Camping With Kids

I wasn’t even a year old when my parents took me on my first camping trip. Nothing stopped my mom and dad from enjoying the outdoors – not even eight kids. 

I feel like a wimp when I think about how they didn’t even use disposable diapers on their campouts. My mom hand-washed and hung my diapers on a clothesline across the campsite. One time, it got so cold overnight, the diapers froze and had to be thawed out the next day.

I am so grateful my parents didn’t let a few frozen diapers stop us from camping out. I have so many fond memories of camping with my family: roasting marshmallows around the campfire, eating our meals in the outdoors, riding my bike around the campground and gazing at millions of stars. 

It seemed only natural that when I had children of my own, I would turn them on to the outdoors as well. When my son was just over a year old, we decided to head up to Tahoe for our annual weekend camping trip with a group of friends.

It was like planning a space mission. The list of things I wrote down seemed endless and we still forgot things. My advice: When your kids are little, camp somewhere relatively close to places where you can find things like medicines, sunscreen and other supplies you may forget.

Preparing for the Campout

Over-pack clothes: You will likely need clothing for all kinds of weather since it may be warm during the day and chilly at night. With little ones, you are also going to need extra clothes. With small children, unforeseen things, like carsickness and potty accidents, can happen.

Don’t forget favorite toys: If we ever forgot my daughter’s stuffed Curious George, we would have to turn around and go home. Special toys are even more important when kids are in an unfamiliar environment. You should also bring fun outdoor toys like balls, beach toys and even bikes if you have a way to pack them.

First aid kit and medicines: On our most recent camping trip, my daughter got a fever and I had to drive 15 miles to South Lake Tahoe to buy children’s ibuprofen. Fortunately, she was better the next day, but it’s always good to prepare so you don’t find yourself driving on a curvy mountain road in the middle of the night.

Easy to prepare, fun food: This is not a good time to try a new recipe. Find things that are easy to make on a camp stove. I usually make things like scrambled eggs or bagels for breakfast, sandwiches and fruit for lunch and turkey burgers or hot dogs for dinner. Don’t forget fun foods, like marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers to make s’mores around the campfire.

Sleeping accommodations and gear: I recommend a nice big family tent, unless you have older children who can sleep in their own tent. You should also bring sleeping bags as well as pads or cots to sleep on. For babies, I recommend a travel crib or bed. We always brought our Pack N’ Play and bundled our babies up with a lot of warm blankets.

At the Campground

Stay Positive: When you’re camping with kids, you have to be prepared to cope with inconvenience. The bathroom is no longer down the hall. You usually have to dig through a bear locker to find your food. Don’t let it get to you. Try to stay upbeat and make the inconvenience fun. My son loves going for little walks every time he needs to go to the bathroom. Staying in the wilderness makes him feel like Indiana Jones.

Dirt: Getting dirty while camping is inevitable. Try not to think about it too much and don’t let it ruin your fun. Don’t try to drag your kids to the bathroom every 10 minutes to wash their hands. I make sure the kids wash hands well when they go to the bathroom and I usually pack some hand sanitizer and extra baby wipes. Some campsites have coin-operated showers if everyone gets too grubby.

Stay organized: Keep important items in fixed locations. It can be really frustrating trying to find your son’s favorite sippy cup in an over-stuffed bear locker.

Give your kids jobs: Kids like to feel involved. If your child is old enough, give her camp chores like collecting firewood or washing dishes.

Be safe: Make sure your kids always have access to a flashlight or headlamp. REI’s website suggests giving kids a whistle so they can blow it if they become separated from you.

Wildlife: Ask rangers about wildlife activity in the area. Make sure your child knows about proper food storage and how to react if there’s an up-close encounter with an animal.

Enjoy nature: This is a great opportunity to get your kids interested in different aspects of nature, such as wildlife, trees and constellations. Talk about the things you see. Maybe you can even bring a field guide.

Be active: We always go for a hike one day and a swim the next on our weekend Tahoe trips. If your kids are really young, bring a backpack or carrier for the baby. A lot of trails are too rugged for strollers.   

I won’t lie: There have been camping trips when I repeatedly said I would never do it again –  like the time my baby girl cried through the night because she was in an unfamiliar environment.But the good times outweigh the bad. Just knowing my kids already have a love of the outdoors makes it all worthwhile.

Camping Checklist
Tent, trailer or recreational vehicle
Sleeping bags
Sleeping pads or cots 
Flash lights and lantern
Warm clothes, rain gear, shorts, jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, bathing suit, boots, sturdy slip-on shoes for campsite
Pots and pans
Pot grabber 
Paper plates or plastic plates, bowls, utensils, cups, napkins
Matches or lighter
Camp stove and fuel
Tub for washing dishes
Biodegradable dish soap and washcloth
Easy to prepare food and drinks
Re-sealable storage bags
Cooler for food
Firewood (check park rules about building fires)
Lip balm
Insect repellent
Day backpack
Child carrier
Camp chairs
Toilet paper (park bathrooms usually have it, but just in case)
First aid kit
Hand sanitizer
Hand wipes
Prescription medications
Toiletry items (toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, deodorant etc.)
Diapers and wipes if needed

Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
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