Three Steps for Camping with Kids
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Ask anyone about their most vivid childhood memories. Chances are, if they went camping with their families, it’s those memories that often rise to the surface. Do you like the idea of camping but find it too daunting after putting in long workdays, school activities, and all of the necessities of life? Here are some tips for camping with kids that just may get you on your way.
And keep in mind, if you have a fourth grader, they are part of the Every Kid Outdoors program. Fourth graders and their family get free access to hundreds of parks, lands, and waters across the country for an entire year! Visit the Every Kid Outdoors website for more details about the requirements and benefits of this program.
Use these steps to prepare you and your little ones for a memorable experience in the outdoors!
1. Choose a Destination and Reserve a Campsite
North Cascades National Park (Robert Root, Share the Experience)
- Area Features: Look for destinations by lakes for swimming, skipping rocks, boating; streams for fishing, wading, exploring; hot springs for soaking; and/or trails for hiking and biking.
- Just in Case: Look for a campground reasonably close to home or a town to purchase those forgotten and critical camping supplies. Or you may just want to support the local community and take a night off from cooking to enjoy a nearby restaurant!
- Campground Amenities: If you are fairly new to camping, pick a campground with plenty of amenities like potable (drinkable) water, flush toilets, tent pad, fire pit, grill, picnic table, food boxes and campground hosts, who often sell firewood and can be a great source of information. Also, guided ranger programs and activities are always a great way to learn about the area. When booking your campsite on Recreation.gov, pay attention to the site descriptions for more details.
- First-Come, First-Served Sites: If you decide to camp at a site that does not take reservations, call the local site managers and ask how quickly they fill up. Your best bet may be to arrive on a Thursday or Friday morning for a better chance of finding an available site.
- Know Before You Go: Check local fire restrictions, weather conditions, closures, fire activity and other area conditions prior to embarking on your trip. Also, be aware of critters in the area. Some campgrounds require you to use animal-proof food boxes, which are often provided, and are there for your and for animals’ safety.
2. Prepare and Pack
- Practice Camping: Set up your tent in the backyard, lay out the sleeping pads and bags, fire up your flashlights and headlamps and get a feel for the tent camping experience. Glow sticks are also a fun way for kids to see at night, and for you to see them. This is a surefire way to get your kids excited and to better know what to expect in the great outdoors. Also, see our Five Ways to Prep for Camping article for more tips.
- Make Checklists: Create checklists that you can print and give to each family member. Everyone is involved with helping to pack their own clothing, sleeping bag and pad, gear, toys, books, headlamps and other necessities. Make sure to double check the kids’ camping gear so that crucial items are not forgotten. Also make lists for food, cooking and eating supplies, tent and tarps, first aid kit, flashlights (including extra batteries) and lantern, extra water, tools, boredom-busting games and activities, and of course, duct tape. Don't forget the firewood - plan to pick up firewood on-site or from a local vendor nearby. Buy it where you burn it!
- Prepare Meals and Snacks: Plan meals and prepare as much as you can in advance. Along with healthy options, it’s always fun to pack special snacks that your kids normally don’t get at home. Oh, and don’t forget the s’mores fixin’s!
3. Make it Special and Find Teachable Moments
Capitol Reef National Park (Nina Mayer Ritchie, Share the Experience)
- Set up Camp: Camping is a lot like playing house. Get everyone involved with establishing areas for cooking, cleaning, tents, garbage, etc. Assign chores, and then commence the fun!
- Establish Boundaries for Discovery: The younger the kids, the smaller the area they will have to wander from camp and discover their environment. As they get older, decide your comfort level for allowing them to explore their surroundings. Kids should wear a whistle and signals should be established if they get lost—three blows indicates a child is lost and one signals an adult is on their way.
- Go with the Flow: Have a variety of kid-friendly camping activities on hand and in mind, but allow for plenty of unstructured play and discovery. It’s okay to let the kids get dirty! Streams, lakes, and portable showers are great for rinsing off.
- Capture the moments: Take plenty of photos of your family’s camping experiences! The memories they create can then be shared with friends and family, and are great submissions to the Share the Experience photo contest and Share Your Story writing contest.
- Science in Nature: Guide your kids to various areas and observe as they discover science all around them – a caterpillar in a cocoon, leaves changing color, interesting rock formations, the physics of skipping rocks across the water… The list goes on.
- Tell Stories: Campfires and storytelling go together like marshmallows and chocolate. This is essentially your family’s oral history, and your camping experience will add to the collective memories of your lives together.
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