22 Tips for Camping with Kids
What small kids appreciate the most is spending quality time with their parents and siblings, even if this means living in close quarters. What is normal and obvious at camping trips could not be tolerated at home: sleeping on the ground right next to each other, no TV or video games, running around in muddy clothes and eating burnt marshmallows. But these make the best memories. From my experience luxurious resorts are easily forgotten. They do provide tasty food and beautiful rooms, but being pampered cannot match camping when it comes to adventure and a sense of freedom. And we all, including kids, need some freedom from strict schedules, rush hour, computers and other responsibilities.
I come from a camping family and feel blessed that I was given the ”camping bug” early on. My fondest childhood memories include tent camping with my parents when I was only 6 years old and then trips with our little trailer-camper to the seaside. We could hear the waves and smell the breeze right on our site. All the “neighbourhood” children formed a “gang” for various games and sports. This was fun.
What I learned about camping over the years can be summed up in 22 points:
1. Plan well in advance.
Planning your summer trip in the winter months makes it a lot of fun. The more time you have the easier it is.
However, most of us wait till spring or summer to plan and make their reservations. Beware that by then the best campgrounds or the best spots might be fully booked.
Never attempt to go camping with your kids at the spur of the moment-you may arrive to “No Vacancies” sign and spend hours looking for an alternative. It is just not worth it.
2. Make picking your destination a family affair.
There are thousands of campgrounds across United States and Canada. Some are state or provincial campgrounds, owned and operated by the state or a province. Some are national parks, run by federal government. Most parks are privately owned and operated, often a part of a bigger organization, such as KOA.
It is wise to research any alternatives. Decide how far you would like to travel. With little kids and babies you may only want to go 1 hour away from your home. With older kids you may plan a cross-country trip for the whole summer. Many full-time RV’ers are known to live on the road and home school their kids.
Make picking a park fun for everyone, including the kids.
3. Pick the appropriate campground.
Family campgrounds are the best for car camping families. Often they offer many amenities welcome by parents, such as toilets, showers, stores and more. Some offer a lot of attractions including swimming pools, mini golf or even full blown water parks. Decide what you need.
Family campgrounds cater to the needs of families with children and nobody is surprised by a crying baby or noisy kids playing soccer.
4. Research your route.
It pays off to know all the attractions along your way. Have you ever heard “Are we there yet?” Sometimes it is better to take a longer route with some attractions along the way than the shortest, but uneventful one.
5. Research attractions at your destination.
There must be some area attractions to keep your kids busy in the event of bad weather or a bad case of boredom. And adults like to be entertained and see something new from time to time as well.
6. Use a checklist to pack.
So you already planned your trip and now it is time to pack. Do not wait till the last minute. We all hate packing, but every travel involves packing. So do not delay, start your list now. Use my Ultimate Packing Checklist to start. Then use it to actually pack. Make sure that you have all necessary camping equipment. If you are missing something you still have time to buy it or order some items.
When you go camping with kids you will need a lot more items than if you went with adult company, and forgetting any of them may ruin your trip. Forgetting your child’s favourite blankie may spoil everybody’s mood and cause bedtime meltdowns. But having said that, over packing is not a good thing either. Number of things you can take depends largely on what kind of camping trip you are going on: car camping allows you to bring all your belongings right to your campsite, so you can afford to take everything and more, as long as it fits in your car. Otherwise you have to limit the size and weight of your luggage. Backcountry camping and hiking with all your equipment in a backpack will limit your options severely.
7. Take lots of clothes for your kids.
The fact of life is that all kids get very dirty while camping. Toddlers and babies love to play in the dirt, sand and mud. Accept it. If you want your baby to be squeaky clean at all times then do not go camping.
Older kids will get dirty as well when they bike and play soccer or hide and seek with their friends. Keeping their clothes clean is the last thing on their minds. They just want to have fun.
8. Do a test run in the backyard or a local park.
This is the only way to learn how to set up your tent (if it is new) or if anything needs repair or if any parts are missing.
This is what we did when we first purchased our tent years ago. The first time it seemed really hard to pitch and we had to follow the instructions carefully. But the next time we did not need the instructions anymore and it took us half the time.
9. Plan for medical emergencies.
We all hate to think that something bad could happen to us or our kids, but the truth is that accidents happen. No matter how well prepared we are and how much we tell our kids to avoid danger.
First of all take a First Aid Kit with you. Scrapes, cuts and blisters happen often.
Second, learn basics of first aid or even CPR. First Aid Kit won’t help if you don’t know how to use it. Learn what to do in different circumstances. Also learn how to avoid trouble. Educate yourself about wildlife in your area, thunderstorms, burns and bites.
Thirdly, learn where the closest hospital is to the place you will be camping at and how to get there. Some accidents, like snake bites and strikes by lightening require immediate medical attention. Fortunately they do not happen often, but you need to plan for all circumstances. If you are going into the backcountry, far away from civilization, you can use some new electronic devices that will transmit an emergency signal, such as SPOT beacon.
