Tips for Camping With Your Kids
Growing up, some of my fondest memories were made at a campground with my family. My grandmother had a permanent camper at the park outside of town and we would spend many of our weekends in the summer staying there. From playing in the wide, shallow creek to spending whatever spare change we could find on penny-candy at the general store, my brother and I seldom stopped moving. I wish I could recall just how many of my “firsts” took place at that campground, but I know it was more than a few. Fireflies were abundant there, not like at our house in town. Often times we would have competitions to see who could collect the most in a jar, just like we would compete for which of us could find the biggest crayfish by flipping over rocks down in the creek. We were wild and free, within the safe confines of the campground where everyone knew that we were Beverly’s grandchildren.
These days I pride myself on just how enjoyable I can make camping with my own kids. Many of the lessons that I learned from my father have been given a modern day twist and then passed down to my own little ones. I keep a little closer eye on my kids when we camp, but there is still a near-palpable shift in freedom whenever we take to the woods. It hasn’t all been easy of course, it never can be. From leaky tents, flaming marshmallow burns, and truck-fulls of wood that have been far too wet to build a fire, all the way to poison ivy and an invading gang of armadillos; it seems that sometimes that we practice more “surviving” than “camping”. But when the cuts and bug bites heal and we have had a shower in our own bathroom again, we’re always glad we went and we’re ready to plan the next trip. Some people may not have had the chance to spend as much time outside as I did as a child but still want to start the tradition with their own kids, and if that’s the case then you’ve come to the right spot. Below are some of the best tricks and tips to make sure that your next, (or first), camping trip with children is full of good memories that you all will cherish.
Practice at Home
Camping can involve a lot of changes that kids may not even have thought of. Taking some test runs at the house may ease them into some of the more culture-shocking aspects of the experience. You can set the tent up in the backyard and practice various things like making a fire and sleeping outside. The focus doesn’t need to be on staying out all night long however; even if you just spend a Saturday evening hanging out at the tent by the fire, you can begin to anticipate any problems that may come up when you finally do take to the woods. A backyard is also a great place to learn things such as: your tent is actually not waterproof, your kid is terrified of bats, you have no idea how to build a fire, or all of your stuff does not in fact fit in the bargain pup tent that you got on clearance. 1 weekend in your yard can save you a dozen hardships in the actual bush.
You Don’t Have to Rough It to Have Fun
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to qualify “camping” to my friends. It seems as though to some people that there is an unspoken criteria of just what exactly constitutes camping. Pool? Not camping. Gravel parking spot? Not camping. None of this is true, of course. You know what your family likes and what your family will get the most enjoyment from. Set a realistic goal for just what kind of experience you want your family to have and go to that type of campground. Some families prefer a more rustic setting while others like some of the creature comforts of the modern world. Do you need or want Wi-Fi when you camp? Don’t be ashamed of it, many people (myself included at times) do. Going from an air conditioned house to digging a latrine hole in the ground can be pretty extreme for many kids, and also a surefire turn-off for any future attempts at roughing.
Don’t Over Pack…
Camping should be about learning to find new things to experience and getting closer to nature; in whichever way your family chooses to. Nothing brings down a good time like packing, then unpacking, then re-packing, then unpacking again, a ton of stuff that never got used while roughing it. That full dinner party dish set? It’s heavy, takes up too much space, and you may not even use half of it. Wash your dishes after each meal and trim the excess fat a bit. My kids seem much more receptive to helping out with some chores while camping than while at home and that helps to do more with less. It seems that every time we go camping we add some “must have” to the packing list, but we also manage to jettison a “never used” item in its place. Keeping track of just how useful the things you brought along proved to be is another way to ensure that there’s no unnecessary baggage on future trips as well.
…But Do Pack For the Weather and Environment
I have always said that there’s a fine line between camping and surviving. I’ve found myself huddled in a wet ball inside of a leaking tent as a thunderstorm crashed down outside enough to know that when it comes to anticipating disaster, hope for the best but prepare for the worst. There’s no shortage of meteorological resources that will accurately predict the daytime highs, nighttime lows, precipitation chances, and a whole lot more. Once you get a good picture of what the weather, night time illumination, and pollen count will be like when your family is out camping, double check them with more resources. What is endurable or even enjoyable to adults can be downright miserable for small children. Remember that the goal should be to make sure they have a happy memory of their camping trip rather than a future therapy bill from it.
Plan to Arrive With Plenty of Daylight Left
There are 2 hectic periods when it comes to camping: the day you arrive and the day that you leave. Clearing an area, setting up tents, preparing food, and a host of other various tasks that need to be accomplished upon arrival are much easier done in the daylight hours. Take the lessons that you learned from your backyard test-runs and plan accordingly for the real event. Climbing out of a car to the dark and mysterious woods is not the preferred method for ensuring that your small children are as comfortable as possible for their first night camping. Once you arrive, prioritize the tasks that need to be accomplished based on available light and the weather. Start with the tent so that there’s a place to go in the event the weather turns bad or the light fades quicker than anticipated. From there, decide what needs to happen next and keep going until your camp is set up and you’re ready for the sun to go down.
