We don’t believe in waiting until our kids are “old enough” to camp.
My first child was 6 months old when we set up the tent in the back yard and spent the night. My second child was 10 months old when we managed to pick the hottest weekend of the entire year to go to a campground. And my youngest was a co-sleeping, nursing infant when we packed her off to the campground with her siblings.
Camping with kids is not easy. But it’s also fun and probably not as hard as most people think. Camping is a sure-fire way to find quality family time. It’s a chance to really put your skills to the test, like fire starting and plant identification, and teach those skills to your kids. And it can be a chance for character-building, too, as you solve problems together, engage in campsite diplomacy, and make do with what you have with you.
Anyway, I’ve learned a few things over the last decade of tent camping with children. Maybe my trial and error method can give you a head start with your learning curve.
(Some of these tips are great ideas for emergency preparedness!)
- Use disposable everything! Even if you use cloth diapers, washcloths, and real plates at home, camping with kids is the time to go disposable. Pack paper towels, disposable diapers, plastic grocery sacks (for trash or wet clothes), and paper plates with plastic utensils. You’ll have enough to do without washing extra camp dishes or trying to haul home extra laundry.
- You’ll want to stay fresh yourself! Again and again a small package of Simple Kind facial wipes. On a recent camping trip, this was how I kept my own face feeling fresh. Washing away the sweat, oil, and dust once or twice a day felt great and now I keep a packet in my purse all the time.
- Pack extra clothes. Pack even more clothes per child than you think you’ll need. If you do this camping thing right, they’ll need them! Pro tip: tightly roll together a pair of bottoms (pants or shorts), a matching t-shirt, and a pair of undies. Clothing takes up less space when it’s rolled up and each of these small rolls will be one outfit per day — easy to count and keep track of.
- Keep a change of shoes and clothes in the car. Reserve at least an extra pair of shoes and a full change of clothes for each member of the family in your vehicle. More than once, we’ve had the unexpected rainstorm or discovered a new leak in our tent. If nothing else happens, at least you’ll have clean clothes for the ride home. And you avoid a major car cleaning chore after your adventure, too!
- Familiarize your children with your tent ahead of time. Each year before the first camping trip, we set up the tents in the front yard to play in them, or even have at least one nap time in the tents. If you’re planning to use a Pack N Play for an infant or toddler, make sure they’re used to sleeping in it, too. Double check the maximum child weight recommendation, though. This one can hold a child weighing up to 40 pounds.
- Do a backyard trial run. If it’s the first time camping for your family, or for the newest family members, consider “camping” in your own backyard for a night or two before hitting the actual campground. This will give you an even better idea of what to pack and plan for.
- Plan familiar foods. Camping with kids is probably not the time to try that fancy 17-ingredient recipe. Stick with hot dogs and hamburgers or something equally easy. If you’d like to expand your camping menu, try to add just 1 new recipe each trip.
- Go with a group. If you can, coordinate your camping experience with another family, or several! We’ve found that having lots of adults around makes it very easy to keep track of all the kids, share meal responsibilities, and even give each mom and dad a bit of time together. For example, each family could take a meal to cook and host for the entire group. Camping with a group also helps to keep the kids occupied—they have friends to go bike riding or exploring together.
- Pack a battery-powered fan. If you choose to ignore all the rest of the list, at least pack a fan! Not only will it help keep the hot summer air moving, it can also help mask some unfamiliar night noises. A better nights’ sleep will make all your daytime experiences much more pleasant. This 10-inch fan, placed on a small table or storage bin, will provide good airflow in the average size tent.
- Give them a gift– to use while camping. Depending on your child’s maturity level, consider giving them a tool to use while camping. Even a younger child could probably handle a very small pocket knife. Older children could learn to use fire-starters, tent peg mallets, or even hatchets. And if they own it, they’re much more excited about using it to help out. These products will become the start of his or her very own survival kit.
- Establish clear rules around the fire. This is the one area where we are very strict. No running around the fire. No lighting sticks on fire and waving them. And have a containment plan for any mobile infants or toddlers. To date, we’ve never had any serious fire-related injuries, and we plan to keep it that way. At around the age of 8 or 9, kids can begin learning how to safely build a fire.
- Have a wide-ranging first aid kit. We use a plastic tackle box as our camp first aid kit. If you un-package items, you can easily fit everything you need for burns, bug bites, scrapes, upset tummies, and allergies. Placing items in zip-top baggies will keep them organized and waterproof.
