Family Camping Adventures Made Easy

August 1, 2003
Filed under Feature Stories

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If you reflect on the matter, odds are high that considerable time has passed since you and your sweetie first discovered the delights of camping. You may even recall those tender first outings. A gentle, cool zephyr whispered in the pines. A stream babbled happily below your camp. The two of you snuggled up in your zip-together bags. Dancing shadows from a candle lantern you secured overhead cast a warm romantic glow. Nice, wasn’t it?

The reasons you like camping haven’t changed, but over the years some other things have — like the addition of kids. And, just as another summer has arrived, the kids seem to have grown another 2 or 3 inches right in front of your eyes. That’s when it dawns on you that one day they will be leaving. For families that hold camping as a special experience, guided adventure vacations can make memories that last a lifetime. The key to successful adventures of this sort is to use common sense about the whole family’s desires and abilities. Make sure the adventure is within everyone’s capabilities. Remember your goal is to make memories, not blisters. And don’t be afraid to ask for references and testimonials from outfitters and tour companies. The best are more than willing to provide them.

Also note that family adventure-camping vacations vary in the degree to which children are accommodated. Before making commitments, check out age limits, special activities, guides or instructors planned for kids.


Celebrating its 21st year as one of California’s premier rafting companies, Mariah Wilderness Expeditions offers raft trips on the South Fork, Middle Fork, and North Fork of the American River, plus the Merced, Kings, Cherry Creek and Tuolumne Rivers. The South Fork, a consistent Class III whitewater river is most popular for families and groups. Mariah has designed a special two-day rafting, two-night camping trip for families. Professional storytellers spin yarns and weave tales during lunches, on the river and at campfires. Mariah Wilderness Expeditions, 510/233-2303; mariahwe.com.

River Odysseys West (ROW) has been a leader in adventure travel since 1979, offering rafting, canoeing and raft-supported hiking adventures in Idaho, Oregon and Montana. The third section of Idaho’s Salmon works best for families. Trips last from four to five days and cover 40 to 53 miles on the Salmon River, plus another 21 miles on the Snake River. Only families are allowed on ROW’s family trips. Kids range from 5 to 14 years of age. Each trip is staffed with an extra guide and each day a different guide takes a turn at being “River Jester.” River Odysseys West, 208/765-0841; rowinc.com.

Sea Kayak Adventures operates premium sea kayaking tours on Mexico’s Baja peninsula and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. All equipment is provided, including tent, sleeping bags and pads. Sea kayak tours feature wilderness kayaking, naturalist guides, gourmet meals and, the premier attraction: exhilarating whale encounters. Sea Kayak Adventures, 800/616-1943; seakayak adventures.com.

The Mountain State, West Virginia, also has some of the nation’s most beautiful rivers and big-water rapids. Two of the primary rafting rivers are the Gauley and the New, both are within a 30-mile radius of Ace Adventure Centers headquarters. The family overnight trip features two days of easy Upper New River rafting, plus overnight camping along the river with “beginner-friendly” whitewater and lots of time for playing and down-the-river swimming. This trip is designed for families with kids as young as 5 years. Ace Adventure Center, 888/223-7238; aceraft.com.

Canoeing is easy to learn for all ages, and a canoe camping trip can be a family delight. Centennial Canoe Outfitters provides two- to six-day canoe trips on many major western rivers. Family trips are featured on gentler, but still spectacular, stretches of the Green and Colorado Rivers in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Families should target Centennial’s beginner-level trips, or opt for its special family trips. Kids from 8-years-old are welcome. Centennial Canoe Outfitters, 720/283-0553; centennialcanoe.com.

Piragis Northwoods Company equips and guides visitors into the 2 million acres and 2000 lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). This can be tough portaging country, but Piragis has been offering guided and unguided trips through the BWCA for over 20 years. Guided trips include parent/child outings. The company also offers kayaking expeditions during the summer on Lake Superior. Piragis Northwoods Co., 800/223-6565; piragis.com.

