I get giddy this time of year thinking about the camping season ahead. I’ve been camping my whole life, but as an adult my camping adventures didn’t start in earnest until about a dozen years ago when I was a single mom to two kids. I dove in with passion, taking my children on camping trips throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and as far as Canada, Mexico, and Europe. I know I’m a bit nostalgic about camping with kids, but I think my children would agree that those are the best memories we share.
My camping experiences aren’t limited to the trips I took with my older kids. My husband and I started our relationship seven years ago on a camping and mountain biking trip to Utah. Countless trips and unforgettable memories have followed. We now have a two year-old son who will be starting his second season of camping this summer with a lifetime of adventure ahead of him. Through all these experiences, I’ve learned a few things along the way that can make camping with kids easy, enjoyable, and memorable. I’d love to share my tips with you.
Pack minimal gear
I learned this best from backpacking and camping internationally which requires the camping set-up to be kept light. There’s a tendency to over pack with kids. Don’t be tempted. You really need no more then a simple tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, a stove, and a few minimal cooking and eating utensils. Don’t fall pray to the endless camping accessories. They only complicate life and make the process a burden.
On one multi-family camping trip we attended, the other families brought tents with special rooms, lounge chairs that required an owner’s manual to assemble, a toy chest to occupy the kids, and a camp kitchen that rivaled their home kitchen. Per usual, I brought just the basics. I was the only single-parent on that trip and didn’t have a partner to help with set-up or take-down of camp and my kids were at an age when they were more of a hindrance than a help. I took my camp down and packed my car a good hour before anyone else was done with the process. And keep in mind the job isn’t done at camp, there’s putting away and cleaning up when you get home too. Keep it simple.
Dress for the occasion
I don’t believe a lot of clothes are needed, just the right clothes. Most of our camping is done in Colorado where the nights are cool. I always pack wool hats, gloves or mittens, a warm jacket, wool socks, and long underwear. It’s a rare camping trip that I don’t utilize the cold weather gear. Rain gear is also an absolute must in my book. I find a hooded rain jacket is usually sufficient, but rain pants are a nice extra. I’m a big fan of the children’s line of Frogg Toggs, which are affordable, lightweight and pack small. I would also argue against packing too many changes of clothing for kids. Just expect they’ll be dirty and bring a clothes line and pins to dry wet clothes on. I do recommend packing an extra pair of shoes for water and mud play.
Don’t forget the sunscreen, bug repellent, and first aid kit
Sunburns and bug bites can put a real damper on a camping trip. Protect yourself and your children. I love the sunscreen from Butterbean Organics for their safe ingredients, effectiveness in blocking the sun, and the plastic free packaging they offer.
I learned the hard way that “natural” bug repellent isn’t very effective and can make for a miserable experience. The Environmental Working Group provides great information on bug repellents that gave me the confidence to switch to a chemical based formula. Don’t forget long sleeves, pants, and hats can help protect against sun and bugs.
We’ve been lucky to only endure minor cuts a scrapes, but it’s still a good idea to take a first aid kit. I treat the minor boo boos with a good wash of soap and water, a dabbing of tea tree oil, a bandage, and a kiss.
Leave the toys at home
It always surprises me when I see parents pack toys for camping trips. I can tell you emphatically that children don’t need toys when camping. When left to their own imaginations they create toys from sticks, stones, and other objects found in nature. Imaginative play is part of the experience and important for nature connection.
Connect with nature through games
I’ve played a lot of hide and seek with my older kids, which is actually a beautiful nature connection game. It encourages exploration of a habitat, develops the important tracking skill of being quiet in nature, allows close observation of nature (while waiting to be discovered), and is a fun game for all ages. I also like scavenger hunts, which allow children the opportunity to explore, discover, and learn about their natural environment. Just be sure the objects to be collected aren’t ones that are best left untouched. For other ideas I’d recommend Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature.
