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August 2010 cover image Franklin Mountains

Destination: Colorado Bend State Park

Camping with a Crowd

Travel time from:
Austin – 2.25 hours
Brownsville – 7.5 hours
Dallas – 4 hours
Houston – 5 hours
San Antonio – 3 hours
Lubbock – 6 hours
El Paso – 10 hours
By Bernadette Noll

With some planning and an appetite for fun, eight families come together for a campout full of memories.

For the third year in a row, our group of eight families entered the relative wilds for a few nights under the stars. In those three years, we have come a long way in figuring out what works, what doesn’t, what to bring and certainly what to leave behind. With 15 adults and 16 children — some experienced campers, some complete novices — we have learned a few things about enjoying three days in the field together.

We stayed at Colorado Bend State Park in Bend, where we had the group site, booked three months in advance. While the park is only 90 miles or so from Austin, the ride itself takes nearly two and a half hours because of the back roads and the final stretch into the park on a long dirt road.

Through trial and a bit of error over the years, we have figured out what to plan and what should be left alone. We have found ways to avoid redundancy, eliminate waste, minimize work and, perhaps most important, maximize fun. And it is the fun that will keep us going for years to come.

Plan Ahead

Before we even packed our first bag, we knew a key element to a successful group campout was planning ahead. We booked the site well in advance and had a couple of weekends to choose from to ensure getting the group site we wanted. We determined who would bring what equipment, and from there we figured out what meals were involved and who would contribute to what.

For our three-day campout, we charted out two dinners, two breakfasts and three lunches with enough food for 31 people. With eight families total, we divided the meals up so that each breakfast and dinner would be prepared by a team of two families. The teams could prepare meals as they wanted. Some went for highly labor intensive and others simple and easy. The choice was theirs.

The lunches would be a smorgasbord of leftovers from other meals and snacks that could easily hit the trail with us on our group hikes. We actually found it difficult to bring as little as was required — all of us are so used to hauling enough for our own families. Learning to trust the group was a lesson for us all in striking the balance between too much and not enough.

Photo by TPWD

Of course, all families were responsible for their own sleeping equipment — tents, pads, bedding, etc. To avoid chaos, hurt feelings and social mayhem, it worked best for the kids to all sleep in their own family tents and for bedtime to be the same for all kids. It was not met with joy by all the children, but most of them actually seemed grateful to have the law laid down on who would sleep where and when. In addition to keeping the social dynamics fair, it also allowed us grown-ups to have a couple of hours around the fire each night without kids — a welcome respite for the parents.

For the kitchen, we determined we’d need two cookstoves, two pots for coffee, two five-gallon jugs for washing and drinking, lots and lots of water (or at least vessels to fill with water since there is not a water source in the group site at Colorado Bend), hand soap (handmade soap on a rope!), dish soap and vessels for cooking. Families were responsible for their own clearly marked plates, cups and utensils. There are a lot of blue metal camp dishes out there, so the marking was essential. One cup and plate per person also meant less clutter around the kitchen area. And reusable dishes meant less waste to haul out of the site at weekend’s end.

We learned too, from experience, that each family would need to provide some firewood. Sitting around a fire for hours on end calls for a LOT of wood. Some hauled wood from home, while others purchased it from the ranger station.

Day 1

We arrived at staggered times on Friday night, most of us arriving before dark. We spent a few relaxing and fun-filled hours setting up tents, determining which table would be for eating, which one for meal prep and which one for storage. With eight families, there is a lot of stuff, so organizing this from the onset was crucial. Keeping one table free of debris allowed us to actually have sit-down meals together for a more communal feeling.

The kids ran excitedly around the site, whooping and hollering and happy to be on this beautiful piece of land with friends for an entire weekend. As each new car-full arrived, a yell went out and the kids scurried up to welcome the new arrivals. Their sense of ownership and responsibility for the land was immediate, and the ones who arrived first happily escorted the others and helped them carry their gear and pick out good spots for their tents.

