There are few joys in life as rejuvenating as nature. Fresh air, beautiful views, invigorating activities and simpler time with the family– what’s not to love? Of course, the very things that make camping great can make it hard when you’re camping with kids. Teens bemoan the lack of wifi, younger children get moody as they tire from the adventure of it all, and toddlers, as usual, get into everything (even that poison ivy you shooed them away from ten times!).
Fortunately, there are some easy steps to take to make sure everyone has a great time. A little preparation goes a long way when you’re camping with your kids, especially when you’re camping far from civilization. This ranges from packing a few extra tools to choosing a primo destination.
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Choose Your Destination
Some natural areas are more kid-friendly than others. This will vary based on the ages of your children. If I want an experienced suitable for the 10 and under crowd, I will probably visit a national park. National parks offer great family-friendly options. Check out their websites.
Rangers at these parks often offer:
- Safety advice and pamphlets for parents
- Camping areas prioritized for families (they’re often farther from roads)
- Short, high-interest hikes, often under a mile
- Interactive games for exploring, like “eye-spy” style scavenger hunts
- Informational programs on local animals and sights (check out the stargazing programs!)
Even at a national park, though, you have to be aware of your surroundings. For instance, the Grand Canyon is a beautiful place to visit. The south rim paths are paved, with displays and games for kids. The trails through the canyon, however, can be exhausting even for adults. And, of course, some areas don’t have rails protecting kids from cliff ledges.
Plan some activities
State parks are great choices for the same reasons. Their websites are up-to-date sources for information on things to do while camping. For instance, at Missouri state parks, you can:
- Climb boulders
- Explore Johnson shut-ins State park
- Ride ATVs
- Ride horses
- Play sports with other campers
As you choose your destination, keep your kids’ interests in mind. My kids LOVE dogs, cats, fish, squirrels…basically any animal steals their heart. We always try to visit parks with nature programs about local wildlife. Sometimes there are even petting zoos!
You should also call the ranger station where you plan to camp before you head out. Sometimes there are safety warnings or closures. Often, rangers can give you better information or ideas than any website ever could.
Involve the Kids in Trip Preparations
The more involved kids are, the more buy-in they will have. This is true regardless of the age. Some great ways to get your kids in the middle of the action are:
- Each kid tells you a “must do” nature activity they want.
- Let kids look up pictures of possible destinations before choosing.
- Have kids pack their own bags (using a list). You can check it before leaving.
- Make sure to hear your kids’ concerns about the trip.
- Have older children practice setting up tents, air mattresses and bedding, etc.
- Let younger kids pick 2-3 toys to bring for familiarity and rainy-day emergencies.
Involve kids in being smart about travels, too. If your kids are older than seven, they can handle some basic google searches. This is an awesome opportunity for them to practice reading skills, too. We adults hate to admit it, but sometimes the kids are better at technology than us!
Be responsible campers
Kids can look up plants and animals to watch out for in the area. They can also check out the Leave No Trace principles and brainstorm ways for the family to follow these. The principles are:
- Know Before You Go
- Choose The Right Path
- Trash Your Trash
- Leave What You Find
- Be Careful With Fire
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Kind To Other Visitors
These principles are all about taking care of nature. The LNT website has some online games kids can use to learn them, as well as printable family games.
Make Camping A Game
One of the newest nature-based sensations is geo-caching. I hadn’t heard of it before I started camping with some other families. My kids love it! The idea is pretty simple:
- Choose a geocaching site, like this one.
- Select your camping area from the list of options.
- Print the clues.
- Use the clues to find the cache.
- Take a picture (you can often post it to a site as proof).
- Hide the object somewhere new and make new clues, or
- Hide it where you found it and head home- you won!
Geocaching can get kids who are normally bored by nature really into the adventure. My youngest is a die-hard video game fanatic, and he would be devastated if we didn’t geocache at least once on every camping trip.
You probably know that you need a first aid kit when you’re camping. It should include necessities like antibiotic creme, band-aids and bandages, alcohol swabs, painkillers, antidiarrheals, and an emergency blanket (those thin, reflective sheets).
When you’re camping with kids, there are some other odds and ends that are plain useful to keep on hand. For instance, if your kid is a little daredevil (there’s always one), you might want to bring a sammy splint. It’s bad enough having a broken arm, but it is downright awful when it happens hours from a hospital.
Some other things you might consider packing are:
- “Liquid skin” or clear nail polish for mosquito bites, poison ivy and scrapes
- Pepto Bismol or another intestinal panacea
- Syrup of ipecac (Why are the poisonous berries always so pretty?)
- Whistles (make sure kids know three short blasts means “I need help”)
Even if you’re just visiting the local lakeside campground, it’s good to think about the terrain, your kids, and how they might need to be patched up during a visit. Even a spattering of mosquito bites can make a trip no fun at all if you’re unprepared.
Know Your Limits
Camping quickly loses its luster when you’re plain pooped. If you’re camping with kids, know what they’re probably up for– and what you can handle! You might be carrying extra weight if someone wears out before you get back to camp.
Older teens, especially athletic ones, can usually handle hikes of a few miles. Think about how far they can run (Can they do a 5k?) and don’t go too far over that.
Children under ten have a hard time going more than a couple miles, usually. Even if your kiddo can handle a longer walk, remember to account for their attention span, too.
Toddlers shouldn’t be expected to go further than a mile- you’ll probably be carrying them part of the way, anyways!
When you’re thinking about your hikes, think about altitudes. Many of the lovely places we love to camp and hike are thousands of feet above sea level, but our family lives right around sea level. Higher altitudes will wipe you out faster. Altitude sickness can ruin a trip– stay hydrated to avoid it.
Pack proper footwear for everyone who will be walking. Sandals, even the comfiest cork strappies, will start causing blisters fast. Make sure your shoes are broken in before your trip, too.
If you’re going on a longer camping trip, plan some breaks from the woods. This is especially important if you or your kids are new to camping. Some types of asides you can schedule are:
- A “wifi stop” at a local fast food joint or coffee shop. This will allay adolescent social anxieties, too.
- Dinner at a restaurant with food you can’t make over a campfire, like pizza or Chinese (although creative cooks can do anything with an open flame!).
- Bowling, mini golf, or another “civilized” activity in a nearby town.
- Grocery shopping or other necessary trips made for whole-family outings.
- A movie or arcade shop.
Some teens (and moms & dads) will probably want a little alone time at some point, too. Make sure you address these needs and provide some opportunities and flexibilities.
However, if you decide to camp, do it in a way you will enjoy it! Not everyone needs to rough it like Bear Gryllis or cook gourmet meals over the fire nightly. Start out with short trips until you know how the kids handle camping, too.
Make sure to keep your expectations of each other low the first few trips, too. Even with the best planning, camping can get stressful! With the right attitude, even the worst thunderstorm can’t ruin a fun trip. Enjoy yourself!
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