Like most families, mine struggles to avoid the seemingly endless forces of the electronic age and our child’s desire for more and more TV. So it was a relief to see our son enjoy the great outdoors during a camping trip, without the interruption of Disney movie requests. In bringing him closer to nature, we also ignited an enthusiasm in ourselves that we hadn’t experienced since our own family camping outings decades earlier.
Maryland is graced with such a variety of camping environments that the most experienced backpackers won’t end up disappointed and the novice won’t feel intimidated. From the mountains of western Maryland to beachfront accommodations along the Atlantic, you can stay within easy reach of your trunk or miles away from the nearest roadway. Whichever campground you choose, you will not only reconnect to the joys of the outdoors, you will introduce your kids to an activity that is increasingly lost to the pull of instant messages and Game Boys.
It has been a long time since I earned a merit badge as a Boy Scout. Since that early achievement, the only real camping trips I’d been on were pretty simple and involved only a sleeping bag, a few friends and some beer. So when my wife and I packed the car for our overnight family camping experiment at the Assateague Island National Seashore, we did so in true young-parent style — with a little trepidation and a lot of gear.
We opted to set up the tent at the National Seashore’s Bayside campground. At $20 for the night, it was a deal that beat any boardwalk condo in Ocean City. If you go, ask for a site in the “generator-free zone” (so you don’t have to listen to the hum of RV’s in the evening), or request a site right on the beach. We were a bit worried about the bugs, but given that it was Easter and early in the insect season, we hoped to miss the peak times for mosquitoes and ticks. No matter what the season, make sure to put insect repellent on your little ones and routinely check for ticks throughout the day (potty breaks are a good time.)
The Assateague camping areas have a picnic table and fire pit at each campground, and sufficient toilet and shower facilities nearby. If you are testing out the camping scene with toddlers, you’ll need to pack your own diaper wipes and some extra clothes (you thought your kids got dirty playing in your own yard!)
Bring along your own firewood for bonfires on the beach, and don’t forget a small camping shovel. My wife and I learned the hard way that it would have been easier to clear the entire campsite of pony-poo piles before the Easter bunny hid eggs around our tent. Nonetheless, few experiences are as memorable as waking in the wee hours that night, with the brightness of the moon and crisp air seeping through our tent, forcing us to cuddle in our sleeping bags until the sun’s warmth returned. The memory was topped only by awakening to several ponies wandering through the campsite.
For those who would like a trial camping experience closer to home, try the Prince George’s County’s Patuxent River Park Jug Bay Natural Area. With miles of trails, both on land and in the water, the park is surprisingly secluded despite its relative proximity to the Washington and Annapolis areas. The park has only a few sites in its traditional campground. Families who book in advance will be rewarded with a picturesque site bounded by a cornfield and woodlands. The rates are very reasonable and include park-provided firewood.
Be sure to pick up the birding checklist, and see how many of the 290 species your family can spot in the park — designated by the National Audubon Society as an “Important Birding Area.” Or rent a canoe and ply the quiet waters of Jug Bay. For the more adventurous, reserve a campsite at the canoe camp (which is also accessible by car for a family member to bring needed supplies.)
With a little research, you can discover a seemingly endless number of camping options in the area. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources maintains 25 state parks where camping is allowed. Two favorites on the Eastern Shore include the Tuckahoe State Park and the Pocomoke River State Park, both with access to a playground. Both also offer opportunities for fishing (use that camping shovel to dig for your own worms!)
At these and most state parks, plenty of activities are available to keep the kids busy after they’ve helped to stake the tent and prepare dinner and before you get the campfire going to prepare the obligatory s’mores. For a complete list of activities within the campground, consult the Maryland Association of Campgrounds, which lists 27 private campgrounds, some of which have swimming pools and organized activities.
Still unsure that pitching a tent in the wild will go without a hitch? Then try one of the latest trends in zoos across America — the overnight camp. The National Zoo, Maryland Zoo and the National Aquarium in Baltimore have variations of the “Roar and Snore” evening. Your family can sleep near lions without the risk posed by doing the same in Africa. Or satisfy the urge for a sleepover without braving cold nights by taking your sleeping bags to slumber alongside the shark tanks at the National Aquarium’s Shark Sleepover. While the cost is more than your typical rustic campground, the experience is definitely one of a kind.
Before you give in to the nagging and buy your child yet another video game or allow several hundred more text messages, consider spending an hour or two researching a camping trip to take the family for an overnight camping experience. Once you figure out a substitute for the forgotten breakfast spatula and get the kids to share the flashlights, you’ll want to return time and time again to the outdoors where you can explore and bond with your children without the distractions that keep our everyday lives so hectic.
By Richard Marshall an Annapolis-based writer who camped most recently with his family at Cumberland Falls State Park.