Cabin Camping

Every January for the past 5-6 years, my friend, Tina, and I have loaded up whatever kids we have handy (hers, mine, other people’s) and headed to a state park where it’s likely we can see some snow. Cabin camping gives us the opportunity to go to a park, enjoy all the great things there are to do there, and we still get to sleep in a real bed out of the weather, away from the bears. It’s a win-win in my book. In the past, park cabins have often been steeply discounted in the off-season months, and this last year they instituted a state resident discount. There are also discounts available for active duty and retired military, and state employees. We have enjoyed snow at both Standing Stone State Park and Cumberland Mountain State Park in various years. This past year we took the last two kids we have at home between us and went further east to Norris Dam State Park (where I was inspired to start this whole project.) Here are some other cabin camping trips I’ve taken over the years.

Cabin 18- Norris Dam State Park (sorry, we’d already taken out the linens when I remembered to snap a photo)

All three girls and I went to Natchez Trace State Park one year that it was 105° and thunderstorms kept popping up and we wanted to camp, but tent camping was out of the question. They have Camping Cabins that are essentially 2 sets of bunk beds, and an air conditioner, with a charcoal grill and picnic table outside. You’ve probably seen this style of cabins at a KOA at some point (those are fun places to stay too!). It’s still camping if you have to walk to the bathroom in the campground in my book.

The girls and I all went to Pickett State Park on a last minute midweek discount one summer. The fresh bear poop on the trail and the bear proof trash cans convinced the girls they had done the right thing by refusing to sleep in a tent there. It also poured at the end of the trip, further justifying their “no tent” stance, but in the middle we did some great boating and hiking, and once it rained we painted canvases we had brought along.

We all stayed at a cabin at Chickasaw State Park to be close to a friend’s wedding one year, Montgomery Bell for my oldest daughter’s 16th birthday -it snows on her birthday every year, that year didn’t disappoint- and Standing Stone for a different birthday. We also stayed in a cabin at Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park for one of our middle daughter’s birthdays, with her less than outdoorsy best friend in tow. She was a great sport about our version of outdoors weird. 

Finally, I’ve already written about how my youngest and I just stayed at Standing Stone again for her spring break. Looking back, I realize this is the park we have cabin camped at most often, though we’ve also tent camped, and taken our pop-up there as well. What can I say? It’s a great park!

Cabin 16- Standing Stone State Park

Now, to celebrate being fully vaccinated and our upcoming second 23rd anniversary, my husband and I are planning a park hopping adventure in east TN in the next few weeks. We’ve chosen to cabin camp because it’s been three years since we went away anywhere by ourselves, and it feels like a fun way to explore some parks (in bear country) that we’ve not visited together before. I’m going to use my planning for this trip as an example for what I pack on a cabin camping trip in mild weather, and when we get back, I’ll share with you where we went and what we did!

In my next few camping posts I’ll share my standard packing list and the logic behind it, and what we like to plan for menus, since they can be a little fancier than at the campground since we will have a full kitchen available. One year, Tina really upped the game by bringing a pasta maker and having all the kids help hang homemade fettuccine all over the cabin; on chairs, utensils, the faucet, the stove handle, from the light fixtures… It was fantastic! I’ll also talk about the easy way we divide up chores when we camp as friends, because it works flawlessly every time. I’ll also share more about what I keep in my daypack, in my truck box, and in my camping box.

One thing I already mentioned was taking canvases with us to paint. I always try to have some activity planned, usually based on what the weather will be like. In the past we’ve made cookies, baked birthday cakes, had birthday parties, done scavenger hunts, held our own winter Olympics, attended junior ranger programs, hiking, boating, swimming, ranger led nature walks and activities, visited nature centers, painted our toenails, gone to flea markets, done puzzles, and we always bring a few games with us. Our family’s favorite games are travel Scrabble, Yahtzee, Banana-grams, UNO, and good old fashioned card games. Of course we don’t do all of these things every time, but I usually at least have scrabble, UNO, and a deck of cards with me.  

