Back in May, after we survived our first camping trip after the addition of a fourth child, a few friends asked if I’d share some tips for camping with kids.
Well, first of all, it feels a little silly to even write this. I am not an expert. I am not a “professional.” I’m not even super experienced. Since our oldest child was born, we’ve only been camping about 15 or 20 nights. (That’s not many.) And we’ve still never done any legit backcountry camping (hike in / hike out) with the kids.
But, though I’m not an expert, I’m a fairly confident and competent outdoors(wo)man. The outdoors bug was planted in me at a family summer cottage on a small lake in southwestern Michigan. Then, between summers at summer camp in Northern Wisconsin, volunteering at summer camp every year in high school, working in youth ministry in college, teaching environmental education post-college, and now having four kids of my own, getting kids outside and into the woods is now second nature for me. And since I did a bit of camping before we had kids, camping with kids doesn’t intimidate me.
A lot of my peers say they’re afraid to try camping with their kids, especially the really little ones. And I’m sympathetic. If I’m honest, getting my kids out and into the woods isn’t always comfortable for me, especially with my ongoing battles with anxiety (poisonous snakes, surprise bee allergies, falling limbs, creepy strangers in the tent nextdoor, etc.). But I’ve discovered that the right kind of physical and mental preparation can make a big difference for me. And I have found that the pay off is always worth the time and energy it takes to make it happen.
So, here are my top 12 (+1) tips for camping with kids:
Go with friends. My kids get along really well, but they get tired of each other. The past few times we’ve camped, we’ve gone with another family. It gives the adults some quality time together (while the kids occupy themselves with friends). And it means there are more adults to trade things like bathroom breaks and tending the fire.
Stay two nights because waking up and immediately packing up camp sucks. Give yourself a day between arriving and leaving to enjoy yourselves, take a hike, explore the woods, go fishing, etc. If things go really badly the first night, you can always call it a loss and go home early.
Do your research about campgrounds and, unless you’re desperate, steer clear of sparse, open field-style places. We like campgrounds with woods between rows of sites (bonus points for creeks). The trees provide shade and privacy. And the woods will give your kids a place to play within earshot of the campsite. My only caveat is that, at campgrounds with public bathrooms, try to camp near (but not next to) the bathroom. With children (especially girls), camping too far from the facilities means lots and lots of walking back and forth to the toilet. Pro tip: with toddlers and other little ones, consider bringing a travel potty to keep at the campsite to save yourself the walk in the middle of the night.
Cold isn’t fun, but wet is worse. Learn how to keep your tent dry. Trust me.
“Two is one and one is none.” This is a basic survival concept. Don’t rely on only one of anything you can’t do without: one pair of socks, one cutting tool, one fire-starter, etc. For example: I find cooking over an open fire tedious and frustrating. For the past few years, I have packed a simple cooking stove along with the rest of our supplies so that if the fire is taking too long and our bellies are starting to rumble, I can fire up the stove and get dinner (or morning coffee!) started in the meantime. I follow the same rule for headlamps and lanterns. I always have one more than we need, just in case.
Keep it simple, especially cooking. If campfire cooking is new to you, start small. Pre-cook things so you’ll only need to reheat them in the fire. Or eat primarily foods that require minimal or no cooking (summer sausage, peanut butter and jelly, etc.) and supplement simple “add water”-only hot items like soup or noodle mixes, oatmeal, etc. Don’t be ashamed to admit you need coffee (and beer). And bring a waterproof table cloth because it’s so much easier to clean and sweep off than an old campsite picnic table (I learned this trick from a friend!).
Skip the sleeping bags (especially with babies). Sleeping bags are impossible for really young kids. I even find my 3 year old struggles to get comfortable. Consider building a family bed with blankets instead. And, as always, bring a jacket, socks and a hat for every member in the family. Sleeping outdoors can be surprisingly cold, even during the summer. A pair of socks under the blankets can work wonders for conserving body heat. Use a basic camping mattress (you can use a yoga/exercise mat instead if you have one) for insulating the space between you and the ground.
Introduce gear (especially tents) beforehand and practice at home. A few days before the trip, take them outside and each kids the proper way to pitch the tent. Older kids will love testing their skills at helping set up camp, so give them jobs. This will limit the novelty of new gear and make it easier to get down to business once you’re at the campsite.
Bring headlamps or lights, and a safety whistle to keep track of the kids. During the day, we let our kids wander (together) a bit away from the campsite. They stay within earshot, but not always within eyesight. If you’re uneasy about it, teach your kids to carry and how to use a safety whistle if they get lost. At dusk, I make my kids stay nearer to camp and wear their headlamps so I can keep an eye on them. For really little kids, headlamps and flashlights can be cumbersome. Try glowsticks on a lanyard or those cheap neon necklaces instead.
Keep it low-tech. When camping or hiking, our phones are with us but not in our hands. Taking an occasional photo or video is cool, but we keep it minimal. The only other electronics we bring camping are a set of walkie-talkies (with weather radio!). These came in handy the last time we went camping since we had no service on our phones and there was a storm rolling in. I know some friends who bring bluetooth speakers to play music at the campsite, which is kind of nice sometimes. We bring low-tech toys, games, and books for rainy days or nap/quiet time (if the kids need it).
Embrace the mud and dirt. Be okay with your kids getting their clothes dirty (almost immediately). I kind of like a “dirty clothes to play in; clean clothes at bedtime” philosophy. Choose easy on/off shoes for you and for your kids, preferably waterproof ones. It will make getting in and out of the tent easier (and cleaner), but don’t expect to keep a perfectly tidy tent. And since you can expect to get dirty, just take some extra time when you get home to wipe down, clean, and air out your gear before you pack it up for next time.
Store your gear so it’s easier to use next time. Getting serious about camping means curating your gear like you would the gear for any other beloved hobby (fishing, running, birdwatching, cooking, etc.). Our family has a lot of gear, but it is not expensive, high end stuff. We’ve been collecting it for upwards of 15-20 years and it hasn’t cost us a lot of money when you prorate the cost over time. I like to keep things organized (rather than just tossing it all in a single bin) because if I know what I already have, I’ll know what I still need and I can pick it up when I see it (and can afford it). We keep all of our outdoor gear together on one single industrial-grade rack. Things are organized and stacked and packed in a way that makes anything easy to grab and use when needed. (This also keeps things accessible in an emergency situation at home when we may need our sleeping bags, flashlights, etc.)
And, lastly, as with all parenting:
Attitude is everything.
Your kids will take cues from you. If they are already uncomfortable outside or in the rain or away from their iPad, you will need to encourage a good attitude about camping. If you cannot keep your cool when the fire won’t start or when you can’t read the trailmap, your kids will mirror your frustration. Laugh a little. Have reasonable expectations. Look for opportunities to learn and explore and be okay with things taking longer than you’d hoped. Part of the joy of camping is having the time and space to stop and, literally, smell the flowers.
Enjoy it and they will, too.