Those responsible for Friday dinner had realized the previous year that bringing something ready-made to serve in the craziness of camp set-up was crucial. Just as the last tent was staked and the final sleeping bag unrolled, the dinner bell rang and we all reveled in our first-night feast of chicken tacos with all the preassembled fixings.

Around 9 p.m. or so we began bedtime for the kids. We knew it would take a while to calm the excited bodies, but we also knew that the last four-plus hours of running and playing in the outdoors would mean that once they were still, sleep would come easily. By 10, all kids were in their tents, most of them sound asleep. For the next couple of hours the adults had the fire to themselves, talking, playing guitar, singing and enjoying the moon and seemingly endless stars.

Photo by TPWD

Day 2

Early risers were greeted with an easily started fire and breakfast of yogurt, granola, fruit and hard-boiled eggs. Some campers may argue the idea that camp food should be cooked, but, for those assigned to this meal, the ability to have it stretch over a couple of hours seemed crucial. And so it was as, little by little, people emerged from their tents, happy with a good night’s sleep.

We enjoyed a bit of free time playing games in the field, fishing and enjoying the sunshine before preparing for a group hike to the majestic Gorman Falls. We packed up plenty of high-protein snacks and drove to the trailhead for the 3-mile round-trip hike. With so many kids in tow, protein was essential.

At the trail’s end, we picnicked on the rocks, explored the plants and snoozed in the sun. The group factor paid off as the children all entertained one another, significantly minimizing the whining. The hike was a bit long for some of our younger legs, but all made it out alive in the end.

By late afternoon, we returned to camp and enjoyed a few restful hours climbing the site’s magical live oaks, doing yoga in the field and napping in the hammock strung up in the shade. By early evening the dinner team had begun preparation, and the announcement of a post-dinner talent show got all the kids and adults alike preparing for the event. Skits were created, tumbling acts were practiced, songs were rehearsed, and the excitement of the big show carried us through till dinnertime.

The grilled meat and veggies cooked over the fire were devoured happily. The dinner team cleaned up the mess, and each family took care of its own dishes, which made it all seem rather effortless. From there, the segue into nighttime was made as the sun set over our perfect riverside group site.

As the fire roared, the stage was set for our evening talent show, which we all realized brought about a bit of method to what could have been madness. The purposefulness of the show preparation and the coming together during the show itself really cemented the group nicely. After the show, s’mores were brought out, and we all enjoyed the fire under the stars.

As the guitars emerged from their cases, the singing began and we shared a few rounds of songs of all varieties. Even those resistant to the idea of singing sang along. Bedtime came easily as the kids crashed hard from a full day of fresh air.

Photo by TPWD

Day 3

The breakfast team cooked up mounds of bacon and eggs as the kids prepared “toast on a stick” to enjoy while they waited. We had hot chocolate and coffee, and we reveled in the grittiness that is inevitable this long into a campout. The way the sun hit this group site so dramatically, illuminating the big, open field, couldn’t help but make us rejoice in it all.

After a lingering morning we managed to group up and hit the Spicewood Springs Trail. With more than a dozen young sets of legs and a few strollers in the mix, this scenic, easy trail was a perfect match for our fatigued group. At trail’s end, we set up picnics on the rocks at the crystal-clear (and cold!) swimming hole. Some of us lingered there, wading and exploring with the wee ones, while another group ventured up the trail.

We returned to the campsite and, after a lunch of delicious leftovers, began cleaning up camp. Tents were broken down, piles of clothing were sorted, kitchen gear was dismantled, and the cars were loaded up for the return to Austin. Group photographs were taken and, family by family, we departed, each carload sent off with the same vigor with which it was greeted. A couple of families, reluctant to leave, stayed through to dinnertime and hit the road just before dark.

We all returned home tired but happy, and once home we all declared this three days in the field would no doubt be an annual, if not biannual, event. We found enough adventure and relaxation, enough structure and freedom, enough solitude and group time, enough food and fun and definitely enough friends to make it the best three days it could possibly be.

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