Monday, June 18, 2012

Group Camping - the Chaos and the Glory

We are always searching for wild and crazy things to do as a family that push the boundaries of of sanity.  Last weekend we decided to try group camping - with 17 other families.  In total we had around 30 children between the ages of 1 and 13.  We booked a group campground and I created some base structure by asking for money up front from everybody coming.  There were no refunds if you couldn't come, and you paid for both Friday and Saturday night even if you decided to only come out for the day.  (and yes, that did happen)

Our little corner of the campsite

I learned many things about organizing a large group camping trip.

First - When you plan an event involving 50+ people, expect a little chaos.  Now maybe chaos is a bit strong, but we had families arrive Friday night, others arrived Saturday morning, and others Saturday afternoon.  Most families stayed Saturday night but at least two families in our group left early after not sleeping well the night before.  One family decided to only come out Saturday for the day and sleep at home both nights.  One family went back to Calgary Saturday for a birthday party and came back in the evening.  Everybody had paid for the weekend so there was no confusion when it came to paying park staff but there were moments when you'd realize a tent was gone and you had no idea why or when.  I was also kept on my toes watching for new families and since I didn't know everybody in the group, it was a mild challenge with arrival times spread out over two days.

Breakfast in our corner of camp

Second - Trips like this are best suited to extroverted children who adapt easily to meeting new friends.  My son doesn't fall in this category so while many of the kids were crying Sunday morning because they didn't want to go home, my son was begging to leave.  He rarely played with the other kids and was happiest when we went left the group to go for a bike ride.  My son aside, the other children had a blast!!  As I said, tears were shed by numerous kids not wanting to leave and new friends were made.  We had a private playground right in our campsite's open field and to most of the kids (including those as old as 13), it spelled paradise.  The kids rode their bikes around together, they blew bubbles together, and they took turns playing in the different tents. 

Story time


Third - Don't expect everybody to follow the same schedule.  The early risers went for a hike together on Saturday morning while others headed out later.  Two families packed up for the day to go on a nearby hike in Canmore.  We brought our bikes so we could go for a bike ride around the park and one family took their Chariot out for a hike.  Other families took off on foot to explore nearby trails.  When it came to meal time, families broke up into groups and spread out around the campsite.  I had originally thought we'd do one big potluck meal Saturday night but it's just too hard to coordinate things amongst 18 families.

Biking through Bow Valley Provincial Park

 Four - You need a sense of humour.   We still don't know who's car alarm went off after midnight on Saturday.  And if you have a child who screams most of the night, shattering the silence across the entire campground, you're going to need to be able to laugh at yourself and shake it off the next day.  (for once, this wasn't my child - yay!)  The wind was so strong that tents ripped, tent poles broke, and tents lifted off the ground.  Yet, everybody still claimed to have had a fabulous time and no major harm was done by the wind.

Hanging out at the playground
Balance bike races

Five - You need courage!  Will you sleep well?  No.  It's a guarantee.  If it isn't your kids up all night, it will be the family next to you.   Will there be fights between kids?  Of course.  Will all the children be happy at the same time?  Definitely not.  There were few moments when there wasn't at least one upset or tired child.  Yet, the resounding response from the weekend was that I plan the same trip next year. 

Kids of all ages enjoying the playground

 Would I do it again?   Not sure.  I think  it would be easier if the group shared a common connection, as in a family reunion or church camp.  It would definitely be easier if the kids were all in the same age range.  3 year olds and 9 year olds play very differently on a playground for example.  And I'd be more comfortable in a group of 5-10 families myself.   Despite the fact that I'm pretty outgoing, I found it hard to bond with 17 other families and barely got a chance to talk to some of my closest friends there.  A couple families I wouldn't recognize if I ran into at the mall later this week.  Our last camping trip was more comfortable for me with 5 families.  We often ate together, hung out together around camp, and shared a more cohesive unity.  That's near impossible with a monster sized group.

Quiet happy moments

I'll share more later this week on our experience in Bow Valley Provincial Park because it's a fabulous place to camp, wind aside, that needs a proper review.  We had the Elk Flats Group Camp to ourselves, and once we got the water turned on, figured out how to get into the locked kitchen shelter, and resolved some basic issues such as park policies on gray water, it was a wonderful place to camp. 

Hiking around Middle Lake in Bow Valley Provincial Park

Have you ever camped in a large group?  What was your experience like?


  1. Woah! Wait a sec. Stunning views, blue skies, crisp air, cool peeps, plenty of food to mooch, a do-what-you-want vibe, and bucket load of happy times. Wonderful

  2. Yes Mark, many happy moments but too much food to mooch. I brought way too much home. Next time - pack less food!

  3. Tanya, you did a great job of getting it all organized, and it's given our family (middle of the night screamer and all) a good re-introduction to family camping that has made us want to go again. Had the weekend not worked out, it would have been easy for me to say,well, I guess we'll try again in another year, instead I'm booking more trips and trying to get an extended family trip planned too.
    Ian's suggestion for another adventure that would encourage more group cohesion is a group trip to a hut like Elizabeth Parker or Stanley Mitchel or a hostel like Mosquito Creek or Takkakka Falls.
    All in all a great time was had and we would sign up again - and maybe bring earplugs for our neighbors :)

    1. I actually slept pretty well that night, screaming, car alarms and all. I'm proposing parents with poor sleepers bring communal baileys for the morning coffee next trip, lol.

      A hut trip would be a good idea. I find backpacking trips are also good at bringing people together. The extra challenge brings about bonding.

      I'm excited for our Sept. long weekend camping trip. Six families spread out over two double sites should be plenty cozy and intimate.

  4. Just knowing the amount of people going to this camping, I can't imagine how this turned out actually. My first thought is that it's gonna be a total chaos with too much kids going. I don't blame you for not wanting to do it again.

    1. The camping trip was fabulous and there was plenty of opportunity for everybody to do their own thing, have down time, go out on family adventures alone, and even camp away from the group in a little nook in the trees.
      It was only chaotic from a planning and organizing perspective.
      Personally I might not plan one this big again, but that's only because I like more intimate groups with a max. of 6-10 families. We've stayed in backcountry huts before and had great group bonding with other families. We've also shared hostels with families before and had similar experiences. Camping with 17 other families though guarantees that there will be a lot of breaking up into smaller groups and less cohesiveness as a group. Not a bad thing - just not my thing perhaps.

      Thanks for reading.

  5. We have done a few group trips ( and I totally agree with your thoughts on keeping the mood light! Disfunction will happen! And you are right about the 'common interest thing'. Our last trip was a bunch of families and we all went to college together. Seeing our awesome friends made up for the windy, sleepless nights. Most our family group trips revolve around climbing and that is really fun too. We are going on our largest group trip in July [not organized by us, thank goodness] and should be somewhere between 100-200 people. It should be interesting! I'll let you know how it goes.

    1. We'll see how this weekend goes. We're camping with friends we know from an old church. We are now separated over two provinces and don't see each other much. We booked a group campground again but are now down to 3 families so there will be plenty of space for everybody! Gosh, we might be able to each have two picnic tables to spread stuff out on.