There are two types of families in the world: those who camp, and those who’d rather fall face-first on a tent stake.
Camping with kids isn’t for everyone, by a longshot, but I’m living proof that it is entirely possible to take the family camping and have a good time; and this is coming from someone who was an adult before she ever stepped foot in a campground. These days, we drag my moody preteen, feral toddler, and sweet but needy baby to tent-camp all over the US. If I can turn this three-ring circus into something vaguely resembling a legit vacation, so can you.
Unlike parenting, camping does come with a user’s manual for newbies and this is it. Consider this Family Camping 101, aka all my hard-won insider secrets about how to take a camping trip with your kids and make sure it doesn’t suck.
Manage Your Expectations
Enjoying some frothy fireside beers while your children sleep peacefully in their tents sounds amazing doesn’t it? Yeah, that won’t happen. Sure, it’s possible there will be a handful of quiet moments, but you have to understand that once you strip away everything familiar and sprinkle in weird sounds, strange smells, wet feet, mosquito bites, late nights and early mornings, your kids may be at their most primal. Mentally prepping for some emotional ups and downs helps you remain empathetic instead of getting upset over what could have been.
Go Car Camping
While car camping isn’t as picturesque as getting into the remote, deep wilderness, it’s a better route to go with young kids, especially while you’re still relatively new to camping. Because let’s be real, plans can change. Maybe you’ll need to go into town for something, or cut your losses and head home early because someone has an ear infection and needs antibiotics. Being close to your own set of wheels means you aren’t at the mercy of anyone but the weather gods and the tiny people you brought along with you. And bonus: car seats make fantastic time out spots when kids really go off the rails.
Map Things Out Before you Leave Civilization
Whether it’s an expedition to Target for the shoes you swear you packed or to a gas station run for another bundle of firewood, you’ll need to know where you’re headed. Use Google Maps’ download function before you leave town so you can still use your GPS even if you don’t have a signal. While you’re at it, scope out the nearest hospital is, just in case.
Bring the Right Stuff
Over the years and dozens of camping trips, we’ve learned there are just some things you really shouldn’t leave home without.
Duh. Whether it’s instant (Starbucks Via really isn’t that bad) or locally roasted and organic from your favorite artisanal spot and brewed in a trusty French press, make sure it’s the first thing you pack. If you really want to make it easy on yourself, grab a bottle of cold brew from the grocery store and throw it in the cooler; there is not a snowball’s chance in hell you’ll be up before your kids to enjoy a fresh, hot cup in peace anyway.
Yes, these are ever so slightly more expensive than traditional tents with those zig-zag poles you have to wrestle into compliance, but they’re a great convenience of modern life. Do not deprive yourself of this. A pop-up tent requires two minutes and just one person to set up — which means someone can have both eyes on the kids.
Ever tried changing a diaper in the dark? Don’t. Those dorky headlamps actually come in handy then — and when you are rushing little people to the bathroom in the middle of the night or searching for beloved teddy bears after sunset. Also, major camping-nerd hack that your kids will love: you can use a headlamp strapped to a jug of water with the light shining into it as a lantern.
Instead of losing your kids in the woods, load them up with glow stick bracelets and necklaces. Not only will your children go nuts for them but they glow bright enough to act as your kid-homing device. They also make great tent nightlights.
Dawn Dish Soap
Turns out this stuff is the camping multitasker. Not only can you use it on dishes, you can also rub it on your skin to wash off the oil that turns poison oak into a problem. Plus it gets gum (or melted marshmallows) out of hair and can be used as shampoo in a pinch.
Did you ever worry about poison ivy when you were a kid? Neither will your kids. But you want to avoid a Poison Ivy outbreak if you can. Before you hike, take a few minutes to wipe down everyone’s arms and legs. It creates a barrier over the skin so brushing up with poison ivy, oak, or sumac isn’t an issue.
I never knew my kids had seasonal allergies until we were halfway up a mountain, 30 miles from the nearest anything, and they both started sneezing so hard one of them got a nosebleed. Different places have different plants and bugs, so packing children’s and adult’s allergy meds is key.
Pack Familiar Foods
Don’t try to get too clever. While a camping trip might sound like the best time to explore all those funky recipes you’ve saved on Pinterest, food can be a major point of contention even on a normal day at home; camping can act as a magnifier. If you do detour from your typical menu, pack some alternatives so no one goes to bed hungry.
Prep for the Dirt
Camping is, by nature, a hot mess, and you don’t want to get bent about puddle-jumping and mud-pie-making. Pack clothing that can get ruined, and bring a lot of extras and a wet bag to keep everything contained. While some trash bags will work as wet bags in a pinch, a real wet bag is made specifically to keep moisture (along with any associated smells) inside instead of leaking out into your trunk. You can get them at any outdoor/ camping store.
Between the iPad for homework, the TV to keep the toddler from setting the house on fire, and my phone going off with work emails, it seems like my family’s always struggling to find a balance between FaceTime and actual face time. Camping is the perfect excuse to leave the tech (minus phones for the parents) at home and spend some time playing, hiking, cooking, and eating together without normal life’s constant notifications. As soon as we hit the campsite, phones go into airplane mode, and we just use them as cameras.
Unlike happiness, which is a sustained feeling, joy is momentary. It’s fleeting but intense. Camping with your children may not make you happy the whole time, but it’s almost certain to generate at least a handful of truly awesome moments. So go ahead and give yourself permission to lean into all of it — the not-so-cute #fails, and the sticky s’more campfire snuggles and those so-funny-you-have-to-cross-your-legs-so-you-don’t-pee moments.