Camping with Kids (Book Review, Author Interview and Giveaway!)

    Camping with kids is not the same as camping in college with a bunch of buddies.  No secret there!  It requires more stuff, more patience, more planning AND results in a whole lot of fun.  I get emails all the time from people asking for our own camping tips with babies/toddlers.  Some posts in response to those are in the works, but in the meantime I am SO excited to introduce a fabulous book to you all that I think is currently THE handbook for family camping (if I may be so bold in saying so!)  

    The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids by Helen Olsson encompasses a whole range of aspects of camping as a family.  And yep, there is a WHOLE lot more to think about than just sleeping and eating!  The book is an easy read with cute vintage pictures, tons of check-lists (which I happen to be a sucker for!) and sprinkled throughout with “Smart Tips” to highlight the really important stuff.  Helen’s writing is humorous, informative and will draw you right in saying “that’s us!” if you are a parent!  I truly feel like she wrote the book I just haven’t gotten around to yet. 🙂  And be sure to read her introduction – we’re kindred spirits on the importance of having some Family Screen-Free time!
    Photo by Julia Vandenoever
    Because I wanted you to hear a little more about her book from her own witty words, I was thrilled to be able to track Helen down for a little interview (and um, I am still laughing about #4…..):
    psssttt….. read to the very end for a chance to win a copy of the book for yourself!

    1.  So very honored to have you on the blog, Helen.  I am a huge fan of your book and think your wisdom reaches out to a full spectrum of camping families.  Can you tell me, first of all, a little about yourself for people that don’t “know” you? (yourself, your family, your blog, your passions, etc.)
     I’m a freelance writer and former executive editor at Skiing Magazine. As of this spring, I can add “author” to my resume. But first and foremost, I’m a mom. I have three small children, ages 6, 8, and 11. They run me ragged! We are passionate about skiing. I grew up ski racing in Buffalo, NY, and my kids are following in my footsteps. Although my 11-year-old is already faster than me (by 3/10ths of a second, which is truly galling.) In summer, we love to camp. We bike, hike, and paddle, but our favorite thing to do as a family is to camp.

    2.  Loving your S’more section in the book.  It’s a personal camping favorite of mine (and no trip seems complete without them!)  So, I have to ask- how do YOU like your ‘Mallows/S’mores??  Traditional or fancy?
    S’mores are the quintessential camp dessert, to be sure. But personally, I find graham crackers to be overly sweet and they stick in my back molars, so I prefer to make chocolate cherry bombs. You poke a hole in your marshmallow, stuff it with semi-sweet chocolate chips and dried cherries, and roast. Super yum.

    3.  I agree with what you say that your family just feels more TOGETHER after camping trips (despite the dirt and tiredness) – can you tell me one of your favorite family memories to date?  
     We did a camping trip in Nebraska where we floated down the Niobrara River in a canoe and a kayak, and camped along the banks at night. The scenery was gorgeous and varied, there were dozens of waterfalls to explore, and the wildlife was a constant source of entertainment. And unlike hiking, when you’re floating on a river and the kids get tired, they can stop paddling and just sit there and you’re still covering ground. Our daughter, four at the time, napped each day in a nest of life preservers on the bottom of the canoe. We still talk about that trip. You can get the full story, which appeared in the New York Times, here.

    4.  As a family, some of our adventures just go hay-wire at times, despite our best planning.  Please tell me I am not alone!  What was one of your most “learning” experiences?  Can you all laugh about it now?
     Haywire is the new normal when you have kids. My book is filled with first-person anecdotes, many of them from camping trips gone awry, all of which serve as cautionary tales. There was the time we encountered a freak windstorm and our friends’ tent flew through the air and into the Colorado river in an instant. It floated clear to Utah. And the time my son, a toddler at the time, got bitten in the middle of the night by some bug and his eye swelled shut. The latest fiasco happened during a trip to Turquoise Lake near Leadville, Colorado. We wanted to bike the Mineral Belt loop, which is a great bike path that meanders through Leadville’s old mining district, past century-old headframes and rusted-out ore carts. We decided to grab sandwiches at a shop in town before setting out.
    Here’s where things went south. My oldest son has a severe allergy to dairy (and to peanuts and most tree nuts and sesame seeds) and despite our very clear directions, the shop put cheese on his sandwich anyway. We had to go back and get a new sandwich. This was irksome, because we really wanted to hit the trail. When we got to the trail head and started unloading the bikes, we realized the new sandwich was without cheese but now had sesame seeds on the bun. My husband was so peeved that he jumped in the driver’s seat and threw the car into reverse and peeled out. That’s when we heard the sickening crunch of a one-ton minivan driving over a child’s bike.
    The takeaway message was this: when you’re recreating outdoors with kids, stuff goes wrong, usually all at once—or in some ridiculous cascade of unfortunate events. We parents need to take a deep breath, slow down, and go with the flow. We eventually got the sandwich and the bike fixed and we had a most excellent afternoon ride.

