Nothing says summer like a family camping trip. Roasting marshmallows around a campfire, telling spooky stories, hiking, biking and kayaking — there are so many activities to choose from and so many memories waiting to be made.
Growing up, camping was one of my favorite activities. I’ve been dying to take my own daughter for the last few years, but things never really worked out. I was always too intimidated. After taking her to the beach as an infant, I didn’t want to relive the experience in the woods this time. Carrying a million things around to keep her comfortable and trying to keep nature off of all her sterile baby things, we only got about five minutes of enjoyment out of the whole experience.
As a first-time mom to a 6-year-old, I’ve definitely relaxed since her baby days. However, I didn’t want her first camping trip to be like her first trip to the ocean. I wanted to be prepared without dragging the kitchen sink along. I wanted to be able to share the experience, make memories we’d both remember and start a tradition she would enjoy.
With a little preparation and consideration, I think we’re ready for our first camping trip.
A plan is everything with small children involved, especially when it comes to trips. The days of “flying by the seat of your pants” and “going with the flow” went out the window a long time ago. Preparing to camp can save you a lot of headaches later, helping you pack all the essentials and pick a destination that suits your family.
Destination. Choosing a destination is the first thing you need to do. You want to make sure you choose a location that offers enough activities to keep you busy throughout your trip and has enough amenities, so you’re not completely overwhelmed. You also want to note whether or not the campground takes reservations. If you choose a site that fills up quickly, you may want to leave before the weekend to secure a spot.
Packing. Preparing checklists for each family member allows everyone to be involved in the packing process and it’s a good way to make sure you have everything you’ll need. Some items to consider for each individual include clothing that can be layered (appropriate for the weather during daytime and at night), a sleeping bag and air mattress, comfortable shoes for hiking, flip flops for the shower or beach, bathing suit, a towel, sunglasses and flashlight or headlamp. Things to consider for the whole family include prepared meals and snacks or planned out meals and snacks, cookware, eating utensils, tent and tarps, first aid kit, bug spray, sunblock, lantern, extra batteries for flashlights and lantern, firewood, plants of water, any tools you might need, duct tape (just in case), games, books, fishing rods and other gear for activities.
Additional information. Before you leave, make sure to check local fire restrictions and activity, weather conditions and other area conditions. It’s also important to review individual park policies on conduct, such as the use of animal-proof food boxes.
Expect the unexpected. When you’ve gone to so much trouble to plan a camping trip that you hope you’re child will remember fondly for years to come it’s easy to get bent out of shape if the plan falls apart. But that’s life and it’s definitely life with kids. Just be ready to adapt on the fly. Don’t let it ruin your trip.
Medications. It probably seems obvious, but remember to pack any special medications members of your family need. One time 16 years ago, I got stung by a hornet that sent me into anaphylactic shock. Because it’s been so long, I sometimes forget to pack my EpiPen. It’s not something I really think about needing. I usually just keep it in my purse. However, getting stung (by what turned out to be a wasp), away from home — where I left my purse and consequently, my EpiPen, made me really wish I would have thought ahead to pack it.
Stick to the trails. Hiking off of existing trails can get you lost, damage vegetation and cause erosion.
Plan a meeting place. It’s always a good idea to plan to meet at a set location, at a set time, if you plan to do separate activities or there is potential for you to be separated.
Prepare children. Make sure to give your children clear guidelines to keep them from getting lost. Teach younger children to stay within eyesight and older children within earshot. Make sure to tell them it’s best to stay put if they get lost. For children over the age of four, it might be a good idea to provide a whistle and teach them to call for help if they are lost. The standard distress signal is three blows.
Ticks. Try to avoid tick bites by taking preventative measures. Always check for ticks after hiking in the woods. Try to avoid grassy or brushy areas away from trails. If you find a tick, be sure to keep a close eye for any symptoms of disease.
Campsite. When you’re going away from your campsite, be sure to store valuables and open food containers in your car. It’s important to keep a clean area, so you don’t attract animals to your site.
Setting up camp. Get your kids involved right away by letting them help set up camp. They can help establish areas for cooking, cleaning, tents and garbage, or complete tasks like collecting kindling or setting up their own tent. It’s part of the experience and a way to pass skills onto the next generation.
Campfire cooking. I think almost every kid loves to cook food on sticks. You can stick to good old standbys like marshmallows and hotdogs or get dance and try kabobs.
Hiking, biking, kayaking and more. Make time for some sort of age-appropriate recreational activity. It will give you plenty of opportunities to teach your kids about nature, while also breaking up the day.
Downtime. Make sure to plan for some downtime here and there. Being outdoors and being active can wear little legs out. It’s good to pack books or games to offer activities at camp, while everyone relaxes.
Free play. Give your kids time where nothing is planned, so they can discover new things on their own.
Kids programs. Many parks offer kids programs for special experiences and opportunities to learn. Check the one your visiting ahead of time to see if there’s anything available that your kids would be interested in attending.
Campfire stories. Telling stories around a campfire is cliche, but it’s a great time to share family memories of camping during years past or during your own childhood. One day, your child might be reliving the experiences with his or her own family, continuing the tradition.
- Camping with Kids, Virginia State Parks
- Three steps for camping with kids, Recreation.gov
- Camping with kids, National Parks Service
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