Northern Outdoors pioneered whitewater rafting in the Northeast on Maine’s Kennebec River. Today it offers a variety of options on both the Kennebec and Dead Rivers that are ideal for a family rafting adventure. The Dead River guided trip is loaded with 15 miles of action-packed Class II-III rapids, and is perfect for families with younger kids who don’t meet the age requirements of some larger river adventures. Kennebec River trips are in paddle rafts and everyone actively participates. Children 10 years and older can take part in the full Kennebec River Whitewater Adventure, including the Upper Gorge. Kids 8- to 9-years-old can only do the Lower River in a paddle raft. Children are supervised by support staff during the first two hours of rafting through the Upper Gorge. Northern Outdoors, 207/663-4466; northernoutdoors.com.

Western River Expeditions, founded in 1956, is the granddaddy of big-time whitewater rafting on the Colorado and Green Rivers, and is the largest licensed outfitter throughout the Grand Canyon. Western River offers three family adventure trips on the Green and Colorado Rivers in Utah. On the warmer waters of the Green, Western combines inflatable kayaks, historic legends, plus a designated fun director. Over 60 moderate rapids make for a great family vacation. The company offers an option of combining the Green River trip with a three-day stay at a dude ranch in Utah’s Wasatch National Forest. In August (lower, safer water levels) Western offers special family trips on the Colorado’s more challenging whitewater in Cataract Canyon. Rowboats, paddleboats and inflatable kayaks plus a fun director make this trip great for teens. Western River Expeditions, 800/453-7450; westernriver.com.

Outdoor Odysseys is an owner-operated sea kayaking outfitter offering a wide selection of single- to multi-day trips. The company helped introduce hand-crafted, small-group kayak tours in the whale-rich waters of the San Juan Islands and pioneered such niceties as home-grown organic produce, Dutch-oven cooking, gourmet coffee and premier local wines as standard fare on its tours. Tours depart from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, a scenic two-hour ferry ride from Anacortes, Washington. Outdoor Odysseys, 800/647-4621; outdoorodysseys.com.


Safari Yellowstone offers families animal viewing safaris into Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. This is a chance to do more than just sightsee in single- or multi-day safaris. Evenings are spent at famed national park lodges. Safari Yellowstone & Grand Teton, 800/SAFARIS; safariyellowstone.com.

The North Rim is harder to access, but many claim it’s the Grand Canyon’s best side. Grand Canyon Rim Adventures offers a mix of multi-day hiking, mountain biking, backpacking and sightseeing trips on the Canyon’s North Rim, nearby Kaibab National Forest and the remote Arizona Strip. Trips include all camping gear and equipment, bicycles and helmets, gourmet Dutch-oven cooking, beverages, transportation during the trip, and professional guides. Canyon Rim Adventures, 800/897-9633; canyonrimadventures.com.

Western Spirit Cycling has created a series of multi-day mountain bike camping trips specifically for families in Yellowstone and the Southwest. Trucks carry all the camping gear and guides do all the cooking. On family tours additional guides provide games, toys, and arts and crafts to entertain and educate children. Families are grouped with children of similar ages. Kids can ride their own bikes, ride a trail-a-long bike behind Mom or Dad, or ride in a Burley trailer. Western Spirit, 435/259-8732; westernspirit.com.

OK, it’s not camping, but it sure sounds like fun. New England Hiking Holidays offers a variety of multi-day guided hiking tours with most evenings spent at romantic, rustic inns. While the company started in New England, its focus is much broader today and includes other parts of the U.S. Trips range from New England to the California Wine Country, to the Desert Southwest, to Hawaii. Multi-day trips include hiking guides, food and overnight lodging. New England Hiking Holidays, 800/869-0949; newenglandhikingholidays.com.

Back of Beyond offers families backpacking, hut, or lodge trips through the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies. Services include equipment and guides, plus camp set-up and prepared meals. Porters tote the necessary equipment and supplies that parents and children cannot reasonably carry. A naturalist program is included. Back of Beyond is the winner of the 2002 Heritage Tourism Award for Children’s Programming. Back of Beyond Adventure; 800/732-7251; backofbeyond.ab.ca.


Southwest Ed-Ventures emphasizes building new knowledge and skills, while visiting off-the-path places in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona. The company utilizes special guides such as a geologist, a field archaeologist and a carnivore ecologist. Southwest Ed-Ventures, 800/525-4456; sw-adventures.org.

BOSS, the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, is the oldest and largest traditional living skills and survival school. Based out of corporate headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, with a field office in the tiny hamlet of Boulder, Utah, BOSS offers field, skills, explorer and custom courses. Boulder Outdoor Survival School, 800/335-7404; boss-inc.com.


