Camping with Kids: Reflections of a Father
In 2018, the average child spends only half as much time in nature as their parents did when they were children. While not surprising, this trend is definitely concerning, and should give parents cause for reflection. We are yet to see the long term effects of this drift away from nature, but one can confidently predict that it won’t be a good thing for our children, ourselves, or society as a whole.
Growing up in Newfoundland, Canada, I couldn’t help but be surrounded by nature as a child. Summer days were spent almost exclusively outside - often simply playing in my family’s yard, but also doing countless other outdoor activities such as camping, fishing, hiking, playing organized sports, or going to the beach. Winters, while cold and snowy, were much the same. We’d just bundle up and get out there, making our own cold-weather fun, surrounded by the natural and profound beauty of the Canadian winter!
These days, life is much busier, and time outside doesn’t come as easily. As a father of three, a competitive Ironman athlete, and a senior partner in AquaQuest (AQ), getting meaningful time in nature requires much more careful planning. We are fortunate to live in the beautiful Comox Valley, in British Columbia, Canada, where nature is everywhere. However, even here in such a place, it’s still difficult to ensure that ourselves and our children are getting sufficient love from Mother Nature.
Vancouver Island Camping with Children
My oldest child is an amazing eleven-year-old boy named Rowan. Throughout his life, he’s had the opportunity to go camping at least two or three times per year, and he absolutely loves it. These experiences have been important for him in many ways - not just because he’s connecting with nature, but also because of the opportunity to foster more meaningful connections with his friends and family, free from the nearly constant distractions that come between us in our modern world.
As Rowan gets older, we’ve been talking increasingly about embarking on more adventurous camping experiences together. We both have a strong desire to go beyond the best campsites on Vancouver Island and get out there to some new spots that can only be reached without a car, and powered by our own energy. We’ve been keen on the idea for at least a couple years, but had not yet done it until a few weeks ago, when we decided to head out for a little overnight camp-bike tour of beautiful Hornby Island.
Bike Touring on Denman Island
After the short 20 minute drive to the ferry, we jumped on our mountain bikes, packed with camping gear for two. The feeling of leaving the vehicle behind and going forward with just our bicycles and each other was awesome. There was a palpable sense of freedom and excitement from both Rowan and I as the ferry set out across the water.
Once we reached Denman Island, an incredibly steep hill awaited us immediately off the ferry. I thought Rowan might leave me behind considering how loaded down with gear I was: my MEC panniers contained warm clothes for two, an Aqua Quest Safari Tarp, two AQ bivvy bags, a lightweight AQ Himal waterproof backpack, several liters of water, food, a couple books, and other camping essentials. With my fatherly pride on the line, I dug in deep and somehow managed to keep up with him as we ascended the 14% grade.
On reaching the top of the hill, we were both relieved to see our first stop - the laid back and funky Denman Island General Store, where we planned to get veggie dogs and s'more supplies!
Lucky for Rowan, when you’re doing vigorous exercise like this, it’s remarkably easy to say ‘yes’ to food requests from your children, even if the same request would normally warrant more consideration or a ‘no’. As a parent, you almost always want to say yes, but for your child’s sake, so often cannot. In this instance, Rowan’s plea for ice cream garnered his dream response - “Have whatever you like Rowan, take your pick buddy. In fact, have two if you like!”
After the sugar infusion, we set out on the hour long ride across Denman to reach the ferry to Hornby Island. Newly cut mountain bike trails meander just inside the woods along most of the main road, making for both a safer and more enjoyable ride than a decade ago. Flying down some of the big hills just before arriving at the Hornby Island ferry terminal, we were literally howling out loud… “Wooohoooooo!”
Camping on Hornby Island
After our second fifteen-minute ferry ride, we arrived on Hornby and set off on a great bike trail that hugs the coast and is far away from any roads, houses, or people.
After a half-hour or so, we began scanning the beach for good places to camp and eventually dragged our bikes down through an old trail onto the sand and rock. We scoured the beach for nearly an hour to find a good camp spot and eventually settled on an area that looked reasonably flat and would keep us safe from the oncoming high tide. Sunset was about an hour away, so I was keen to set up camp as quickly as possible. Rowan had other ideas, and was focused primarily on the wood collection, fire starting, and getting into s'mores roasting as soon as possible!
I set up the Aqua Quest West Coast Bivvy for Rowan and the AQ Hooped Bivy for myself. We talked briefly about putting up our AQ Safari Square waterproof tarp but decided that since there was only a minor risk of rain, it’d be much nicer to leave the sky open for stargazing through the no-see-um mesh window on the top of each bivy.
Rowan lit a nice little fire and we ate some veggie dogs. Soaking them in mustard, we chatted about how when you’re out in nature, food just tastes better. At home, we concurred, a semi-burnt veggie dog with only copious amounts of mustard wouldn’t be too appealing. Out here, however, we agreed that it not only tasted better but that we had much more appreciation for it.
Too many s'mores later, and with only the moonlight to guide us, we walked the few short steps down to the water’s edge and started throwing rocks out into the ocean. To our surprise and amazement, the ocean literally lit up in the spots where the rocks were landing! Until that point, I had forgotten about the bioluminescent plankton that can sometimes be found on Hornby.
Rowan was in absolute amazement and awe. We chatted about this natural wonder, and just how incredible and varied the natural world can be. Even at almost forty years old, I’m still blown away by such experiences. A few minutes later we retired to our bivy sacks and gazed up through the mesh at the stars. We shared some conversation about outer space, the Milky Way, and our inability to understand much about any of it. We soon drifted off to a much-needed sleep.
Hornby Island Camping - Day 2
The next morning we took down our camp and lugged the panniers and bikes back up to the trail. The long climb up from the little cove near our camp spot in the late morning sun was epic, with views back to Vancouver Island and Mount Arrowsmith.
After an hour of riding, we reached Hornby’s famous Ringside Market for some much-needed breakfast wraps and strong coffee.
After our snack, Rowan sat in the shade and read his book while I explored some of the local shops and forests. Before the journey back home, we decided to make a quick side trip down to Big Tribune Beach, which was well worth the effort.
An hour later we got back on our bikes and started our journey home. We enjoyed the few hours of riding and ferrying to get back to Vancouver Island, all the while chatting and enjoying the sunshine and natural beauty.
More Free Camping Trips in BC!
Once we were back home, we were both ready for some much-deserved sofa time. We lay down and watched the playoff hockey game, both in great spirits and with an enhanced sense of ease and calm. As I reflected on our little trip over the following days and weeks, I began to realize just how valuable it had been, and how important it is to facilitate more of these types of camping experiences going forward.
Leaving to go on a journey under your own power, whether on a bicycle, in a boat, or on foot, is truly a liberating experience that feels like no other. It sets the stage for good conversation and creates a sense of ease, peace, and contentment. I value the time we spent on this trip as much as any time in my life. Like so many parents, I love my son more than words can express. To have that opportunity to connect with him, free from the day-to-day distractions of iPods and other digital wonders, was invaluable to me. I cherish every moment we shared on that little journey - hearing his thoughts, making each other laugh, overcoming the little challenges, collaborating on camp chores, sharing food, and feeling that collective sense of freedom and excitement!
With the overwhelming amount of stimulation we’re all subject to in 2018, this and similar experiences are becoming increasingly important, especially for children. Our one-night getaway has opened my eyes even wider to the unrivalled value of nature, and the importance of connecting with it on a deeper level as often as possible. Now more than ever, I’m keen to get back to nature as much as I can, and with such deep love for Rowan and his little brother and sister, I’ve got plenty of motivation to do so!