I’ve camped since I was about age 10. I’ve pitched a tent everywhere from Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, to Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores in Michigan. I’ve camped alone and with friends, but camping with children is a completely different experience. There’s nothing worse than hearing “I’m bored” when you’re miles from play dates, a library, or the comfort of one’s Lego- and game-filled home. And the unfamiliar surroundings of nature (noisy crickets and other strange sounds, midnight visits from raccoons and opossums, the absolute darkness of the woods at night, etc.) can be scary or disconcerting at first to kids used to city life.
I took my now 8-year-old son camping for the first time when he was 4, and we just returned from our fifth summer camping trip—this time to Kohler-Andrae State Park, which is on the shore of Lake Michigan near Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (Click here for my article about Kohler-Andrae.) I treasure these trips with my son, my high school friend Dave, and his now 11-year-old son. It’s wonderful to share my love of nature with my son, to continue a 30-year friendship with my friend, and let our sons build a friendship that will hopefully last past their dads’ time on Earth. But camping with your kids can be challenging at times. Here are some tips that will help you to have a great camping trip with your children:
1. Conduct a test run. Pitch your tent and have a backyard campout to acclimate your children to the camping experience and troubleshoot issues with your tent, air mattresses or cots, and other camping equipment.
2. Choose your campsite wisely. Some parks allow you to reserve your site ahead of time. Since many parks fill up quickly, it’s best to book at least 6 months before your stay. Additionally, take geographic location and nearby amenities into account when selecting a site. If you have young children, you’ll probably want to be near bathroom facilities and showers. My personal preferences are a campsite that is closest to trails and the lake. Finally, carefully review campground layouts in order to select a campsite that is far from the main road as possible to reduce the risk of danger from cars and RVs.
3. Allow the kids to bring a favorite toy or two. This helps them to feel comfortable in their new surroundings. When he was younger, my son brought a favorite stuffed animal or two. In recent years, my friend has brought his son’s oversize Tonka trucks that both boys enjoyed playing with, and my son brought his bug-catching gun and viewing equipment—also a hit.
4. Be flexible and ready to do the unexpected. On our first night at Kohler-Andrae, our kids lobbied for a night swim in Lake Michigan. Out came the flashlights, and after a 10-minute hike later, we jumped into the lake, the stars twinkling above us. This unplanned swimming sojourn turned out to be a lot of fun, and it was interesting to play in the lake at night. Of course, we stayed very close to shore given the dangers of swimming in a massive lake at any time of day.
5. Orient the kids. Point out major landmarks (“The washroom/showers are 4 campsites from our campsite by that large oak tree.”) to help your children become comfortable with the campground and reduce their chances of getting lost.
6. Be safe. Give your child a whistle that he or she can blow if lost or in danger. Also, every child should have their own flashlight.
7. Let them try new things. Camping provides an excellent way to let your kids try out new things that they would never do in the city. Let your children experiment at an appropriate level for their age. My friend and I let our 8- and 11-year-olds light the fire and candles under close supervision. We let them pound tent stakes, make smores, and throw wood into the fire. Last year, we allowed them to cut firewood using saws and small axes.
8. Set up a play tent. Last year, our sons used my red screen tent as a police station. This year, it was a spy headquarters. Giving your kids a place of their own—a sort of camping clubhouse—allows them to have quality non-parent time. A screen or other type of tent also serves as a great group destination if it rains or if the campsite is buggy.
9. Become an expert. Okay, maybe not an expert, but a devotee of something in nature that you can teach your children about and expand their understanding of the world. I love astronomy and shared a little planet and star talk with Dave and the kids. Dave is an arachnid aficionado, and during one hike, he taught us about the web building and hunting habits of several types of spiders. The kids had a lot of fun catching ants and tossing them into spiders’ webs, at which, depending on the spider, the ant would be wrapped up like a mummy in seconds or stung with immobilizing poison and left on the web like a steak in an icebox for a midnight snack. Additionally, many campsites have nature programs that are led by rangers and naturalists.
10. Let them get dirty. It’s understandable to want to apply city rules to camping, but that’s impractical. Let your children play in the sand and dirt, get a little messy after carrying firewood or making smores, or engage in other outdoor activities. Keeping clean is a losing battle when you camp. Hopefully, you’ll camp in a place where there are showers that you can use at the end of the day, or where there’s a lake everyone can jump into to wash away some of the dirt.
