The Return of Campsgiving
We bring back Campsgiving in cold Michigan
“We want to do Campsgiving again.”
The summer was winding down and beginning of August school start dates loomed.1 We had returned from our summer vacation and our 12 and 14-year-olds both made their November desires clear: they wanted to go camping for Thanksgiving.
Dear reader, this is what you must first understand: In the six years we lived in Houston, Campsgiving became a hallowed tradition in our family. It was sacred. Any conversation about doing something different for the Thanksgiving holiday was off of the table. During each of our five Thanksgiving camping trips, questions about where we would go the following year dominated our conversation on our way home. It wasn’t just something we did because we had nothing better to do during that week; it transformed our entire approach to how our family finished out the year and moved throughout the rest of the holidays.
For two years after our return to Indiana, the kids had mourned the loss of one of their favorite family traditions. Sure, they enjoyed having extended family in our house, but they wanted that time back with just the four of us. They wanted to explore and have campfires and then eat a traditional Thanksgiving feast off of paper plates while sitting in camping chairs.
And to be honest, we wanted it back too.
But I was still unconvinced that we could bring it back during the unpredictable month of November. It could be 60 degrees or it could be snowing. And this year, my husband Jeff had thrown another wrench into any Campsgiving planning: He had two tickets to the Michigan/Ohio State game and he had spent the last year planning to take our son. If we were going to do this, we were going to have to camp in Michigan. At the end of November.
We asked the kids if they were sure. They said yes. So I looked for a state park in Michigan that was close enough to Ann Arbor to make it worth our while and still open for camping at that time of year. I picked Waterloo Recreation Area, the same state park where we would find ourselves camping during our fall break in October.
And then I spent the next four months convincing myself that everything would be ok. We could handle the cold. It would be worth it. After all, we had survived extreme temperatures on three Christmas break trips to West Texas, and this couldn’t be any worse.
Packing and shopping lists were made, the pantry filled to the brim, extra blankets and space heaters packed, and on Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, we headed north to Michigan. The gray skies hung over us as we pulled into the state park, the temperature sitting right around forty degrees. Then we started setting up camp.
The week before we left for Michigan, Jeff had asked both kids on two separate occasions what would make our Campsgiving perfect. Neither hesitated: “Aunt Kristen.”
While they wanted a quiet Campsgiving with our family, the only thing that could make it better would be the presence of their favorite aunt. (My apologies to my sisters and sisters-in-law. It’s not your fault. Kristen is just the favorite.) Unbeknownst to them, Jeff and Kristen had been talking about her driving from Denver so that she could leave her much smaller travel trailer in our backyard for the winter. She could pick it up again and just head west with us to Yellowstone in seven months.
We thought she would beat us to the campground since she had spent the night on the other side of Michigan at my in-laws’ house, but we were parked and starting to set up camp when Jeff pointed in the direction of the dump and water station, which could be seen a few sites down, and told our son to help the person sitting there. Confused by the odd directive, our son finally realized who it was and ran over, yelling for our daughter, who was concentrating on detangling and tying the dog lines around a tree. Then she heard Kristen’s voice and dropped everything, running the same direction she saw her brother take off in.
That’s it. Campsgiving was complete.
And then we were in a race against the dark, determined to have our campsite set up before the temperatures plummeted and it was too dark to see what we were doing. We set up two canopies over the firepit and picnic table and curtained walls around those. With propane-powered heaters and a roaring fire, we were able to trap enough heat to keep us comfortably cold while we ate the enchiladas I had prepared for the grill the night before.
The next morning, I braved the below-freezing temperature to make bacon, sausage, and eggs. Determined to prove that we could fully do this camping thing in November in Michigan, Jeff turned on the space heaters inside the tent so the whole family could eat outside.
Then it was time to prepare Thanksgiving dinner.
Every time I tell people we are camping for Thanksgiving, their first concern is what we are going to eat while we are camping. But Jeff and I had been doing our Thanksgiving food preparation outdoors long before we decided to start camping for the holiday. Every Thanksgiving, the smokers and grills had been filled with turkey, ham, and appetizers, leaving the oven and stove inside open for cooking everything else.
Jeff recruited our 12-year-old to help him with the turkey, teaching our son how to gut the bird and inject it with marinade, season it, and then put it into the fryer. Jeff walked him through the process of making a bacon blanket, weaving the pieces of meat together so the juices could keep the turkey extra moist. I took the dogs for walks, including one of them around the one-mile trail in the campground, and then started the rest of the food. We got out the induction cookers, cast iron, and toaster oven, and turned on the Traeger, preparing potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, rolls, gravy, roasted vegetables and so much more.
As Jeff and Kristen’s parents and then youngest sister and sister-in-law arrived from western Michigan, we lit a fire, played games of corn hole and washers, and enjoyed time together before laying out a full Thanksgiving feast on the picnic table.
Was it colder than previous Campsgivings that we had enjoyed in Texas and Louisiana? Yes, but it got into the high 40s, the sun came out for a little bit, and we kept enough heat trapped under the tents to keep us warm as we gathered and enjoyed family time outside. By the time our guests left to drive back home, we sat peacefully in our warm fortress, Kristen, the kids, and I playing multiple rounds of Racko before we finally gave up trying to stay warm and headed inside to our much warmer beds.
Our previous Campsgivings had us heading home on either Friday or Saturday, but we were sticking around for two more days. On Friday we drove an hour north to my sister’s house so we could celebrate Thanksgiving with her family, her in-laws, and our parents, who had made the drive over from western Michigan.2
On Saturday the boys left the campground by 8:00, with high hopes to capture as much of the environment in Ann Arbor as they could before they attempted to stay warm in The Big House for The Game. Kristen, my daughter, and I waited a little longer before we also made the trek to Ann Arbor, stopping at the M Den in the mall before settling down to eat at Red Robin with a restaurant full of Michigan faithful, and a few Ohio State fans braving the environment.
By the time we all returned to eat the French Dip that had been cooking all day, it was cold and the weather map looked scary. We sent the kids to bed and then the three adults broke down camp, putting away everything that we could before the morning. Jeff and I watched the last minutes of the snowy Iowa State game, quickly realizing that the thick coat of snow we saw on the field was headed our way.
But when we woke up the next morning, the sunrise told a different story. It was the calm before the storm, and we would see our first real snow of the season on our way home.
We packed up the rest of the camp as quickly as we could, visited the dump station to clear our tanks as much as possible (we were concerned about some of the water in the tanks being frozen), and headed out. By the time we entered I-94, gentle snowflakes blew past us and increased the further west we traveled. We couldn’t wait to head south, but even that didn’t give us much relief until we were south of Fort Wayne and the snow turned to rain.
Despite the snow on our way home and the mad rush to get ready to return to school the next morning, we were thankful we had brought back Campsgiving. When I asked our two adolescent children if they wanted us to make it a priority again next year, they responded with a forceful “yes.”3
And if my two teenagers want to spend a long weekend camping as a family, who am I to say no?
Video post below
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Yes, our daughter and I started school on August 1. And yes, it is early.
Jeff and I are from the same hometown, graduated from the same high school, and our parents live half a mile away from each other. There is a lot to unpack there, but that’s for a different time.
Only this time, I’m looking for a state park in Kentucky!