For me, spending time in nature is crucial to my sanity. I love going to places where there’s no Wi-Fi, no cell service, where being disconnected requires no effort because “connecting” to anyone who isn’t physically with you isn’t even an option.
Waking up in a tent surrounded by my family, looking at the stars, kids with sticky marshmallow all over their faces. Even when things don’t go as planned and it rains, your tent leaks or the bugs don’t leave you alone; I still love it.
Some of my happiest memories as a kid involve a tent, bug spray, and a campfire.
Now that I’m a parent, I understand how much work it actually takes to bring your family away from cozy beds, refrigerators, and showers to create all those special memories.
It’s extra work for parents, but for me there’s no doubt it’s worth it.
Not only is camping an inexpensive way to take a vacation, it brings together so many things that my family values: slowing down, removing distractions, and appreciating the beauty of the natural world.
Here are my 7 best tips for making it easier to go camping with kids:
1. Keep your meals simple.
Once you’re more comfortable with all the details of camping, it can be fun to do more gourmet breakfasts or dinners, but the reality is that cooking (and cleaning up after cooking) can be one of the trickier parts of camping for people who are new to the routines and limitations.
And if you have young kids that need more supervision for basic safety, it can help your enjoyment tremendously if you just keep the bar low.
Boxed (or canned) tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches (with a few sliced raw veggies on the side) is one of my favorite go-to camping meals. It’s easy to prepare, and there’s not many dishes to clean.
Plus, as long as you have s’mores, most kids don’t care what’s for dinner.
2. Bring a new game.
When camping with kids, I think it’s helpful and fun to have a new game to play for the many situations in which they will need to entertain themselves while parents set up the tent, clean up after meals, or just need a moment to sit and breathe.
It can also come in handy if it rains and everyone is stuck in the tent temporarily.
You could borrow (or trade) a board game from another family so it’s new-to-you, or pick up something used from a garage sale or thrift store. Another idea is to have a book of card games and plan to learn a new one together as a family every time you go.
It doesn’t have to be anything that takes a lot of work or money. But it can be a fun tradition to give them something new to look forward to.
My children are not close in age, so another thing I like to do is bring some kind of puzzle type game that can be 1 or 2 players so that my son can play it by himself if needed.
3. Separate dirty clothes as you go.
This is one of those things that I started doing that has a significant effect on making things easier when we arrive home after camping.
I use a small trash bag for each member of the family and I put it right outside the tent in the vestibule area where we also keep our shoes. This not only keeps the dirty-clothes-smell outside of the sleeping area, but it makes it so much easier to do laundry when we get home.
I wash each person’s load individually without having to sort, and then each person’s load goes to their room to be folded and put away (again, without any extra sorting).
This may seem small, but for me it’s the kind of thing that just makes the returning-home experience less effort. I get the laundry started right away when we return while my husband unloads the car.
4. Go with other families.
If you’re new to camping, going with another family who is more experienced can be a huge help in seeing how they do things, what kind of gear they use, and just sharing the load in terms of cooking, setting up and taking down tents, and watching kids.
We love to go camping with other families because it’s fun for both the adults and kids to have some extra friends around. We will also often plan ahead to take turns with meals, and again this is something that makes it so much easier.
If your kids are different ages from the other families or have different stamina levels when it comes to hiking, it can help to plan for each family to do their own activities during the day, but then come back together for dinner and campfire time.
When I was a single parent, I did not have the capacity to take my son camping alone, so I always opted to go with other families. If you have a friend who is a single parent or has a spouse who travels often on weekends, consider inviting them to go with you.
5. Pick one thing you want to teach them.
Have I mentioned I love camping? I love camping. Even writing this, I keep thinking about fun camping memories and it’s making me eager to plan the next trip. So far, my family has been camping four times in 2017.
One of the things I enjoy doing at the campsite is taking the opportunity to teach my kids something in a very hands-on way.
Of course, many learning opportunities will come up spontaneously, but picking one thing I’m going to make extra time for is a fun way for me to be intentional about things that matter to me. It helps me slow down and take the extra time to explain something and give them a chance to learn how to do it.
Examples of skills to teach your kids (depending on age level):
- General fire safety
- How to light a match
- How to start a fire
- How to put out a fire
- How to use a compass and/or map
- How to set up the tent
- How to identify a certain type of plant (Like poison oak or ivy)
- How to tie different kinds of knots
- How to fish
- How to look for animal prints
- First-aid basics (how to clean a wound, put on a band-aid)
- Wilderness survival skills
- How to cook whatever simple meal you are making
6. Be prepared.
All campsites are different in terms of potable (drinkable) water, access to bathrooms, campfire rules, campsite sizes, etc.
Always check their website or call ahead to confirm if you need to bring your own drinking water and if campfires are allowed. Sometimes conditions change.
Before you leave for your camping trip, let a few people know exactly where you will be, including campsite number (in case of emergency). Make sure you always have your own first-aid kit and that you restock it before your trip. Bring extra baby wipes!
7. Talk to your kids about what to expect ahead of time.
For us, one of the special things about camping is that it’s a screen-free time for everyone.
We do use our phones to take photos, but we’re not sharing them on social media, we’re not checking email, or reading the news on our phones. We have a rule that both adults and kids will not be on screens for anything other than taking photos once we arrive at the campsite.
If it’s a short drive, we don’t allow screens for kids in the car either.
I highly recommend keeping screens out of your camping experience and talking to your kids ahead of time (or at the least on the drive there) about why you are doing this.
Let them know you’re excited to spend time with them without your smart phone around too! Talk about paying attention to the sounds and smells of camping, being present and really focused on each other.
Other things you may want to go over if your kids have not been camping often is what to expect in terms of other things that may be outside their routines, like location of the bathroom, what your guidelines are for leaving the campsite, where they can ride their bikes, and also fun things, like “you get to stay up late to see the stars and have s’mores!”
One of the main things it’s helpful to remind everyone (not just the kids!) is that often, camping adventures requires being flexible.
Things might not go as planned, but we can plan to be flexible and adaptable. And I say this with all sincerity: sometimes that ends up being the most fun and memorable part.