My daughter is two and right as she’s being tucked into bed, she often ends the day with a hopeful: “Can we go camping tomorrow?” Chuckle-worthy for sure, but my husband and I did the math and, indeed, it turns out that we spent more weekends in our camper than at home during the Summer of 2017. My son, too, began camping at the ripe age of 10-days. So with a few experientially-earned tricks in our pocket, I thought it might be of help to share some of them.
Some Tips for Camping with Kids
- Travel Day Pull-Ups: Even my 2-year old is potty trained now, but when kids need to pee, they need to pee – and it’s just not fun (or particularly safe) to pull off the side of the highway. And I will take absolutely no risks in compromising a car nap with a bathroom stop. So into the pull-up she goes. Sweet uninterrupted car dreams sweetheart. #yeahright (Ps. I revert to pull-ups for all plane trips too.)
- Clothing: Liberated sessions of play in mud, sand, and streams all end in a change of clothes. Bring 2+ outfits per child per day. Including rubber boots and at least one extra pair of shoes to keep dry. While you’re at it, throw in an extra towel or two. Long sleeves, pants, and hoodies keep the weather and dirt from burning, chapping, and otherwise inserting dirt into cracks. We typically don’t go where there are hookups and showers, so the name of our camping game is endurance.
- Keep the food simple. If you don’t have time to whisk and sear and caramelize at home, it’s probably not going to happen out here. Pre-make what you can. Pre-cubed fruit. Pre-cut veggies. Pre-made chicken-salad. Pre-made salsa and guac. The idea is to be able to use and clean as few pans as possible. Our favorite camping meals involve sausages cooked over the fire, ready-to-cook fajitas, simple (dinner and breakfast) burritos bars, add-water-only pancake mix, and anything that can be wrapped in a tortilla. And don’t forget the easy things like noodles with cheese or sauce. The kids will be having so much fun they will refuse to sit down. So make the process of food going down throats as quick and efficient as possible. (Bring emergency raw bars for melt-downs.)
- Shade and sunscreen. Nothing will make you feel like a crappier parent than a burn on that perfect baby skin. I typically try to keep my kids covered with long clothing, hats, and shade. But if it’s hot and you’re out of options, make sure to lather them up.
- Kid carrying devices: Bjorn, Ergo, Onya, whatever it is you use, bring it. Even my 5-year old jumped in the bag half way through a hike when he got tired of walking on our last trip. We even brought the bob till recently: Instant, mobile, bassinet. Just roll that baby asleep and right into the shade.
- Sleeping Arrangements: Not going to lie. Sleep doesn’t always happen on our camping trips. And in the earlier years, I seem to remember about a 1:4 chance of bailing on the adventure in the middle of the night, or a day early. So keep your expectations low. And maybe don’t travel SO far away from home while test-camping. What I do know is this: if you’re into the outdoor scene, then it really might be worth the money to invest in an 80’s pop-up, used camper, or convertible vehicle. (We have enjoyed car camping in the bed of our truck as well.) We watched the listings for months before we finally found a steal on a hybrid camper. What we love about pop-ups and pop-up-hybrid campers is, honestly, the queen beds. Unzip the vinyl windows and you’re practically outside. Yet on a huge and plush mattress piled high with every comforter and pillow from the house! We are not shy about comfort when it comes to sleeping. Fact of the matter is: a bad family-sleep sends up packing home. Happy sleeping-campers means we get to hit reset every morning and family life becomes bearable in that regular, sustainable, way. So prioritize being comfy and warm at night. Bonus points if you can train your kids to sleep on the other side by themselves to capitalize on a rare wilderness snuggle with your partner. I’m telling you: This stuff matters.
- Strong Snack Game: We tend to leave our watches at home and phones tucked away when we camp. And as a result, our food schedules suffer. I highly recommend a strong snack game of easy healthy food. Here’s a sample of what I bring: elk jerky, roasted nuts, peanut butter pretzels, instant oatmeal, dried fruit, apples or bananas with peanut butter, rice crackers with hummus, pre-made P&J, halved avocados with salt and a spoon. You get the idea.
Let them pack their own backpack. I’m all about giving my children as many opportunities for ownership and self-reliance as possible. But really, they just love packing their own bags. The thing is, if THEY choose the books, they will read them all in the car. And if THEY choose and bag up the snacks, they will eat them up. There’s a lot of #winning going on in the scenario.