So maybe you are a diehard minimalist backpacker, and these posts may not be for you, but you never know, maybe you’ll get some ideas for new menu items (flatbread pizza?) or new activities. Maybe you don’t think of yourself as a camper at all, and would rather stay in-town at a fancy hotel. Stick around, you might learn just how nice state park cabins are these days, and may find that this kind of camping just might work for you after all. Either way, I hope you’ll come back and read more about the way we camp, and where we go along the way. There’s no right or wrong way to camp, the point is to get out there and enjoy these wonderful public spaces that belong to all of us, and contain some of the most beautiful landscapes in America. It’s a big wide world beyond the city limits- maybe I’ll see you out there.

My 10 car camping essentials. It’s probably not what you are expecting.

Hi there! In my last camping post (which you can read here) I promised I would give you the list of my 10 car camping essentials. As the name implies, these are the things I wouldn’t leave home without, (not on purpose anyway) no matter who is going, where we are going, or how long we plan to be gone. Without further ado: here you go.

Not my most glamorous photo, but I pulled these things straight from my truck box to show you.
  1. A blue tarp: Yep, the kind they sell everywhere. This thing can make or break a trip for you. You can put it under the tent as another layer against the ground, aka: “a footprint.” Use it as a simple shelter over your hammock or instead of the tent that just ripped…You can put it over the top of your tent for extra protection if its raining or cold. It can be a dining canopy over the picnic table, or a dry place to sit by the fire if the ground is wet. It’s an easy way to haul small branches you gather for kindling (only downed wood on the ground, and only if the park allows it, some don’t.) Need an easier place to change than in your 3′ tall tent? make a changing room. Find yourself near a beach? It will work as a beach blanket in a pinch. Camping with toddlers or babies? Voila! You now have somewhere to change that soggy diaper besides on your sleeping bag. You’re welcome. Ok, now you know. Throw a tarp in the back of the car today, you never know when it might come in handy.
  2. Bug Spray: Seriously. Nothing will make you miserable faster (well, except the rain, but you have your tarp, right?) than the mosquitoes trying to steal your s’mores and join you on your hike. Find some you like, something safe for kids if you have them, be sure the dog is protected too, and again, take it everywhere. If you are going into the woods somewhere where ticks are a problem, you need to be sure you take a product that will repel them, even if its more chemical laden than you are usually ok with. Ticks are nasty little blood suckers that carry disease. Just don’t fool around here or it will ruin your trip, and you might end up sick. Thanks.
  3. Ratchet Straps: Yep. The kind your dad uses to hold the lawn mower onto the trailer. Hear me out here… You want to hang a hammock, but the trees are too far apart, or too big around. Use ratchet straps. They are strong, don’t hurt the trees, and you can get them tight enough you won’t fall out of the hammock later. They can hold up a tarp, anchor an awning or tent in high wind, make a clothesline, or be something to put your tarp over to make a shelter when you realize you left the tent poles at home… again, these things are magical.
  4. Sun Block: Get something with at least SPF 30. For the next 3 days you intend to live outside in the woods. Your poor nose hasn’t seen that much sun since you waited in line to see Metallica in 1998. Often, we think to put sunblock on when going to a pool or beach, but you need to make it part of your morning campground ritual as well. If you are camping anywhere near bear country remember this is not the time to smell like a Piña Colada.
  5. Extra Socks: I know, it’s July, and you are a die hard flip flopper. But trust me on this one. One of the most used items in my truck box is the package of men’s white tube socks. We call them 4H socks at our house, because inevitably, someone would run out of socks at some 4H camp or event, or get their feet wet, or start getting blisters from their cute little pug socks… it’s always something. I’m not ashamed to admit it, I’m the sock mom. But seriously- dry warm feet can make any trip better. I recommend the tube socks with no heel, because they can work for anyone in a pinch. A few extra ways you can use them: (clean ones only please) as a water bottle koozie, as mittens, as a pot holder, as thigh highs to protect little knees if you have a crawling baby, and one plus some duct tape can make a sturdy cast without hurting skin when you add item number 6 on the list:
