When your son runs inside covered in mud and excited about worms, he is probably ready for a camping trip. Not only will an outdoor excursion be an excellent excuse to turn off the TV or computer for an extended period, it will also make for a great family bonding experience for your child and the child in you. As fun as it can be, camping with kids takes planning, practice and patience. Here are seven ways to give your child a memorable camping experience.
Your child’s first experience doesn’t have to be in the wilderness with no running water. “Camp in the backyard. Go on a hike,” says Bethany Hawley, REI spokesperson. “Make sure that you can plan for the next time and gauge how the kids are reacting to each activity.” Consider the backyard experience a trial run for the real deal. After you’ve mastered your own yard, book a one-night trip at a campground within a short driving distance of your house. Paying by the night not only is affordable but also takes off the pressure of entertaining your child for longer than that.
Pick the Right Perfect Site
Many campgrounds offer more than just nature. You can pitch a tent (or cabin) at one with a playground or pool, or even one with organized activities. That way you have a backup if your child tires of your nature hike. Do your research and you’ll find a campground for your whole family. GoCampingAmerica.com has a great tool for searching for a park anywhere in the country.
Hawley stresses the importance of picking a site that meets your child’s interests. “Camp near a lake or waterfall for the visual feel,” she says. “If your kid is into technology, incorporate a geocaching experience or bring your GPS. Incorporate their interest so that they are engaged for a longer period.”
While you’re selecting a location, don’t forget the importance of the potty, especially if your child just mastered it and you don’t want to lose the momentum. Ask for a campsite that is close to the bathroom.
Ask the Experts
Never pitched or tent? Want to impress your kids with your ability to build a fire? Consider taking a course at one of the major outdoors stores. You can get some free tips and learn just what you need for your first trip. These stores also often rent equipment so you don’t have to commit to any expensive gear.
Make a List
As with all activities that involve packing up the kids and driving to a different destination, preparation is key. One way to make it fun for them is to give them a voice in the plan. “It’s great to involve kids in preparing, whether it’s packing snacks or deciding games,” Hawley says. “Kids don’t often get a lot of say, so this is a great opportunity for it.”
Go through the list with your child and check off each item as you pack it in the bag or car. You supply the essentials, such as a tent, sleeping bags, map and compass, sunglasses, extra clothing, flashlight, first aid supplies, fire-starting kit, food and a cutting tool for the adults. Then let them pick out the fun stuff that will make them feel most comfortable in this new setting.
“Pack what makes them secure,” reminds Sheila Neff, Capitol KOA reservations officer. “Let them bring their special blanket or a stuffed animal.” Neff also recommends bringing a flashlight for each child. Kids love having their own light source, even to just play flashlight tag on the roof of the tent or shine on your face while you tell a scary story (minus the scary parts for the young ones, of course).
Take a Hike
Most campgrounds provide maps and well-marked trails for every level of hiker. There is no better way to experience nature than walking through it. “Go off path and show them the nature. Bring a nature bag for them to collect things. Kids love special rocks. They like finding the nuts, finding different leaves,” Neff says.
Pick up a self-guided scavenger hunt from the campsite or create one of your own. If you have a child who is wild about bugs, see how many bugs you can find on your walk. A daughter who loves taking photos? Bring the camera and capture as many different plants or wildlife you can. You can also use this time as an opportunity to teach them about what to avoid in nature, like poison ivy and animals that don’t want to be petted or fed, Neff says.
While most campgrounds are populated only by campers, there is the chance your little one may wander off in hopes of catching that butterfly or hoping to see a skunk. Make sure you walk him to the bathroom each time. At night, always carry a flashlight. “A lot of parents have the habit of feeling safe. Generally it is safe,” Neff says. “You want to stay with your children. There is no such thing as 100 percent safety.”
Be a Kid Again
Think about your favorite outdoor activities as a child and share them. Did you love finding the perfect stick for a walk in the woods? Can you still taste a roasted marshmallow even though you haven’t had one in years? “There are a ton of things we did growing up that we forgot about because technology is so prevalent,” says Matthew Ritter, chief of interpretation for Maryland Parks Service. “Even the little things like cooking over a campfire take on new meaning when you do it as a family.”
Bugs and snakes may not be your thing, but the more interest you show, the more your child will follow. Let your child catch your excitement as you mimic the different bird sounds and skip rocks in the stream.
Whether you camp in the backyard or the middle of nowhere, taking a break from the hectic pace of daily life and turning off the TV for even one night can help you reconnect as a family. “Going camping is something you can take with you. It’s something you will remember forever,” Neff says. “At night when you have the smells and you are walking through the campground, it brings back the memories.”