Quick Start Guide - Getting your kids to love camping
Camping is one of those activities that takes a little planning, but once you get out there, you'll be so happy you put forth the effort. It’s an affordable family activity, even if you're on a budget, and it's a great way to give your kids what they may lack in this on-the-go era: unstructured time outside and away from screens. Camping provides a rare chance for them (and you) to be a kid, and what could be more important?
These pointers will help make your vacation in the great outdoors fun, safe, and enjoyable.
Pick a Great Spot
You could follow structured advice from books such as Tent and Car Campers Handbook: Advice for Families & First-timers, or Guide to Happy Family Camping, or you could just do what we do and follow your nose to fresh air (aka where there are a lot less cars).
After you pick a general location that meets your basic requirements, think about the kind of experience you want to have. Do you want to bike? Play by the water? Have a great view? Hike? If you're in an urban area, you may need to look for campgrounds or designated camping areas. If you're off the beaten path, you have a lot more options! Don't forget to canvas your new campsite for hidden hazards before you let the kids loose.
Pro tip: make sure you pack camping friendly food (or have meals pre-made), s'mores ingredients, plenty of drinks, insect repellent/sun screen, headlamps, and ample toilet paper/shovel/trash bags.
Get the Kids Involved
These days, kids sometimes need convincing when it comes to camping. Including them in the planning will keep them enthusiastic and engaged.
Everybody gets to put special food in the cart when grocery shopping, and everybody has a say in where we want to go. Picking a camping spot should be a family decision, although beware, choosing the perfect tent spot has been known to end in a mild family spat a time or two. Children as young as 3 can help slip the tent poles into the fabric. Other easy tasks to assign: pulling sleeping bags out of stuff sacks (for the toddler set), blowing up mattresses, gathering kindling (if allowed), and setting up camp chairs.
Have your kids pack their own bags (with some peeking in of course). Choosing what to bring can help kids feel more comfortable. Now, little boys have a bad habit of not bringing any extra socks or underwear if given their own packing duties... yet these youngsters somehow end up needing the most "extras" and "back-ups" when out camping. Special care should be taken to not forget a favorite toy or blanket. This is a great time to consider merino baselayers and warm wool socks for the kids. There's no better feeling that being toasty warm in a sleeping bag at night.
Pro tip: if you have two or three kids along, make setting up camp a fast, friendly competition for the kids by timing them. Beware, by the second camping trip, they'll be on to you.
A few key purchases have both kid appeal and safety value. Bring individual water bottles so everyone is encouraged to stay hydrated. Fun collapsible water bottles from Ace Camp are great camping accessories. SOL also has a range of survival and medic kits that can be fun in the field, and also serve a real purpose if you find you forgot something or one gets a minor injury.
One of our family favorites are personal headlamps and flashlights. Everyone has their own light source, offering some security at night, and a little fun too! Makes for great story time when everyone's sporting a headlamp. With the LED headlamp and lantern options available, batteries are lasting longer so you can worry less about your pocket book after the trip ends. Have an electronic device? UCO now has a great little lantern called the Tetra that even has a USB plug in, to keep you powered up as needed.
Glow sticks are also a lot of fun while camping. Often they're still glowing come morning. If you are going with a group of kids, make sure to bring plenty of glow sticks and lots of colors. That is the code of the glow stick. Grab a few glow necklaces as well to help keep tabs on little ones when darkness falls.
Make a List, Check It Twice
There are plenty of checklists on the Web that are designed specifically for camping trips with children. Download one, and then add and subtract as necessary. A few days before you leave, tape it to the kitchen counter; designate a space for stacking your gear, and check objects off as you add them to the pile. As you pack, have the kids read the list out loud and cross through the items as they go into a bag, and then the car. Don't forget the glow sticks...
