10 Tips for Camping with Kids

| June 21, 2013 | 9 Comments

By Helen Olsson

The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids

Camping with kids is an extreme outdoor endeavor capable of bringing even elite mountaineers to their knees. Before my husband and I had children, we backpacked often.  I realize now how simple it all was then. Any parent knows, with kids, it’s complicated.

There’s more gear, more food, more conflict. And somehow, more dirt. The good news is the return on your investment is priceless. The memories forged over hissing campfires and molten marshmallows and stories whispered in tents will last your kids a lifetime.

In a world that’s a snake pit filled with wires and cables all attached to digital devices that are rotting your kids’ brains, camping is a reprieve. A trip into the woods gets the kids (and you) unplugged, connects your kids to nature, and creates an environment ripe for family bonding. Family camping is, undeniably, worth the extra effort.

That said, effort there is. Following is a series of tips for making the packing and planning of a family camping trip go more smoothly, as well as ideas for making the experience more fun for all. This is by no means a complete list. I recently wrote a whole book on the subject, The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids, so I know this doesn’t even scratch the surface.

1. Prep the Kids

Most kids will love camping with no preparation or prodding. But children with a certain disposition will require some groundwork. Try these tactics:

  • Read camp-themed picture books a trip.
  • Do a dry run by camping in the backyard.
  • Especially if your child is afraid of the dark, bring portable nightlights and kid headlamps.
  • Bring a pack of disposable glowsticks and pop them in the mesh pockets of your tent at night.
  • Take a night walk in your neighborhood with flashlights, so your child gets used to the many sounds of the night.

2. Pack the Pantry Wisely

pantryDon’t fall into the deadly Jar-of-Mayo trap. My husband and I once went on a winter hut trip with our toddler. Because we had a sled (and not just backpacks), we didn’t worry about packing light. We were chucking in hardback books, six-packs of Guinness, and a whole glass jar of Hellmann’s. The sled grew to a cumbersome 125 pounds and rolled like a steroidal bratwurst every time we skied across a side slope.

  • Even for car camping, simplify by getting rid of extra cardboard and plastic packaging on food.
  • Portion out the food you need, and leave the remainder at home.
  • Bring mayo and mustard packets.
  • Put spices and ingredients in small plastic containers (available at camp stores or REI) or little baggies.
  • Label everything, so you don’t mix up the olive oil and the dish soap.

3. Use checklists:

I can’t get out of bed in the morning without a checklist. Kids require a phenomenal amount of gear: fleece layers, jammies, sun hats, water bottles, portable high chairs, sleeping bags, binkies, pint-sized day packs… the list goes on. Wing it on packing, and you’ll roll without something critical, like diapers. (I’ve done this.)

  • Print a complete family camping checklist. Make little checks in the boxes.
  • Critical step: Double-check the list before you turn the ignition key and drive off into the wild yonder.

4. Pack a Pack-and-Play

If you’re camping with a baby or toddler, bring along a portable crib. Sure, a pack-and-play is a big hunk of gear in your already packed car, but it can make or break a trip. When you’re setting up camp, you can contain your little cherub safely. At night and for naps, the familiarity of a pack-and-play will help Junior get to sleep. This is assuming you have a big enough family tent to accommodate a portable crib.

5. Dust off the Kid Potty

If your child is potty training, bringing along a child’s potty is a no-brainer. Try to get a kid who hasn’t yet graduated from the School of Toilet Training to use a foul-smelling pit toilet, and you’re asking for a regression. But even for young kids who are already potty-trained, you might consider bringing along a small kid toilet and stowing it in the atrium of your family camping tent. This will save you a multitude of trips to the Porta-San and will make midnight pee breaks simpler.

6. Be Prepared for Playtime

Don't forget the games!

Don’t forget the games!

When families camp, kids usually become blissfully engrossed with sticks, rocks, pine cones, or a nearby stream. Just in case they cry boredom, bring along balls, a pack of cards, and travel-sized board games.  You’ll be glad you did when you need to retreat to your tent during a spell of rain. Here’s a short list of entertainment possibilities:

  • Playing cards (for Go Fish, Crazy Eights, Hearts, War)
  • Card games (Snap, Wig Out, Spot It, Rat-a-Tat Cat)
  • Travel-sized games (dominoes, chess, checkers, Scrabble, Boggle, Blokus, Apples to Apples)
  • Lengths of rope for knot tying
  • Frisbees, hackey sacks, Nerf football, Whiffle ball and bat
  • Small trucks and cars
  • Polly Pockets
  • Bubbles
  • Sand toys
  • Camp-themed kid books

7. Get Crafty

Bring along a nature journal and a small box of pencils, colored pencils, crayons, and markers.   Especially on hikes, kids can recharge by sitting at the side of the trail sketching a dragonfly. Use a field guide (in print or online) to identify flora and fauna. My kids love knowing the scientific names of plants and animals. We were hiking recently when we passed a couple wondering what plant was lining the trail. My 12-year-old piped up: “It’s Dipsacus fullonum!”  Other Nature Journal ideas:

  • Make beautiful leaf prints by coloring the backside of a leaf with kid markers then pressing the leaf on the paper.
  • Use the side of a crayon to make a rubbing of tree bark or a trail sign.

8. Go with Friends

Consider group camping with another family. Most kids have more fun and whine less when they’re with their peers. Adults can enjoy dishing with adults. Plus you can split up meal responsibilities. Another upside: If you forgot something important (like graham crackers or tinfoil), your friends probably have it.

9. Stock the First-Aid Kit

A well-stocked first aid kit will have dozens of items in it, from bug-bite remedies to children’s ibuprofen. You’ll bring Band-Aids, naturally, which you’ll invariably use, even for healing those bloodless boo-boos kids get. Arguably the most important item in my kit is a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass. Kids are always getting little splinters in their hands and feet, and even the tiniest sliver in your dumpling’s soft skin can derail a camping weekend.

10. Don’t Forget the Duct Tape

NASA astronauts take it into space; you should take it camping. Duct tape can cover a hot spot on a child’s heel from a pinching hiking boot; patch a tent, a sneaker, or a canoe; immobilize an injured finger. We’ve used it to fix a tent pole and a cracked car-top rocket box.

  • For backpacking, wrap a three-foot length of tape around a bit of cardboard. Just in case.

Helen Olsson is the author of The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids. She blogs about outdoor adventures with kids at Mad Dog Mom.

Category: Outdoor Kids

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Written by the dedicated, hard-working Women's Adventure staff and their very generous team of volunteer writers. Want to lend a hand at making this splendid magazine even more splendid? Contact us at digital.diva@womensadventuremagazine.com and let us know!

Comments (9)

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  1. gaildstorey says:

    Wonderfully organized approach, lots of great tips, and I love the humor and writing!

  2. 10 tips that will make it safe and fun for children. Make check list of these 10 before starting up for camping and do make these fit in your child’s mind, help them enjoy the camping with safety.

  3. Armed with this basic knowledge about camping tents, you should be able to comfortably shop for a new tent. If you still aren’t sure what you are looking for, take a trip to your nearest sporting goods store and explain your circumstances to a salesperson. With any luck, you’ll find exactly what you are looking for. When you do, you’ll be well on your way to a great first camping trip.

  4. Robert says:

    When we went camping with our children, we had a scavenger hunt all afternoon which my kids really enjoyed. And, we also organized an all glow sticks dinner. It was fun really. Fun aside, make sure you have all the necessary medical supplies and packed healthy foods with clean drinking water station. And, do not forget the itch stopping spray. I am telling you this from experience.

  5. Camping with children is an interesting as well as very tough job. Children nature are not easy to control and they create lot of problems for us.

  6. Your duct tape suggestion is so true it’s not even funny. We have used duct tape for hundreds of different applications while camping over the past 10 years with our children. A must have. Your list is solid. Thanks for the share.

  7. Nikki says:

    I love the post! Thanks for taking your time sharing this.

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