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Our Mom/Daughter Camping Trip: The Gift that Keeps Giving Year After Year

Friendship, Nature, Tradition… and the Perfect S’more

by Darby Steiger

The four of us sit around a campfire making s’mores and telling stories about our shared tradition spanning twenty years. Stories emerge of our experiences at amazing (and sometimes horrible) campsites. We reminisce about running up and down sand dunes, hiking through forests, floating down rivers, swimming in beautiful (and sometimes scummy) lakes, gazing at the stars, surviving rainy nights in flooded tents, and sharing our deepest secrets while gorging on barbecue potato chips.

This might sound like the story of four lifelong friends, but actually, it’s the story of two moms who, back in 2003, had a wild idea to take their two toddlers camping.

Marcy and I met in 2001 and became fast friends. By 2003 we were looking to deepen our adult friendship in a way that would encourage our daughters (Lily, age 3, and Rebecca, age 4) to become friends, too. Neither of us quite remember how we came up with the idea, but somehow we decided to take our girls to Punderson State Park for an overnight camping trip. 

All night long, Marcy and I worried about the girls while we listened to the frogs croak and the trucks drive down Rt. 87. We barely slept a wink. Our girls, though? They slept like rocks, probably dreaming about the great time they had making friends with caterpillars and playing in the sand on the beach. Our girls enjoyed it so much that we returned to Punderson the following year, this time for two nights. By the end of that second weekend, we resolved to make camping our summer tradition and to try a different state park each time.

We agreed: Dads and little brothers were not invited! This was a mother-daughter bonding trip.

In the early years, we moms shared a tent with our respective daughters. Later, our girls slept in one tent while we slept in the other, which was amazing for all of us! When our girls began pitching their tent much faster than we pitched ours and they stayed awake giggling past our mom bedtime, Marcy and I knew we had created something magical.

For 10 summers, Marcy and I explored state parks all over Ohio with our girls. After that, we ventured out of state to visit Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan. Certain elements always stayed the same. We camped for two nights at a state park within a four-hour drive. Chicken schnitzel on Friday night, hot dogs and s’mores on Saturday night. Eggs for breakfast on Saturday, pancakes on Sunday. Later, we added lunch at a local restaurant on Saturdays, a visit to an outlet mall on Sundays. And now that the girls are over 21, we visit a local brewery, too.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw us for a loop, but we managed. In 2020, we masked up and took an overnight trip to an isolated, rustic campsite at Salt Fork State Park. In 2021, we went slightly back to normal, opting to camp in Hocking Hills. Then, just before our camping trip in 2022, Lily and I both got the coronavirus.

It was to be our 20th anniversary camping trip and we had big celebrations in store. The trip was scheduled on the only free weekend Lily and I had that summer and we were worried that we might need to cancel. Thankfully, we recovered just in time to have an incredible weekend with Marcy and Becca in the Finger Lakes, “glamping” on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake. We checked the boxes on all of our normal traditions, but also celebrated with flights of wine and cider, and specially made t-shirts that mapped all of our trips over the last 20 years.

This incredible tradition gave us beautiful landscapes where we grew as mothers, daughters, and best friends. Camping helped us navigate through both good and tough times, from our daughters’ toddler years all the way through them “adulting” after college. There are so many lessons we each have taken from our shared experience — most importantly, the values of friendship, nature, tradition…and the perfect s’more.

Our tradition has stretched over 20 years and we’re not finished with it yet. Though, now that we’ve tried glamping, I think we might welcome some changes. Maybe the next 20 years of family camping trips will be a little more luxurious.

How It All Began

by Marcy Shankman

I’m not sure how the conversation started, or who said what exactly, but somehow our casual conversation grew into an annual tradition that made a lasting impact in all our lives. What I do remember is enjoying Darby’s descriptions of her outdoor adventures as a young adult, because I had similar feelings and experiences when I traveled. Which is probably why, when she suggested a mother-daughter overnight camping trip back in 2003, tent and all, I said yes without question. It seemed like a fun new way to spend time together and enjoy the outdoors with our girls. 

Darby and I weren’t concerned too much about the activities we would do while camping. We had only a few requirements to meet. We wanted to bring fixings for s’mores and Shabbat. We wanted to sleep in a tent. We wanted to be in the woods. That was about it.

Our first camping trip went so well that we committed straightaway to doing it again next year. When we succeeded a second time, we knew we were hooked. We made two commitments that summer of 2004 — let’s do this every year, and let’s bring air mattresses for the moms.

Our Camping Traditions

by Lily Steiger

Our traditions are one of the best parts about camping — no matter the location or the weather, we know that for one weekend, we can settle into the familiar like a well-oiled machine.

We always eat the same meals, take hikes, compete (moms vs. girls) for who can set up their tent the fastest, and of course, find the best side-of-the-road ice cream!

Sometimes we’re forced to change our traditions (like in 2018, when we spent our second night in a hotel because our tents flooded in a storm), and sometimes we decide to change them voluntarily (like in 2022, when we went out to dinner on Saturday night instead of cooking over the fire). But we’ve found, no matter what complications arise, that following our traditions has made our relationships grow stronger every year, and that’s for twenty years and counting!

Growing Up With a Unique Tradition 

by Rebecca Shankman

I don’t remember when I first realized that our camping tradition was unique. Our friendships may have developed as they did because of camping, or camping may have developed because of our friendships, but either way, they grew together and our annual camping trips marked time as Lily and I matured from preschoolers into adults.

Lily and I are both of legal drinking age, now. We can share a drink with our moms as the four of us sit around the campfire, telling our “remember when” camping stories.

Remember twenty years ago, when we camped for only one night and our moms couldn’t even look away from us? Remember year 5? That was the first time Lily and I were allowed to go to a playground alone.

In the years that followed, our moms gave us more independence. I recall the first time we got permission to walk to the camping store and then do trash walks in the dark by ourselves. Year 13 — that was the year when I got my driver’s license, and it was the first time Lily and I went pre-trip grocery shopping unaccompanied. Seven years later, we still shop together for our camping trips without our moms. 

Lily and I have gone from sharing our middle school fears and high school stresses to now laughing about college memories and graduate school challenges. We sit with our moms around the fire, running through memories of our time together. Our camping tradition has aged with us, but in some ways, I like to think it also has kept us young.

Darby Steiger is a social science researcher who grew up loving summer camp, s’mores, and all things outdoors.

Marcy Shankman is a leadership development professional balancing work and being a dedicated mom, traveler, and avid lover of all things outdoors, no matter the season.

Lily Steiger is an aspiring speech-language pathologist who loves reading, learning languages, and toasting marshmallows to a perfect golden brown.

Rebecca Shankman is a sociology PhD student who likes to counteract the stressful indoors with the wild outdoors as long as she is making memories with friends and family along the way.