  6. Duct Tape: Yep. The silver stuff. Just like dad uses for everything. By now I’d think everyone knows to keep this stuff around, but here’s a few camping specific reasons I think it’s a “must carry” item. Besides the makeshift cast I already mentioned, it can be a blister band aid, or keep a cut clean. It can seal up holes in the tent when that hatchet you were using to hammer in tent pegs gets away from you… You can repair your friend’s flip flop, fix the hole in Jr’s beach ball, attach your flamingo lights to the awning. Literally a million uses. Get a roll and keep it in your car.
  7. Food you don’t have to cook: I know, we all have romantic ideals about catching a fish, and cooking it over hot coals- or at least cooking our s’mores over hot coals. Inevitably something will go wrong at some point: the fire won’t light, it’s raining, the camp stove runs out of gas, that 2 mile hike was really 4, kids are picky, adults get tired of how much more work it is to cook outside, there’s always something. A box of Pop Tarts, some Spaghettio’s, or some good old bread and peanut butter will make you really happy when the power goes out at the park 5 minutes after you check into your cabin. For example.
  8. Water: Even if the campsite has a hookup, or there’s a spigot nearby, throwing a few gallons of water into the back is a way to be sure you won’t be stuck if the park water tastes off, the drunk college kids from the site next to yours made the community spigot a biohazard last night, or if the people in the flooded tent let their kids make Nesquick in the bathhouse sink while mom grabs a shower, so you need some water to brush your teeth. It’s easy insurance that you will be having a better weekend than she is.
  9. Glow Bracelets: So this one may seem odd, but if you go to the dollar store, you can grab a couple packs of these, and they are surprisingly handy in a dark campsite. Kids getting whiney? Break out the glowsticks. Keep losing the little snot gobblers in the dark? Glowstick them. Do you have a black dog who disappears in the campsite and you keep tripping over her? Glowstick her collar (just be sure they aren’t going to chew on it, much like kids.) that tree root just outside the camper door? Glowstick. Stakes holding up the awning or your tarp-tent? Glowstick. Forgot your flamingo lights, or the site doesn’t have electric? some of the longer glow necklaces make great party lights, and will actually put off enough light for you to make those PB & J Sammies when you get back from the surprise 4 mile hike after dark. You’re welcome.
  10. Inflatable Beach Ball: So while you are at the dollar store picking up Pop Tarts and glowsticks, grab a beach ball. Inevitably at some point you will hear it… the whine of a 7 year old saying, “Mom, I’m bored!” You can save the day with a beach ball and a little air. This thing packs flat, is stupid cheap, everyone from 9 months to 90 can play, and it isn’t a big deal if the kid from 3 sites away takes it home. I have carried a beach ball in my car since our girls were tiny. We’ve broken it out to entertain kids at a friend’s outdoor wedding, at 4H shows when there is down time, the agents are busy, and you the intrepid 4H parent find yourself suddenly tasked with keeping 30 kids you don’t know busy and relatively clean in a dirt horse arena for 2 hours. I know that’s not a camping specific example, but it is legit. It is a way for you kid to break the ice with other kids in the park, or for adults to have something to do while the kids are on the playground. This is my #1 parenting secret weapon. (besides the socks.)
Water, pop-tarts, and the famous 4H socks. (used, but clean)

So there you have it. My unconventional list of what to keep in the car at all times so that you can always have a good camping trip, picnic, or 4H event! It’s seriously less than $50 to keep these things on hand, and can really salvage almost any trip. Maybe I’ll see you out there.

Let’s talk Camping: the most fun to be had on a Friday night for under $25.

