The first time we took our children camping, my oldest was three, and my youngest was six months old. People said we were crazy. Maybe we were a little crazy, but we had a lot of fun and made memories that we still talk about to this day. Plus, we started building those neural pathways in the brains of our children that whisper “Camping is Fun, Camping is Fun.” Camping with children is not easy but it is possible.
When you are ready for a camping trip with your children, one of the most important things for you to do is relax your expectations. Nothing is going to work out perfectly, and the crisis that inevitably comes during a camping experience is an amazing bond-builder for families. Plan and prepare, but don’t set yourself up for disappointment by planning too much. Allow for plenty of downtime every day and plan more time then you think you need for each activity.
Relaxation. Sometimes, adults just want to sit around the camp and talk between meals and cleanup. This is harder on kids; boredom will quickly set in. If you plan to stay close to camp, bring along some games, sports balls, frisbees, and books for your children. Younger children will enjoy bubbles or bowls of water to play in when you need a quick diversion. We keep a little tub of various card games perfect to throw in the truck for a camping trip. You could also take a nature journal for each child to draw in. Of course, they will want to spend plenty of time digging in dirt and playing with sticks around your campsite and that’s wonderful as long as you have sufficient supervision.
Exercise. Campgrounds are often located on beautiful properties with hiking trails, creeks, fishing lakes, playgrounds, and horseshoe pits. Some campgrounds even have swimming pools! Check out a trail map and take your children on a brief hike each day. In the late afternoon, take a walk over to the camp playground and let those little ones run off some energy. Plenty of exercise will help them sleep better at night!
Food. Of course you have to eat, but the ideal when camping with young children is to keep it simple. Hot dogs and marshmallows is perfectly fine. Store bought donuts or granola bars, deli meat lunches, and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies you have already chopped will make meal times perfect. The first time my husband and I took our children camping, we planned a full meal for every meal. Pancakes, scrambled eggs, steak, baked potatoes, the whole works. It was too much. As your children get older and are more able to help, you can let meal times get a little more complicated and have fun with cooking on the campfire or camp grill. We enjoy the book Cooking on a Stick for great ideas to get the kids cooking. Make sure you take plenty of water and drink it too!
Work. Camping is work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! The older your children get, the more they should be involved in the work required to run your camping experience smoothly. Someone will need to build tents, cook food, clean up after meals, wash dishes, clean out the tent and fix the sleeping bags, hang up wet clothing… there is a lot to do. If you aren’t sure what your children are capable of doing, give them a job and see how they do. Assign older children to help with younger children. Don’t get angry when a job is done at a child’s level. Praise them for doing their best and move on.
Rest. Whether you are camping in a tent, camper, or cabin you may be distracted at night from the foreign sounds of nature or rain. A brief quiet time each afternoon will help kids and adults both recharge and recover from any sleep loss. Have the adults take turns napping so that no one accidentally wonders off. Let the older children read books in their sleeping bag if they don’t want to sleep. You might just have your children take a few minutes to rest in the grass after lunch. You will all benefit.
Take pictures. Your children will remember camping trips and enjoy seeing pictures all year long. Every time I sit down to look through my archives and pull out pictures for the blog, one or more of my children gathers around to comment on each picture and reminisce. It is good for families to remember together. Pictures help.
Around the campfire. Something special happens when you build a careful fire and sit around that fire singing, praying, telling stories, or just holding hands. Have a family devotion time or just sing to God. Finish off each night with some time around the campfire.