No, hey, if you want to hand paint stones or make place settings with glow sticks, or make a bowling set with glow sticks, or cover the floor of your tent with interlocking foam tiles (and glow sticks) go right ahead. Glamp it up, my friend.
But personally, having grown up staying at rustic campsites (a latrine – always stanky, a fire pit, a hand water pump and a picnic table) in the hinterlands of New England, I find all of the gear and gadgets that many sites suggest a wee bit over the top.
A plastic box full of toys from home so the kids won’t get bored? Here’s a stick, kid, now go play. I know I sound curmudgeonly, but it’s amazing what kids will come up with on their own when they’re not spoon-fed games and activities, when they’re just left on their own to invent entertainment. You’re out in nature. The entire world is your entertainment. Wanna get fancy? Bring a Frisbee.
Sure, if you’re going for a week or two, you’re going to need to a significant amount of stuff. But if you’re with young kids, you’re not going for a week or two. Two or three nights max. Since you want the trip to run smoothly, though, it’s important to plan ahead. Here are my top tips for everyone in the family coming out of a camping trip sane and alive.
Start small. Don’t make your first outing a major production. Set up a tent in the back yard, on the terrace, even inside the house, and spend a night getting a feel for the whole thing, making the kids comfortable with the idea of sleeping in a tent. I loved camping in the yard as a kid – all the adventures of tenting with the added bonus of indoor plumbing.
When you’re ready to graduate to more serious stuff, choose a place fairly close to home, and plan on spending only one night out. You’ll get in two full days of hiking, fishing, whatever, won’t have to stress out about bringing a ton of stuff, and will have an easy escape back home if things go horribly pear-shaped.
TOP TIP: Before you go out and buy every bit of camping paraphernalia at your local outdoor megastore, see if you can borrow some gear for the first trip, just to see what you’ll need and if the whole camping thing is for you.
Choose the right campground. For the first couple of outings, you might want to forgo paddling out to that gorgeous island in the middle of the remote lake that on your topo map has a faint smudge of something that could be construed as a tenting symbol.
You’ll probably want to opt for a campground that has running water, toilets, picnic tables, and perhaps a small shop and onsite staff.
Here in Spain the problem is reversed – it’s almost impossible to find places (you’re not allowed by law to camp outside of designated, licensed campgrounds) that aren’t overdeveloped. One place we stayed had a disco. A disco. We were really roughing it at our next campground when we were were told – to our horror – that the wifi by the swimming pools was a bit weak.
In most areas, though, you have a wide range of options available, so you can ease into the whole camping experience by finding a place that fits your needs and comfort levels.
Bring along what you need, but don’t overpack. You’ll need:
- a tent and tarp (For under your tent.)
- sleeping bags
- pillows (You can bunch up a sweatshirt or something, but pillows are nice to have.)
- probably air mattresses (Having gone without with the kids, I’d say you’ll want them. They pack up fairly small, come with a cordless inflating pump, and are inexpensive.)
- a cooler
- a flashlight for each member of the family (Believe me, you don’t want the kids bickering over the one flashlight you brought for them to share, or you’ll want to brain them with your Maglight.)
- a nightlight (It’s probably going to be a lot darker out there than they’re used to at home. Even the bigger kids will feel better if there’s a small light on in the tent. Maybe even the glow sticks you have left over from your place settings.)
- clean clothes and an extra pair of shoes (Don’t go mental with the extra clothes – the kids are going to be dirty within 5 minutes, so just live with it. It may get chilly at night, though, so dry socks and shoes, long pants and a sweater will probably be appreciated. TOP TIP: Let them sleep in the clothes they wear in the evening – they won’t have to change into cold clothes in the morning. If you MUST put them in pajamas, stuff their morning clothes in the bottom of their sleeping bags where they will stay warm.)
- food, cooking utensils, plates, and cups (Here again, don’t overdo it. Think about what you’ll be cooking and bring only what’s necessary. TOP TIP: If you’re going to be camping for more than one night, bring a cup for each member of the family, write the owner’s name on it with a permanent marker, and reuse if for the entire trip.)
- a small portable cook stove, lighters, and matches
- toiletries (Don’t pack up the bathroom cabinets, but be sure not to forget insect repellent and sunscreen.)
- a basic first-aid kit, with some kind of anti-itch cream or sticks
And that’s about it. I swear to you, that’s all you’ll really need. In addition to these, we bring:
- butterfly-style nets for the kids (Hours and hours of fun catching grasshoppers, frogs, tadpoles, whatever.)
- a glass jar (For temporarily housing cool finds.)
- a ball to kick around
- swim trunks
Make meal times as low-maintenance as possible. Cooking over a camp stove or an open fire can be a pain, so prep everything as much as possible before you leave home, and think about easy one-pot meals. Whip up a batch of chili before you go, and all you’ll have to do is heat it up. Want pancakes for breakfast? Premix the batter and bring it in empty ketchup squeeze bottles. (Or better yet, just have cold cereal with milk.) Slice, dice, par-boil and prepare everything you can before your trip. TOP TIP: Most “camping cookware” is garbage – just bring some old non-stick stuff from home and cleanup will be a lot easier.)
Go for a night hike. After dinner, grab your flashlights and take a stroll, even just around the campground. You’ll find all sorts of creatures – moths, bats, frogs and toads, for example – that you wouldn’t see in the day. It can be really short, but it’s often the highlight of the trip. TOP TIP: Look for amphibians at night below lights, where they often congregate to snap up the bugs attracted to them.
Organize some simple games. To engage your kids on hikes or even just wandering around the campground, try:
- scavenger hunts (Always a winner. You could even sit down together beforehand and draw up a list of items to find.)
- hide and seek
- the alphabet game (Simply wander around the campground or a nearby trail and try to find something starting with each letter of the alphabet.)
- camping bingo (Before you go just print up some of these handy cards, and you’re good to go.)
Bring a nature guide book or two. Kids (and many adults) love to have things identified for them, and if you’re able to say, “That’s purple trillium,” rather than “That’s a plant,” or “That’s a black-crowned night heron,” rather than “That’s a bird,” it will a) encourage the kids to look more closely at the natural world around them, and b) make you look super cool and knowledgeable.
Camping with kids, like almost anything with kids, can be a joy or a disaster. Play it safe, and make it simple. You are, after all, aiming to get your kids out into the natural world rather than trying to recreate your home out in nature.
After the first time it gets a lot easier, and you can just store your camping stuff in one place, ready for your next adventure, so you can take a look at the weekend forecast, grab your gear and your kids, and take off just about any time.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of camping with my family. After a dozen or so trips with my kids, I’m pretty sure it will be the same for them.