Most years, our family takes a vacation to the beach in early fall. With lower prices and other kids in school, it is usually perfect for us as a homeschooling family. We've discovered, however, that somehow, the pandemic has made beach housing extremely difficult to find. So this year we decided to try a new method of getting away from home: camping!

I’m sure there are some pros out there for whom the idea of camping is nothing new, but this was quite a leap of faith for us. It also wasn't entirely our idea; my husband's sister and her family had recently tried camping and had asked whether we'd be interested in joining them sometime. My husband and I each had some limited camping experience as teenagers and young adults, but we knew that adding five kids to the mix would be quite different. And while our kids enjoy reading adventure stories and Bear Grylls survival books, they were not exactly keen on leaving their air conditioning and video games behind.

Nevertheless, we persisted with our plan: take a two-night “test” trip as a family before committing to a possibly longer adventure with other family. Our first mistake was planning our maiden voyage in the middle of August. As the date approached, heat advisories and thunderstorm warnings loomed in the forecast. But I was determined. We might be miserable, I figured, but at least we’d be miserable together in the outdoors—with no TVs, computers, or video games to rot our brains and compete with family time.

I will say that my courage almost failed while trying to cram about two thousand pounds of camping gear into a minivan. But somehow we made it work, and we were on our way.

When we arrived at the campsite, the kids were surprisingly excited. I’m sure it helped to see the new territory for themselves, and they enjoyed helping my husband and me set up the tents. Then we went for a walk to check out the playground and swimming area (a lake). Despite the heat index of 100-some degrees, the area was shady, the thunderstorms avoided us, and the kids were upbeat as they waded in the water and explored.

A few hours and some hot dogs and s’mores later, it was time for bed. The kids’ optimism deflated a little at the prospect of sleeping in the still-oppressive heat, but we got everyone settled (two apiece in two tents and the toddler with us in a third) without too much event.

Then followed one of the longest nights of our lives. Daughter #3 couldn’t sleep. We gave her a dose of melatonin. Then she had to go to the bathroom. I walked her to the bathhouse and back. Then her stomach hurt. I hoped another bathroom trip would do the trick, but no such luck. We returned to bed, but a short time later, she was back, and this time she really needed to go—she was sure.

By this time it was past 1:00 a.m., and although I stubbornly clung to my positive outlook, I was getting weary of hearing my daughter’s footsteps crunch over to my tent, of unzipping and rezipping tents every 15 minutes (quietly so as not to wake the baby), and of walking up and down the hill to the bathhouse. But what choice did I have? Back we went, and I nearly curled up to sleep on the bench as I waited for her outside.

Alas, still no luck in the bathroom, and her stomach still hurt. I irritably sent her back inside and told her not to come back until she emptied her colon. You can guess that her digestive system was not persuaded by my threatening tone. So instead I prayed with her and had her repeat calming phrases, hoping to ease any nerves and help her relax.

It seemed to work. We returned to our sleeping bags for the hundredth time that night. And then… the sound of more unzipping and my daughter losing her dinner. Thank goodness she got most of it outside, and her stomach was empty enough to settle down. Finally, we got some sleep.

The next day dawned (earlier than I would have liked), and we had pancakes cooked over the fire for breakfast. My husband discovered a closer and shadier entrance to the lake, and the whole family was soon splashing away and getting our feet nibbled by fish—quite a different experience from dodging waves at the beach, but I think we may have enjoyed it even more.

As lunchtime passed, however, the heat and the previous night’s escapades began to wear on everyone. We had told the kids that we might go home early if the first night didn’t go well, and I think the kids were counting on this. Unfortunately for them, they underestimated their parents’ stubbornness. The mood was mutinous when we broke the news that we were staying, but eventually they resigned themselves to their fate. (It may have helped that I got stung by a yellow jacket about then, and they decided it was not the best time to complain.)

The second night was much better than the first—somewhat disturbed by new neighbors and a toddler who didn’t settle down easily—but overall we got a good deal more sleep. After a quick breakfast, we packed up and headed back to our air conditioning and video games.

You may think this adventure might have dampened my enthusiasm for future trips, but on the contrary, I loved it! Yes, it could have gone better, and we will probably never go camping in 100-degree weather again. But I valued the time we spent together, and I think it was good for the kids that we stuck it out. Reading books about adventures in the outdoors is great, but actually living them can be educational in a whole different way. The best teacher is often experience, and this was certainly an experience!

If nothing else, I think we all learned something about endurance and perseverance in less-than-comfortable circumstances. We proved to ourselves that we can survive a camping trip and even have a little fun along the way. I think even the kids are looking forward to our camping trip this month. Here’s hoping that cooler weather and cousins will make this trip less of a trial by fire and more of an actual vacation! ;-)

—Jessica