Can you really go camping with 11 kids and have a really good time? Yes, you can. However, a little preparation will save you time and avoidable head aches.
I recently went on weekend camping trip with my 2 kids, my buddy Dan, and his 9 kids. Eleven kids packed into 2 vehicles. This trip was planned on the fly. We briefly talked about it on a Tuesday night. Nothing was firm.
What I did not tell him that I really did not think that he would call me back on Friday saying that he still wanted to go camping. I mean really! Nine kids and virtually no camping equipment! His wife was out of town on a business trip and he was left to manage all the wonderful children. It's more survival than manage for my friend. Dan's an engineer and a high level executive with a small power supply company. He manages his home well, but it's more organized chaos than a smooth running operation like his high tech company. We often chuckle as we see our kids struggling with following simple instructions like carrying a plate to the sink. Kids are like incompetent employees.
My buddy Dan calls me on the phone around 10:30 AM on Friday says something like "Are we going?" I said sure! Not sure where we were going but I am always game for a camping trip!
His camping equipment consisted of a 4 person tent with a lot holes eaten through from mice. It was "air conditioned" through and through.
Fortunately, I have all my gear stowed away in plastic storage boxes in our shed. I pulled 3 storage bins out of the shed and quickly scanned everything. I usually use a camping list for long trips so I don't over pack. No need to waste time with a camping list on a "fly by the seat of your pants camping trip". Let the chips fall where the fall. I over packed packed everything because it was quicker to have everything and not have to worry about what I forgot.
All my gear was still in place from the last camping trip. I keep separate gear for camping and do not mix with our regular household cooking stuff with the exception of a few high end cast iron pans and Swiss pressure cooker. My bins are labeled and see-through.
My wife loaded the Coleman X-treme cooler with an assortment of grass fed beef and Trader Joes brand sausages for grilling. I packed a half gallon of chia pudding that was good for breakfast.
Everything packed into the van within 90 minutes. We ate lunch and fooled around with last minute stuff like checking email, sleeping bags, tooth brush and tooth powder, etc. I made sure that my van was topped off with fluids. My battery was had trouble holding a charge so I figured I would be safe as Dan usually carries jumper cables and a battery charger. Never knew that he was going to have battery troubles as well.
At 2 PM, I called my buddy and said that we were getting ice and that I would meet him at Trader Joes. He called back and mentioned that he was short 3 sleeping bags. We loaded 4 more bags into the van. I even kept our 6 person REI Base Camp 6 tent in the van despite the fact that he said he was set. Little did I know that his 6 person tent was only a 4 person tent with plenty of holes.
After picking up two 10 pound blocks of ice, we drove to Trader Joes and looked for Dan and his van with no luck. I called him on his phone and he said that his van would not start because of battery issues. No problem because this guy can fix anything.
I picked out his groceries as he dictated his order over the phone. We were out of TJ's at 2:45 with about a hundred corn tortillas, ketchup, bags of fruit, potatoes,and vegetables. I called Dan told him we were heading his way. He mentioned that he needed water. I did a quick u-turn and drove back to the water store and filled up 2 of my collapsible MSR 2 gallon water bags for him.
I met Dan at his house at 4 PM and we drove straight into the worst San Jose Bay Area traffic-it was gridlock. Rule #1. Never leave for a camping trip on Friday afternoon with 2 van loads of kids. Our 90 minute drive took about 3 hours. Rule #-I never think that far ahead as I plan on the fly.
After the proverbial bathroom stop at Walmart, we arrived at Pinnacles National Park at 7 PM only to find out that all campsites were full. Really? On a Friday night in May? Of course they were filled! Duh!
Reservations were not only recommended, they were required. If you camp with my friend Dan, you'll always find a solution to your problem as thrives on this stuff. The campground host suggest that we "camp" in the picnic area. This is not really a good option as it's illegal. We were hoping that a friendly ranger would come by and see all the kids and cut us some slack.
We pulled out enough gear to whip up a dinner for 11 hungry kids. Mind you, we were trying to be discreet in the picnic area as the sun was just about to set. How can you hide in plain view with 13 people? You don't.
I fired up a propane Weber grill, a 2 burner Coleman stove, and a wood burning rocket stove. We cooked dinner consisting of about 30 corn tortillas, burgers, and taco meat. It was quite the site for people that have less kids than us. It looked like a local scout outing as we had more kids than most scout troops.
The ranger found us in no time and suggested that after we finished eating, we move to the group camping areas and ask other campers if we could share a site with them. We thought that the ranger was very helpful and understood our predicament by suggesting a legal option for camping.
Feeding 13 people took a little over 2 hours-not a record in speediness. We vacated the picnic area after thoroughly cleaning our mess in search of a group camping site.
Nothing really panned out when we inquired with other groups about sharing their campsite. It was dark and most of the groups were getting ready to sleep. We found 3 large empty group sites at 10 PM that had been paid in full. We set up 2 tents for Dan's family in a sort of no mans land. There was room for at least a dozen tents-no exageration. We figured we could deal with the consequences in the morning should anyone request compensation for sharing the site. Who is going to turn away 11 sleeping kids including a cute 3 year old girl? As expected, the people never showed up.
The following morning at 7 AM, less than stealthily, we vacated the campsite and left our tents to dry as we proceeded back to the same picnic grounds for breakfast.
With 11 kids running around,we drew a lot of unwanted attention. One of the campground hosts visited us and complained that we left a mess the night before. Actually, we left the picnic area cleaner than we found it.
Next, a lady from the management company came over and mentioned the same complaint and questioned where we slept the night before. First of all, where we slept was not really her business. For all she knew, we could have camped legally down the road at the country fair grounds. We were polite and explained that we camped where the ranger told us to camp. She grumpily left and her boss visited within the hour demanding payment for our camping. We had no issues with paying except when she mentioned that we owed $120.
We never knew that we would have to pay extra rather than share the cost of a group site. At Pinnacles National Park, a group site is $75 for 10 people or less. Extra people cost another $50! The campground is run by a separate management company that is not the friendliest. You can camp at a regular site for $22 for up to 6 people. Do the math as it's not a bargain to rent a group site. More like extortion.
My buddy and I were firm, but polite. We explained that we followed the ranger's instructions and would gladly pay for 3 single sites. The campground manager refused and demanded $120. I told her that I was done speaking with and requested the National Park Police to settle the matter.
We were visited by the National Park Police and the lady officer settle the matter with smiles on our faces. We paid $70 and were given a verbal warning. Not sure what the verbal warning was for, but we were happy! It was $50 less than what the management company wanted.
Additionally, the ranger advised us that people caught camping in un-authorized places (i.e. the picnic grounds) were subject to fines exceeding 3 times what the management company originally wanted to charge us. We figured she was hinting that had we camped in the picnic area, we would have been fined $300 each. For $600, we could have rented a luxury hotel with swimming pool and a morning all you can eat buffet in nearby Carmel. Thank you lady ranger!
Long story short, it's better to plan in advance and reserve a campsite when you arrive late a popular campgrounds like Pinnacles National Park.