Camping Reunions by Larry Polenske

Families across the country are getting away from it all to get together with each other. A great way to do so is to make yours a camping reunion.

Camping’s popularity grows every year so it’s not surprising that more reunions go camping. Campgrounds offer fresh air, lots of open space and plenty of activities, all at bargain prices.

The first order of business is to choose a campground. My family prefers state campgrounds for our frequent reunions. We are nature-lovers so fishing, hiking and bird-watching at state parks are perfect for our six-family, 25-person group.

A phone call or letter to any state’s tourism department will get you a list of campgrounds, recreation areas and reservation forms. You contact individual parks on the list for more detailed information. The fees at state campgrounds run from $9 to $12 daily with a $3 to $5 reservation charge.

The Wisconsin Amerling family holds its reunion on Memorial Day weekend at Fond du Lac County Park, a county-run campground. The Amerlings chose this location because it offers many activities, including swimming, hiking, playgrounds, ball diamonds and several covered pavillions. Like most county campgrounds, they do little advertising but have great accommodations at a reasonable price.

A visit or call to your local chamber of commerce or park department can put you in touch with county campgrounds in your area. If you’re organizing a reunion out-of-town, they’ll help you contact other chambers. A typical county campground charges from $8 to $12 per night, and many offer group discounts.

Private campgrounds are another great place for reunions. There are thousands to choose from, and they are often more flexible than state- or county-run facilities because they are not bound by legislative restriction.

Pat Anthony, Fort Collins, Colorado, had her family reunion rescued by an accommodating campground in Morgan Hill, California. She was organizing the Ready Family Reunion and had reservations a year in advance at a private campground, which suffered severe flood damage in California’s torrential rainstorms.

With 30 campers ready to go, Pat found herself without a reunion place. Frantic last minute calling found a sympathetic campground owner who made room for them. She praised the owner for turning a potential disaster into a successful reunion.

Like most private campgrounds, this one held lots of events to entertain visitors. Among other activities, they enjoyed dancing, swimming and horseshoes.

Church and YMCA camps are also ideal places for reunions. Bridgette Fisher and her aunt, Barb Daley, are part of a planning committee for the Hamilton Family Reunion at Camp Hemlock, a church-run facility in Michigan. The reunion started as a weekend gathering in 1990 and has grown to a five-day event. Members come from all over the country, including Alaska.

The Hamilton reunion committee meets four times a year to plan every last detail and to compile a calendar with everyone’s birthday and address. Meals are broken into individual ingredients, and quantities are meticulously calculated. A newsletter is mailed in June with assignments for each member.

At the camp, a work schedule is posted, and each member signs up for tasks like cooking, doing dishes and general clean-up. It may sound like a lot of structure for a family gathering, but with over 100 people spending five days together, they learned that meticulous planning pays off.

An auction and raffle at the reunion raised over $1,800 for general expenses. This helps pay for an insurance policy and defrays the cost of camping. Reunion members pay only $50 per family for the five-day event.

The federal government also manages many properties, which can be used for camping reunions.

Camping reunions are a unique and entertaining way for families to get together, and the cost is just a fraction of staying at hotels. A little extra planning is essential, but it pays big dividends in the end.

Campground cooking
Don’t let cooking for a large group of campers intimidate you. Make it manageable by keeping things simple and sharing preparation. A campground with electrical hook-ups will make the job much easier. Portable appliances like electric griddles, crock pots, coffee makers and even microwave ovens are easily packed to speed things up.

Camping and cooking over an open fire go hand-in-hand, so try to incorporate that in your menu planning. Chicken and ribs or burgers and brats are easy to grill and satisfy the heartiest appetites. They can also be cooked ahead of time and kept warm in roasters. Instead of trying to cook all the meat at one campsite, let each family show off its culinary abilities. Assign each campsite one menu item to prepare for the group. It’s much easier for each family to store and cook a dozen ribs than to have one huge cooler full to the brim. At a predetermined time, prepared food is brought to a central location and placed in warming trays or roasters.

Alternatively, skip cooking altogether and have a caterer do it instead. Many caterers have special menus ideal for open air eating. I attended one gathering where the caterer, in accordance with a western theme, had all his cooks and servers wear cowboy hats and boots. They cooked gigantic burgers on a huge grill, handed out straw cowboy hats and took pictures of guests standing next to cardboard cutouts of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Catered food can also be picked up and served by your members.

Another unique idea is to have a spanferkel (roast pig). The preparation of this meal is an event in itself. The caterer can supply the roast pig and you can do side dishes or have professionals do it all so your guests just bring their appetites.

A departure-day group breakfast is a great way to end your camping reunion in style. It’s easy to gather everyone because they’re sleeping within shouting distance of the dining area. Pancakes and sausage are traditional fare for a camping breakfast and preparation is quick and easy.

Use grandma’s old sourdough or buttermilk pancake recipe if you must, but a standard commercial mix will probably get rave reviews. One person mixing and two people on electric griddles can whip out piping hot pancakes in assembly-line fashion. Pre-cooked brown-and-serve sausages are easily prepared and served from a big warming tray.

Another good breakfast idea, which requires no cooking, is a pastry-potluck. Each family brings its favorite coffee cake, cinnamon rolls or doughnuts to the dining area to share. Add a couple of big electric coffee makers, some fruit, and breakfast is complete. Preparation is minimal with virtually no dishes to do.

Camping reunion activities
Plan your reunion activities around the campground’s features. Consider a volleyball tournament for younger members; horseshoes are ideal for those less athletically inclined. Award traveling trophies to winning teams, and to inspire more spirited competition, exempt first place teams from dishwashing chores.

Most campgrounds have nature trails. A scavenger or treasure hunt encourages members to explore trails and promotes camaraderie. Ask the camp director about educational programs for children and adults. Many campgrounds have naturalists who present programs on local wildlife and flora.

Hay rides are a tradition at many campgrounds. They’re a way to tour the grounds and a good reason to get together. Ask the manager if a special ride can be scheduled just for your reunion.

Include information in your reunion letter about featured campground activities so guests can bring appropriate equipment, such as bikes, tennis rackets, hiking boots and swimwear.

About the author
Larry Polenske lives in West Bend, Wisconsin, with his wife, Lisa, and daughters, Amy and Kari. He helps support the family’s camping habit by writing an outdoor column for the West Bend Daily News as well as doing freelance work for several outdoor publications.