The most important thing to know about camping with kids is that it is a lot of work and will likely suck at least some of the time. Of course, that also describes a normal day at home with your kids, now doesn’t it? So, really you have nothing to lose! Our kids are little, but word on the street is that older kids aren’t easy, they’re just a different kind of hard. Here’s why you should definitely go for it anyway as well as some tricks we’ve learned to maximize the fun for everyone.
1. Do your best to have more fun than work. If you’re properly prepared, you’ll “net” a ton of fun and a lifetime of sweet memories. But, let’s be honest. Camping with kids, especially young kids (ours are currently almost 4 and 5), is an investment. When we had just one baby, it was more doable for us. We took our oldest daughter camping for the first time when she was 6 weeks old and we camped a ton that summer (at Crystal Lake, Big Muskie Lake, Point Beach, and Brunet Island State Park, among others). Granted, she wasn’t on the move yet, which ups the ante. When Leo came along, we went a few times before realizing the work to fun ratio just wasn’t adding up. We eventually decided it was just too hard for the snippets of fun we had between changing diapers and slinging snacks so we spent the rest of the year swimming in lakes until sunset and taking day trips to local attractions. We ended the summer with a really positive camping experience with friends at the always wonderful Boats and Bluegrass Festival. That was fun. It was worth the work.
2. If you’re going to camp with kids and enjoy any part of it, you’re going to have to lower the bar. That really goes for everything when it comes to kids and maintaining a spirit of fun and parental sanity. Just as the house should be messier, it’s okay to camp differently than when you were just a fun, happening, couple on the loose. For example, you’re likely going to be car camping rather than backpacking into the wilderness. At least for a while. The trails you choose will be shorter. Camp food will be simpler. And, dishes might even need to occasionally be…gasp…disposable:) Know that as your kids get older, and you all get better at camping together, it will get easier. And, that the work you put in now will hopefully build equity in the form of older kids and grown up babies who love the outdoors and can teach you a thing or two in your older age:).
3. Have a proper tent (or even a camper). For the love of all things holy, get a tent with a proper rain fly. It seems like almost every family style tent sold these days is not really made for camping outdoors. If it rains and you have one of those silly tents with nothing more than a decorative napkin strung across the top, you will be wet, miserable, and sure forever more that you hate camping. Do yourself a favor and spend a little extra to make sure you get a tent with a rain fly that goes all the way to the ground. REI and Kelty both make high quality tents that are reasonably priced. Campor and Sierra Trading Post are two discount retailers that carry quality name brand gear at reduced prices. We purchased an REI Kingdom 8 and love it (pictured below), although it is yuuuuuuuge. Before we had kids, we used to sleep in a glorified 1 1/2 person bivy sack. In contrast, the Kingdom 8 has two rooms which allowed enough space to set up a pack ‘n play when Leo was a baby, as well as three twin air mattresses and all our gear. It’s also great for festival camping since you can stand up, change clothes, and hunker down when needed for long stints in the rain. You can also find great deals on craigslist or, if you’re just planning to go occasionally or want a test run, you might consider borrowing a tent from a friend or renting from a local outfitter. Trust me, any of those options will be waaaaay better than waking up in the middle of the night with wet sleeping bags and screaming kids. On a related note…
4. Sleep is essential to everyone’s fun, but most importantly, your own. Air mattresses are your friend. At least, they are my friend. We used to use thermarests back in the day (which were great for backpacking!), but now we roll with air mattresses, pillows, blankets, and even a battery-powered white noise maker and fan back when we slept with babies. Not only will you and your babes sleep better, your neighboring campers will thank you. Well, hopefully they won’t even know you are there, so rather, they won’t curse you in the night. It’s okay, this phase won’t last forever. And, when your wilderness backpacking Dad/Grandpa laughs hysterically as you cart three loads of pillows into your mega-tent – just smile and know it’s for his own good as well as yours. This nonsense won’t last forever, although, warning: you just might get used to it:)
5. Less is still more in any camping experience. Yes, I know that sounds contradictory to my last points, but stick with me. It’s not so much about more stuff, although you will likely have a lot more stuff, it’s about having the right things along. The more you have, the more it explodes all over camp, and the more time you spend trying to tame the beast. Yes, I just described an absolutely ridiculous amount of bedding, but maybe your family doesn’t need that. What do you need to be comfortable enough to enjoy the outdoors? For us, it’s sweet, sweet, sleep. If there’s something YOU need, by all means, do your best to provide for that. Beyond that, minimize, minimize, minimize. For example, kids likely don’t need tons of toys at camp. They love to wallow in the mud, play with sticks, and run wild. Let them do that. Boredom breeds creativity. It’s not your job to entertain your kids the whole time. Let them play and be free. By the way, you should find time to play and be free too. When ours were littler, we always had “mudding onsies” we could zip them into and let them crawl around in and get filthy without worry. The onsies weren’t pretty, but they were clean, at least when we put them on, and the kids were happy. Bikes are also worth lugging along if you have room and wherewithal, but not totally necessary. It’s definitely a balancing act. The more you have, the more you have to manage. Remember the point is to be outdoors.
