Camping is one of the best activities a family can do together. It's a mini-vacation, with plenty of opportunities for learning, bonding and relaxing together as a family. Taking some time away from the house and all the distractions that come with it -- TV, computer, cell phone -- can give you and your family a much-needed "reboot."
But once you pack up the gear and get to the campsite, what will you do to keep yourselves busy and entertained? We've put together a list of activities that will engage your kids -- and you -- and make your family camping weekend something all of you will remember.
Camping isn't camping if you don't have traditional camp food. Of course you've heard of s'mores -- campfire-toasted marshmallows that you stick between two graham crackers with a bar of chocolate. But we have a few more ideas, too, that the whole family can make and enjoy together.
You can make trail mix ahead of time with the kids before your trip. Let the kids pick the ingredients, mix them up in a bowl and then package into small containers or plastic baggies. Think granola, M&Ms, dry rice cereal, raisins, nuts, pumpkin seeds -- be creative. Mixing sweet and salty is always a hit.
Apples and peanut butter are another snack kids love, with the added bonus of an energy and protein boost for long afternoons of exploring or hiking. Or spread peanut butter on celery sticks and top with raisins to make "Ants on a Log."
For a hot snack or meal, take two slices of bread and fill up with some favorite ingredients -- maybe some mozzarella and pepperoni -- wrap in foil, and heat up on the fire for a "campfire calzone." Yum!
Arts and crafts are a great way to pass the time if the kids are worn out from hiking all day, or if the weather isn't cooperating.
- String God's Eye: If you went to camp as a kid, chances are you already know how to make one of these. All you need is some yarn, glue, and a couple of sticks. Glue two small sticks together to form a cross. Let dry. Tie a piece of yarn close to the center of the cross (leaving a tail hanging), and then begin bringing the yarn under and over around the sticks until it forms a diamond-shaped weaving. You can use different colors of yarn, variegated yarn, or anything you want. Cut the yarn with a camping jack knife and tie off the tails.
- Window Nature Art: During your camping trip, have your kids collect some natural beauty -- pretty leaves, wildflowers, petals, maybe even a few tiny sticks. Later, have your child arrange them artfully on the sticky side of some contact paper. Then place a second piece, sticky side down, on top. Trim the edges, punch a hole in the top, and hang in the window at home with ribbon.
- Stick Vases: Kids love to collect twigs and sticks. Make a rustic vase out of a bunch of sticks with some rubber bands and a mason jar. Collect sticks that are a little taller than your jar. Put two rubber bands around the jar and slide sticks under the rubber bands until the jar is covered. Slide the bands together and tie a pretty ribbon over them. Fill up the vase with wildflowers to dress up your camp dining area!
What's a late-night campfire without storytelling? It's a tradition that likely goes back to man's discovery of fire itself. There's just something about the flickering light, the darkness and silence that make us want to share legends and spooky tales.
Most of us think of ghost stories when we think about telling campfire stories, but if you have younger kids, that might not be the best idea. You don't want to be up all night because your 7-year-old is having nightmares about a man with a hook for an arm.
Tell funny family stories. Go around the campfire playing a game of "I Remember" -- "I remember the day you were born." "I remember the time Dad fell in the pool with all his clothes on." "I remember the day Fluffy got stuck in a tree." Or make up the story together. Start by setting up the story, and then go around the campfire having everyone add one sentence. You'll have a lot of laughs and a very creative story that the kids will remember for a long time.
A scavenger hunt is a fun way for kids to explore the campsite and surrounding area -- and maybe even learn a few nature facts along the way. Before sending them off with their lists, though, make sure you give the kids a few ground rules. Be specific about the boundaries of the hunt. Will you limit it to just the campsite? Or a certain hiking trail? Institute a buddy system so that nobody goes off alone or gets lost. For extra safety, give every team a whistle or a cell phone for emergencies.
Here are some fun ideas for things to look for during a camping scavenger hunt:
- Pine cone
- Bird feather
- Maple leaf
- Smooth rock
- Cup of water from a stream
Remember -- never put anything on the list that shouldn't be moved. For example, a bird's nest shouldn't be on the list. If you have the means, you can also do a photo scavenger hunt with cell phone cameras. Each team can take a picture of a team member next to their item. That way, you can have kids look for things like animal footprints or even -- yuck alert -- deer poop!
Campfires are probably the most important part of camping. A campfire provides warmth, light, protection and a way to cook food. It's crucial you teach your children fire safety when camping. Most kids love to play with the fire, and who can blame them? There's something oddly meditative about sitting around a flickering fire, poking it with a stick.
Have the kids help out with building and putting out the campfire. They'll enjoy the responsibility and learn fire safety basics at the same time. Don't forget to strongly enforce the rule that the kids are never, ever to build a fire without an adult present.
- Gather firewood. Pick up only what you find on the ground. Never cut down a live tree or break off live branches. It's not good for the tree, and live wood doesn't burn well anyway. Ensure you get a good mix of twigs (kindling) and bigger pieces.
- Most campsites offer existing fire pits. If you don't have one, clear an area and dig a shallow pit. Ring the pit with rocks if you can find them. Put aside a bucket of water for later.
- Put a pile of dry tinder in the pit (this can be anything from pine needles to dried moss, dry grass, or even pocket lint). Use kindling to build a small box (think log cabin style) around the tinder.
- Light the tinder with a long campfire match. Gently blow on the tinder when it catches fire to encourage the flame.
- Once the fire is burning, slowly add more wood to fuel the fire.
Remember, never leave a fire unattended and never go to sleep or leave the site without putting out the fire completely.
For more on family activities, check out the links on the next page.
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- "Camp Crafts." Kaboose. 2011. (April 9, 2011) http://crafts.kaboose.com/cub-scout/camp-crafts.html
- "Camping Scavenger Hunt." Camping-Field-Guide.com. 2009. (April 9, 2011) http://www.camping-field-guide.com/camping-scavenger-hunt.html
- "Campfire Stories." Ultimate Camp Resource. 2011. (April 9, 2011) http://www.ultimatecampresource.com/site/camp-activities/campfire-stories.html
- Editors of Publications International, Ltd.. "Camping Activities for Kids." HowStuffWorks.com. Oct. 26, 2007. (April 9, 2011) https://tlc.howstuffworks.com/family/camping-activities-for-kids2.htm
- "Stick Art." Disney Family Fun. 2011. (April 9, 2011) http://familyfun.go.com/summer/summer-crafts/summer-camp-crafts/classic-camp-crafts/stick-art-672465/