Camping With Kids On Cape Cod

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can put up a tent and those who cannot. I’m not proud to admit that I’m part of the later group. I’m the youngest of six children and by the time I was born, my parents had given up camping for good. I wasn’t exposed to Boy Scouts and never learned a thing about camping, fishing, survival skills or the Great Outdoors.

So when my wife and I found ourselves shopping for camping gear at REI in preparation for a camping trip to Cape Cod, I was ready to pay $70 more for a tent that had only 11 setup steps, compared to 15 on a cheaper model. But my wife, who was a science major in college, is good at putting things together, so we bought the cheaper, Big Agnes Big House 4 tent, and I quietly hoped not to be exposed for the pathetic tent-setup guy that I am.

In a year when my family has been traveling nonstop since April 1, we’ve stayed in almost every type of accommodation, save a tent. We used to enjoy camping, years ago, but haven’t ventured out into the great outdoors for an overnight stay since our first child was born in 2007.We’ve always wanted to visit Cape Cod, but when I looked into room rates a few weeks ago and saw that even mediocre quality hotels on the Cape were charging two, three and even four hundred dollars per night, I figured it was time for our kids to get their first taste of the camping lifestyle.

So we bought some new sleeping bags, the Big Agnes tent, and some REI self-inflating camping pads, and piled our two little boys and all our gear into the family trickster for the drive to the Sweetwater Forest Campground in Brewster, a graceful little town on the north (bay) side of Cape Cod. We wanted to camp at nearby Nickerson State Park, but since they charge just $12 per tent site, they tend to fill up fast and we couldn’t get in. Sweetwater charges $35 per tent site, which is pricey for camping, but it sure beats paying $300 per night for a hotel room.

We were given a choice of two sites, and spent more time debating which one to take than Union and Confederate generals spent preparing for the Battle of Gettysburg. One site had far more privacy but also had lots of protruding tree branches on the only level ground suitable for a tent and both of us were reluctant to make a call for fear of being scapegoated for a bad night’s sleep, either from noisy neighbors or the protruding branches.

Eventually we settled on the more private site and my wife methodically went to work putting the Big House up. I stood around and did what I was told but contributed essentially nothing to the endeavor, though my wife was kind enough to pretend as though I wasn’t completely useless.

“Here, use your strength to pull that through,” she’d say. Or, “Why don’t you hammer these down?”

But we all knew that if I had to put the thing up, it would have taken hours, with several failed attempts, plenty of cursing and a bit of soul searching. If I can’t figure out how to put something together upon first glance, without consulting instructions, it probably won’t get done. My wife had the tent up in about 25 minutes flat, and before we knew it the boys were wrestling in the tent.

We made some S’mores at our campfire, but James, my 3-year-old, insisted on eating the chocolate bars a la carte.

At bedtime, he seemed comfortable enough in his kid’s sleeping bag, but was still a bit confused by the whole endeavor.

“Is this our house?” he asked, perhaps wondering if we were planning to live in the tent permanently. “Where is our hotel?”

As we tried to get the boys to settle down and go to sleep, my wife noticed a bunch of unused tabs on the ceiling of the tent and we wondered what on earth they were for. No matter how good you are at tent assembly, there will invariably be some unused parts that cause you needless panic.

Prior to the trip, I had nightmare visions of the boys keeping us up all night with requests for water, bathroom breaks, and God knows what else – but amazingly, I was the only bonehead that didn’t get a good night’s sleep. I’d left the cap on my sleeping pad open and all the air had seeped out of the bloody thing, so I woke up 18 times in the night with a sore back and a cranky neck.

The kids were sprawled all around the tent, half over my wife and me, and not remotely inside their sleeping bags, but they did fine. On our second night, I was battling a bad stomach – and you don’t really want to be a fourth mile away from the nearest bathroom in that circumstance, but with a little Pepto, I got by. That night, I made sure my pad was inflated properly and I slept like a log.

In the morning, we were awakened by a chorus of birds, frogs and crickets, and the day’s first light that crept in through our tent. Ordinarily, I consider noise and light unwanted intrusions in the morning, but greeting the day from my tent, both seemed pleasing. Even better, I enjoyed rolling over and seeing the three people who mean the most to me sprawled in and out of a jumble of sleeping bags in our Big House.

Is it possible to get a decent night sleep in a tent with two toddlers? Believe it or not, yes it is. My 5-year-old son, Leo, told us he was hooked on the camping lifestyle.

“I want to sleep in a tent every night,” he said, right before asking us if we could download a kids movie on my wife’s Kindle.