This article will appear in my soon-to-be-released eBook about Camping For Beginners. Please leave me your comments on it and I will potentially include them in the final draft of the book. You can also use the links for Kindle and Nook to view my current titles.
The car is packed, the kids are excited and the campground is calling your name! But what are you going to do once you get to the campground?
First off, remember that kids can and should be enlisted to help with setting up camp. Not only does it make them feel important, it teaches them that while this may be a family vacation, they’re not at a 5-star resort where everything is done for them. Or, as my mother is fond of saying, “This isn’t a Howard Johnson, you know!”
By including your child in helping you also can keep an eye on them without making it obvious! Unless your child is in diapers, they have something to contribute. Little kids can help move sticks and pinecones off the tent pad. Older kids can help unload the car, put tent poles together, gather firewood, keep track of smaller kids, etc. When I was too young to be of much real help, my job was holding the dog’s leash while my folks did most of the important setting up or tearing down.
And when it is time to pack up and go home, just reverse the process! Kids are especially good to recruit to clean the campsite and pick up any wayward trash you or any prior camper left behind. I know one family that has every family member pick up one piece of trash for every year they’ve accumulated. The seven-year-old has to keep her thirty-three year old father from “stealing” her trash!
As you set up, make sure that you’re clear that everyone needs to take care of their own stuff. Adults are on the trip to have a good time too, not to baby sit toys, hats, and drinks. I recommend labeling any item that might be fought over: balls, hats, marshmallow sticks, etc.
I also recommend assigning each family member their own water bottle or canteen. Write their name on a PBA-free washable water bottle with a permanent marker. Other drinks can be served from plastic cups but that way each child knows which water bottle is theirs.
Hanging out in camp
Hanging out at the campsite is not at all like hanging out at home. There is no refrigerator to peer into looking for a snack so make sure that you have plenty of kid-friendly foods on hand. I never wanted to take time from camping to eat so my mom was always sure to keep my favorite balanced snacks on hand so she could stuff one in my hand and off I’d go. Remember that whatever you normally eat at home, you can eat at camp!
I recommend taking both large air-tight containers of snack foods for sharing and individual portions so your child can grab it and take it with him. Just remember that any large container that goes to camp full has to come home empty! I recommend packing snacks into plastic bags to save on space.
Make sure your child stays hydrated. So drink lots. And I don’t mean soda! Take extra measures to keep kids (and adults) hydrated. That means plenty of water or clear liquids. Juices and sports drinks are okay, but in moderation. While camping is an excuse to break from routine, make sure that your kids are drinking plenty of appropriate liquids to keep them hydrated.
Plan for First Aid. It’s likely to get bug bites. And scraped knees. And a splinter. And, you get the point. Make sure that a full bottle of quality sunscreen is packed with your first aid supplies and that you apply it liberally and often. Sunburn is especially common at higher, cooler elevations where the sun doesn’t feel as intense and it feels so good to sit in the sun to stay warm. Trust me, sunburns happen even in the mountains! And they’re not fun anytime but especially miserable when you’re not at home!
It’s been suggested to me to pack spray-on sunscreen. It goes on evenly even when your kid is filthy dirty from playing in the dirt all day. A rub-on sunscreen applied over dirt and sweat can streak and leave your kids sunburned in streaks. Not fun!
Remember that while you’re on vacation and everything is flexible, kids may still need their nap. Take a few books or stuffed animals to help them quiet down. Even if your daughter doesn’t actually sleep, a half-hour resting will do wonders for her attitude. And yours too!
Along that vein, its okay to try for some semblance of routine while you’re camping, like enforcing bedtimes. Know your kid: what routine do you really need to follow to keep everybody happy and sane? Does he have to have a bedtime story? His favorite stuffed animal? The best part of camping is that you get to set the schedule so you can schedule what works for your child.
Eating outside is GOOD. But it may take some getting used to! You will eat dirt. Get over it.
In the tent
It’s every parent’s nightmare that their child will get out of the tent in the middle of the night and wander off. The littlest are unafraid of anything and will happily wander off after dark. Older children might want to sneak off on purpose. (Unless they’re like me: afraid of the dark!)
Put an adult in front of each door to the tent. That way, any child making a break for it would have to crawl over a sleeping adult to get out. And if you’re child is afraid of the dark, then he can sleep better knowing that there’s somebody between him and the great outdoors!
If you have more doors than parents, you can safety pin the zipper shut. If you have two zippers, just pin them together. If the door only has a single zipper, you can pin it shut by putting the pin through the hole in the zipper and fastening it to a duffle bag just inside the tent. I don’t recommend pinning the zipper to the tent itself because you’ll be putting a hole in the tent fabric!
Realize that no matter how many times you make them use the restroom before you go to bed, somebody will have to go potty in the middle of night. Take a flashlight and remember that camping is an adventure! If an adult has to go, you need to decide if you need to wake your child at the same time. It might be better to wake your kid when you’re up already rather than have her wake you just as you are falling back to sleep! And, you also don’t want to frighten your child if they wake and find you gone.
If you’re not staying in a campground with bathrooms, be sure to teach your little girl how to go potty outside. And do it in the daylight! My cousin Kris, the mother of three girls, just says, “Camp someplace with a potty. Little girls don’t go in the wilderness!” I remember when I was a little girl and hated peeing outside. Again, this comes back to knowing your child: if it’s an adventure, go for it. If it will stress them out and they’ll try to “hold it” all weekend, then you’re better off camping someplace with a restroom.
It’s also a given, your kid will likely get cold in the night. Plan ahead and know they’ll be snuggling into your sleeping bag sometime in the night. You can also pack two kids into a roomy sleeping bag so everybody stays toasty.
Kids can get uncomfortable in adult-sized furniture. You can get collapsible kid-sized picnic tables and camping chairs. It can be especially difficult for children to eat at a picnic table when they can’t sit on the bench and reach the table!
When you’re leaving camp for a walk around the campground or to go on a hike, make a hiking train. This is where you sandwich the kids between the adults. It allows an adult to lead the way and the second adult to be able to see all the kids at all times. If you’re camping in an area with snakes, it also has a responsible party scanning the trail for slithering friends.
If you don’t have the advantage of a second adult on your camping trip, you can accomplish the same result by having everyone hold hands.
Two final thoughts from every camping mom I’ve ever met:
1. Baby wipes are your friend
2. Extra washcloths and a dab of water can clean anything