Those of us who grew up camping have rosy memories of running barefoot through pebbled streams, sleeping in tents beneath a canopy of stars and roasting marshmallows by moonlight. Some of the best summer memories of childhood were made beneath giant trees, on a bed of pine needles eating hot dogs and hobo dinners, singing around campfires and talking in giggly whispers to our tent mates until the wee hours.
Why wouldn’t we want to create those memories for the next generation? Because twenty years later we realize what went into those camping trips on the “grown up” end and the mountain of details, packing and potential for disaster looming just behind the next rain cloud. So what’s a parent to do? Forego the rosy camping memories in favor of the more predictable Comfort Inn? Of course not. Consider the following as you prepare for the family camping trip of a lifetime and you’re sure to recreate the dream for the next generation… just don’t forget to pray against the rain.
1. Location, location, location
If there is one thing that will make or break your camping trip with kids, it’s where you choose to go. A five day hike into Yosemite to wilderness camp, packing it all in and leaving no trace might be an unforgettable high with your adventure seasoned teens, but it could quickly turn into a nightmare with any but the most intrepid of the younger set.
Rule number one of camping with kids: Check your expectations at the door, and consider what would be fun for them. Start small: like in the back yard. Pop a tent on the lawn and roast a marshmallow over the grill. Move on to local campgrounds with plenty of amenities (pools, playgrounds and candy bar bingo are always big hits with the under twelve crowd). “Camping” does not have to be synonymous with “deprivation.” Many campgrounds have entertainment profiles to rival a four star resort. Do your homework, consider your audience, and choose your location accordingly.
Last but not least, don’t be afraid to go home. Sure, our best camping stories involve temperatures so cold there was ice in the tent, water so deep our tent felt like a water bed, wolves howling and green snakes… oh, and being rear ended on the way to the laundromat, but that doesn’t mean it was fun! In retrospect, we should have bagged the whole trip and come home, or at least checked into that Comfort Inn.
The biggest deterrent for most parents to camping with kids, especially little ones, is the copious amount of gear that is assumed to be needed to make the experience a success. Yes, kids are a gear heavy proposition, whether you stay home or go camping, but it needn’t be as bad as you imagine. More than a little of the charm associated with camping is simplifying life, doing without and making it up as you go along. Apply the same rule for your weekend camping trip that you would a ‘round the world backpacking trip: less is more.
The basics: a tent, a sleeping bag & maybe a therma-rest mat; that’s all you really need. For most families, a weekend warrior tent from your local adventure store will more than fit the bill. Contrary to popular marketing campaigns, your kids do not each need a color coordinated flash light and firefly catching box, a “camp pillow,” or their own, character-themed tent. The only piece of gear I wouldn’t leave home without if camping with a toddler: a solid hiking backpack that can double as a stand alone containment unit (high chair). Beyond that, it’s fun to do without… you’re camping, remember? Use a mason jar to hold your fireflies.
>> Check out ten gear items you need for any camping trip
Some kids are notoriously difficult to feed, even with all the amenities in a modern kitchen and the best of pre-processed, boxed “kid food.” Camping is a wonderful opportunity to encourage that sense of adventure and branch out a little in the nutritional department. What kid doesn’t like packaging up a little piece of hamburger and few slices of potatoes and carrots in tin foil and poking it down into the coals of a campfire to cook? Is there anything that says “childhood camping trip” like Jiffy Pop burned slightly over a campfire?
Remember your goal: to make the kids fall in love with camping and have fun! Now is not the time to insist on a balanced diet, you can bat nutritional clean up when you get home. Break out the hotdogs and roasting sticks, gorge yourselves on marshmallows and teach the fine art of creating that perfect brown shell. Make use of that picnic table and keep a supply of “drive by” food on deck for kids to snag on the run between swimming and bug catching. Don’t forget to pack a few “comfort foods,” flavors that will be very familiar and comforting to a child who is beginning to feel a little out of his element… just in case.
So you’ve arrived at the campsite, you’ve set up the tent, unpacked the car, and now the kids are standing around looking at you as if to ask, “What do we do now?” And you’re staring back. The answer: “Anything you want! We’re camping!” Go swimming, rent boats, take a hike, build fairy houses out of sticks and pine cones, ride bikes, throw horse shoes, play badminton, do anything, do everything. The only rule is to have fun!
Of course, it’s always good to have a few “secret weapons” in your back pocket for when enthusiasm is waning and you sense imminent mutiny. A treasure hunt tops the list of old standbys. Create a list of 25 items to be gathered (by teams if possible) and provide a prize to the winners. Make sure a few of the items will be hard to find in your location of choice. Hide away a new card game to break out in the unlikely event of rain or boredom, but make it a good one that everyone can play.
Third, pack a book. Not a boring book – and not a schoolish book. A real, living, breathing adventure book that will blow their socks off, such as Eragon, The Princess Bride, or Treasure Island (yes, those are actually books as well as movies and the books are far better). Read around the campfire, and in the darkness in your tent… and to chase away the rain, should it find you. Leave the Gameboys at home.
5. The Hallelujahs!
Perhaps the most important thing to pack when camping with kids is your sense of humor. By day three somebody is going to hit the wall and throw a temper tantrum, the baby might cry all night, the three year old will probably pee the bed, and who knows, you might even have four pukers in one tent at two a.m.; it’s happened to us. There’s no way to “make it all better” at those moments, but there are a few items in my “Mama kit” that are known to come in very handy at the worst moments. I call these the Hallelujahs, not to be confused with the Hail Marys which are what you say just before you need a Hallelujah. Why the Hallelujahs? Because they are an answer to prayer and will make you rejoice :
- Anti-bacterial wipes. We’ve used these for everything from disinfecting the peels of questionable fruits and veggies in a pinch in third world countries, to cleaning up vomit, to mopping the floors of our tents. Oh yes, and they can be used as intended to wipe snail slimed hands before handing over a piece of watermelon.
- Ziploc Bags: Snack containers, ice packs, the place to pack your emergency pair of dry socks, “waterproofing” for your cell phone on a rainy afternoon, diaper blow out containment and what I had the kids fill with toys to pack for the trip: one ziploc bag, that’s all you get.
- Coke. We discovered this one, quite by accident, camped outside of Vienna, Austria. We were sitting on our tarp, hot, tired, demoralized on several levels, four months into a year long camping adventure, sipping cold Cokes, the nectar of life, the blood running through the veins of most Americans, at least. He summed it up perfectly for us, our friend Pirate Scott, as he cheerfully tramped by to his tent. “Coke is good for morale! Cheers!” And so it is. Maybe it’s not Coke for your family, but find out what it is, and pack it. Hallelujah.
Get ready for more outdoor fun with these other articles on camping and the great outdoors:
- 6 National Parks You’ve Probably Never Visited
- Why We Camp: An Ode to the Joy and Sorrow of the Great Outdoors
- The First-Timer’s Guide to Planning a National Parks Vacation
- Camping in Europe