    5.  Your book is an incredibly comprehensive overview of camping tips, lists and ideas.  I love that about it.  You obviously put a lot of time, testing and thought into.  What do you feel is your most popular or necessary section for families?
    I think most parents will appreciate the chapter that includes tips on hiking. Hiking with kids is an outdoor pursuit with so many potential pitfalls. I’ve got lots of tips and tactics for making a hike with little ones successful. The first bit of advice is to never say “hike.” It’s a four-letter word. Instead, say you’re going on an adventure to explore a bat cave or an old miner’s shack.

    6.  It is SO easy to plan for sleeping and eating and forget the other MANY hours of the day.  You have some great tips for games and crafts – what do your kids personally choose to do most of the time?
    My book does have a beefy section of nature-based camp arts and crafts as well as games and activities to do with kids when you’re camping. However, I’m a firm believer that unstructured imaginative play is incredibly important for kids. Much of the time our kids are happy playing in the woods around the campsite or constructing a bridge of stones across a little stream. I love the things they come up with, left to their own devices. But in the event that they cry boredom, I like to be prepared with a few activities, like building fairy houses, making leaf prints, or writing in a nature journal.

    7.  Have you written any other books?  Any others in the works?  How long did it take you to write this one?
    The Down & Dirty Guide is my first book. Now that I’m finished and before I start a new project, I want to take some time to get out there with my kids. It was a challenge to write a book about camping with kids all the while mothering a brood of kids who camp. As most parents can attest, our days are incredibly full with the usual routine of school, sports, piano lessons, and playdates. To get the book done, I had to get up at 5 a.m. every day. It was a grind! From the time I signed the contract, I had six months to turn in a first draft. I spent the next six months finessing the 60,000-word manuscript and fine-tuning the artwork with my editor at Roost Books. Start to finish, it took a year to produce the book.

    8.  Gear is a big part of what we cover at Tales of a Mountain Mama.  We certainly don’t think you need to go out and buy all the latest and greatest and blow your family’s budget, BUT we also know that gear CAN make or break a trip.  Warm kids are happy kids! 🙂  If you had to choose just FIVE items for a family to invest in, what would you recommend?
    That’s a tall order. My Ultimate Camp Checklist  has 214 things on it. Kids seem to require so many accoutrements. But you said five, so here are the few bits of camping gear I wouldn’t leave home without:
    The Tent: For family camping, certainly your tent is a critical piece of gear. And while you can easily get away with using old plastic kid cups recycled from restaurant dinners instead of high-tech collapsible lightweight camping cups, you don’t want to scrimp on a tent. Get a good tent from The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, or Keltyand you’ll have the tent long after the kids have gone off to college.
    Sleeping Pads: I just had a friend say the reason she doesn’t take her kids camping is that she simply can’t get a good night’s sleep. It’s hard to be a good parent when you’re tired. It’s essential to have a comfortable sleeping pad. We have a stock of different pads in our basement for different types of trips. We have our ultralight inflatable pads (ours are Kelty) for backpacking and they are surprisingly comfy considering how lightweight they are. (We got the women’s size for the kids). When we car camp, we pull out the big guns: REI Camp Beds (XL), which are 2.5-inch thick, self-inflating, extra-wide sleeping pads. They are incredibly comfortable.
    Hiking Shoes: For hiking, a good pair of hiking shoes or boots is critical. Sandals are useless on a rocky trail. Even sneakers slip and lack support. To really make tracks, kids need a sturdy shoe with a knobby treads for traction. Keen, Merrell, and Hi-Tec all make youth hiking shoes that your kids will outgrow before they ever wear them out.
    Sun Hats: To protect the cheeks of our little cherubs from the sun, we insist on a good sun hat. We like hats from Outdoor Research. The Kids’ Sun Runner Cap is a lightweight legionnaire’s style hat that offers great protection and the Kids’ Sentinel hat has UPF 30 and Insect Shield, so you don’t have to squirt your kids in the face with DEET.
    Headlamps: Parents need a headlamp for changing a baby’s diaper in a nest of sleeping bags at midnight. I’ve done just that with a slippery Maglite between my teeth, and I do not recommend it. Kids love wearing headlamps. They need them for nighttime potty breaks, moving around the campsite after sundown, for snuggling down in their sleeping bags and reading, and for finding stuffies buried in the bed covers. We like Princeton Tec’s Bot headlamps, which come in bright colors and have what I think are alien eyes on the headbands. Play Visions makes cute headlamps shaped like Lego Men.
    Duct Tape. We always pack duct tape. (But that’s six things…)  

    Thank you, Helen.  Great tips and feedback!  And again, I couldn’t be more honored to show you (and your book, of course) off on the blog!