Plan to Sleep Well
If you have a good sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and tent, the whole family will be comfortable and sleep well. If you child has an inferior sleeping bag and pad, they may very well be cold all night, just about assuring they will never again want to go camping. The right youth sleeping bag and pad can really make a huge difference! We really like the Big Agnes and Kelty youth bags, great fit, and plenty warm. Make sure the tent has all the appropritate components before you pack it away - nothing worse than getting out there without a rainfly or stakes in the wind. Make sure there are no gaping holes in the fly or the netting, and count your tent poles.
For evening family time, consider a screen tent. They can be a whole lot of "oh ya, this is awesome" if the bugs are bad in the evening. We like the new Kelty Air Pitch screen tent, as it's much lighter and more compact than traditional giant aluminum pole screen tents.
Pro tip: Bring your pillows!!!
Make Meals Quick and Easy
Campfire cooking is a whole lot of fun for the whole family. It's hands-on and easy to make food taste delicious without a lot of work. Some of our camping favorites are game hot dogs and corn on the cob. Before leaving home, you should always do a little food prep as well such as chopping vegetables and fruit for snacks, and pre-cooking potatoes. Don't forget salt, pepper and other spices. Oh ya, and then there's s'mores!
Pro tip: Bring some handwipes for quick face and finger clean-up!
Play It Safe
As soon as you drop your gear, do a quick reconn of the area, make sure you take note of potentially dangerous areas. Talk to the kids about boundaries. While we love to encourage our kids to help with fire building (from using fire cubes to flint starters, don't forget that curiosity may get kids in trouble later. If they get their fill of fire starting techniques with parental supervision, they are much less likely to try it on their own later. Consider bringing little survival kits for the kids, they'll stay busy for hours.
You might be amazed, but kids are statistically much more likely to get hurt at home than when they go camping! Small scrapes, bumps and bruises outdoors tend to be brushed off when kids are actively playing. At the end of the day, you may end up digging around for a bandaid or tweezers. We like to have our Adventure Medical Family First Aid kit along, it always has what we need. We're also big fans of the small Pocket Medic for every day on-the-go first aid needs.
Keep Boredom at Bay
There may come a moment when you’ll need to ward off an “I’m bored!” or two, so be prepared with a pack of cards and some books and favorite board games. As opposed to others out there blogging about the outdoors, we are anti-tech! Camping should be your one opportunity to get away from screens, beeps, bells and apps. Unless your family is into geocaching (for which you'll need a GPS), leave the iPhone for emergencies, and leave everything else at home.
Need to keep kids occupied? Send the kids on scavenger hunt, go see how many different mushrooms, flowers, snails, or animal tracks you can find. Depending on the site, there will be any number of wild features to go check out. Have a coolest rock contest, or a rock skipping contest if around water. Build small outdoor features with materials such as mud, sand, sticks or rocks. Try not to let your kids denude a campground site - remind them that future visitors will also want to enjoy their natural surroundings. Have your kids bring or build sling shots, who can launch a spruce or pine cone the furthest.
Don't forget to allow Free Play
As the parent, do not feel obligated to provide activities for your kids the whole trip. If you have everything planned out, there's no time for them to be creative. Kid's need less guidance outdoors than you think. Helicopter parenting has no place out camping. The more time they have to themselves, the more time they put into exploring, building, creating their own world. Problem solving skills improve dramatically when you let kids just be kids.
Pro tip: Get over the dirt. Not only is dirt not going to hurt your kid, it'll probably boost his/her immune system. Grimy hands and faces are part of camping, and it used to be part of all our childhood's. Remember, the dirt kids pick up while camping is generally much safer than bacteria you might find in more common places at home... If the dirt is particularly thick, get out the wipes, and clean them up a little before meal and bed time. Otherwise, don't fret about it. If you want your kid's clothes to stay relatively clean, pick up a lightweight breathable waterproof rainsuit - kids can wear it all day rain or shine, and everyone's happy.
You may also be surprised how kids get along better outdoors. When they step out of their normal social structure, they judge each other less, they relax, and they have the opportunity to find common ground with kids they otherwise might not hang around much.
So what are you waiting for? Plan an outdoor adventure today. You and your kids will be happy you did!