If you loved camping B.C. (before children), take heart: You don't have to trade your sleeping bag for a stroller. Turns out, camping is a great family activity. And reconnection is a fantastic byproduct of sharing personal space with loved ones in the great outdoors.
Before you pack up your gear, it pays to choose a brilliant site -- and this decision starts long before you ever hit the road. Talk to friends who camp with their kids, check online message boards and peruse camping guidebooks written especially for outdoorsy families. Look for specifics that pertain to your children's wish list. For example, if they'll want to splash in the water, be sure your lakeside campground has a roped-off swimmer's beach. Don't like sand squishing between your toes? Suss out a campground with a swimming pool (they're out there!). Often, a campground will let you reserve your spot ahead of time, which is a good idea if you're arriving during the busy season.
And, especially if you're tent camping, give it a go in the backyard before embarking on your trip. Not only will you learn how to assemble your tent, but you'll also discover all the things you forgot to pack. Luckily, fresh supplies will be as close as your back door.
When it comes to camping gear, where do you start? Unless you take a strictly minimalist approach, camping with kids seems to require everything but the kitchen sink. Our pared down lists offer a great way to get started -- without renting a team of pack mules to share the load. Whatever the gear on your must-have list, the fun's in the process, so get the kids involved. It's time to go camping!
Family Camping Checklist
Fresh air spawns big appetites, so pack plenty of food. If your main meals will involve branding steak over open fires, you'll need a supply of firewood and kindling. If you opt for a camping stove, be sure to bring an extra supply of fuel. And, even an RV oven will require the use of oven mitts. Matches and other fire-starting aids are a must; it's simply better to be over-prepared. Whether you'll be dishing dinner from an RV's stovetop or spooning fare from an old-fashioned campfire, here are a few other things you're sure to need:
- Serving plates and bowls
- Pots and pans for cooking, including a coffee pot
- Water/juice pitcher
- Plates, bowls, cups, cutlery and cooking utensils
- Cutting board, can opener and aluminum foil
- No-drip sippy cups, especially if your child drinks ant-attracting juice
- Dishtowels, tablecloth with clips, dish soap and scrubber, disinfectant for cleaning food preparation surfaces
You'll also need the ingredients for your meals, and these can range from simple fire-roasted hotdogs to more complex breakfast casseroles. Be sure to pack a few standbys, in case weather won't allow you to cook outside or your RV stove malfunctions. Peanut butter and honey, as well as fruit, cheese and crackers, are all good choices. If you're willing to tote along milk, cereal is a quick fix. And don't forget to pack a few condiments, like salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard and sugar. Here are a few more must-pack items:
- beverages, such as coffee, hot chocolate or tea
- bottled water for cooking and drinking, or a water filter
- non-perishable snacks, such as dried fruit, granola bars or crackers
Tent or RV?
If you're not into roughing it, it's all right to admit your limitations. Purists may beg to differ, but setting up camp in a luxury-laden RV still offers access to pastoral views and outdoorsy activities. It also offers a homelike level of comfort at mealtimes and bedtimes, thanks to an oven, refrigerator, mattress, shower and indoor toilet (this is especially handy if your child is potty-training). Families with toddlers may also find that locking the RV doors at night reduces fears that a child may wander away in the dark, as opposed to an easy-escape tent.
However, families with older children may relish the solitude and challenge of tent camping. Getting away from the bustle of an RV campground has its benefits: Less traffic and noise, more privacy and quiet. Often, you can find a "back country" site within a short hike of a main campground, but you'll need to carry your own gear. Plan on packing:
- A family-sized tent with extra tent pegs
- Sleeping bags
- Lantern and flashlights (pack one for each child, with extra batteries)
- Folding chairs and table
- First aid kit
- Cooking supplies, including camping stove, food, snacks and bottled water
Just be sure to pitch your tent on a flat area, but never in a valley (not even one that's bone dry) because this location puts you at risk if flash flooding occurs. Depending on the locale, you may also want to take:
- A fishing pole
- Fishing bait or lures
- Hip-waders and lifejackets
If temperatures allow, dress your child in layers, topping shorts and a T-shirt with overalls and a long-sleeved cotton shirt. This outer layer can catch a lot of debris, from roasted marshmallow bits to dirt and grime, leaving the underneath layers clean enough to wear all day.
It's a good idea to wear long pants and close-toed shoes with socks when camping anyway; they help protect children from poison ivy and chance meetings with critters. Because temperatures can cool significantly as the sun goes down, pack a windbreaker, hat and gloves. When camping near a lake, beach or other swimming site, be sure to pack swimming suits and beach towels, as well as life jackets.
If you are tent camping, but would still like a few creature comforts when it comes to hygiene, consider a state or national park. These parks usually have running water, and this means warm showers and bathrooms with toilets that flush. Just be sure to pack your own toilet paper (you never know when you'll need it) and your own bath towels. Flip-flops or any type of water shoe can keep feet free from pebble pokes on the way to the bathroom, and keep bare feet off public surfaces in the shower. What else do you need? The following items can be real morale boosters:
- Diaper wipes aren't just for baby bottoms. These little helpers come in handy for wiping sticky hands and faces, as well as dirty picnic tables.
- Plastic baggies, and lots of them. They can be used for everything from keeping extra clothes dry to packing wet swimsuits for the trip home. If you are camping with an infant, they're a great way to seal in the odor of soiled diapers.
- Bug spray and sunscreen in multiple forms. Try spray-on sunscreen for little ones who don't like the feel of lotion. Or supplement mosquito spray with wristbands soaked in a bug deterrent comprising essential oils, like Bug Bam.
Open Air Fun
From board games to binoculars, you'll need some gear designed for great entertainment. And, because you know child-friendly diversions seem to multiply in rabbit-like fashion, it only makes sense to craft a well-thought-out list. For starters, consider what your children do for fun at home. If they're enthralled with riding their bicycles in the cul de sac, then take their bicycles and helmets to the RV park. But don't stop there: Camping is all about expanding horizons, so consider the following:
- Binoculars, which are great for watching wildlife. If you have more than one child, get more than one inexpensive, kid-friendly pair.
- Books, including field guides they can use to identify the animals, birds or bugs they see.
- A bug-collecting kit, which includes oversized plastic tweezers, a butterfly net and a magnifying glass. Take a few repurposed items, like old yogurt containers with lids, for temporarily setting up a bug zoo.
- Card games, which don't take much cargo space, but still provide hours of fun. Board games are great, too, but steer clear of those with small, irreplaceable pieces -- unless you have the patience to conduct a scavenger hunt.
- Multiple flashlights or LED headlamps, perfect for a game of flashlight tag. Or for a real thrill, take a lap around a campground trail at night. You'll want to stick pretty close to camp, but an after-dark walk can reveal all sorts of sounds you wouldn't notice during the day. With a flashlight or headlamp, let your child look for nighttime details, like a busy beetle or a roosting bird.
Regardless of the games and gear, the best thing you can pack is a good attitude. Camping with children is full of teaching moments, and with patience, you can build memories to last.
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