So I’ve written about the history side of She Camps History, now let’s talk about camping…

**Disclaimer: I’m not an expert at anything. Be safe, be smart, and ask someone who has done this more than you before you go off into the woods somewhere.

**Other Disclaimer: If you are looking for hardcore backpacking advice, or you are a minimalist or ultralight camper, this post is probably not for you, but feel free to keep reading anyway. But don’t hack on me for my style of camping. We’re all friends here.

Ok. So There are several kinds of camping I enjoy, depending on the day, the weather, the season, and the purpose of the trip. I grew up camping, in pop-ups, Winnebago’s, and in large travel trailers. About the time I hit my teens I didn’t want to share a bed with my sister (Sorry, Sis!) or listen to my father snore (Sorry, Dad!) in such close proximity anymore, so I bought my first tent with my own money, and from then on, I was hooked as a tent camper. I’ve always had dreams to become one of those hardcore ultralight thru hikers, and while someday I may (I’m working on getting the different gear that shift would require) right now, I mostly do what is commonly called “car camping.”

There are two types of camping with this name, usually it implies that you stuff whatever you feel like taking into the car, drive to a nice established campground somewhere (I HIGHLY recommend any of Tennessee’s State Parks) and set up for the weekend. There’s usually a fire ring, a picnic table, a bathhouse, and water spigot somewhere nearby. This is the easy way to get out into nature for the weekend and have a comfy basecamp near hiking trails or historical attractions (whatever floats your boat.) Sometimes, more recently, I’ve seen “car camping” used to refer to people who literally camp in their cars. Often these are solo women campers with a nice little sport wagon or something, who want to be out there doing their thing, but like having doors that lock at night. Again, no judgement here, just go have fun.

Either way, I think this is a great way to break into the awesome world of camping. You can keep this as simple or as complicated as you please, but in my next few camping posts I’m going to talk about what WE do. We being Me, Mr. D, and our 3 now grown daughters who we have camped with since they were each small enough to sleep in the laundry basket. (Tip #1: A laundry basket makes a PERFECT travel crib in a tent, only costs $6, and you can carry your dirty clothes home in it when you are done.)

Sometimes, I want to get away from them all, so I solo camp by myself. Sometimes, my other mom friends and I want to escape them all together and go have a girls weekend on the cheap (TIP #2: camping is a cheap way to have a great Girls’ Weekend.) Other times the Mr. and I have gone away alone together with a tent. (How romantic!) If the weather is cold? “Camp” in a cabin. Too hot? Torrential rain? Get a camping cabin, or Teepee, or Treehouse, or Yurt… (I haven’t actually stayed in a yurt yet, it’s on my list.) When we made our 2nd cross country trip to Oregon to visit family, we decided we wanted to camp, so we bought a fixer-upper pop-up for around $2000, and popped our way out west. That was an epic camping trip! Since then, I’ve camped in that little camper, with any mix of husband, kids, dogs, friends, kids friends… you name it, we’ve camped it. I think this kind of camping is a great way to get out there and see America.

In my next camping post, I’ll get down to the nitty gritty of what to pack, but for now (Unless you’re in a hurry to hit the trail) I want to give you some food for thought. Take a minute to figure out what kind of trip you want to go on. Where, when, why, what time of year? What will the weather be like? What’s your budget? And how flexible are you? I think that one is important. the more flexible you are willing to be, the more successful your trip will be, especially if you are taking kids, or you are new to this whole thing. I’ll show you how you can do this on a very limited budget (we started camping as newlyweds on an E-5 Navy salary in 1998.) We are still using a lot of that gear we bought 20-ish years ago, and its still working fine. So, here’s your homework: make yourself a little outline, think a little bit about what it is you hope to accomplish, and when I come back, I’ll tell you what my 10 essentials are, and what I would pack for a 3 day “weekend.” (TIP #3: Weekdays are way less busy in the parks if you can swing it.) See you soon!