    Also, just so you know, Helen also writes a fabulous blog over at Mad Dog Mom (it’s one of my current personal favorites.)  
    Thanks to Helen’s publisher, Roost Books, one of you has a chance to win a copy of The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids (retails for $17.95.)  
    To enter to win:
    Simply comment on this post answering one (or more) of the following questions (comment separately for each question to gain more entries – 3 total possible):
    1.  Tell us about one of your “Haywire” family trips when things just didn’t go as planned.
    2.  What burning question do you want answered as you prepare to take your family camping?
    3.  How do you like your S’more?
    The giveaway is open until June 6th at midnight MST.  A random winner will be chosen after June 7th and announced here on this post and on Facebook.  PLEASE include your email address so I can get ahold of you!  The winner will have 3 days to respond or I will have to choose another winner (which is something I am not particularly fond of doing…;))
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      1. to #3: I like to sloooow roast my marshmallow to a perfect golden brown (perfected over many summers at the lake with my cousins) and I put chocolate on both sides. Mmmmm-mmmm! to #2: how how HOW to camp with a baby? Especially when it comes to sleep arrangements?

      2. Took kids camping many times and started when son was 3 months old. Used portable crib and then when he was 2 he climbed out. Did not know until I felt a wet spot. ARGH pee on sleeping bag is gross for 4 days. I would change a thing as kids love it now some 7 year later and can not wait to go. So no burning questions but some great tips you gave.Love to use peeps to make my S’mores as like creme brulee for them.

        • Oh boy – kids peeing in the tent at night – not good. I have a feeling we are going to be experiencing some of that this summer (though I would be ok with avoiding it too!)

      3. Things did not go as planned when we took a camping trip last fall. We forgot our sleeping pads, and rather than sleep in our tent on the cold ground (it got down to 32 or 35 degrees at night), we decided to sleep in our Ford Taurus. You can imagine that it got a bit cramped. Also on that trip our car battery died, and a 3 am potty run didn’t prevent the sleeping bag from getting soaked. You can read more about it here:

      4. I love my smores a little bit toasty 🙂

      5. My “Haywire” experience showed me that I trained my children well for when we get lost! My 9 year old was about 6 at the time. He and a group of kids we were group camping with went to the what I thought was the end of the road and back while we adults tended to dinner dishes. My 4 year old came back to the site and asked where his older brother went and no one knew… about 20 LONG minutes went by and we we’re all (all 10 families) calling his name. End result was the camp host (my future desire someday) was walking him back and said what a smart boy we had. My son remembered that I taped (with duct tape) our site number on the inside bottom of his shoe so that if he ever got lost that he could find a ranger and get back to where we were. So my son found the camp host (or was always told a camp/park ranger) and handed them his shoe. They were puzzled until they looked inside to see our site number. But funny thing is our son would not talk to them as he was told to never talk to strangers! Good lesson ended well!Laura (

      6. A burning question I have is how do you juggle the ages of kids… my kids are 9, 8 and 13months!?I worry about how I will keep the boys entertained while making sure that baby is well rested with her nap during the day. She is one to not sit still so who knows if she will ever nap while camping anyway!

      7. I like my S’more many ways: Saltine, Carmel and lightly golden toasted marshmallow is a good one. Traditional with a little added peanut butter is yummy. Using chocolate frosting instead of chocolate bar is a good one too…My boys like Saltine, a laffy-taffy or starburst and marshmellow (the strawberry ones are tasty).However being a HUGE cherry lover I can’t wait to try the “Cherry Bom” That sounds incredible!

      8. Great tips in the article! We had a great camping trip over Christmas in Banff. My contact solution froze. I suggest always bringing a dog as they are fantastic heaters and they often fit nicely in a child’s sleeping bag!Also, I love my s’mores with a double marshmallow and, when I am crazy, a peanut butter cup!

      9. Haywire trip – My son was about 2 months old and we were going camping in the mountains… there’s a couple of things to buy at the store on the way out of town on Friday night – no problem, stop at the store. Get to the campsite and realize the most important thing on the list was missed – DIAPERS. We were using cloth at the time, except when we were going away, and thus the need to buy them… did you know that there is no place in the Rockies open at midnight that sell diapers. 😀

      10. Great tips… any ideas to keep my son, 3, happy on our upcoming backcountry canoe trip?

      11. I love my S’more with really good dark chocolate

      12. I am in desperate need of this gem! How in the world do you camp with a baby/toddler who can unzip a tent and doesn’t sleep well in a new place. We are going a few times this summer (more car camping than hiking to the place and then camping) I was thinking of bringing the pack n play to make sure he is contained, but that seems like a lot to pack.We like our smores slow roasted with lots of chocolate!

