Pelican Flyer • April 14, 2021
Nature can instill many teachable moments to our children, building character and making them appreciate the earth around them. Children can take in the sights and sounds of nature even at a young age, from the croak of a frog to the tickle of grass blades beneath their feet. And one of the best ways to allow kids to experience nature is by camping! But if camping with your offspring sounds scary, we’ve got you covered!
Whether you are camping with a baby or a pack of tweens, here’s how to make camping with kids an enjoyable experience and plan the best family-friendly getaway.
Before spending lots of time and effort to venture out of town on a family camping trip, try it in your backyard. Camping with kids for the first time right outside your home allows a more relaxing experience without worry or stress. It allows you to see how your kids will react to sleeping outside, gradually getting them used to nighttime sounds. Plus, it makes packing a whole lot easier. All you need to do is set up a tent and sleeping bag and maybe string up some lights so they can make their way indoors to use the bathroom.
When it comes to camping with kids, it helps to choose a campground with lots of activities and amenities to keep them occupied. From open fields where you can play kickball or throw a Frisbee to a complete playground or swimming pool, seek out a campground that both kids and adults can enjoy. It also helps to stick to campgrounds that offer site amenities such as a picnic table and a nearby bathhouse with flushing toilets and hot water. Kids tend to get messy, so having a table to spread out meals and a place to clean up after a long day will make your camping trip go smoothly.
Plan all your camping meals to be foods they will enjoy. Invite them to participate in the planning, asking what they might prefer between hamburgers or hot dogs for dinner or pancakes or warm oatmeal for breakfast. While it’s hard to please everyone’s tastes, packing kid-friendly foods and snacks will ensure they are nourished and don’t wind up cranky. If you want to make a couple of meals super-easy, plan on picking up takeout from a local pizza joint or restaurant.
While you might know the amenities available within the campground, research any local activities in the surrounding area. Find family-friendly hiking trails, local swimming holes, apple orchards and ice cream stands for the day, while planning the night by the bonfire, telling scary stories or playing board games in the tent.
When camping with kids, it helps to organize the camp gear so that everything is accessible. One clever way of doing so is by storing equipment in clear plastic bins so you can visually find what you need. Organize each container further, dividing up the cooking supplies, sleeping bags and the tent. Check out Pelican’s other camping storage ideas for more tips and tricks.
Like adults, kids should dress in layers, too, especially during the spring and fall seasons when temperatures can drop during the evenings. Ensure they pack appropriate clothes, from a wool hat and socks to pajamas they can change into when they go to bed. Be sure to pack outerwear, too, such as a raincoat to stay dry during rain or a puffer jacket to keep warm.
While many kids will enjoy spending time outdoors, allow them to bring a favorite toy or game (without going overboard). As a whole, you want your kids to engage themselves with nature, unplugging from screens. However, should they need rest inside the tent, a stuffed animal to sleep with or a board game or book can occupy their time. Countless outdoor toys can keep them entertained as well, such as a kite or even binoculars.
Another idea is to surprise them or reward them with toys. Consider getting them their very own kid-size camp chair or a set of marshmallow sticks. You can also give them their headlamp or glow sticks to light up the night. Check out your local recreational store for more inspired kid-sized camping gear.
Once you arrive and get your bearings at the chosen site, set some ground rules. Make sure they understand the boundaries, avoiding nearby streams or high-traffic areas without adult supervision and what to do if they get lost. If they are young, be sure they know to go to the bathroom with an adult. Also, be aware of areas around the park or campground that are dangerous.
As an adult, there’s probably a lot of camp chores you can do faster. But if you want to teach them some valuable skills, invite them to watch, learn and even participate in some camp chores. Teach them age-appropriate camp skills like how to find a level, shaded spot for a tent and how to cook a meal over the fire – whatever you think they can handle! For example, little ones can do simple tasks like set the picnic table, and teenagers can help clean up dishes or construct the tents.
Creating a home in the outdoors offers the perfect opportunity to teach your kids to respect nature. Teach them the Leave No Trace principles, explaining why you shouldn’t feed animals, no matter how cute, or harm bugs that get into their tent. Teach them how to properly dispose of trash and carry it out each day. (Many campgrounds even have recycling centers where you can teach them to divide paper, bottles or cans.)
