Before kids, camping happens on a whim. Want to go camping? Sure. Toss a few things in the car and off you go. After kids, you need a professional organizer. We asked Helen Olsson, author of The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids to give us her top ten tips for car camping with kids. After a trip or two, you’ll wonder how you ever camped with out them.
By the time our brood had swelled to three, we knew it was time to trade in our cool Chevy Blazer for a minivan. So there I was at the wheel of a vehicle I’d once derisively called a Breeder-mobile. But if you’ve got a swaggerwagon, you know minivans rule. Especially if you’re heading out on the highway for a road trip of the car-camping variety.
In our family, we like nothing better than to load up the van and the car-top Yakima rocket box with sleeping bags, tent, camp chairs, mats, lanterns, the fixin’s for s’mores, and a cooler filled with steaks and beer. (Root beer for the kids, naturally.) On one recent trip, we had the usual prodigious pileup of camping gear, but also our mountain bikes on top of the car, wedged next to the rocket box, and the kids’ bikes crammed on a rack on the back. Random passing motorists would point at us, mouths agape in amazement. Or worse, laughing at us. Surely we looked like some kind of gypsy caravan.
Camping with kids is an endeavor that takes a considerable amount of planning and preparation as well as certain know-how in the field. Following are Ten Tips for Car Camping with Kids, culled from my new guide, The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids. (Roost Books, April 2012.)
- Prep the Kids: If your kids are young and it’s their first time sleeping in a tent, you may need to take steps to alleviate any fears. Try to best duplicate your nighttime routine when you’re in the woods. That is, if your child sleeps with a binky or a special blanket, be sure to bring it. If kids sleep with a night light at home, find a battery-powered nightlight (maybe shaped like a princess or a ladybug) for the tent. And bring along picture books to read in the tent. Snuggling down in a sleeping bag with a flashlight is possibly the family camping’s sweetest moment.
- Gear Up: You’ll need all the usual gear for camping (sleeping bags and tents, camp stove…), but with kids you’ll need additional gear that’s kid-specific, like little potties, portable high chairs and cribs, small backpacks and water bottles with drinking straws, and baby backpack carriers. While kids can get by with man-sized sleeping bags and sit in your adult camp chairs, there’s nothing cuter than camp gear miniaturized for kids. You can visit a Patagonia sale and find some great deals on equipment. Kelty makes an adorable sleeping bag for babies and toddlers called the Woobie (which we love, because that’s what we call our son’s security blanket, now in shreds from eight years of use). Sigg has fun reusable water bottles for kids and Deuter has great child-specific backpacking packs covered in of topo map contour lines.
- A Walk in the Woods: Hiking is the perfect activity to do with the family while camping. Admittedly, it has the potential to be anxiety provoking. Little legs tire, tummies rumble, kids start to grumble. First bit of advice: never say the word “hike.” It’s a four-letter word. Instead, phrase a trail walk this way: We’re going on an adventure to toss rocks in a pond or to check out a cave filled with bats or to explore an old miner’s cabin. If kids start to whine en route, break out songs, games, and jokes. Bring along a bag of M&Ms or Skittles to dispense for certain stretches of ground covered.
- Make Lists: I have so many lists, I have lists of my lists. If you don’t run through checklists when you’re packing up, you will undoubtedly forget something important. We’ve left behind tent poles, diapers, and ketchup. In each case, it was a dire situation. There are checklists in my book and the Ultimate Camping Checklist can be found at my blog.
- Camp Grub: Whether your menu is gourmet or basic, it’s important to plan it well. I like to think through the menu for each camp day, write it down, and draw up a shopping list. Next step is to think through the kitchen gear you’ll need to execute on the menu. Otherwise you’ll be rolling out your pizza dough with a wine bottle and straining pasta through a bandana. When you leave home, check through the menu to make sure you’ve gotten everything from freezer, fridge, and pantry.
- Enlist the Troops: Throughout the camping experience—and especially when setting up and breaking down camp—include your kids so they feel invested in the experience and more empowered by it. They’ll take more away from the outing and it’ll be more enjoyable all around if kids help unload the car, pound tent stakes, unroll sleeping bags, and so on. Amazingly, our kids love doing the dishes in our portable camp sink. (Sea to Summit has collapsible sinks that weigh mere ounces.)
- Plan Camp Activities: I am a firm believer that the best play for kids is unstructured, imaginative play in nature. There’s nothing better than kids entertaining themselves with sticks, pine cones, rocks, shells, and feathery grasses. However, I like to be prepared in case they utter the dreaded phrase: “We’re bored.” We bring along cards and board games; lacrosse sticks, mitts, and balls; Frisbees and Hackey Sacks. My husband’s favorite bonding exercise is to sit around the campfire with the kids and teach them how to tie knots.
- Get Crafty: To keep kids occupied while you’re getting dinner together or if they just need a quiet activity to settle them down, bring along markers and water colors and paper. One of the easiest yet most beautiful crafts from my book is the leaf print. Simply color the back of a leaf with a kid marker (or with water color) and press it on paper.
- Camp with a Group: Some of our most memorable, action-packed camping trips have been with other families. If you camp as a group, you can share kitchen duties, meal responsibilities, even child-watching. When you’ve got a collective pile of gear, there’s a chance the other family has the thing you forgot to bring. Especially as kids get older, they’ll appreciate having a pal along on a trip.
- Stock up the First-Aid Kit: Kids get boo-boos. That’s a fact. Even if there’s no blood, a Band-Aid has the power to heal. If your kids are like mine, they’ll go running through prickly pear cacti in sandals (so you’ll need tweezers) or they’ll rub their heels the wrong way on a hike (so you’ll need moleskin). Murphy’s Law will likely apply here: If you don’t bring the first-aid kit, you’ll need it. If you do bring it, you won’t.