11. Be prepared for downtime. While you want your kids to be out hiking, swimming, fishing, boating, and doing other outdoor activities, they may get bored of these activities, not feel 100 percent, or just want to stay in camp sometimes. Due to some last-minute work at home, I was not as prepared as I would have liked for downtime during this last trip. And on the first morning of my most recent trip, my friend and I paid dearly for our lack of preparation. We were forced to listen to a far-from-beautiful chorus of “I’m bored,” “He doesn’t want to do what I want to do,” etc. from our kids. A quick trip to a local retailer helped us to acquire a book for my son (to replace the 2 we forgot), Legos, and a glow-in-the-dark cornhole game that became staples of camp downtime.
12. Head to town. Camping purists may shudder at this advice, but we actually left nature for a change-of-pace visit to Sheboygan. We had lunch at the Duke of Devon, walked the marina, checked out the catch of a group which had recently returned from a fishing trip on Lake Michigan, and simply enjoyed the amenities of this charming lake town for a few hours to give us all a break from the woods. In past years, we’ve headed to the vast beach at Deland Park in Sheboygan for a taste of city beachgoing and checked out the recovered portion of the Lottie Cooper, a schooner that capsized off Sheboygan in 1894.
13. Choose a camping area with a nature center. This is another built-in opportunity for nature education and time-killing on rainy or stifling-hot days.
14. Educate them about wildlife. In most instances, city kids are taught to fear wild animals. Camping is much different from city life because there are no hard walls to protect you from insects, birds, and mammals. It’s important to teach your children that most animals want nothing to do with humans or, if they do, are largely harmless. Of course, bears, wolverines, wolves, and the megafauna that are largely found west of the Mississippi River can be very dangerous.
During our trip, we saw hundreds of daddy-long-leg spiders in our campsite (and sometimes in our tent). They were whimsical and harmless. We also encountered a massive ant colony, beautiful herons, chipmunks, deer, a few bats that flew by our fire late one night, and raccoons that would not take no for an answer when they tried to repeatedly visit our campsite each night as Dave and I sat around late-night campfires. The boys also enjoyed discovering a variety of caterpillars on milkweed and other plants near our campsite. Their excitement at discovering these beautiful creatures is a nice memory now that we’re back home.
15. Maintain bedtime and other routines. You don’t need to do everything you do at home, but touchstones—reading a book, prayers, discussing favorite moments of the day, etc. before bedtime—will make your child feel comfortable in his or her new surroundings. If your children are still very young, keep them on their nap schedules. My son also took comfort in his morning and evening rituals of brushing his teeth and washing up.
16. Encourage them to make friends. Camping is a very family-friendly activity, and you will most likely end up camping near other families. Encourage your children to meet and play with kids in nearby campsites. This will help them become skilled at meeting new people, allow them to learn about new places (our last campsite neighbors lived in a small town in Wisconsin, which is much different than the life my son lives in a big city), and take a bit of the pressure off you as you make dinner and do other campground tasks. On the last morning of our camping trip, a nice lady in the next campsite took my son and her two daughters on an impromptu nature hike as I rushed to finish taking down and packing up our camp under ominous skies. Her help allowed me to work without interruption, and I literally finished packing the car 5 minutes before the monsoon rains arrived.
17. Let the kids lead. Giving your children autonomy will provide them with a sense of control and a low-risk introduction to life as an adult. You could let them lead the way on hikes, choose the day’s activities, make dinner, gather firewood, put up the tent, etc. Camping should be fun, but it can also serve as a good way to build character and encourage an adventurous mindset that will help your children not only when camping, but in life in general.
18. Have a plan in the event of bad weather. Thunderstorms and heavy rains can quickly ruin a camping trip, and they can be very scary for children. Have board games, crafts, and other tabletop activities ready for rainy days. If dangerous weather is forecast, know the campground’s protocols for this situation. And, if heavy storms persist, be ready with a backup plan—a night at a hotel in town, heading home a day early, etc. After all, your ultimate goal is to keep your children safe and to create positive camping memories so that they will be excited when you plan your next camping trip.
Copyright Andrew Morkes (text/photos/video)
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