by Jason Osborne
After two kids, spanning 20 years of camping, I’ve been through it all. Camping with kids initially starts off pretty easy, especially when they are in the toddler years. They generally don’t eat a lot, or require a lot of things, and love being outside as much as we do. Kids’ natural curiosity towards nature is great and you get to share what you know with them. When my son was as little as 2 we used to take him camping. We would tie a glow stick to his back at night to help us keep track of him, bring him some hot wheels and let him play in the dirt and mud, having his own “off-road adventure”. I think it’s important to let kids enjoy being outside however they want to. If they want to play in the dirt, let them. Get muddy? Go for it. Climb a tree or scale steep hill? Why not! Want to taste that dirt? OK, but you’re not going to like it.
Kids at this age learn through touch, trial and error. As long as they aren’t trying to eat dead birds or the animal poop, let them explore and experience the environment under your careful watch. We would bring a couple gallons of water and some baby wipes and just give him a field bath before putting him to bed. Letting kids get firewood and help with starting the fire is also fun for them. Once the fire is going, it is important for kids to be able to interact by cooking a hot dog on a stick or a marshmallow as well as throwing in little sticks every now and then. This will keep them happy. Of course, it goes without saying, supervision is paramount in these instances.
I’d let my kids stay up a bit later to see the stars, usually as parents, we can gage when bedtime is. Our kid always slept in the middle of us in the tent. One, to help keep them warm, and two, as a barrier against anything outside of the tent that may want in. Mornings were usually done with a good breakfast. The key to any outdoor adventure involving young kids is to let them help as much as possible. Keeping them involved in our activities is important to maintaining their attention. And most little kids like doing the mundane things we don’t like, such as picking up the trash, rinsing off the dishes, etc, as long as we are they're doing it with them. Don’t bring your kid everything in the world on a camping trip. They don’t need every toy, iPad, etc, they only need a few.
Preteens get a little more complicated. Their natural curiosity to things has shifted, they start to feel like they ‘know everything’ and playing in mud and on hills is not fun anymore. Before the days of tablets… hiking, fishing, and physical activities were paramount to keeping my kids content. Eventually taking a few movies for night time, or a handheld gaming system were included into the mix. RC cars, drones, or anything interactive that’s allowed is pretty cool to bring for them. Now that they are eating basically the same thing you are, a camp stove or fire skillet is good for the food. I’d say spend good money on your grill, and cooking pans. They will see some abuse over the years and buying decent stuff now will save you money and headaches in the long run. As far as dishes and silverware go I have had a $25 dollar ‘family dish set’ for camping probably over 10 years now. It’s made of durable plastic, wipes off easy, and stores within its own carry case.
Kids will need their own sleeping bags now. Get them a good one, because cold kids will do nothing but complain. As my kids aged, I eventually quit letting them sleep in the same tent as me and my wife. This allowed them to have their own little ‘campsite' of their own, one that were in charge of putting up. I let them pick their own tent spot, put up their own tent, etc. In the preteen phase, I pretty much let my kids do their own form of camping. This has allowed them to practice all of the things I’ve taught them over the years while developing their own self-reliance and independence. Once they figure out that they don’t know everything and do need your help, they will join the rest of the family again around the fire pit. I never let my kids have their own fire. And fire safety and etiquette are very important to instill into them, the earlier the better.
As your preteens turn into teens things get a little easier, and sadly, less often they will want to camp with you. Not because they don’t want to, but the social life they have developed at school and whatnot will begin to occupy more of their time. In my opinion though, aside from the toddler stage, this is also one of the best times to camp with them. All of the more adventurous trips you have wanted to take, but were too ‘dangerous’, you now have a partner for. And the more exciting the trip, the more your teen will like it. Rafting, rock climbing, swimming, etc. will be more fun. Also, more one-on-one trips can happen since the majority of the camping duties can now be shared, as if you had another adult with you. This time frame really opens up opportunities to bond and have much more adventurous affordable trips with your kids.
As a quick guide through the stages: this is what I did the past 20 years of camping with kids. It is by no means all-inclusive, or a manual.
We will be following up with a 'Quick Guide' by Jason soon, so stay tuned!
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