Going camping as a kid was the best thing ever. It was fun. It was easy. It filled my heart with joy. Going camping with kids can be magical too but it takes planning, patience, and a willingness to roll with whatever happens. Here are a few tips to make your next family camping adventure just a little more successful:
1. Put them to work – When you first get to your campsite, there’s a ton of work to do. It’s easy for kids to get bored while they wait for the tent to go up. But, even tiny kids can help with something, unloading the car, handing you tent pegs, or setting up camp chairs. It gives them something to do and gives them ownership over their own adventure. Chores that are torturous at home suddenly become fun when you’re camping. You know the phrase, “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down?” A spoon full of dirt and campfire smoke helps turn everything into a game.
2. Put the screens away – My tent has an electrical outlet flap, a flap through which I can pass cords and cables to power all of my electronic devices. WHAT?! This is camping! With the allure of cell phones, tablets and gaming devices, it’s easy for “just one game” or “one last text message” to turn into a weekend you could have just as easily spent on your couch at home. If you’re in the woods to get away from it all, stay away from it all. Enjoy the wilderness, the family, the friends. Enjoy what’s real.
3. Marshmallows and hot chocolate – Some of the best things about camping are the treats. The memories associated with s’mores and trail mix are emotional. They are sugar-filled. They are magically delicious. Your kids will love planning, shopping for, and helping pack treats that they only get when you’re off the grid.
4. Tell stories – The screens are off. The fire is burning. You have a captive audience. Tell them about when you were little, about how you met their dad, about the greatest vacation of your life. They love these stories and the stories give them a sense of family identity. I recently heard renowned storyteller Donald Davis plead with parents to tell family stories to their kids. He said that kids will grow up whether we help them or not. They will get jobs, find spouses, obtain computers, get educations, whether we help them or not. However, if we don’t tell them our stories, they can never know them. We are the only ones who can tell them their history and the stories that made us who we are. He says there is only one rule to family storytelling – It doesn’t matter if they want to hear it or not.
5. Plastic Storage Containers – Organize the heck out of your camping gear. My favorite organization tip is to arrange all of your gear into kits that you keep at the ready. Keep the kits in plastic storage containers with a checklist of contents on the side. When you want to take a trip, just make sure each one is fully stocked and toss them in the back of the car. For example, the cooking kit contains matches, propane canisters, paper towels, hand sanitizer, sandwich baggies, trash bags, dishes and utensils, dish soap, peeler, knives, cutting board, towels, sponge, and a dish pan.
6. Cook food ahead of time – Whether you’re eating sandwiches, foil dinners, or scrambled eggs with potatoes and ham, prep and cook as much as you can in advance. Cook the meat most of the way and steam the rice or potatoes in your foil dinner. Cook your entire egg breakfast, put it in a Ziploc bag, and reheat it in a pan over your camp stove. Chop all your veggies in advance and slice the cheese for sandwiches. The more you prep ahead, the fewer dishes you’ll have to wash in the wilderness.
7. Let them carry their own hiking stuff – as you go for age-appropriate hikes, let the kids each carry their own backpacks with food, water and other supplies. This lightens your load and makes them feel like real campers. They love having the freedom to grab snacks when they feel like it and you will hear far fewer chants of “Mom. Mom. Mom. Can I have some beef jerky?”
8. Frisbees and balls and card games, oh my! – Stuff the gaps in between your duffles and sleeping bags with games and activities to do outside. Be creative. Late night Uno by the light of a Coleman lamp is an awesome outdoor activity.
9. Let there be light – Every person in the family should have their own flashlight. This seems obvious, but nearly every trip we get to the campground and realize we don’t have appropriate lights for each person, lights with working batteries, lights bright enough to light our way but dim enough that the 4-year-old won’t use hers to burn her siblings’ eyes out of their sockets.
10. Potty time – My best piece of advice for camping with kids is to save the nighttime potty break until the last possible second. I have had trips in which my kids used the restroom no fewer than five times in the night. This was unusual and aggravated by the fact that we were camped about seven inches from a very loudly bubbling stream. And it was uber lame. I’ve had the fewest nighttime biffy runs when I did the entire bedtime routine and then took them in their pajamas to the bathroom, walked them directly back to the tent, and dumped them into their sleeping bags.
There is no such thing as a perfect camping trip, but every camping trip can be perfectly memorable and hopefully memorable for all the right reasons.