It’s summer! That means that it is time to pack up the car, truck or camper, hit the open road, and pitch a tent. Yes, it is time to camp! Time for campfires, s’mores, family time and the dirt that makes up a mother’s worst laundry nightmares. No matter how your family does it, camping is one of the greatest things that you can do with your kids and bond with them. The great outdoors is a true place to unplug from the everyday and connect with one another and the natural environment. The outdoors is also a wonderful educational opportunity that can empower and teach new skills.
Camping with kids can sometimes be a little challenging, but if you prepare ahead of time and keep certain things in mind, then the experience is fun, memorable and will fast become a tradition to be embarked upon every year. My son has been camping since he was 8months old, and we have had many a learning curve on how to be prepared for a successful trip as he is growing up. We tent camp…for two weeks at a time with grandparents, sisters, friends, etc… so when we all arrive with our gear it looks like we are moving in. Now it is not primitive camping, it is camping in one of our favorite state parks; McArthur Burney Falls Memorial state park. So there is the comfort of restrooms, pay showers, and other amenities including a small store, but nonetheless, it is living out of a tent for two weeks and no matter where you are, that can have it’s challenges. I think the hardest year for us was when he was two years old. It is difficult to have the whole thing of normal “terrible two’s” compiled with a toddler who is eager to get up and go, when he isn’t quite agile or able to safely roam around a campground on his own. If you have the room to pack it, a Radio Flyer wagon is priceless for walks and even for sitting in around the campground.
So from our trials and experiments I have some suggestions that will hopefully make your camping trip even more of a success when you are ready to go mighty into the great outdoors.
Consider a trial run close to home for the first trip. In Northern CA we are fortunate to drive only a short amount of time and arrive at some wonderful places that offer camping and wildlife. Try a short overnight or weekend trip to see how the kids will do. This ensures that they get comfortable with the idea of sleeping in a tent, are comfy in their sleeping bags and bedding gear, and introduces them to the sounds of the night that they may not get to hear tucked into their beds at home. Make it fun, let them help in the preparation and the setup. A trial run is also good for parents to make sure all the gear is together and in working order before a longer trip is planned. A trial run can even be done in your own backyard. Some wonderful local places to try are:
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park: http://www.reserveamerica.com/campgroundDetails.do?subTabIndex=0&contractCode=ca&parkCode=suga
Bothe-Napa Valley State Park: http://www.reserveamerica.com/campgroundDetails.do?subTabIndex=0&contractCode=ca&parkCode=both
Research the area ahead of time to see what opportunities are around or offered as activities. Often times there are wonderful opportunities for exploration a short drive from your campsite in the local towns and surrounding areas. Sometimes having a day trip that takes you out of the campground is a good idea to change up the scenery for everyone. Read about the trails and find out their difficulty levels, check the weather report for the time you will be there, check fishing regulations, and be aware of the local wildlife. Teach your kids what to look out for as far as plants and insects or reptiles that could be dangerous. Get your kids involved in helping to choose the activities gives them ownership and enthusiasm about the trip and fosters a better understanding and appreciation for the outdoors. Check to see if the park offers a Jr. Ranger program (many of the state parks do), my son loves to do the activities and collect his badge every year. Also always remember to thoroughly read any pamphlets or information handed to you upon check in from the rangers or campground staff. They could contain important updated information that was not on the campgrounds website.
Bring items of comfort and imagination. By this, I mean that kids are not always going to be hunting bugs, or visiting the parks nature center. Give them opportunities for good old timeless outdoor recreation. Bring a Frisbee, a ball, coloring books, crafting items, books, musical instruments, a whiffle ball and bat. Things that can distract them and keep them occupied during those potential “I’m bored” moments. We used to bring a small one or two person tent and set it up as the “play” tent for our son. He could go into his own little space and color or look at his books. I suggest finding a shady spot for this and monitoring them while they are in the tent from a safe distance. We would also set up family whiffle ball games and have a blast running around after a home run on bases made of rocks.
Remember that kids have limitations. By no fault of their own kids run out of gas long before adults do when it comes to hiking and fishing. Set time limits on activities and keep their abilities in mind. You know your kids better than anyone and being aware of their physical limitations or attention spans can go a long way in planning and keeping an outing enjoyable for everyone. Pack along snacks and plenty to drink and be prepared to turn back or cut the outing short if they are running out of gas.
Let them play. Many campgrounds offer wide open spaces where kids can just run and make believe. Supervise from a far, but let them explore the area and get dirty! Camping is always where I see my son’s confidence get a boost. He explores and climbs and gets as dirty as he can all while learning that he can do new things and do them on his own. At the beginning of a trip he holds our hands while walking across a log, by the end, he is leaping from log to log all on his own with pride. Letting them be free in this environment fosters a love of the outdoors and exploration.
Challenge yourself. Letting go of the everyday rules or normal activities is ok when you are out camping and on vacation. Change it up and surprise your kids by trying something new with them. Go on a critter search in varied environments like water, dirt, rocks and see what you can find. Do strange and fun things like walking at night to check out the stars, let bugs crawl on your arms, try going for a parallel log walk (only walking on logs that are laying on the ground), or make balanced rock sculptures. Let them eat one more s’more for dessert. Let the kids use the camera and document the trip. Have them keep camping journals writing down each days events. When you get home they can make great scrapbooks and will have great stories for their books of the goofy things mom and dad did while camping.
Get the correct gear. Gear is important, and kids need the appropriate items for the terrain they will be in. Think about the weather and where they will be exploring. Rain boots, backpacks, kid carriers, all weather jackets, hats, socks, and layering clothes all make a huge difference in the comfort and protection of your child. Make sure you get a properly fitted life vest for your child for water play , adjust it at home first, and then re adjust if necessary and check it before every outing to the water. Also make sure to modify or dedicate a first aid kit to bring along the kid essentials like children’s Tylenol (especially if you need them in the middle of the night, or there is no store nearby), and don’t forget the kid safe bug repellant and sunscreen. Warm and cozy bedding that is sized for kids is important also. Kid sized sleeping bags ensure that they don’t get tangled up or smothered in the material and also keeps them warmer as it is sized to fit their bodies. A great bed that we used for our son when he was smaller is the Kidco PeaPod travel bed. It was great for in the tent and down on the beach at nap time because it kept him safely contained and sheltered from bugs and the sun. http://www.kidco.com/main.taf?p=4,5
Last but not least, go camping often! The more you go, the more the kids become familiar and happy in the outdoors. Throughout the summer do numerous weekend trips to different locations. As the kids get older try camping during different seasons. Camping has so much to offer families and is still an affordable recreation. With a little forethought and planning camping is rewarding and enjoyable for everyone and soon the kids will be asking when they can go again.
Have fun camping!
For a great selection of kid friendly gear visit: www.trailmix.net (or visit them in Old Sacramento at 116B I street)
For a great resource on all things camping visit: http://www.gocampingamerica.com/helpful/index.aspx
For the California State Parks Website, please visit: http://www.parks.ca.gov/