Travelling is too expensive? Not worth the hassle of finding kosher food? These is a relatively inexpensive way to do it – rent a plot of dirt, put a tent on it, and bring a portable grill (recommended). You won’t have the best night of sleep you’ve ever had, but the time passes quickly and it’s a lot of fun. At many camp sites you can actually stay on the water and go swimming, and of course, start a fire and cook your food or marshmallows in it. The most camping I ever did growing up was in a tent in my parents backyard, but adulthood allows you to live out those things you didn’t get to do as a child, and it’s a lot of fun for the children as well.
There are both private campsites, such as Brookside Campground in the Catskills which has a pool and some cabins, but I’ve had much better experiences at state parks. New Jersey, New York, and probably every other state in the country has vast public campgrounds where for from $20 – $40 a night you can get a private lakeside campsite which allows up to six people. I first tried the Delaware Water Gap which is okay, but there are a lot of bugs and the climb down to the river is steep. Plus, having your child float away in the river isn’t all that appealing. While there are plenty to choose from and I keep finding better places, I personally like Spruce Run in very rural Western New Jersey (near where RT-78 meets Pennsylvania) and North-South Lake in the Catskills, New York. These sites are . . . large and offer fire pits and lakeside camping where you can just jump right in the your own personal section of the lake. Next time, I’ll probably try High Point, New Jersey which is the highest location in the state complete with a depression-era tower to climb even higher.
If you go camping for the first time, you’ll kind of notice that a lot of people seem to live at some of these campsites. They have strewn out laundry, an absurd amount of outdoor enclosures and other paraphernalia and so forth. You can, at some of these places, even rent a cabin . . . but then you’re missing out on a lot of the fun! The essentials are little more than: a) a tent big enough for you to sleep in, b) sleeping bag or blankets, c) food, and d) matches/lighter. Beyond that, you’ll of course want to bring your tallis and tefillin, probably a change of clothing, and bathing suit, and a flashlight (I have each of my kids carry their own, just in case). A tent big enough for three will cost you all of $20 on Amazon, and the rest, most people have already (I hope).
You can buy firewood on site for $7 (NJ) or $8 (NY) a bag and it comes with a fire starter which is easy to light (and kind of takes some of the fun out of this part). You might also want to bring a small grill (charcoal grills are under $10, propane grills are about $60l available at supermarkets, Target, Amazon, etc.). You can do without the grill entirely and cook over your fire pit, but it’s not so easy as the flame tends to be less controlled. We also bring a raft each year, and I would imagine others might enjoy bringing fishing poles, but that’s not my thing.
The worst part is the sleeping. It’s fun, but I can’t say I’ve ever waken up nearly as well rested as when sleeping in a nice bed. (Still, it’s better than a cheap hotel bed.) To alleviate this, rollable mats help a lot – I use these for camping and sleeping in the sukkah. (Why people in chutz l’aretz don’t even bother trying to sleep in a sukkah is beyond me – that’s like . . . a mitzvah to go camping!)
The other issue are the animals. Ever daven Maariv next to a fox? I have. Worst kavana ever. (Translation for the non-observant Jews / non-Jews who read my blog: hard to meditate to the Creator when a fox is standing next to you eating your leftovers.) It’s a pretty good idea to listen to what they say and not leave any food or garbage lying around at night. In New Jersey, at each site they have poles on which to hang your garbage.
Insects, in my experience, have not been a problem. At the Delaware River after the rain, they were all over but for $2-$4 you can get slow burning insect repellent which seems to work well. I didn’t even bother lighting it at Spruce Run or North-South Lake. There simply haven’t been many insects at these sites when I’ve been there.
Setup your tent, make a fire, cook your food, go swimming, go fishing, roast marsh-mellows, launch projectiles, take out a boat, go hiking, do the organized activities if the site has them . . . surprisingly, I’ve never had a problem keeping busy. North-South Lake is connected to a lot trails with some very nice hikes. Two pics of it here: