Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash
Camping with children is all about making memories to last a lifetime. But for many parents and caregivers, this kind of camping can feel formidable, so approach it like an opportunity to spend time with kids in the outdoors—a place where you can watch them grow and gain an appreciation for the natural world. Without the distraction of screens and other electronics, you may find more time to have conversations, tell stories and jokes, and listen to your children. Or think of it as a way to start new family traditions or pass along old ones.
Have your child adjust to the outdoors gradually, and take precautions to ensure that they stay safe. The trick is to create enough of a controlled environment that you can keep your child out of harm’s way, while still allowing enough freedom for them explore, learn, and master the art of camping. Here are 3 simple tips that will make your camping adventure a fun, safe, and memorable one.
• CAMP AT HOME FIRST
Before heading off into the wilderness, run a practice test by setting up the tent in your backyard and cooking over a camp stove. (For families with no backyard, setting up in a larger room inside can work). Is your tent big enough to fit everyone? Does your child sleep well? A camping test run will let children get used to the idea of sleeping in bags on pads rather than in their own beds, and will help you plan the gear and activity list for an actual camping trip.
• HAVE A PLAN, AND LEAD THE WAY
Have a plan set in place in case of emergency (e.g. bad weather), or if children are having so little fun that they just want to go home.
• SET REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS FOR YOURSELF
The first few camping trips with children might require patience and constant surveillance, so be prepared to give yourself some slack when trips aren’t as carefree and rejuvenating as you hoped. When something goes awry, tell kids to think of it as an adventure–something adults need to embrace as well! Remember, your response to a disappointment will model how your youngest ranger responds. On the next trip, you can try a different season and location, and pack different foods and activities.
Camping is its own great reward so here are a few more tips, organized by age, that will help get you all in gear.
Ages three and under
Small children shouldn’t sleep in their own sleeping bag, as they might squirm out in the middle of the night. Instead, dress them in fleece or long underwear and place a warm, soft blanket over them and a foam sleeping pad underneath them. For babies, consider packing a travel high chair or stroller, or even a travel playpen for a familiar place to sleep and to prevent them from crawling off while you’re tending to a camping task like cooking or building a campfire. Invest in mesh netting for bug protection, or string up a tarp for some extra shade.
When a child is 12 months or younger, before applying insect repellents and sunscreen read the product label first for application instructions and the recommended age. Don’t allow young children to apply their own bug repellent.
When hiking, you can carry a small child in a front or back child-carrier pack. But be sure to take breaks so they can get out and explore on their own. Apply sunscreen and help them dress appropriately for the weather, which might include sunglasses or sun hats. Stop frequently for snacks and sipping on water, in addition to rest breaks, especially if children are walking on their own. Throughout the trip, check that your child is warm enough by feeling their hands and feet, which should feel warm. If the skin on their hands or feet feels cold, check the temperature of their neck and chest, and add more layers if these places also feel cold.
Ages four and five
Give children within this age range small responsibilities, like filling up water bottles at the campground spigot, helping to set up the tent, or organizing their toys, books, and clothes. At the beginning of the trip, gift them with their first piece of gear, such as a headlamp or magnifying glass, as this will empower them to learn new skills and will boost their camping confidence.
Ages 6 to 10
This age range is prime time for teaching children camping and safety skills, such as tying knots, bandaging a minor wound, reading a map, lighting a stove, building a campfire, and learning how to dress appropriately for the weather. With each new year, gradually extend the length of hikes that you might take and the difficulty of the activities (such as how much weight they must carry in their own backpack). Pack more snack food than you think you’ll need, and remind children throughout each day of a camping trip to drink water. Appropriate gear gifts for this age might include a binoculars.
Ages 11 to 13
Younger teens might challenge you to go outside your comfort zone, because they are just as capable at doing the same activities as adults. They have more strength, endurance, and can master skills like setting up tents, tying knots, building campfires, and navigating. During the trip, allow teens the freedom to explore on their own and teach them new skills like how to find constellations or identify native plants. Give them bigger responsibilities like planning a meal, doing dishes, or monitoring smaller children. Before leaving home, give them a list of personal gear items that they are responsible for packing themselves. After they’ve packed, go through their packed gear with them to make sure they haven’t forgotten anything.