- Yeti Mugs for mom and dad. Obviously not mandatory. But keeps your coffee hot and your magartitas cold through all the distractions that keep you away from your cup. Wait, that sounds rather essential? Also, stainless sipping steel for the little people as it’s super important to keep them hydrated in bottles that don’t spill.
- S’mores, Fires & Light-up Shoes: My kids will readily recite to anyone that they know white sugar is poison. But it’s delicious poison. And if you’re going to break some house rules, do it out of the house. That way the context doesn’t come home with you. Treats are essential to life. If I’m sneaking dark chocolate out of the glove compartment, they deserve to roast a marshmallow. Bonus points: it takes a long time to cook a marshmallow right, and even longer to nibble the goop off your fingers. And my kids hold these memories in their pockets like silver dollars. We also let the kids stay up past normal bedtimes for campfires. And focus on our mugs of spiked whatever to turn our backs on the mischievous adventures they find after the sun has set. Maybe this is just me, but I think it’s important for kids to learn to play in the dark. Life is dark. It’s great practice. Although I do pull out the light up shoes for the special occasion of camping. That way I need only look for the trail of colored lights when I’m wondering which kid is up to what.
- Bikes and Helmets: Bring the bikes. Even (especially!) the striders. It’s just an all around low maintenance activity. It’s not like the kids go fast. Mostly they just navigate rocks and small hills and learn how to pick the bike up a thousand times. Bonus points: They usually don’t ask to take their helmets off, and you can worry even less of their bouldering behind your back. #helmets247
- Costumes Always Win: Costumes for halloween only? That’s a sham. Nothing’s better than a pack of panda bears and dinosaurs galloping around the campsite. I try to buy my costumes from used stores or secondhand on Ebay after Halloween. Bonus points: Costumes are WARM for fall and spring camping!
Air-conditioned museums. Not going to lie. Sometimes on the 3rd day, camping can just feel hot and filthy. Ever since my son has started identifying himself as a paleontologist, I’ve learned that there is an oddly high chance of a dinosaur museums on the outskirts of any town or city. Even the most remote! So head in for an air-conditioned movie about the Big Bang. Eat an overpriced hot dog. Wash the dirt from under your fingernails with real hot water. And let the kids fall asleep in the car on your way back to camp. #itworks
Activities & Toys: Like different toys from home. Bowls of water. Buckets & digging utensils. SUP boards. Fishing poles. Binoculars. Birding books. Folding, laminated, animal tracking and wild flower guides. Frisbees. Fireworks (sparklers). Pogo sticks. Cars and backhoe loaders can also find new dirt tracks, jumps, and work in the wilderness. Dinos, obviously, love the wild. And if you forget toys. Awesome. I usually do. Boredom fosters creativity.
- Be a junk show. Right? We’re all faking like we’ve got this parenthood thing together. But no one does. So why not just let a little loose? Let the kids ruin an outfit rolling in mud. Let them bathe naked in the stream. Teach them how to squat pee. Tell them NOW is actually, finally, a good time and place to throw rocks (way over there). Practice LNT and definitely host a kid-contest to pick up the most little pieces of trash as you work together to spot clean your campsite before leaving, but otherwise make room for the messy process of making memories.
- Road Side Attractions: Kids in cars are unpredictable. They throw up. They need to poop. They are constantly hungry out of boredom. They want water out of your reach. And you will be banging your head on the console from the number of, “Are we there yet?” inquiries. Never mind the likelihood of a blown tire, washed out road, or broken camper tail light. So add a few hours to keep your road trips flexible. That way you can stop at a vineyard-orchard you see from your window and discover sparkling pear cider. Or Google up a trampoline park that perfectly marks the midpoint of your drive. Or find a legitimate farm offering pumpkins of any size for $10 a piece.
- Let them watch a show on the Ipad on your way home. For goodness sake, it’s okay to all kick back on the way home. Put headphones on the 5-year old while the 2-year old (finally) sleeps. Have a real conversation with your husband. Listen to a political podcast and debate like you’re in your twenties again. Like date night. But cheaper. You deserve it. And you have like four hours of cleaning to do when you get home. So enjoy the short break. 🙂 Ps. Don’t ever camp more than 6-hours away from home.
PSS. Almost all images were taken in the Moab area. Which is absolutely worth a more than 6-hour drive.1