The memory is so clear in my mind that it might be there forever. Two kids, older sister and younger brother, are trundling off down a trail. Sister carries a yellow bucket. Brother, in rubber boots, is holding his sister’s free hand.
They are venturing into the woods, headed for a small creek, seeking ingredients for their “soup.” That would be pine cones, grass, rocks, dirt, moss and sticks.
It is one of those fine moments you experience as a parent when all of the work of packing the camping gear and all of the pit stops on the trip to the mountains are worth it.
Sitting there as mom and dad, you know instinctively that you are doing something right for your offspring. You have brought them to this semi-natural place and pitched the tents and created a little world within the bigger world.
From this new and wonderful base, they are spreading their wings, testing their independence, forging into new territory. In the great outdoors.
Camping with the kids is worth the effort. But it isn’t easy.
If you’re just getting started, here are a few time-tested kid-friendly ideas.
Before you head off to the wilds, try pitching the tent in the backyard and spending a night there. It’ll get the kids accustomed to night sounds, the idea of sleeping in a sleeping bag and the novelty of the tent. And as a parent, you can go through the necessary stage of waking up in the middle of the night wondering if your child is suffocating down inside that bag. She won’t be, but you’ll have to see for yourself.
How far is far enough?
Young kids have little concept of distance. They don’t know where you are, only how long it takes to get there by car, which is almost always too long. In the beginning, make it easy on yourself. Camp close to home.
Lugging them around
Great gear has been invented to haul kids of any size in the woods. You can hike comfortably with an infant slung on your chest. Once they get to a certain size and can hold their little heads up, carry them in a child backpack. If you’re having trouble getting your children to take a nap in the tent, sling ’em on and take a walk. They’ll be out in a flash.
A great way to begin. You can haul coolers and everything you need right to the campsite. Perfect for staying at a reserved campsite in a national park or forest. Take the next step to backpacking only after you’ve worked out the kinks. You’ll be amazed at the natural wonders kids can discover in fairly civilized surroundings. And if there’s a thunder storm, sit it out in the car – the safest place you can go to avoid lightning strikes.
Take the bikes
If bikes are permitted, campgrounds are great places for kids to ride and explore. Ride to the visitor center, to the beach, to their friends’ campsites. The campground becomes something like a small town.
If you’re car camping, no special duds are needed. Sweatpants beat jeans. Hooded sweatshirts. Plenty of t-shirts. More socks than you think you’ll need.
A stocking cap or headband is always handy, especially for cold nights.
Fleece is warm and dries out much faster than cotton. Have a dry change of clothes in a bag for each kid just in case the frog-catching safari goes wrong.
Depending on your campsite, rubber boots or strap-on sandals can be great additions to sneakers. Kids in camp can almost live in rubber boots if there’s a tiny creek or marsh nearby. They pull on easily and kick off easily when entering or leaving the tent.
Wool or synthetic socks are better than cotton inside these boots.
Kids may prefer sandals in warm weather. Bring sneakers for the trail.
If you use disposables, pack them out or dispose of them properly. If you use the real thing, remember, your pack will be heavier on the way out than on the way in.
Dealing with bugs
You’ll probably want to avoid anointing kids with repellents that contain the high concentrations of mosquito- repelling ingredient DEET. Best bet is to dress kids in clothing that covers most exposed skin. Tuck pants into socks or boots. We’ve also used bonnets on kids and smeared liquid soap on the bonnet’s brim. Or, just travel in late July, August and September when bugs are minimal.
It’s nap time
Doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing. If it’s nap time, experience says, let the child sleep. You can try to delay a nap to fit your own schedule, but chances are you’ll pay later. Which brings up the matter of …
This is probably the single most important thing you can consider when planning to camp with kids. Be realistic with goals. You’re there primarily for the kids. It helps to become a bit of a kid yourself. Travel on their schedule. Flit from one activity to another on their schedule. Once you accept that and let go of your own notions of what camping was B.K. (Before Kids), you’ll be much happier.
Toilets aren’t always available while camping and sometimes even a biffy may not be available in the woods. This is no problem for boys, who are equipped to put out small fires and flood anthills. For young daughters, try this procedure: Stand behind her, so you’re both facing the same direction. Squat your own self down, grabbing your daughter behind the knees. Let her sort of sit back along your thighs and rest her back against your chest. Use your own thighs to support your forearms as you hold her. Hold her off the ground far enough so the grass and wildflowers don’t tickle her. It works.
The blanket or doll
Don’t leave home without it – or any (small) stuffed animal or little possession that is of great value to a child. It’s security. It’s an essential.
What about toys?
When camping, kids find all kinds of things to do, with all kinds of stuff they find in the forest. Sticks. Leaves. Dirt. Roots. Rocks. Pine cones. Grass. If you bring toys, the kids would still rather play with what they find at the campsite. Things facilitate this play include a small plastic bucket (the handle will break; take duct tape) and maybe a small shovel. Kids will also need a few of your camping supplies: short lengths of rope or parachute cord, spoons, cups, paper towels, maybe a cookpot. A small squirt bottle is fun, although sooner or later they’ll turn it on each other.
Let ’em pack
Even when they’re very young, let kids fill their own small packs of whatever they want to bring along. Well, maybe not scissors. But a couple of books, a small doll or stuffed animal, their blanket. That way, they have their own packs – and a sense of being like mom and dad. As they get older, the packs get larger, and their loads get more essential to the trips. Be sure to include a headlamp for each kid.
What if it rains?
It will. You’ll need two things to stay sane. One is a large (about 10-by-12-feet) coated nylon tarp to string over the picnic table or campsite, so you can get out of the tent and stay out of the rain. The other is entertainment for the tent – coloring books, markers, Crayons, drawing paper, books. Put these things in resealable plastic bags and save them for the rainy day.
Letting them graze might work. If not, try giving each child a resealable plastic bag at the beginning of each day with a day’s allotment of goodies – hard candies, M&Ms, caramels, pretzels, whatever. It’s up to each child how soon he devours the contents or how long she hoards them.
A standard pack includes a pain reliever (in child-appropriate strength), bandages (hundreds), sunscreen, tweezers (a Swiss Army Knife is handy), a thermometer, sterile gauze pads and wide adhesive tape. Be sure to have necessary medication, including Benadryl for bad reactions to insect bites.
Outdoors editor Rich Landers contributed to this story.
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