- Don’t do everything. Don’t send the kids off to play while you set up the tent and start the dinner fire. Give everyone a task, such as holding tent poles, or collecting a certain size stick. They won’t learn unless they’re involved, and in the long run, your job gets easier. Just imagine 5 years from now, sitting in your camp chair while the kids set up and get dinner on the fire.
- Let the kids get dirty and give them the freedom to explore. Camping puts you directly in contact with nature, and nature is messy. If the kids are sweaty and muddy at the end of the day, you’ve probably done things right.
- Teach respect for other campers. Camping etiquette means going around, not through, someone else’s campsite. It also means being aware when riding bikes or playing catch in the road and observing quiet hours at night. And when you’re by the water, be aware of people fishing.
- Don’t be afraid to pack up early. Last summer, there was a severe line of thunderstorms moving in on our last night. It was just me and 3 kids, so I made the decision to pack it up early and head home. Good thing, because we had severe weather all night long—one of the worst storm systems of the season. You don’t have to prove anything—there’s always next time.
Stay organized with this bucket-and-bin system
Veteran camping moms have their own systems for keeping all the food, supplies, and gear organized, and this 5-bucket system was shared with me a few years back. You may not need or want everything listed here, but her system of organizing everything is pretty brilliant.
Bucket # 1 — Kitchen supplies
- camping toaster
- serving utensils: fork & spoon
- kitchen knife
- can opener
- mini cutting board
- potholders or mitts
- 1 or 2-quart serving pitcher
- camping percolator coffee pot & filters (I’ve started using instant coffee. Much less mess!)
- cloth kitchen towels
- tablecloth & clips to secure the cloth to picnic table
- plates, bowls, cups (paper or plastic…depends on how much cleaning you want to do)
- spoons/forks/knives (Hobo tools are awesome!)
- plastic or metal coffee mugs
- spice jars (Camping sections have a nifty 4-in-1.)
- Ziploc baggies (all sizes)
- 5 gallon collapsible water bag
- Cook Set
- Pan gripper for cook kit
Bucket # 2 — Cleaning and sanitation supplies
- I pack many items in Ziploc bag to contain any liquids or moisture.
- kitchen sponges
- steel wool
- dish soap
- scrub brush
- hand soap
- clothesline (paracord tied between two trees)
- mini dust pan/hand broom
- shower bag (heats water when laid in the sun for primitive camping)
- Lysol/Clorox wipes
- toilet paper
- paper towels
- liquid laundry soap
- extra trash bags (We also use the plastic grocery store bags from purchases on the trip.)
** I’ve often used this storage bucket as a dish sink.
Bucket #3: Fire & light sources
- (Again, when in doubt, put it in a Ziploc bag!)
- wand lighter/matches/Strike Force lighter
- fire starters (store-bought or homemade)
- fuel funnel (You’ll use this if you choose to use fuel stove and lantern.)
- extra mantles for lantern (They ALWAYS break!)
- small propane canisters or camp fuel (depending on the lantern and stove you purchase)
- LED lanterns
- extra batteries
- heavy-duty extension cord (if at campsite w/ electric hookup)
Extra supplies — Some will fit in a large bin.
- Coleman camp oven (2 burner, your choice of liquid fuel or propane canister)
- Coleman Lantern in carrying case
- axe or hatchet
- heater (We use a heater that screws onto the propane canister, just like the lantern.)
- Igloo ice chest
- folding chairs
- folding table
- air mattress
- air pump
- First aid kit
- cast iron: Dutch oven, skillet, griddle
- long spatula & fork for campfire
- hot dog forks
- campfire tri-pod (Ours is aluminum and the legs come apart for packing.)
- sleeping bags
- Wonder Wash
- Camel Backs
- Port-a-toilet w/ extra Bio Blue or Chemisan
- shower tent
- EcoZoom or another off-grid stove
- fuel for stove
When your supplies are well-organized and everyone knows where to find what is needed and then know where it goes after use, your camping trip will be much easier and enjoyable!
Camping teaches kids survival skills in a fun way. It builds their confidence as they realize how much they know and can do. It gets them away from screens and in touch with nature. And it creates family bonds and life-long memories.
Camping, in general, gets easier with experience. People give all sorts of excuses why they can’t take kids camping. “Oh, I’d love to take my kids camping, but not while they’re in diapers!” But if not now, when? What if you find yourself “camping” someday after an unexpected event? You’ll be glad you practiced now! Besides, it’s rewarding to hear your kids telling their friends, “We had the BEST time ever camping!”