piled up, the next important step will be gathering and breaking down kindling sized sticks to be used for nursing the brand new flames into an increasingly mature fire. Finally, logs and branches can be assembled with an architecture that allows for the optimal amount of oxygen to feed the flames flashing off of the kindling. While the fire is burning into a useful cooking heat source, the next lesson will turn to filleting the morning’s catch. Of course the first few attempts will be clumsy, but patience, teaching, and reassurance will go a long way to help the next generation of wild game chefs confidently establish themselves in nature’s kitchen.

With the fish fry lunch finished, it’s time to get the shotgun and clay pigeons out. This time the lessons begin with proper gun safety, followed by instructing the technique of shouldering the shotgun and leading a moving target as it appears on the horizon. Not only does this serve as a great learning opportunity for the kids to develop some fundamental wing shooting skills, but it also serves as a practice session for Mom and Dad before they head into the dove, waterfowl and upland hunting seasons in just a few months. Increase the difficulty for better practice by using a mechanical thrower that can launch multiple targets, or by adding a handheld thrower into the mix.

After burning through a few boxes of shells, now would be a great time to teach the kids about the different role players in the ecosystem that exists on the property. ATVs are a great way to safari the kids around the property to point out different tree species, pollinators, native grasses and flowers, and watch for wildlife that spooks off at the sound of the vehicle cruising around the property. If there is a large pond or river that cuts through the property, kayaks and canoes serve as a great way to enjoy the abundance of life that takes up residence on the banks, all while teaching the skills of paddling and portaging.

As the afternoon gives way to the evening sunset, the embers remaining from the lunchtime fire can be stoked back into flame for an easy fire roasted meal of venison bratwurst from last deer season, and as darkness settles over the countryside it’s time for nature’s best show to begin. Take a large sleeping bag or two and hike to the best vantage point, open up the sleeping bags to serve as a large mat for the whole family to lay down on and stare up at the sky. Here each family who is adventurous enough to take on such a campout will find healing from the toils of life away from camp, and satisfying rest after the fun and learning from the day’s activities as they count shooting stars and listen to the symphony of a summer night on the land.