BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
Let me answer the question that many people have asked me lately: Would you take your son camping in this time of COVID-19?
My answer: yes, if I can respond yes to the following questions:
- Are the current COVID-19 conditions in the area where I want to camp stable or on the decline? If infection/death rates are on a strong upswing (as they are in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and other states), I would think twice—unless the camping spot is isolated from population areas—or select another spot in a state with lower rates of infection.
- Is the location close enough to home that I can get there in less than a day’s travel? I would reconsider going if I had to stay in hotels, eat indoors at restaurants, and otherwise interact closely with others (especially in areas where people are not following mask and physical distancing protocols).
- Am I, and the people in my group, willing to make a special effort to keep ourselves and our children safe from the virus by following all or most of the suggestions I list later in this article?
Campgrounds are at high occupancy in many places across the United States, so many people do not seem to share my concerns—or are just being very careful. I understand that the chances of being infected with COVID-19 are much lower outdoors than they are indoors. My reticence about camping may seem like an overreaction to some, but it’s our right as Americans to be overcautious. It’s not our right to put others in danger by not wearing masks or not following other safety protocols that have proven to reduce the spread of the virus, which has sickened millions and killed nearly 140,000 people in the United States.
Will I go camping this summer or fall? Maybe, but my response is significantly tied to personal and other factors—some of which relate to the pandemic, and others that do not. If I do decide to go camping with my 10-year-old and another father and his son like I do each year (or other friends or family), I would do so under the following rules. Of course, many of these rules apply to adults who camp, too:
- I would not allow my son and other children who are not part of my household to share or play in a tent.
- I would restrict the kids from playing together in our vehicles. In the past our group’s pickup truck and hybrid SUV have served as “clubhouses” for the kids. This would be banned in the time of COVID.
- I would reduce or eliminate our sightseeing visits to towns and other public areas unless they were to open areas that were not crowded.
- I would require mask wearing in any situation where we needed to be in close contact or interact with other campers not in our group.
- I would require my son and his friends to space themselves 6 feet apart, when possible. I know that this is hard for kids—especially those under age 10, but establishing a rule at least provides a general framework for interactions between children.
- I would avoid indoor areas of nature centers.
- I would avoid using washrooms and shower facilities, when possible. Small portable camping toilets are available (which can be dumped in the toilets of washroom facilities). We often camp by a lake, which allows us to rinse off daily. Portable, solar-powered showers are also available.
- I would invest in a higher-quality kitchen and hand-washing setup than what we normally use when we camp. It’s hard to stay clean when camping, but I would mandate regular handwashing and place hand sanitizer in many accessible spots throughout the campsite. I would also make liberal use of antibacterial wipes on picnic tables and other hard surfaces.
- I would restrict the sharing of cooking utensils, gaming gear, or other personal items.
- If possible, for larger family groups, I would try to reserve two adjoining campsites to increase spacing between campers. Many state and National Park Service campsites are booked solid through September, so this may not be an option in your area.
While being outdoors is far safer than being indoors, camping is still not 100 percent safe. Knowing this and taking steps to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 will increase the odds of a fun time and a return home free of illness.
Now that I’ve addressed camping with kids during the time of COVID-19, here are 13 general tips for camping with children. These are taken and revised from a longer article I wrote on the topic awhile back. If you decide to camp this summer or fall, I wish you a safe and wonderful time in our great outdoors.
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. 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. Each year, my son and I go camping with my friend Dave and his son, often at Kohler-Andrae State Park in Wisconsin. On our first night at Kohler during a recent trip, our kids lobbied for a night swim in Lake Michigan. Out came the flashlights, and a 10-minute hike later, we jumped into Lake Michigan, the stars shining 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. (During the time of COVID-19, you may choose not to use the washrooms/showers, but washroom/shower facilities can still serve as a landmark for the kids.)
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. Follow the COVID-19 safety protocols that I suggested earlier in this article.
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. Several years ago, 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. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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 (if you feel safe doing so in the time of COVID-19), 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 (text/photos) Andrew Morkes/Nature in Chicagoland
2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT
Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.
ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies. I’ve written and edited many books for Infobase including the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series.