Keep Routines When Possible
When both my boys were potty-training there was absolutely no way they were going to sit on a toilet without their special padded child’s seat. So what did we do when we went somewhere? Yep; it has come with us on many an adventure. Kids, like adults, are creatures of habit. When you go camping, it is natural that many of those habits will need to change, but keeping as many routines as possible will ease the transition between home and wild. Staying on track with bedtimes, tooth brushing, naps, or any other routines you may have will make sure you minimize any regression with their progress and behavior and make camping seem a little more like home life.
This one is a little more user-preference. Some families may choose to ban electronics (aside from a cell phone in the car for emergencies), while others may set aside some time each day or evening for their children to play games or watch a movie. The goal should of course be quality family time. Personally, I always go the route of “there’s a time for it, it’s just not all the time.” Does that mean that I scoff at families who go the “blackout” route? Not at all; to each their own. In my experience I have found that my boys turn to electronics when mom or dad is too busy to focus on them. Call it a casualty of modern day life, but kids will seek out entertainment and if you don’t provide it, they’re going to find it somewhere else. The good news is that you probably don’t have too much to do while camping that they can’t participate in. The last time we went camping I remember kicking back by the fire one night and telling my oldest that I didn’t mind if he wanted to play on his phone. You could have knocked me over with a feather when he said “no, I just want to relax by the fire with you.” To me, that’s what I consider a camping “win.”
Almost every bad memory I have from camping is in some way related to food. It either got wet, stolen by ever-present raccoons, or was just not thought out well enough to make mealtime enjoyable. Remember, you’re camping with your children, not auditioning for “Survivor.” Your meal plans should not include foraging for wild edible plants, cooking grubs on the fire, or 20 packs of hotdogs. Pick up a camping cuisine book and plan out some meals that your family will actually enjoy and look forward to. Marshmallows are not a part of the food groups and 5 days of baked beans will get old faster than you may expect. Make sure you have a plan for perishables and always keep food containers closed and safe from both animals and the elements. You don’t need a $300 Yeti cooler, (although I LOVE mine), but you do need a way to protect and preserve your food.
Bring Games for the Family
A deck of cards and camping are axiomatic. Whether passing the time, enjoying being unplugged from electronic devices, or riding out some bad weather, simple and fun family games are memory-makers. As a word of caution, brush up on your “Go Fish” and other age appropriate games as a camping trip is probably not the time to introduce a 7 year old to 5 Card Stud poker. We have a large shelf in the linen closet that holds all of our games and when we go camping we grab a few of the simpler ones to bring along. You can even learn or purchase some games that haven’t been played at home before to add an extra bit of excitement to the evening!
Pass on the Knowledge
Hands down my all-time favorite activity to do while camping is to teach my boys about the woods. Having spent a considerable amount of time in the bush myself, some lessons I had to learn the hard way. Pack a couple of field books on the local flora and fauna and take your kids out to explore nature. You can point out dangerous or useful plants, explain the role of certain insects, or even identify the numerous animal tracks that you are sure to find around creeks and watering holes. For a fun afternoon, make a scavenger hunt and see how many things your children have learned or remember from previous walks. They are bound to have a new found connection and respect for the great outdoors with the more they know and understand about it. You can also do this with various survival, first aid, and camping skills. Kaden, (my oldest), spent about 5 hours one day making a fire with flint and steel. Just be sure to keep things at their age level for safety as well as understanding.
The More, the Merrier
Making it a family affair for other family friends is another way to get the most enjoyment out of a camping trip. Whether you bring along a friend of your child’s or you plan a getaway involving other families, this is a great way to make lasting memories. Many campgrounds have sites that are very close to one another so this is also a good way to pool resources between families. You can bring the firewood and they can bring the ice. Chances are both, (or more), families all bring some unique skill or trait to the table that will benefit the entire group.
Make It a Team Sport
Children love to participate in things with their parents. Camping is a great way to expose kids to new skills and get them engaged with the day-to-day tasks that make the world go around. You may be surprised at just how receptive they can be to things that they may never agree to at home. I’ve never found any enjoyment in carrying arm fulls of firewood. But for some reason to a 5 year old this critical task is about as much fun as can be had without breaking the law. If I ask my 12 year old to wash a dish at home you’d think I’d have banished our household to the stone-age. But load up a wagon and haul dishes to the spigot at the head of camp and scrub them? Well now he couldn’t imagine anyone more suitable for the task. Assigning them tasks isn’t just about lightening your load; it makes them feel like they are genuinely a part of the team. Just keep the chores appropriate for their age and skill and it will be a campsite win-win.
If I’ve lost count of how many things I have done and learned while camping then I hope my boys have as well. There’s no single attribute or characteristic about our time spent outdoors that I love the most or search out the most. It is entirely the holistic experience of bringing my children closer to the natural earth of which we are a part, and in doing so, closer to me. One day I hope they will bring their own children to the great outdoors and pass down what I have endeavored to teach them. They will undoubtedly improve upon many things; I’m stubborn in my ways and reluctant to adopt many modern contrivances. Whatever they may end up doing, I know that they are better for their time spent camping, and I also know that as a family we are better for it as well.