Last week, a message from Alana Waters-Piper went out to South Austin neighborhoods through the Nextdoor app.
"We’re planning a backyard campout this Friday night. I know we can’t do it together as a group, but maybe do it together as a community and share photos of our setups. Seems like a fun & easy distraction. I’d like to invite y’all to play along. :) Make a pitcher of something delicious, light your fire pit, pull out a tent or hammock, enjoy a beautifully cool evening together. (But separate! Definitely separate!)"
One by one, messages came back:
"We've been backyard camping ALLLLLL week."
"Chocolate CHECK, marshmallows (a bit stale) CHECK, graham crackers, CHECK. I'm in....."
In this time of social distancing and staying at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, neighbors did something together and expanded their living spaces. They took in the cool night breezes, listened to the birds (and sometimes a rooster), and heard the rain on their tents overnight.
Some, especially those with younger kids, didn’t stay out the whole night. Some have kept the tents up to become an extended play space.
Waters-Piper, who moved back to Texas from the Chicago area, was used to being the ringleader of neighborhood shenanigans there. One year, they decorated their cars with Christmas lights and had a parade through the neighborhood.
The trick is to "keep it easy," she says. "If you make it complicated, few people are going to do it."
She loves to camp, but she’s not a tent camper. Instead, her family pulls a vintage trailer whenever they camp. For the backyard campout, she pulled her minivan around to the backyard, stuck an air mattress in there and then tried to do all the things they normally do when they camp.
They had a bean bag toss, blew up the kiddie pool and filled it with water, put up the camping table and roasted hot dogs in the fire pit. They listened to the Beatles while sipping cocktails, or for her son, Will, 10, ginger ale.
"We tried really hard to pretend like we're not at home," she says.
The cool thing was that "we could hear other people on our block," she says. "People in their backyard, up and down the street."
It made her feel almost like it was summertime and they were at a national or state park rather than stuck at home.
"We're all trying to entertain kids and keep a family life and instill some sort of normal behavior and not make it seem so scary," she says.
Just like a typical camping trip, Waters-Piper’s dog Beverly was included. She loves to go camping, Waters-Piper says. It’s like she knows she’s in her den with all her people.
Jason Osorio brought his 11-month-old boxer Baxter to his backyard campout last Friday. At first, Baxter slept outside, but by the middle of the night he had crawled into the tent.
Dahlia Anzaldua-Torres and her family created a campsite with a tent they called Camp Q, complete with a cardboard sign.
"After the last two stressful and crazy weeks, we truly needed a little not-so-far getaway, even if it was in our own backyard," she says.
Monica Gaylord and her husband, Richard, had planned on camping at Inks Lake, but they worried that with the stay-at-home order rolling out they wouldn’t be able to return home.
Instead, they set up their camping trailer and set out some chairs under an awning. They’ve been cooking in the camper and pretending like they are on vacation, she says. They go to the backyard to swim in their pool and pretend it’s the lake.
"We’re faking it, but it’s fun."
Sometimes neighbors come by and set up their own chairs at a safe distance. They’ve met more neighbors during their week of camping in the driveway than ever before.
"It’s very welcoming," she says.
Curt Barbour got into hammock camping three years ago. "It’s just the thrill of everything, from putting it up to sleeping out under the stars," he says. "It’s the best sleep you’ll have."
When the stay-at-home order began to happen, he realized that he had two trees in his backyard that were the right distance apart. One thing that makes it great is the bug net that is part of the hammock he bought.
Now he’s been sleeping out there in his hammock. His wife is staying inside.
"For me, I would always want to be in my hammock if my wife would let me," he says.
Backyard camping is a great way to introduce kids to camping.
Phoenix Duke made her two sons part of the tent setup and the whole experience.
"If you’re doing it with little ones, expect bedtime to be a lot later than planned," says Duke, whose sons are 2 and 5. "Just have fun and remember to take long naps the next day!"
She did sleep great, though, and enjoyed the rain throughout the night.
Kathleen Loyd’s 4-year-old daughter, Isaac, loved playing in the tent and spent most of the day in and out of it.
"It was a really good reason to set the tent up, try it out and see how the little girl does," she says.
They pretended like they were doing it for real, but then, after making up stories and trying to sleep, Isaac wanted to go back inside.
Then the next day, she wanted to take her nap in the tent.
"We’re training for the real deal," Loyd says, who has plans to build up to more nights of camping in the backyard next year and eventually go to Big Bend National Park, where she grew up camping with her parents.
Matt Turner’s daughters, who are 3 and 1, haven’t slept in the tent yet, but the campsite has become a place for 3-year-old Georgia to hang out.
"It’s definitely reduced our use of YouTube and apps and stuff," Turner says. "It’s us getting back to using our imaginations a bit more."
He intends to keep the tent up while the stay-at-home order is in place and "until I can take them real camping," he says.
Heidi Keefe did run into a few challenges while trying to re-create a traditional camping experience in her backyard. She did H-E-B Curbside for marshmallows for s’mores, and they substituted mini marshmallows. So, she made s’mores in the kitchen’s oven broiler by sticking the mini marshmallows on one graham cracker, and then after they were melted she took them out of the oven and added the chocolate and another graham cracker on top. It worked.
They also told a too-scary story that night, and her 4-year-old son, Paxton, declared he was scared, so they all went back inside to sleep.
Like the Turner family, the Keefes are keeping the tent up. Paxton has been asking to go out there and watch his iPad. He can have some time to himself and get a break from the living room, Heidi Keefe says.
"That’s the new escape pod," she says. "He goes out there with his dad, and when I’m in the kitchen, he can get out of my hair a little bit."
"It’s like having one more place to go, one more distraction, one more place to pass a little bit of time," she says.