Camping makes so much sense right now. It’s an inexpensive family activity in a tight-budget economy and a way to give your kids what they may lack in this go-go era: unstructured time outside, away from screens, homework, and an avalanche of after-school activities. Camping provides a rare chance for them (and you) to be a kid, and what could be more important? These nine pro pointers will help make your vacation in the great outdoors fun, safe, and enjoyable.
Pick Your Perfect Spot
“Some campgrounds are well developed and have toilets and running water and ready-to-go-fireplaces, and some are just a little spot of ground for you to set your tent up on,” says Buck Tilton, coauthor of Tent and Car Campers Handbook: Advice for Families & First-timers ($18, amazon.com). Tilton recommends that newbies opt for campgrounds that offer toilets, showers, and an attendant on call if assistance is needed. Websites like ReserveAmerica.com and Recreation.gov are great resources for locale suggestions.
After you find a campground that meets your basic requirements, think about the kind of experience you want to have. “When we’re bringing bikes, we look for a campground that has paved roads instead of gravel,” says Jen Aist, author of Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping, and Boating With Babies and Young Children ($17, amazon.com). When her kids were toddlers, she also eyed campground maps for safety, picking spots far from any hazards such as bodies of water or drop-offs.
Scott Adler, editorial director of Babycenter.com and author of its Dadler blog, whose 4- and 6-year-olds are already booked for 10 trips this season, searches online parent groups for recommendations of good, safe spots, then calls the campground itself to ask for the staff’s favorite kid-friendly sites. (Plus, says Tilton, “if you find out when they’re really busy you can avoid the rush.” The Fourth of July and August are peak season, so go then if you like your campgrounds lively but book well in advance.)
Pro secret: Adler suggests first-time campers look for a campground close to a town. “That way,” he says, “if there’s a pizza place, someone can pick up a pie and make dinner a lot easier on Mom and Dad.” You’ll also be less stressed when (almost inevitably) you realize you’ve forgotten something.
Get the Kids Involved
Even though most kids (who, let’s face it, love nothing more than having space to run around in) don’t need convincing when it comes to camping, including them in the planning will keep them enthusiastic and engaged.
In Aist’s household, picking a camping spot is a family decision. “We get out the maps, talk about where we’ve been and where we want to go,” she says. Tilton and his family plan the trip menu together, and everybody gets to put a special snack on the grocery list. And Adler lets his children sleep in a tent, pitched indoors, for weeks before an upcoming trip.
Have your kids pack their own bags (with parental supervision). Choosing what to bring can help little ones feel more comfortable—they can make sure a favorite toy or blanket comes along—and teaches older ones about planning. Aist keeps the number of packed items in check by determining the size of her kids’ bags.
At the campsite, let older children choose where to set up the tent, and then have everyone pitch in to pitch it. Children as young as 3 can help slip the tent poles into the fabric. Other easy tasks to assign: pulling sleeping bags out of stuff sacks (for the toddler set), blowing up mattresses, gathering kindling (where allowed), and getting water from the pump.
Pro secret: Kristin Hostetter, gear editor of Backpacker and Tilton’s coauthor, makes setting up camp a fast, friendly competition for her two sons by timing them.
A few key purchases have both kid appeal and safety value. Hostetter attributes the Camelbak hydration system ($50, amazon.com) with helping to keep her kids moving on a hike (though she admits she’s not above using the promise of Skittles, too). The pack “makes them feel cool,” she says, “and they drink a lot more when they have that little hose on their shoulder.” She also equips her sons with inexpensive headlamps ($20, llbean.com), which make walking around at night safer and reading in the tent more fun.
Glow sticks rank as Adler’s number-one gear item for kids, because they are just so dang much fun to play with when the sun goes down. “I cannot overstate the power of the glow stick,” he says. “But if you are going with a group of kids, make sure to bring enough. The greatest sin is to show up without enough glow sticks to go around, and the second greatest sin is to not bring enough color diversity. That is the code of the glow sticks.” Grab a few glow necklaces as well to help keep tabs on little ones when darkness falls.
Make a List, Check It Twice
There are plenty of checklists on the Web that are designed specifically for camping trips with children (try Aist’s at wildernessforkids.com). Download one, and then personalize it for your needs. A few days before you leave, tape it to the kitchen counter; designate a space for stacking your gear, and check objects off as you add them to the pile. As you pack, have the kids read the list out loud and cross through the items as they go into a bag, and then the car. (Got the glow sticks?)
Plan to Sleep Well
“Camping isn’t roughing it anymore, with all the great gear that is available. If you have a good sleeping pad and tent, you are not going to be uncomfortable,” says Hostetter, who recommends a four-person (or more) family tent that’s big enough for everyone to pile in and still accommodate the equipment. Pick a tent with two doors so nobody has to crawl over bodies to get out, she says. Look for a full-coverage rain fly to keep you dry and snug during wind and rain, and lots of netting for breezy, cool sleeping in warm weather. Aluminum poles are more durable and lighter to pack than fiberglass.
As for sleeping pads, spend a little more money on good ones, she says—they’ll make slumbering outdoors “as comfortable as your bed at home.” Her picks: Nemo Astro Air ($90, campsaver.com) or, for a splurge, Therm A Rest DreamTime (from $180, campsaver.com).
Pro secret: “Grab the pillows off your bed. Why suffer with a rolled-up jacket?” says Hostetter.
Make Meals Quick and Easy
“Cooking over a campfire is great for kids, because it’s hands-on and easy to make food taste delicious without a lot of work,” says Sarah Huck, co-author of Campfire Cookery: Adventuresome Recipes and Other Curiosities for the Great Outdoors ($30, amazon.com).
Before leaving home, says Huck, do some food prep, such as chopping vegetables and sealing them in plastic bags, mixing pancake batter and storing it in a glass jar or Tupperware (it will keep up to a week in a cooler, says Huck), and making marinades for meat—which will keep from three to five days in a similar container (as long as they have not touched meat or seafood).
When cooking on-site, “anything on a long fork is good, because kids can stand back from the fire while they work,” says Huck (plus, it’s fun!). Hot dogs are a natural, but she suggests mixing it up with Italian sausage, pepper, and mushroom kebabs or grilling fruits such as pineapple, peaches, and plums. Another option: Wrap up “hobo packs” of meat or fish and veggies—try tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and green beans—and nestle them among the coals to cook. Bonus: no pans to clean afterward. Finally, of course, no matter what’s for dinner, there’s only one thing on the dessert menu: s’mores.
Pro secret: Huck brings along long-handled utensils (try Coleman’s three-piece set; $11, coleman.com), fireproof gloves (Lodge Cast Iron makes heavy-duty leather ones; $24.50, amazon.com), a good marshmallow or hot dog fork ($7, walmart.com), and a pair of tongs ($11, lodgemfg.com).
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 ($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.”