I am sitting here, alone, enjoying my campsite, while my 8 year old son is out riding his bike and making friends with our neighboring campers. This is the perfect time to write to you - the mom who wants to take her kids camping but might need a little refresher or just needs some tips to get going.
I write to you as a single mom of an 8 year old who still gets out and explores – hiking, backpacking and camping. I spent many of my of pre-mom years enjoying outdoor adventures and just wasn’t willing to give it up when I became a parent – so I learned how to make outdoor adventures a fun adventure with my son.
The most important thing I can tell you, you already know from being a mom. Be prepared for things to not quite go as planned. Sometimes you need to adapt to weather changes, something may break or not work right, and of course for your child or children need or want something you didn’t bring. This happens to me every time, every trip. Part of the beauty of camping is it teaches us what we really do need, and what we do not need, in a very real and immediate way. We learn there are a lot of things we think we need, but in the end, it turns out they aren't very important at all. On the other hand, if you forget your sleeping bag, well - make a list, and check it twice!
I believe in simplicity with camping. Some of my best memories from my childhood were simple – camping with my parents and brother wasn’t an elaborate event – we just packed up a few things and went out for the weekend or a bit longer. We hiked, fished, cooked simple meals, and sat around a fire. I want my son to have these experiences as well and I didn’t want it to feel hard for him. So, when my son started to show a little interest in what Mom likes to do, I figured family camping would be the best and easiest way to introduce him to sleeping outdoors and being in the wilderness. There are a host of other more abstract things this teaches as well, such as self-reliance, confidence, and how travel and experience the outdoors.
Before you go, do some research. Locate campgrounds around you and see what they offer. When I go camping with my son, I like to find family oriented campgrounds. Family campgrounds – whether they are in state parks or privately run – often have kids activities or special events, a pool, swimming beach or playgrounds. They also have clean water sources, bathrooms, and some will even have hot showers. If your kiddos are more experienced in the outdoors and are already interested in hiking and nature, “primitive” campsites – campsites that do not have facilities associated with them, are also an option, but these take more planning because you are much more on your own.
If you are starting from scratch and need gear, don’t fall for the myth that you need a ton of specialized gear to have a great time enjoying the outdoors. Most of what you need is already in your home. Think about what you need to keep your children happy at home and ask yourself if they will need it when you camp. No need to pack up your entire kitchen, or break the bank on specialized equipment. I believe a basic camping gear list should look like this:
Tent, Sleeping bags and pillows: If you're just starting out you may be able to borrow tents and bags, ask your friends! For car camping, a basic kit will work fine. The fancy, lightweight options are more for when you're backpacking and have to carry your gear all day. Grab the pillows from your guest room and bring an old sheet or blanket along to make it cozy.
Air mattress or sleeping pads: this can be as minimalistic as a yoga mat or as luxurious as a queen size inflatable bed. Beware: if your inflatable bed leaks, you won't have much luxury.
Ice Chest: any old cooler will work just fine. If you fill plastic drink bottles with water and freeze them you get the added bonus of having extra water the next day, although nothing keeps things cold as well as a big bag of ice.
Stove & fuel: there are a lot of options here, and they can get pricey. The basic Coleman two burner propane stove is a great car camping kit for not a lot of money.
Chairs: any folding back yard or beach chair will work.
Flashlights: any flashlight will do! Headlamps are handy if you have them, and check the batteries - it's also a good idea to bring extra batteries just in case.
Firewood/Lighter: You can often purchase camp wood right at your campground or nearby. Bring a handful of old newspapers, or look for the small one-dollar fire starter sticks at the supermarket.
Food: More on this in a bit.
Cooking and eating utensils: got a box of 'extra' kitchen stuff you pull out for weekend gatherings? It'll probably work just fine for camping too.
Water containers: these don't have to be fancy, you can re-use any plastic bottles you may have in the recycle bin, such as big orange juice bottles or 2-liter soda bottles. Just make sure it has a solid, screw-on cap that won't leak. Or you can buy a double wall titanium-sleeved insulated ultralight bottle with a carabiner handle and internal straw for $50 - as long as it holds water, you're good to go!
Part of what makes camping so much fun is the planning. Before we head out to camp, I always make sure my son is involved with the grocery list. I ask him what he’d think he’d want to eat for meals and to snack on. Hot dogs (or veggie dogs) over the fire and s’mores are a classic and a hit! Not sure what to cook? Prepare what you can at home, bag it up and have it ready to go straight from the cooler. Personally, I like to keep things pretty simple. Pasta, rice and beans, some snacks - you can often just raid your kitchen cabinets and bring items you already have. Look for things that only need water to prepare, a simple box of Mac and cheese will taste much better when you prepare it at the campsite after a day of playing in the woods! For breakfast, some oatmeal packets and bagels are as easy as it gets, although if you want to prepare a 4-course meal with eggs and pancakes go for it! I often use paper plates - if you have a fire you can burn them, or put them in your trash bag at the campsite. Unless you are planning a backpacking adventure those fancy, lightweight, nesting camping pots and pans are completely unnecessary. I just grab a skillet and a pot from my kitchen and make it work!
Packing the right amount of clothing can be tricky as well. I almost always pack too much. Watch the weather a few days before you go and pack accordingly -- and then plan for the weather to change. Add a raincoat and an extra warmth layer even if you think you won’t need them. If you are tent camping, count on being colder than you think at night. When we are packing, I always tell my son, you’re going to be dirty, camping is not a “clean thing.” An extra T-shirt or base layer never hurts to have in your bag.
When you get there, have a game plan. Give your kiddos age appropriate tasks so they can be involved in setting up camp. If they are old enough, let them help you steak the tent in and or unload lighter things out of the car. Ask them to help gather smaller sticks for the fire, where they want the tent to go and what side of the tent do they want to sleep on! If the air mattresses need to be blown up, this may be a good task for them. Involve them in the decision making so they will feel empowered and in charge.
Most formal campgrounds are friendly and social places – and you are never really alone. If you’re feeling stressed and defeated, can't get that tent to set up right or can’t seem to thread your propane fuel tight enough on your stove, don’t be afraid to ask a neighboring camper for help and there are always forest rangers or camp hosts around!
While you’re camping, enjoy every moment as it comes. Let go of some things you wouldn’t at home. Show and teach your children how to adapt to change and embrace the adventure. Although there is so much prep and planning into a trip with children, the rewards and memories outweigh it all. I try to teach my son at least one thing about the wilderness and he even got to meet his first Red Newt on a recent camping trip. I reminded him of that black snake on lasts years adventure. I adore his curiosity and hope one day he’d like to join me backpacking. What I thought would be his biggest fear about camping turned out to be his favorite, sleeping in a tent!
So, I say to you Mom, if you are thinking of taking your kids camping – just go for it you’ll feel stronger and more confident than you did before and the bond with your children will strengthen as well.
It's hard to beat sitting around a campfire with your son!