Family Camping 101 is the final installment of our series: Mamas in the Wild: How We Survive When We Opt Outside, sponsored by REI. This four-part series focuses on real life mom-to-mom tips and tricks for getting outdoors with your family. Need to catch up? Check out the first, second , and third posts in this series. They’re chock full of great info for all outdoor families!
One of our favorite family stories to laugh and cry about is when my parents decided they were going to become a “camping family”. They had recently moved to Idaho and were so excited to participate in some of the awesome outdoor activities available to them in their backyard. They purchased a tent, all the sleeping bags and gear and made plans for a 4 day camping trip in Yellowstone National Park. There was a little apprehension but mostly excitement to try something they had not previously done. Everything started off on a good note and my parents were feeling like camping experts when they had all 5 of their kids cozily tucked in the first night. That expert feeling left in a hurry when they woke up to 4 inches of snow and 1 child covered in chicken pox.
Although we cannot prevent bad weather or sick children we hope this post gives anyone feeling trepid about camping with children some tricks of the trade that have worked well for us. This collective wisdom comes from lots of camping flops and fails where we quickly learned what does and doesn’t work.
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10 Tips and Tricks for Family Camping Success
#1. You Can Be a Camping Family.
If you did not grow up camping, camping with your own children can seem a little intimidating. We are here to tell you that camping can be for anyone and everyone. It’s not as hard as it looks and with some proper planning and the right gear there’s no need to be afraid.
#2. Pick Your Location.
We understand, family camping requires quite a bit more planning then stopping by a Motel 6. Are you unsure of where to go? Our best recommendations on spots to camp have come from neighbors, friends, community facebook groups, recreation.gov, park rangers etc.
Find out where people love to camp and what they like about that place. Then decide what the best fit spot is for your family. How far are you willing to travel? Do you want shower facilities and flushing toilets or a more primitive experience that is secluded and quiet? Do you want to check off a bucket list location such as seeing new sights in a national park or do you simply want to have a quick weekend getaway to recharge? Recreational activities you hope to enjoy such as fishing and hiking, along with your overall objectives for the experience, can help you decide where to go.
#3. Have the Right Gear.
What gear do you have and what do you lack? It’s helpful to make a quick checklist of things you’ll need.
Essentials Camping Gear List:
- Sleeping bags (check out round up of kid ones here)
- Sleeping pads or Air mattress
- Cooler (this one is perfect for a short trip or lunch on the way!)
- Stove, Fuel, & Lighter
- Water & Food
- Cookware & Eating utensils
- First-aid kit
- Sunscreen/Bug spray/Hand sanitizer
- Appropriate clothing
Our family’s favorite gear includes the REI Kingdom 6 tent (there is also a Kingdom 4 and Kingdom 8 tent depending on the size of your family). This tent has all the essential pockets, an option to have one large open space or two separate spaces, and a full rain cover. An added bonus is that it is simple to set up.
Another favorite gear item is our Goal-Zero lantern. You can hang it or use the legs to stand it up and adjust the level of light. We love that it also comes with a USB port where you can charge your phone.
Nice to Have Gear:
- Camping pillow (or old pillow from home)
- Camping chairs (These are made of mesh and dry off quickly when it rains and keep us from getting too hot when it’s sunny. )
- Portable crib (if bringing a little one)
- Camping shade
- Dry Sacks
- Dutch oven (heavy duty and easy to clean)
- Cookware Cleaning Supplies
- Firewood (and possibly a saw/or ax)]
- Roasting Sticks
#4. Simplify Everything.
One word that helps keep family camping trips successful is SIMPLIFY. Simplify your bedtime routine, your meals, your packing list, your expectations. You do not need to pack everything including the kitchen sink to have a great camping experience. Some of our favorite camping experiences have happened when we’ve taken advantage of an unexpected day off or some nice weather almost on a whim. This is proof that once you have the right gear the rest can come together pretty simply.
#5. Think about Planning & Serving Your Meals.
Before you go: Freeze gallon water jugs to keep your food cold and dry. If it’s a longer trip, and you need to add more ice, buy block ice and slip it into a dry bag to keep the mess to a minimum. Make sure you have a cooler dedicated to the super perishable stuff like dairy. Only open this cooler when absolutely necessary.
