Seattle's Child

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Car packed for camping at Camano Island State Park

Somewhere in this car: hand sanitizer, an 80-ounce jug of liquid hand soap, multiple bars of backup soap, disinfecting wipes, and a few rolls of toilet paper. Photo by Jillian O'Connor.

My family survived COVID camping!

What made this multifamily trip work: preparation, communication and total mask buy-in.

Earlier this summer, my husband and kids and I decided to keep our plans to go camping with four other families – plans made back in early January 2020. In those halcyon days, our big panic about summer was whether we could get our maturing kids to agree to go to any summer day camps.

Every time I thought about the plan in the month before, I felt a little sick to my stomach –  and in denial that we were ever going to take such a chance in the time of COVID-19.

We did, and I think the break from our so-called lockdown life at Camano Island State Park was worth the well-thought-out risk. Like us, the other families had mostly been sequestered and working at home, apart from masked, careful trips to the grocery store. No one had been sick, and no one had been out taking chances.

Despite my long-held city child belief that most campgrounds are very much like parking lots that you sleep in with random strangers, we decided to go. This campground was rather like a lovely cul-de-sac street, with no houses and lots of Subaru Outbacks.

Total mask buy-in

For the first time in months, the nine boys were running and scootering around and not playing Fortnite. They were actually doing some decent distancing with masks on. (The one unlucky girl in the crowd opted to chill with the parent group.)

Shockingly, we got total mask buy-in from these young teens and tweens. Not only were the kids voluntarily wearing the masks, but they were actually calling one another out whenever a mask wasn’t on. Even my sons, who are wonderful boys, but not likely to tell on other kids (well, except for each other). And the adults were careful too.

But the success of our trip came from all of us communicating and being honest about expectations before we ever left Seattle. (Yes, indeed, that was a very long text message chain.) We learned that grownups can hang out surprisingly well in camp chairs positioned 10 feet apart with their beverages of choice, whether that’s wine or LaCroix or a Rusty Nail or chocolate milk.

(A little wine helped when falling asleep those two nights. I am not an experienced camper. I learned that (a), my claustrophobia is not a good match for the ultra-tapered mummy-style sleeping bag I chose, and (b), no one over 25 who has camped more than twice ever uses the minimal style of mat I chose. On the bright side, I gained a brand-new appreciation for my bed!)

Socially distant s’mores

We were at five separate campsites, and every family would stayed in its own area for meals. On short hikes down the hillside to the beach, and through the woods to look down at other parts of the beach, everyone wore masks and spread out most of the time. When we gathered to roast marshmallows around a group campfire at the largest of the campsites, we kept our masks on and maintained a safe distance.

For the most part, people we encountered outside our group who were maskless kept their distance, though on one hike in a small group, we kept bumping into a dad walking with five small kids, all happily maskless.

Fear of the campground bathroom

In the bathroom (fine on Saturday, much less pristine by Monday), every user of the ladies’ room wore a mask and moved on pretty quickly – except at night, when there was a little too much group primping at the mirror happening for a global pandemic. My more paranoid family brushed our teeth using cups and bottled water at the campsite. I had been particularly concerned about the restroom situation ahead of time, but after some research felt confident that we were safe, provided we wore masks inside, washed up well, and and used prodigious (my sons called it “excessive”) amounts of alcohol-based sanitizer.

As part of the hellish rite of packing up for a camping trip, we brought along all that hand sanitizer, an 80-ounce jug of liquid hand soap, multiple bars of backup soap, and, of course, disinfecting wipes. Oh, and a few rolls of toilet paper, just in case.

As my husband likes to say, the process of going camping is like moving. Twice. And this time, we prepared ourselves like we were planning to move into a filthy gas station bathroom.

Showers? What are those? In order to minimize our time spent in indoor communal bathrooms, we all skipped the showering.

A needed break from routine

It turns out that the scariest part of the trip was when I had to run to the potty at about 5 a.m. Shortly after returning to my tent, something that sounded like my big dog (who was not on the trip) ran up and sniffed all over the outside of the tent. What was it? A wild boar? A bear? Eh, I don’t think I want to know. It went away.

For entertainment, the masked kids mainly stuck to wildly scootering the loop in our campground area and pretty far-ranging, surprisingly raucous games of hide-and-seek. Letting them get even that close was a risk, but a calculated risk that was within the public health rules. Two of the 14-year-olds even went out on wooden paddleboards, rented from the Center for Wooden Boats at neighboring Cama Beach State Park, which also provided sanitized life vests. And for a moment, each kid even stood up. (“Wooden paddleboarding is hard, Mom!”)

Weeks later, everyone is healthy. Despite all that prep work, we did have a good time, and it was nice to get a break from the same old routines, even with masks on for much of the time. And I’m thankful that we have a group of parent and kid friends that are conscientious enough that we were all able to trust one another – and be open enough to ask one another – about how careful we were really all being about this COVID thing.

Honesty is a great tool in a global pandemic.

And I’m considering booking a small camping trip in September with one other family – if, and only if – I can get a decent sleeping pad by then.

More about camping: No reservations? No Problem. Here’s where to get a last-minute campsite.

About the Author

Jillian O'Connor

Jillian O’Connor is managing editor of the Seattle's Child print magazine. She lives in Seattle with her husband, two sons and a dog named after the Loch Ness Monster.