Bring along field guides
My mom always has bird and flower field guides at her finger tips. When I was a child we would identify the birds that came to our feeders and that we saw in the wild. We did the same with flowers, often bringing home a blossom to press between pages of a thick book. The habit she instilled in me as a child, still has me reaching for field guides as an adult. A fun activity I’ve done with my children was, using a field guide as a resource, recording how many bird species we could identify at our local urban lake. The awareness that one activity brought, has since changed how I observe and interact with nature. Field guides are a great learning tool that help children and adults develop and deepen nature connection. If you’re only going to purchase one field guide, I’d recommend the Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife.
Expect to get dirty
Embrace dirt. Dirty hands, faces, and bodies are part of the experience. You don’t need baby wipes and hand sanitizer; an occasional wash with soap and water is sufficient. I still laugh remembering the camping trip when my son and a pack of young boys spent a weekend running around shirtless, with a stick in hand, charcoal rubbed across their faces, and dirt under their fingernails. Those dirty boys made wonderful memories and got a good scrubbing when they returned home.
Pack lots of food
There’s something about fresh air and outdoor play that brings on huge appetites. I don’t like to come home with food, but that’s preferable to running out. For me, this is the hardest part of camping as it requires a fair amount of planning and prepping before we leave the house. I avoid convenience foods because of the unnecessary packaging and the general lack of nutrition. Instead I prep a huge container of veggies and homemade dips, I take lots of fruit, and I mix my own trail mix with dried fruits and nuts from the bulk bins. I might make homemade muffins, cookies, and granola bars ahead of time. My breakfast offerings are usually homemade granola, oatmeal, or eggs. For lunch I put out a smorgasbord of hummus, cheese, peanut butter, jelly, bread, veggies, and fruit. Most dinners are simple meals with a protein, vegetable, and starch component, which are prepped at camp and cooked over the fire. My only advice is to not overthink your camping menu, but pack plenty of food that’s simple, fresh, healthy, and can be assembled quickly.
Teach kids how to start and respect a camp fire
My 18 year old daughter went camping last summer with a few of her friends. One of the kids on the trip spent a half an hour trying to start a fire without success. My daughter took over and in a few short minutes got the fire going. It wasn’t luck, but years of camp fire building that gave her the skill. Teaching children fire building, safety, and respect is important knowledge that can serve them well in their own wilderness adventures.
I do make an exception on my food rules and often pack s’more components. Making s’mores is a lovely ritual that brings a family around a fire at the end of a day and gives pause to reflect, share stories, and sing songs. Roasting marshmallows also provides children the chance to experience and experiment with fire under the watchful eye of parents. And I happen to think s’mores are delicious.
Give your child a knife
Only you will know the right age that your child can handle a knife, but I’d venture to guess it’s younger than you might think. Obviously it’s important to model and teach safe knife handling skills and provide lots of supervised skill building before they’re left to their own devices. I remember when my son was around 10 and I allowed him to use my knife to carve some sticks without my supervision. A few adults in the group questioned whether that was a good idea. He nicked himself, but quietly managed to clean and bandage the wound without a single complaint. The trust I gave him helped build his confidence and skill.
Chances are things won’t go as planned. The weather won’t cooperate, something will be forgotten, you’ll get lost, or any other number of things will go wrong. I’ve learned that the success of a trip is how you react to those situations. If you take the challenges that are thrown at you with ease and just consider it as part of the fun and adventure, you might be surprised how much it can enhance a trip.
It turns out that some of the worst weather creates the most memorable trips. We’ve been in torrential downpours and high wind situations that could have dampened a trip, but instead stories of survival are the ones that are told. On more than one occasion the tent has been left behind, giving us the beautiful opportunity to sleep under the stars or in a rigged up lean-to. One particular time the tent was forgotten, we woke up to snow dusting our faces. Challenges are part of the adventure.
Leave no trace
I can’t stress the importance of teaching children nature stewardship. What is practiced in the wild often overflows into daily life and personal values. Reverence for nature requires deep care for it. I not only make sure I leave no trace, but make it a practice to pick up trash left behind from others before me.
If an annual camping trip is all you can manage, by all means go for it. However, the more you go the easier it becomes. Through years of experience I’ve simplified and organized our camping system so that we can head out on an adventure on a moments notice. In fact, it’s not unusual for my husband to call me from work on a Friday afternoon proposing that we leave that evening for a weekend camping trip. I never hesitate.
Your turn…what are your favorite camping tips?