The 9-Step Guide to Camping With Kids
Yes, a camping trip with children can be fun and easy. Here’s how.
Play It Safe
Though “statistically kids don’t get injured much more on camping trips than they do at home,” according to Aist, certainly safety can be an issue for parents (particularly novice campers), who may worry that their child will get sick or hurt. Picking a campground close to a city or town with medical facilities may provide ease of mind. (Aist also recommends that parents become certified in CPR and take a first aid class, whether they camp or not.) Tilton always checks a campground upon arrival for a landline to call 911 if necessary, and he consults with the camp’s staff about any potentially dangerous wildlife or conditions.
Other safety tips to keep in mind:
- Pack a good first aid kit—you can buy one ($47.50, rei.com) or assemble your own (go to rei.com for first aid packing suggestions)—along with any medications you or your family may need.
- As soon as you drop your gear, have everyone walk around the site together. Establish strict rules and safety boundaries. Use easily identifiable landmarks, such as fallen trees, to mark any areas that are out of bounds. “It is very unusual for a child to get into serious trouble if they don’t wander away,” says Tilton.
- Point out possible dangers like poison ivy and remind kids not to feed or touch wild animals and to watch where they put their feet and hands.
- Review proper fire safety: Children should keep a good distance from the pit to avoid tripping into it, and they should never put anything into the fire without adult supervision. Adler recommends involving children in building the fire (gathering and setting up the wood, for instance) so “they get the idea that it’s not an abstract thing, and that you have to respect it.”
- Give every child a whistle to wear around his or her neck. If kids get separated they should find the nearest tree, sit down, and blow the whistle three times. Adults should return the call with one whistle to let the child know they are on their way. “You can blow a whistle for a lot longer than you can shout, and the sound is more distinctive and carries farther,” says Tilton.
- Wear long pants tucked into socks during tick season.
Keep Boredom at Bay
There may come a moment when you’ll need to ward off an “I’m bored!” or two, so be prepared with a pack of cards and some books and favorite board games. Aist even lets her kids bring along a few tech items, recognizing that an iPad-obsessed 9-year-old may have a tough time going cold turkey. “I let my kids listen to story recordings as they go to bed,” she says. Load your phone with cool apps for tracking animals through scat identification (Aist likes Backyard Scat & Tracks, free, itunes.apple.com) or using GPS to find stars (Aist’s pick is Sky View: Explore the Universe, $2, itunes.apple.com). “Use that love of technology and skill set and apply it to the outdoor world,” she adds. Or try sending kids on a low-tech scavenger hunt around the site. Hostetter gives her children Baggies and a list of things to gather: pinecones, a rock with stripes, a wildflower, a stick that looks like a slingshot, etc. You can also make a checklist of items to find and mark off, such as a bird’s nest, a chickadee, and an anthill.
Pro secret: When booking at a national park’s campground, Aist always asks if it has a Junior Ranger program (most of them are free). Here, young campers meet with rangers, then follow a workbook to do a series of nature-focused activities that allow them to explore the park. A completed book, checked and certified by park staff, earns children a Junior Ranger badge.
Above All, Play
“Something magical happens when you are outside that doesn’t happen in other places,” says Aist. Research backs her up: “Studies show that when kids play in a natural play-scape they are far more likely to invent their own games,” says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder ($15, amazon.com). What’s more, “kids who are normally on the sidelines at the playground join in when they’re in the natural environment.” Which is one of the best parts of camping for kids: making new friends.
“Kids find camaraderie with other kids they might not normally meet,” says Adler. “They go on adventures together, and there’s a whole new vocabulary of make-believe to embrace. A lot of fast friendships are made on camping trips.” And if an adventure involves, say, putting a hike on hold to spend 20 minutes watching ants bring home dinner, don’t worry. “There are no deadlines when you’re camping,” says Adler, “except when to eat.”
Pro secret: Get over the dirt factor when it comes to your kids, says Hostetter. “A little dirt’s not going to kill them. They are going to have grimy hands and faces, and that’s okay. Clean them up with wipes before bed and then [really] clean them up when you get home.”