Make sure you have medical insurance for the area you are travelling to. Crossing state/provincial boarders and especially country boarders may require buying a separate insurance.
10. Plan meals beforehand.
It is much easier to plan all the meals for a weekend trip than for a two-week vacation. It is also easier to cook for 2 people than for a family of 6 or more. It is also a totally different story to cook in an RV with a full kitchen and to cook over campfire in the wilderness. Therefore, the general idea is to get as much grocery shopping and food preparation done beforehand as possible. For a weekend trip, it is safe to assume that no trips to the supermarket will be on the schedule. For longer trips it is best to plan at least one big grocery shopping trip per week. Find out in advance if there are any stores in the area, including supermarkets, bakery, fruit/vegetable stands and ice cream stores.
Many large campgrounds have their own general store with all the necessities and many popular vacation spots offer good shopping opportunities during the high season. Where there are many people coming, there surely roadside stands spring up selling local fruit, vegetable and often homemade treats. One thing I learned from camping with my son: kids cannot be satisfied for long on a simple and dry “camper’s” food. They need variety, fresh fruit and some sweet treats.
When you camp with babies and toddlers calculate how much formula, baby food in jars and baby cereals you will need during your trip. This is something that you will need to bring with you, since you should not count on the country store carrying your favourite brands. For the other members of the family you may prepare all the meals in advance, at least for a couple of days, and freeze them in separate pouches. You may also simply plan the menu and do adequate shopping before your trip.
It is all up to you: how much cooking you are willing to do while camping.
11. Do not arrive on your site after dark.
If it is possible plan to arrive early to set-up camp. It usually takes some time and you need to see what you are doing. Sleepy kids will not be very happy to wait for two more hours to go to bed.
12. Involve your children in setting up and helping around the site.
Camping is a group activity and should involve everyone. Give little tasks to everyone. Make them busy so that you can work on putting up a tent and unpacking the car.
13. Set the ground rules straight.
Children must understand what is allowed and what is not. Everyone has to follow the campground policy, but even more than that, we all should obey camping etiquette and be polite to others. Running on somebody else’s site is not acceptable. Making a lot of noise should not take place either. Sometimes it is hard to quiet children down, since they get very excited while playing outside all day, but they need to understand that other campers are there to rest and enjoy themselves as well.
14. Keep your pet on a leash and supervised at all times.
Dogs should have a good time, but without threatening or annoying others. Always clean up after your pet.
15. Lessen environmental impact of your trip.
Use biodegradable soap, have some solar powered devices, do not litter, keep the noise down.
16. Use Leave No Trace Principles for backcountry trips.
These principles can be summarized by a single sentence: Do not take anything with you but photographs and do not leave anything behind but thank you’s. This may be a hard concept for some people, and even harder for kids. Kids like to pick flowers, colourful rocks and other souvenirs. But proper backpacking etiquette requires that they leave everything intact for others to enjoy. If you decide to camp in the back-country you will need to talk to your kids beforehand about these concepts. You will need to minimize your impact on the environment by taking all your garbage, especially food scraps, back with you.
17. Make safety a priority.
Safety is a huge subject for campers and should not be taken for granted. There are a lot of safety issues you should become familiar with before your camping trip. Some of them are:
-How to behave when you encounter a bear or other wild animals
-How to avoid bear attack and what to do in case it attacks
-What to do when someone is bitten by a snake
-Avoiding and removing ticks
-Avoiding poisonous plants and treating a person who came in contact with poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac
-Avoiding being hit by lighting
18. Supervise your kids at the campground.
We talked about park etiquette, but teaching your kids how to behave properly is also a safety issue. Big RV’s may be backing out of the sites and small children playing on the road or even adjacent sites may not be visible to the driver.
Playing on the road or biking around the campground should only be allowed while supervised. Older children, who understand and can predict what may happen on the road, may be all right playing by themselves with only minimal supervision.
Obviously children of any age should not be allowed to wander off after dark. Small children should always be supervised when using public washrooms.
19. Keep some kind of routine.
Kids are creatures of habit and some structure is necessary. Everyday rules can be relaxed, but bedtimes should be obeyed for their own health and your sanity. After kids are safely tucked in, you can still enjoy campfire with your partner or your friends.
20. Plan some outdoor activities for your kids and family.
Outdoor fun is a main point of camping. Do what your family enjoys: going to the beach, hiking on a trail, canoeing, kayaking or sightseeing local attractions. Geocaching is also gaining in popularity.
21. Remember to have some alone time with your partner or spouse.
Camping can be a tiring experience for everyone. Fresh air and a lot of outdoor activities can be exhausting for kids and adults alike. Remember that finding some time for romance on your vacation can be invigorating and make you feel younger.
22. Relax and have fun!
After doing all your preparations and working hard at setting up camp you need some time to relax. That is why you went camping, isn’t it?