Open Spaces

Family Camping: A Time to Connect (and Disconnect)


By April Anderson

Family camping is a visceral experience that gives families precious space and time to reconnect with something bigger than themselves, while uniting them with strangers and friends in a temporary community. It is the road less traveled that begins with meteor showers before dawn and ends with a shiver as the last ember dissolves into gray dust—an unsung luxury not afforded by the frenetic pace of daily life. For Barrington residents Wendy and Tom Herb, family camping is nothing new, but something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.

A great way to vacation

Camping was an integral part of Wendy Herb’s family vacations. Growing up on a farm in Australia, Wendy and her family got together with other families to visit stations (ranches of tens of thousands of acres) where they would enjoy climbing hills, fishing and boating, hunting for rabbits, catching goats, and gathering for meals cooked on the barbie (outdoor grill). For Tom, camping was less about spending time with family and more about enjoying adventures with Boy Scouts and friends.

Meeting in Australia during an 18-month training program, Wendy and Tom discovered they had more than an employer in common, and the two eventually decided to take a camping trip to the Colorado Rockies. It was this time in nature that allowed them to think about the future and each other in a way that would eventually lead them to the altar and a string of adventures with a family that would grow to embrace four children.

They celebrated their first anniversary canoeing and camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. “The sun was setting,” reminisces Tom. “It was a picture-perfect Norman Rockwell moment.” There was no one around, but they were not alone. “I was enamored by the little bears,” Wendy said, who was expecting their first child at the time. Laughing as she shares the story, Wendy describes how Tom began hitting a pan with a wooden spoon and chasing the bears back into the woods, later retrieving their cooking pack which the bears had chewed through to reach the instant hazelnut coffee that Tom hadn’t hung in a tree. “There was coffee and bear slobber everywhere!”

Being prepared

Wendy and Tom Herb started camping with their oldest child when he was infant, bringing a portable crib and backpack carrier. Eventually, they found a Cub Scout troop at North Barrington School, discovered a bunch of other local families who shared their love of camping, and took their whole family to these family-friendly events.

As their children grew, the Herbs went camping farther from home, enjoying Mammoth Cave (Kentucky), Warren Dunes (Michigan), Door County (Wisconsin), Colorado, Buffalo National River (Arkansas), a stretch of the Appalachian Trail (Tennessee), and Philmont Scout Ranch (New Mexico).

“When [our daughter] was 3 years old, I bought my first tent heater,” says Wendy sharing the decade-old memory of an October trip to Door County that yielded snow one day followed by 65 F the next. During the 2010 blizzard that hit Chattanooga over spring break, the Herbs were supporting a Boy Scout hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail that required them to use every piece of equipment they brought—from crampons to navigate icy trails to lightweight clothes for playing in the creek four days later. “You need to be prepared for what Mother Nature throws at you and what the kids throw at you,” says Tom.

Easier and more comfortable than expected

“Equipment today compared to 10 years ago has advanced by leaps and bounds,” says Tom, noting the durable, lightweight tents, hiking boots, shells, fleeces, and rain gear available through many outlets.

Jeanie Ziegler, Outdoor Discovery School lead for L.L. Bean’s South Barrington store agrees, reiterating, “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.” Knowing the forecast, but recognizing that it is always subject to change, Jeanie recalls a night she spent in Acadia National Park during “the worst rainstorm of [her] camping history” and how she stayed warm and dry in a tent produced by her employer.

Whether you camp in your backyard or at a nearby forest preserve, park, or other distant attraction, family camping can be a joyful experience for all with some advanced planning.

“You don’t have to be an expert if you go with people who know what they’re doing,” Tom said. Cook County Forest Preserves offers cabins and tents to rent through its campgrounds, as well as staff-led programs to build skills and confidence for those new to camping. Outdoor gear stores provide workshops to educate their constituents. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Junior Explorers offer avenues for schoolchildren to learn skills to not only share with their families, but make themselves more self-sufficient.

Learning and growing together, families can enjoy priceless memories (and plenty of laughter) for years after a single family camping adventure. Your family adventure awaits!

Family Camping Tips

  1. Have a positive attitude. You can’t expect children to be excited about camping if you aren’t willing to embrace it.
  2. Take a class.
  3. See for information about family campouts (7/16/16-7/17/16) and camping 101 training (7/13/16 & 7/27/16 or 8/10/16 & 8/24/16)
  4. See for details about Camping with Kids Clinic (7/24/16), Summer Outdoor Survival (7/30/16) and more.
  5. Practice camping in your backyard before you go someplace else. This will allow children to get used to the tent and sleeping bags.
  6. Be prepared. Check the weather and be ready for precipitation as well as temperature fluctuations. Keep separate daypacks for each family member to quickly access clothing as well as other personal items.
  7. Have fun! Take a hike or go geocaching, attend naturalist-led programs to learn more about the place you’re staying, skip rocks or try fishing.

What Should I bring?

“No matter if it’s overnight or a multi-day trip, thinking through the ‘Camping Essentials’ can help you get through any trip,” says L.L.Bean’s Jeanie Ziegler. Here is a list of suggested camping essentials:

  • A tent
  • Sleeping bag and mattress
  • Ample food and water along with proper storage and cooking tools
  • Proper clothing layers for all conditions
  • Lighting and whistles for each person (in case of emergency)
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent
  • A first aid kit
  • A repair kit (for gear)
  • Fire starters and matches (bringing in firewood from outside of campgrounds is prohibited because it may contain pests that can kill local trees)
  • In addition to the essentials, it’s helpful to bring bicycles to get around the campground and field guides to learn about nature.

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April Anderson is a naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at