Keep a separate cooler for drinks & snacks that don’t need to be ice cold. For some families, the meals are the camping deal breaker, the reason they don’t like to go. Once again, keep it simple! Sure, some folks rock the gourmet spread, but don’t feel pressured.
My kids have never complained about hotdogs over the fire, cut up watermelon, and s’mores for dessert. In fact, they think that’s a real treat and it only requires roasting sticks and a fire.
Another way to simplify is to make some favorite freezer friendly dishes like chili, or soup and pack them into your pre-chilled cooler and reheat! It’s also helpful to prep a few days of veggies and fruits before you head out on your trip. Our family’s favorite easy go-to camping meal is a green salad topped with veggies and a hot dish of (rehydrated) beans, rice and cheese. If you are out on a full day of adventuring the last thing you’ll want to do is slave over dinner and have an hour of dishes to clean after! We shy away from meals that create giant messes.
If you like to cook over an open flame check out the Biolite stove. It uses pellets, charcoal, or wood and you can control the flame for the ultimate outdoor cooking experience. This would be great for shish kabobs, foil packet veggies or cheeseburgers.
For serving food, we like to serve all bowl foods in a large mug. The handle makes it so much easier for kids to hold on to their meal! The Mountain Summit Gear enamel mugs from REI are perfect for this.
Also, we’ve found that small kids are more comfortable on a picnic blanket for meal times rather than at the picnic table that is sized for adults. Try to buy one with a waterproof backing. And keep it in your car between camping trips. It will always come in handy!
#6. Pack Your Food Away:
Once you’ve finished eating don’t forget this step. This one comes from experience. There is nothing more annoying that waking up at 2am to hear a raccoon outside your tent crunching on Doritos. We’ve found that even when we think our food is out of sight the safest place to keep it at night is a locked car. This is even more important to remember in bear country.
#7. Always Bring the Basics.
Sometimes when you’re focused on making sure you have all the right gear it’s easy to forget your everyday basics. Make sure each person gets a reusable water bottle and always keep it full and easy to find. Dehydration is no fun.
Hats, sunglasses and sunblock are for everyone. Consider investing in sun protective clothing. Reapply sunblock throughout the day. This one can be hard to remember, but phone alarms can help. Don’t forget a well stocked first aid kit that includes a thermometer, antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, tick removal tool, bug spray, sunblock etc.
#8. Cater to Your Kids.
Our kids don’t need much to be entertained while camping but it’s important to still keep them in mind. If your children are young don’t forget to pack a carrier and chariot or bike trailer (this can also double as a seat to keep them strapped in if necessary).
You can also bring along a folding bouncy seat for babies to keep them out of trouble while you do camp chores. A sunshade is a great investment and can really make or break a camping trip, especially if you camp in an area without natural shade. Babies can nap in the open air, and you can even set it up over a great patch of sand for digging!
On one camping trip we were in full blown potty-training mode. I almost sent my husband ahead with the older girls and stayed at home because I didn’t know how I would manage a potty training toddler. Needless to say our portable potty was a lifesaver on that trip and bringing a potty training toddler was not the disastrous experience I was expecting.
If your children are older bring bikes, card games (especially handy if it’s pouring rain), and sand toys if you’re by a lake or water. Headlamps, binoculars, slacklines, kites and hammocks can add a lot of fun. Glow sticks are great for older kids at nighttime and they also help you to keep track of where they’re at.
Once you’ve arrived and you have things set up take the opportunity to recharge and enjoy the experience. Watch your children explore, relax in the tent, enjoy walking/hiking/canoeing/biking, or reading a book. You deserve this experience. Not quite ready to brave tent camping? Maybe opt for a RV rental.
#10. Leave No Trace.
While packing up don’t forget to leave the campsite/area as you found it. Send your kids on a hunt to see who can find the most pieces of garbage in the area, make sure the campfire is completely put out, and leave the camp area better than you found it.
One of the most common requests from our kids when asked what they want to do on the weekend is to “go on a campout”. This is not realistic every weekend, but some of our favorite memories have been made while family camping. Seeing the excitement as everyone pitches in, works together and helps out is a big parenting win and makes up for any of our camping flops and fails.
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