Located in a remote valley in Wyoming’s Absaroka Mountains, Bitterroot Ranch combines some of the best trail riding in North America with pack trips, fishing trips, cattle roundups and riding clinics. People who come to Bitterroot will experience this spectacular, wild country from the back of a willing horse. Bitterroot Ranch, 800/545-0019; bitterrootranch.com.

Ranchweb.com is an online database that boasts the best and widest selection of dude ranch vacations. Browsing for ranches with kid’s programs results in dozens of options all over the U.S. Listings include extensive children’s programs with counselors from breakfast until after dinner. Some offer programs where kids eat together and parents may join the kids in their dining room. Other dude ranches design activities for parents and kids to enjoy together. Gene Kilgore’s Ranchweb.com; ranchweb.com.

Teton Wagon Train & Horse Adventure takes guests back in time to relive the experiences of the early pioneers. Modern-day pioneers are met in Jackson, Wyoming, and transported to the wagon trail. Gentle riding horses are available for those who would like to ride in rotation with other guests. The wagon masters and cowboy guides are exceptional horsemen. The wagons travel to a new camp each day. On arrival, they form a circle and signal the end of the day’s travel. During the adventure guests have plenty of time to take nature hikes, swim, play horseshoes, canoe and horseback ride — or learn to rope, cook in a Dutch oven, saddle and harness the horses and drive teams, or just sit back and relax. On the last day of the trip a Pony Express rider delivers mail to camp. Teton Wagon Train & Horse Adventure, 307/734-6101; tetonwagontrain.com.


Sierra Club’s 2003 Outings directory features more than 330 adventures all over the world with around 50 trips designed specifically for families. Family outings range from backpacking, canoeing, sea kayaking, hiking, rafting, base camp exploring or beach combing to swimming and snorkeling. The average minimum age for most family outings is 5 years old, with some trips accepting toddlers. Trips almost always include accommodations and meals. Trained Sierra Club volunteer trip leaders are often complemented with naturalists, local historians or native guides. Sierra Club Outings, 415/977-5522; outings.sierraclub.org/national.

Mountain Travel Sobek, another veteran in the adventure travel field, has promoted worldwide adventure exploration and enjoyment since 1969. The current line-up of family adventure travel-camping trips includes: Tanzania, Antarctica, Nepal, Peru (Machu Pichu), Costa Rica (Multi-Sport), Galapagos/Ecuador, Sea Kayaking in Baja or Vancouver Island, Rafting in the Canadian Rockies or Idaho’s Salmon River and, finally (whew) hiking/backpacking in Yosemite and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Mountain Travel Sobek, 888/MT-SOBEK; mtsobek.com.

Few Internet websites do a better job catering to outdoor adventure travelers than GORP. At the GORP travel homepage, the entry-level browse options are: dude ranches, multi-sport, hiking, rafting, family, and travel deals. The “Advanced Trip Finder” feature has pull-down menus for, Choose a Region, Choose an Activity, Who’s Going, How Long, and When. You can browse by activities or browse by interest. Clicking the “Family” button brings up a cornucopia of trip selections ranging from Maine to California, from walleye to trout fishing, and from Grand Canyon family outings, to an Alaskan family safari. Website: gorptravel.com.

FamilyAdventureTravel.com is a database listing of companies that offer family adventure travel throughout the world. On its website the companies are indexed according to the type of adventure they offer and their geographical location. Website: familyadventuretravel.com.


This website is a directory to some of the best white-water-rafting tour operators in the U.S. and the Americas. Listings include rafting companies in 19 U.S. states. Website: raftingamerica.com.

Utah boasts the best of the West in outdoor variety and family adventures and this is the place to find a listing for most of the state’s guides and outfitters. They’re all here. River runners, canoe, kayak, 4WD, bike, horseback and fishing. Website: utahguidesandoutfitters.com.

Every one of the 50 U.S. states has a division of state government dedicated to tourism. Today, almost all have their own websites packed full of vacation ideas, information and useful Internet links. The University of Massachusetts has done travel writers (and now you) a favor by posting links to each state’s tourism site. If you know the state you want to visit, a click to this website might be a useful first outing. Website: unix.oit.umass.edu/~tourism/statelnk.html.

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