      13. We have had many adventures with travel over the years! Taking a short cut that was meant to cut a 2 hour trip into 1 1/2 hour trip….ended up being 7 1/2 hours driving in the car!With the petrol light on, a toddler who got car sick and me alomst 8 months pregnant. Can laugh about it now, but at the time it was not funny!We are just about to get brave and try free camping in the Mackay area. Sure will have many more crazy adventures to share when we get back.

      14. My burning question is – how do you go with camping at spots taht dont have a shower/toilet block? Do you go without showers, or do you have one that you can take with you?We are about to try free camping at a spot that has no toilet/shower block! With three of our five boys..should be a fun smelly great weekend!

      15. My newborn got a taste of her life to come at two weeks old. Picture this: a calm 40 degree overcast March day, and this intrepid mom was beyond eager to get outside. Carrying my daughter in a Moby wrap, we set out on cross-country skis. After a happy hour of kicking and gliding, my little girl became inconsolably hungry. I pulled over to sit down on a log for some booby time. Just then a rancorous roaring sound suddenly filled the air. I looked up expecting to see a snowmobile. Instead it was a sideways blowing hail storm careening my way. I put my still hungry baby back in the Moby wrap, zipped up my parka around her and booked it! So much for post-partum R&R. I managed to the cut the 20 minute ski back to the car to 12 minutes … the whole time I was just praying I wouldn’t run into anyone. What would they think? “Who in their right mind would have a 2 week old screaming baby out in the middle of pelting winter storm?” Luckily, all is well that ends well. Gracie became her happy self just as soon as I was able to feed her back at the car, and I didn’t run into anyone on the return trip!

      16. Our question is on diapers: Can you use cloth diapers when backpacking? Or recommendations on what bags to put disposable diapers in for carrying them out? Ziplocks?

      17. Dare I admit I’m not much of a fan of s’mores. I just like a golden marshmellow.

      18. #3 I put my chocolate on my graham cracker and put it close to the fire to let the chocolate start melting. I warm my marshmallow. Put it together. Eat. Any additional s’more you find me eating will likely not have the marshmallow…just chocolate and graham…yum!! I also like to use reeses instead of a hersheys bar every now and then. Peanut butter adds a nice little something something. 😉

      19. #2 How can we comfortably co-sleep with baby while camping?

      20. #1 Flash flood when we had conveniently places our tents in the gully…never again. It DID make a really good memory and teach us a very valuable lesson in planning your campsite.

      21. #2 Now that I am getting a bit do you get up off the ground gracefully. 🙂

      22. #3 Marshmallow slightly browned, York Peppermint Patty instead of Hershey’s.

      23. Anonymous says:

        #3 Marshmallow golden brown and instead of chocolate bar I like to spread chocolate frosting on the graham. Also, I like to use vegan marshmallows and the brand we use has a flavor called cinnamon pecan – it is soooo good!Susan

      24. #2 how do you successfully camp with a baby? where does he sleep? are cloth diapers easy to handle camping since it would seem odd to use disposables.#3 i like to burn my marshmallows and hope they melt the chocolate. i like them really gooey and messy

      25. #1 When our first child was 1 yr we went camping and he got into, not some but A LOT of tree sap. It was everywhere on everything. Luckily he didn’t mind having his hair smell peanut butter for the rest of the weekend. 🙂

      26. #2 How do you stay organized? It seems like after day 2 or 3 our stuff and supplies are everywhere and dumped in the garage after we get home.

      27. #3 I like to make s’mores with Reeses PB Cups instead of a chocolate bar. Yum!

      28. Burning question from the Watts Family: We inherited a massive hi-tech family tent by Kelty, which is still in near perfect condition after three or four camping outings. The downside with this tent is that it came with a faint but annoying ‘kiddie-accident-smell’, that we can’t get rid of. Any special methods or remedies for this?

        • Hi Christina,I work with Kelty and would recommend setting the tent up in the back yard and giving the interior a quick wash with a little warm water and dish soap. (If the smell is coming from an actual accident, washing just the floor should be plenty) Rinse with the hose, let the tent air dry for a day, and you should be all set.scott

        • Hi Scott – thanks so much for jumping in here! I honestly had no idea!!! I will make sure Christina sees this!

      29. forgot my email address with my entry, Amelia, here it isebb709 at gmail dot com

      30. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long comment
        but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
        Anyways, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

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