The straightest path to respecting nature is first to appreciate it. While you're camping with kids, show them everything you can, from the crawling bugs to the birds and leaves above. Keep an eye out for wildlife, from tiny chipmunks to owls who fly by at night. Sign up for a nature program in the park to learn from a ranger about all the unique vegetation. Many offer lots of kid-friendly activities, so make the most of it!
Remember to lead by example and stay positive! Camping asks a lot from both kids and adults who are used to the creature comforts of home, but when you keep the enthusiasm going, kids are sure to follow. Sure, you might be frustrated with escorting them to the bathroom multiple times a night or when the pancakes burn, making a less than ideal breakfast, but a happy-go-lucky attitude will teach them they can overcome the little insignificant things.
Depending on your kids’ ages, you might need to consider extra challenges when it comes to camping. For instance, if your child is still in the potty-training phase or is afraid to walk to the bathroom at night, you might need to bring along a travel toilet for them. While sleeping outdoors is excellent for resetting our circadian rhythms, kids who wake up at the crack of dawn may need to be occupied with a book or toy until the adults roll out of bed. If you have teenagers who like to stay up late, make sure they know how to safely put out the fire before heading into the tent.
Babies who rely on milk also bring their challenges to camping. For this, make sure to have a well-insulated camping cooler to keep milk chilled, especially during hot summer days.
Camping with kids makes everything a bit dirtier, from the boots they stomp in mud to the sticky marshmallow strings that somehow wound up in their hair. So expect to get dirty and plan accordingly. Create a makeshift hand-washing station with a water container jug and some biodegradable soap, along with a few clean rags or paper towels. Another thing kids are notorious for? Tromping inside a tent with dirty shoes. Instead of finding tiny shoe prints, teach them to remove their shoes outside the tent and unroll a small rug just outside the door.
If you plan to have the kids sleep inside the same tent, make sure it's spacious enough for everyone. Make it comfortable so they sleep the whole night through, allowing you to do the same. Whether you opt for a self-inflating camp pad or a cot, cover it with an insulative sleeping bag to keep them warm and their favorite blanket from home to feel secure. Camping with babies? Bring along a portable crib. Don’t forget the pillows and any other at-home accessories that can help you or your kids sleep deep.
Camping might take kids out of their comfort zone, so it helps to stick to familiar routines. For example, if you read bedtime books to your kids, pack a few for your camping trip, too, to help them fall asleep. Don’t forget to stick to good habits like brushing your teeth in the morning and before bed. Overall, it also helps to stick to their usual bedtime and daytime naps.
If the tent gets a bit hot during the day, try to convince them to sleep in a hammock, which offers a bit more breathability. If kids or babies find it challenging to fall asleep at night, especially to the somewhat creepy sounds of rustling leaves and nearby nocturnal creatures, bring along a portable white noise machine to help them block it out.
At a certain point, your teenagers will want their privacy and space. So instead of cramming everyone into a tent (no matter how large it is), give them their own. Just remember that if you choose to do so, make sure the site is large enough to support both tents’ footprints, including the rainfly. Another alternative is to pick out a large tent that offers separate rooms divided by a zippered screen or flap. A convenience all around, this space can act as a changing room or a palace of privacy when kids want to read or play at night without disturbing the adults.
Teenagers also find camping challenging for several reasons, so remember to cut them some slack and give them their space – physically, by a separate tent, and mentally. While the point of camping is to enjoy the great outdoors, sometimes teenagers just want to scroll their phone. Give them the time to do so, setting screen time limits as best you can so they can spend time with the family, too. Bringing a friend along also offers teens a more enjoyable camping experience. So if that’s what it takes, host their guest, too!
When it comes to camping with kids, remember to be flexible. Not everything will go as planned, but learning how to pivot and make the best of a situation will keep everyone calm and collected – especially you! A good rule of thumb for any camping adventure is to learn to slow down and be patient. Plan a fun day filled with activities, but don’t get too disappointed if a sudden rainstorm comes in or your kids simply feel like doing something else. Adapting to the situation at hand and letting go of tight schedules will make a much more enjoyable camping trip for everyone. And, in turn, it will make the entire family more excited for the next one!
In the same vein, learn what parts of the camping trip everyone appreciated. If a meal didn’t go as planned because you forgot a cooking tool, make a note to pack it for next time. If you found that portable white noise machine was a bit annoying after all, leave it behind. With each camping trip, it becomes easier to know what you need (and don’t need) and how to create the perfect campsite setup that makes everyone feel right at home.
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