First, for full disclosure: I’m not really a camper.
I do camp. I’m just not a camper camper.
I like escaping from the city for a bite of fresh air. I like the smell of melting marshmallows. I like to watch my daughters, who are 5 and 7 and definitely camper campers, tromp through the forest hunting for big, black slugs and shockingly tame deer.
I like to watch my husband, the most campery camper of them all, heft camp wood with his bulging muscles and build us a crackling fire. I like to impress him in return by pitching our (ridiculously easy, practically self-assembling) tent from a certain large Northwest outdoor retailer all on my own. I like to cook hearty good meals outdoors.
I do not like pit toilets. I do not like being (very) cold. I do not like bugs of any sort, except for ladybugs. I do not like my back to ache. I do not like much grime or discomfort.
It was with this background that I signed my family up to spend a night trying out some late-fall, cool-weather camping in a totally new kind of “camping” shelter at Tolt MacDonald Park and Campground in Carnation.
King County’s new camping container was upcycled from a surplus shipping container and retrofitted with sustainable and recycled materials. See a cool video about the container here.
Because we camped … (wait, I feel like I should coin a new term right now, because “camped” doesn’t feel entirely right. Close, but not exactly. So I’m going to say, containered. I know, funny, right? I think we can get used to it) … because we “containered” midweek, we arrived at the park late.
We knew we’d have no time to cook dinner — although it’s super easy to do, in the brand new fire pit just outside the container, if you are so inclined — so we stopped in Redmond to pick up sandwiches.
And let me tell you, there’s something all the more rewarding about escaping into the forest after navigating the sport-utility-vehicle-covered wilds of Redmond during evening rush hour …
As darkness crept on, we wound the last bend in the road and pulled into the main entrance of the park. The affable hosts were waiting for us (they were worried, because check-in time is 2 p.m. and we finally arrived at about 7 p.m.) with the key to our container.
Part of the fun of camping at Tolt (which also features cabin, yurt, trailer and tent sites) is that if you elect to stay on the west side of the park, you get to cross the Snoqualmie River. And that means tromping across the 500-foot suspension (swinging!) foot bridge.
As we rolled our wagon (provided by the park) of belongings over the bridge, my husband prepped his fire-building muscles by crazily shaking the bridge until the kids and I were shrieking into the dusk and begging him to stop before we fell into the river.
On the other side of the bridge the container, like a glowing little box of light against the darkness of the trees, came into view.
We didn’t know what to expect except sleeping accommodations for four. Because it was already mid-October, we had planned for a chilly night and loaded up on wool clothes and warm sleeping bags. Turns out we didn’t need them.
When our hosts unlocked the door (a front door, like a house), we walked into a lamp-lit space warmed by radiant heating, a neat wooden bunk bed (double on bottom, single on top) against one end, a row of wooden cabinets against the other. In the center of the “room” was a shiny table with bench seating and a lounging chair that converted to a single sleeping space. Airtight windows covered most of the walls, with curtains ready to draw closed. There was fresh paint on the drywall, reclaimed wood details, a broom and dustpan and … moulding.
Immediately my kids scampered up the bunk bed ladder and camped out, planning all the ways they could spy on us, the parents, from their perfect perch.
After a long day at school and work, a hectic commute, a shopping trip, and the loading and transporting of belongings to the container, we felt practically like kings as we sat there, in the box lit up by LED lights, munching away on our sandwiches and fruit smoothies, gazing out at the openness beyond.
It was like no camping I’ve ever done. And that’s part of what was so fun.
We didn’t dispense entirely with tradition. The fire was built, the sticks located, the marshmallows roasted. And we were still a long stretch from glamping: There are pit toilets at Tolt, and no sinks (an outdoor faucet of cold water is your wash station), so no one can really get too fancy.
Sleeping in a bed is much more comfortable, if less rustic, than sleeping on the ground (and due to the heater and airtight design it was so warm we were baking in our 15-degree bags).
And escaping somewhere so close to civilization allows you to cheat in ways you can’t when you really leave modern life behind: In the morning, my husband had to go to the car to charge up his phone and decided the Starbucks in town was so close he would just swing by for some coffees.
Containering is definitely a kind of hybrid camping, and it’s priced that way, too (a night in the container is $50). It’s not what you do if you want to get far away from everything or if you really want to commune with the wild, bugs and all (although once when we left the front door of the container wide open a big old hungry mosquito did sneak in).
But it’s unique, makes for a fun, fast, close-to-home getaway, and it would be a great basecamp for a few days’ worth of exploring the often overlooked jewels that the Ames Lake Plateau and Cascade foothills have to offer.
I think my kids' time in the cargo container will stay with them for awhile. Back in the city on the way home, they spotted a truck pulling a working container through an intersection and immediately started hollering, "We slept in one of those!"
If you go:
Information about camping at Told MacDonald can be found online here. All camp sites at the park can be reserved up to one year in advance with at least one week notice by calling the Camping Line at 206-205-5434. Yurts and the camping container are available by reservation only, with at least one week notice.
Campground and other park facilities are open year-round.
The maximum stay at any one site is seven days.
Alcohol is prohibited, and no pets or cooking allowed inside the container.