A Family’s Unexpected Togetherness in the Wilderness

Time in the wilderness helped draw Jim Daly’s family closer together in unexpected ways.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just stay home?

I’ll admit it: The thought has crossed my mind. Our camping trips haven’t always gone off without a hitch. Awful weather, mechanical problems, illness and injury — the Daly family is more familiar than we’d like to be with the range of challenges that camping can bring.

Then there was the night with the bear. As the large black bear bashed around the garbage bin near our campsite, my wife and I spent several frantic moments whispering a plan of action — in case the beast took a swipe at our tent.

It wasn’t much of a plan, actually. We’d roll over on top of the boys, acting as human shields. If the bear hoped to make a meal of our sons, he’d have to go through us! Thankfully, the creature wandered away around 3 a.m., leaving Jean and me too wired to sleep. The boys never woke up!

The incident has become the stuff of legend in our home, that sort of story we retell and laugh about again and again. It’s these kinds of shared memories that keep drawing our family back to the woods.

Lessons from the woods

Why spend precious time off to “rough it” in the wilderness? It sounds strange to a lot of parents, maybe counterintuitive. Doesn’t a real vacation include restaurants, hot tubs and memory foam mattresses stacked with plush pillows? Why trade steak dinners for charred hot dogs? Air conditioning for unpredictable nature? As a friend once told me, “Camping to me is staying in a hotel that doesn’t put a mint on the pillow.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with such comfortable vacations — we’ve been on a few of them — but my family has always loved to camp. In the mountains and the desert, away from the distractions of work, school, TV and video games, something special happens. Noise fades. Weekday patterns recede. We find ourselves talking more. Laughing more. Listening more. We recognize again — or at least more clearly — who we are together as a family.

Cliffs and rivers, heat and cold, bears and bugs — we’ve seen how these things help our family really be us, shaping us into something better. It’s an environment that frees us from the everyday expectations we put on ourselves. We give ourselves permission to embrace the mess of it all. We don’t fret over hairdos. We don’t worry about taking a shower every day, sometimes preferring a dip in a cold mountain lake. We splash through creeks, skin our knees and scratch bug bites.

This is life in God’s country. Out here in the West. He gave us the mountains and the trees, the fish and the birds. He gave us the beauty and the mess. And He called all of this good. People made air conditioning, smartphones and shopping centers — stuff designed to make us more comfortable, attractive, enviable. Too often in our marvelous modern life, these distract us from God’s better good.

Growing season

One summer, the Colorado weather had been unusually stormy. On our second night at our campsite, one storm was truly wild. The thunder was rolling incessantly, lightning hitting all around us. There was almost no time between the flash and the boom. It felt like a warzone.

I don’t usually worry about things outside my control. But here we were inside our little camper with canvas pop-out beds, feeling vulnerable. Jean and I began looking at each other with concern. We were trying to stay upbeat, especially since our son Troy was frightened by the barrage. While his brother, Trent, was pressed against the window, looking to see the storm up close, Troy had his fingers in his ears humming songs to himself. He sat like this for nearly 45 minutes, until the storm abated.

Years later, we still talk about that night. For Troy, it wasn’t fun, but now he enjoys the memory of having faced his fears and come out on the other side.

I love how my boys seem to change so much during the months of summer. Camping helps me be there as they mature from boys to men. I don’t want to miss any of it.

Growing as a parent

One night while I was on a father-son camping retreat with Troy, he got sick and threw up in the tent. He’d warned me he wasn’t feeling well, and I’d given him a large sack to use in case he had to vomit. But having just woken up, he wasn’t able to aim, and there was quite a mess.

I was a bit grumpy, too, and I’m sure I responded in a way that sounded more annoyed than concerned.

“I couldn’t help it, Dad,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

“OK,” I sighed. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

During that night in our stuffy, stinky tent, I reflected on the irony of it all. Just hours before, Troy and I had been walking in the forest, having a great conversation about some of the challenges he was facing. I told him that I’d always love him, no matter what. And now, I just grumbled at him because he hadn’t thrown up precisely where I wanted him to.

Stress and the lack of sleep can do that to us. In those situations, unconditional love and good intentions can disappear, leaving us holding a bag full of frustration and exasperation.

Responding to day-to-day annoyances is my ongoing weakness as a dad. I tend to react well when something serious happens. If a fire or flood or fender-bender occurs, I have a plan. But I have less confidence in my ability to deal with the everyday frustration of a bad grade or a dirty room.

I need to watch my tone of voice when I get stressed. I have to do my best to stay calm. And when I tell my sons that I love them, I must work hard to show them my love in what I say and how I say it, what I do and how I do it.

I’m always surprised how God uses adversity to help us grow. I guess that’s another thing we love about camping: It’s the perfect cure for the curse of perfectionism. Out here in God’s country, we’re always reminded that He works best when there’s a bit of mess to clean up.

Yes, there are times when I’d rather be at home or the office — comfortable, clean and confident. But when I think of the memories my family has forged on these trips, I know all the effort has been worth it.

Jim Daly is the president of Focus on the Family and host of the daily radio broadcast.

Camping Cuisine

It’s a good thing food tastes better outdoors because, without a microwave or blender, you’ll be spending more time preparing meals. But time together around the fire is one thing that makes camping great. Here are a few meals to try:


Spread tomato sauce and sprinkle cheese on a tortilla. Add your favorite toppings, cover with a second tortilla, and then wrap in foil. As the fire burns low, place each quesa-pizza directly on the hot embers. Remove and let cool. Unwrap and cut into fourths.

Nifty nachos

Load a cast iron skillet with tortilla chips, cheese, salsa, olives, corn and chopped onions. Cook until the cheese is melted, and then get another batch going before the first one disappears.

Hobo dinners

Mix ground beef with diced potatoes, onions and carrots. Add ketchup, butter, salt and a little water. Place portions in aluminum foil “envelopes” and set on hot embers. (Roll edges upward so the liquids don’t drain out into the fire.)

Crescent dogs

Wrap hot dogs with pre-made crescent roll dough, and then wrap the whole thing in aluminum foil. Slowly spin the package over a low fire.

Banana bonanza

Roast an unpeeled banana for a couple of minutes until it’s soft. Cut open on a plate and fill the split with chocolate chips, graham cracker crumbs and miniature marshmallows. Eat with a spoon.

Camping Hacks

  • Keep tent zippers moving smoothly by applying a bit of candle wax.
  • Don’t let broken eggs ruin your trip. Crack eggs ahead of time and store them in a wide-mouth jar.
  • Store a pair of dry socks in your sleeping bag, used only for sleeping.
  • Dry out wet shoes by removing the insoles and stuffing a small dry towel into the shoe.
  • Make a space-saving pillow by storing soft clothes in your sleeping bag case.
  • Keep food cold by packing frozen meats with other food. Also, remember that block ice lasts much longer than cubed ice.
  • On hikes, mark the return trail with colorful biodegradable tape.

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