If someone were to ask you to envision the natural American landscape, it might be tough to come up with an exact image. There are forests and deserts and canyons and mountains and rivers and lakes, close to 60 national parks, all of it subject to change with the seasons. Ours is a diverse landscape so vast and beautiful and celebrated, people fly in from all over the world to witness it first-hand. Why wouldn’t they? We market the crap out of it each time we get together to belt out America, the Beautiful.
What better way to appreciate any of it than the great, age-old recreational pastime of camping? The smell of the fire, the charred hot dog you dropped in that same fire but still feel the need to eat, the sound of the wild animals at night howling in the (what you hope is a great) distance – it’s an experience not to be missed and an important one to share with your kids, no matter how young.
However, there are a number of things to keep in mind if you want to organize a camping trip, the operative word being “organize” since camping with kids requires a lot more consideration. Gone are the day of throwing a tent and sleeping bag in the trunk of your car and figuring the rest out when you get there. With kids, you need to be prepared.
1. Camp close to home the first time around… Really close to home.
If you have the space, it’s a good idea to set up a tent and spend the night in your own backyard. A trial run, if you will. Young kids are creatures of habit and sleeping away from their beds or cribs can be an adventure in itself. With yard-camping, the children can be introduced to sleeping in a tent with the safety measure of having home close-by if anything goes wrong.
2. Consider an RV
Before kids came along, camping involved setting up your tent, eating a simple dinner, and then drinking a case of beer with friends around the fire until you passed out. With kids, however, you might need two tents or at least a tent big enough to house the entire clan. Tent camping might also require that you choose a site with access to community bathrooms for the sake of running water and a toilet. Just because bears sh*t in the woods doesn’t mean we have to.
For others, a Recreational Vehicle might be more practical. This helps you avoid waiting in line outside the aforementioned community facilities with your toothbrush and toothpaste and kids in tow each morning. Plus, in an RV, the cleanliness of the bathroom is up to you, not 200 other campers.
As for sleeping, even the worst bed in an RV can often times beat the tent and air mattress thing, where you go to sleep a foot off the ground and wake up with a rock in the middle of your back.
There are RV rental companies all across the country, some better than others. Cruise America (Cruiseamerica.com) and El Monte RV (Elmonterv.com) are two popular companies because they have locations in a number of cities. This camper and his crew used Road Bear RV (Roadbearrv.com). They have fewer locations, but a much newer fleet. In fact, there were no vehicles older than two years, which is important since more problems can arise with each passing year that an RV is on the road being routinely handled by campers who have never handled an RV before.
3. Pack the Pack ‘n Play
Be sure to bring a Pack ‘n Play if your child still sleeps in a crib at home. It doesn’t take up too much room and can fit in a large tent or an RV. Without it, the entire tent/RV becomes a crib and, with no boundaries, it might be tough for anyone to get sleep.
4. The More The Merrier
Kids can easily grow bored if there aren’t other kids around, especially during a camping trip. Sometimes siblings aren’t enough if there’s a big difference in age. Camping with other families and children can keep them happily occupied so you don’t have to spend every waking hour entertaining them yourself.
5. Bring Plenty of Activities
Pack coloring books and puzzles, as well as bikes and scooters if there are any paved surfaces around. For adults, camping is often a way to relax, but kids are up at the crack of dawn and sometimes fight to go down at night, so they need plenty to do in the meantime. Sometimes sitting and staring at trees isn’t enough to hold the attention span of a four or five year-old for very long. Plus, bringing a few of their favorite toys can help with familiarity since so much else about the camping trip will be anything but.
6. Let Your Kids Be Kids
Camping is all about freedom and exploration, and in our overprotective culture, it’s easy to worry obsessively about ticks and wild animals and everything else Mother Nature can throw our way. But if you live in a big city, how often does your child get to explore a truly natural setting? So let them run and jump and climb and get scratches and scrapes. No matter how much you try to prevent them from falling, they will. Just be sure to have the first-aid kit handy when they do.
7. Remember Your Kid’s Perspective
Kids view the world differently than we do. You might see a tree that’s 2,000 years old and be amazed by it, but your kid might be physically shot from having to hike to it and have no idea of the concept of time. 2 years vs. 2,000 – to them, it’s just a tree.
On the other hand, we can learn a lot from our children on a camping trip. Simply watching them play, interact and discover in the wild can remind us how important it is for us to take the time and do the same.
8. Let the Ranger Entertain
Do your research or visit the nature center to find out if there are any youth programs or Ranger-hosted activities available, such as short guided walks or group lectures on area wildlife. It’s surrogate parenting and it’s okay. Take advantage.
9. Don’t Stretch Yourself Too Thin
If you haven’t figured it out by now, much of your camping trip will be tailored around your kids. They probably won’t be able to finish the three or four mile uphill hike that you would otherwise bang out in an afternoon. Of course, there’s always the option of strapping them to your back, but remember: now that you’re toting an additional 20, 30 or 40 pounds, you might hit the wall sooner. Pace yourself. No one needs to read about a modern day Donner Party.
10. Put The Kids To Bed
Young kids will be exhausted at the end of the day, so be sure to put them to bed at a reasonable hour so you can sit around a campfire and be adults again, if only for a while. You owe it to yourself and you’ll be grateful that you have that time to unwind and enjoy the crackling of the fire, the countless stars overhead and some adult conversation about something obscene that happened decades ago.
Recreational vehicles and modern REI-purchased conveniences aside, camping is how our ancestors functioned on a daily basis thousands of years ago. Getting out there, if only for a night, can be a reminder of how attuned our bodies are to natural daylight and darkness, or what are known as circadian rhythms. Don’t take a five or ten year hiatus because you feel camping with young children would be too much trouble. Sure, changing a diaper mid-hike or watching your kid chase a dropped marshmallow into the fire can be stressful, but so can the task of figuring out what to do with your kids for a long weekend if you decide to stay home instead.