6. Go with friends. Camping is always more fun with friends, but especially when you have kids. Camping with friends who also have kids that play well with yours is a game-changer. We do go on our own quite often, but it’s always easier and more fun when the work and play is communal. Families can collaborate on food prep and cooking, supervision, and adventures. Kids have playmates and so do we. It’s always a bit slower to get out of camp and moving with “group inertia” but totally worth the cost of coordinating with others for the benefits it brings. Still, if no one can join you, go anyway. Your successes will make your friends more eager to join the next time.
7. Keep everything as “packed” as possible between trips. We have dedicated shelves in our basement for camp gear, including a kitchen bin with cookware, dishes, and other essentials. We still always forget a few things on our first trip out of the year, but keeping our gear mostly packed and in a designated space makes packing, leaving, and coming home go a lot more smoothly. Trust me, you don’t want to show up to camp as the sun is setting and find you’re missing the fuel for your stove, your tent stakes, or your sleeping bag. I mean, you’ll figure it out, but you won’t want to.
8. It’s not the distance traveled, it’s the experience. Stay close to home if you need to. Ardea’s first camping trip was at a county park near our home. It was a great test run. It was about a 10 minute drive to get there, and we could go home if we felt we needed to. We made it through that night with no troubles, and were even blessed with the awesome and eerie calls of barred owls directly above our camp before bedtime. We’ve done cross country road trips with the kids, but the most ideal adventures are 2 hours or less in the car. We’re lucky to have lots of beautiful options within that radius. We can and do go further now, but we always make sure to be aware of our fun to work ratio.
9. Make it happen if it matters to you. It’s a lot of work to get ready, even when you’re perma-packed. And it’s a lot of work to unpack and resettle at home. You might tell yourself you’re going to clean up and go to the grocery store for the week on Monday, but the reality is you might not. Let your house be messy for the following week. Expect that. When you have that mid-week post-camping freak out when you think you’re going to scream and you wonder if it was all worth it, remember those late-night giggles, the kids passing out in your arms by the campfire, and waking up to the sound of loons calling on a misty lake. If you played your cards right, it WAS totally worth it.
10. If you go camping and you feel like it was more work than fun, don’t give up. Make some thoughtful adjustments and go again. If you try repeatedly, and it always feels like more fun than work, take a break. Do other fun things outdoors, and don’t push it. But also, don’t give up. Rethink your fun formula and try again when your kids are older or some other time when you think you’ll have a better chance at success. Camping with kids can be as much fun as it was before them, but there is a learning curve. It will inevitably take some adjustment and adaptation to make sure you all enjoy the experience as much as possible.
Take heart, friends, camping with your kids is well worth the trouble. It may take some work, but you can definitely still camp in style. Have you tried it yet? What have you learned? If you haven’t, what’s stopping you? I’d love to hear your stories or questions.
If you’re looking for destination ideas or inspiration, you can read more about our family camping stories here.