Written by: Jennifer Steedly Duncan special guest writer from CountingFireFlies.com
01/15/2012 2:30 PM
Depending on where you live, taking your kids winter camping is either the last thing you would think of or the only time you ever go. I know for us, living in Savannah Georgia, unless you enjoy being devoured alive by mosquitoes, camping in the cooler winter and fall months is the only way to go. In the South, winter camping not only means minimal bugs and cooler weather, it also means crystal clear winter skies, the arrival of migrating birds and lots of time around the campfire.
No matter where you are, winter camping with children can be a time for seeing the world with new eyes, looking past the "browns and grays" and instead seeing "A woods/dreaming its way/toward spring."  In January and February, we love to head north into South Carolina to Edisto Island or down to Cumberland Island for bird and wildlife watching. Dormant alligators and minimal mosquitoes open up many beautiful hikes that I wouldn´t dream of taking in the summer months. When we head out, we make sure our backpack has binoculars and camera, a simple pocket guide for the area we are in for the kids, a field guide for the adults and a little notebook and pencil for drawing what we see; but in the end we care much less about identifying birds and more about just watching and exploring what is going on around us.
Sitting down to sketch, even if your sketching repertoire consists of stick figures, focuses your attention on what is happening in the woods. If the idea of sketching intimidates you, that´s okay, try it anyway. You are not trying to create a masterpiece, but instead, you are using the sketching process to help you really see what is around you. Pretty soon, the kids quiet down and stop trying to whack every bush in the woods with their favorite stick and begin to notice that the forest floor is humming with life and the trees are filled with birds. That perfect moment of quiet and focused attention is what I love about being outdoors with my kids.
Moon & Constellation Journals
In the evening, cooler winter temperatures also mean less humidity and marvelous winter skies. I was inspired by an activity I found in Playful Learning by Mariah Bruehl to pick up a pack of black paper and a white gel pen at my local craft store and bring it with us on our camping adventures. Depending on what time of the month we go camping, a great activity for us has been making a moon/star journal. I take the black 8 1/2 x 11 paper, cut it in half-length wise; punched a hole in the top corner of the stack and hooked them together with a metal ring. Then using the white ink pen, we have been recording the phases of the moon as we observe them outside.
For a winter camping weekend, if you are able to time your trip with a new moon, instead of a moon journal, try making a constellation journal. Make sure you take a flashlight that has a red light option on it (many headlamps now have this) or grab a roll of red plastic wrap, which is usually available around the holidays, to cover the end of your flashlight. Since red light does not dilate your pupils, this helps you maintain your "night eyes." The kids have a simple guide that glows in the dark and we keep a more accurate star finder chart in the backpack such as the one put out by Edmund Scientific. If you have time, before your trip, go to your library and check out a constellation storybook to help bring the constellations to life.
Campfire Stories with a Twist
Winter camping also means campfires and while we are waiting for the stars to make their appearance, my boys "tend the fire," and since my boys long ago vetoed scary campfire stories, I read to them from some of my favorite childhood classics. If possible, I try to pick a book that is location centric to where we happen to be camping. For example, on recent a recent camping night in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, we were reading Anne of Green Gables, which is set on Prince Edward Island, and all three of my boys, ages 7, 10 and 12 were in stitches at the antics of Anne. Just Google "children´s books set in blank" to find something for where you are camping. A series we have also been enjoying as we travel is called Stories From Where we Live, a blend of poems and short stories tied together by a specific Eco region such as the South Atlantic Coast or The Gulf Coast.
Of course, an evening campfire spent reading and stargazing is simply not complete without marshmallows and if you really want to take the experience up a notch, try making homemade marshmallows.
I promise you, they are so simple to make, its nuts and they taste so much better than store bought ones. They do need about 3 hours to set and although the recipe says they store for up to 3 days, we´ve had no problem storing them up to a week in a sealed plastic bag. This is something easily made at home a few evenings before you head out for camping, or if you have a hand mixer or stand mixer on your RV, on the road. (This recipe calls for a candy thermometer, but many don´t and they come out just fine. ) The kids love watching the chemical reaction that happens with the gelatin and cutting up the marshmallows and dusting them with confectioner´s sugar. Your biggest problem will be keeping them from getting devoured before you get to your campsite!
 "A February Walk in Georgia" by Mary Ann Coleman; Stories From Where We Live: The South Atlantic Coast and Peidmont 2006.
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Something about the author:
Jennifer Duncan has brought her husband and 3 boys on a year-long quest to eat great cheese, hike amazing trails and explore beautiful museums while trying not to say "I told you so" too many times when yet again, they should have turned right instead of left on that deserted gravel road. She writes an irreverent and honest look at what family travel is like as they explore North America by bus at www.countingfireflies.com and RV Magazine.
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