With coronavirus restrictions, this may not be the year for a road trip across the country or European vacation, but you can still get away with your family. As long as you follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, camping somewhere close to home is one of the safer options for travel.
The CDC website offers guidelines for camping and other outdoor recreational activities. Suggestions include camping with people in your household, keeping at least six feet away from others at the campsite, trails and other areas of the park, and practicing good hand hygiene. If you do camp with people outside your household, you should consider staying in separate tents spaced at least six feet apart and avoid sharing camping supplies, utensils, beverage containers and condiment bottles.
Last summer I went camping with my family at Lake Alpine, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from our home. We had originally planned to go to Lake Tahoe, but after hearing about crowds of tourists flocking to area, we cancelled those plans and found a place closer to home with fewer visitors. The CDC recommends avoiding crowded areas and suggests planning a road trip that doesn’t require you to make stops along the way.
After arriving at the campground, we always wore masks when we left our campsite. When we used the portable toilet at the campground, we brought our own roll of toilet paper and disinfecting wipes to clean commonly used surfaces. We frequently washed our hands in the campground water spigot or with our own water jug and kept hand sanitizer out on the picnic table.
While it wasn’t the carefree camping trip we’re used to, spending five days outdoors doing nothing but swimming, kayaking, hiking, roasting marshmallows and staring at the stars was pure joy. It was the medicine our family needed after being stuck at home for months.
We’ve been camping for many years. Over the years, our camping list and preparation has changed as our kids have grown older. Now that we have a tween and teen, we’re no longer packing a portable crib, diapers and baby carrier. But we do have to be a little more creative in planning activities so our kids are entertained. Below are my own suggestions for how families with kids ages 6 months to 17 can prepare for a camping trip, including recommendations for staying safe at the campground during the pandemic.
Preparing for the Campout
Camping during COVID: We packed a bag of clean masks that would last the entire trip, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes for cleaning surfaces. You should also bring your own toilet paper for public restrooms. Unless we were at our campsite or in the water, we always wore a mask. Usually we were able to keep our distance from other visitors, and there was plenty of space between campsites.
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 may need extra clothes because unforeseen things like getting car sick and potty accidents can happen. For your older kids, give them a list of items to pack so they don’t pack only shorts.
Don’t forget favorite toys: When my daughter was younger, we had to bring her stuffed Curious George everywhere. Special toys are even more important when kids are in an unfamiliar environment. You should also bring fun outdoor toys like balls, beach toys, frisbees and even bikes if you have a way to pack them. Some years we’ve brought glow sticks which are a lot of fun when it gets dark.
Bring a first-aid kit and medicines: When my daughter was 2, she had a fever and I had to drive about 15 miles to South Lake Tahoe to buy some children’s ibuprofen. Fortunately, she was feeling better the next day, but it’s always good to have a first-aid kit at the campsite. If someone were to become ill or injured, a hospital or urgent care center may be a long drive and it’s helpful to have things like bandages and fever reducer/painkillers.
Plan easy-to-prepare, fun food: Camping is not a good time to try a new recipe. Find things that are easy to prepare on a camp stove. I usually make scrambled eggs or bagels for breakfast, sandwiches and fruit for lunch and burgers, tacos or hot dogs for dinner. Making dinners at home that can be packed in a cooler and reheated over the camp stove also makes life easier. Don’t forget fun things like marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers to make s’mores around the campfire!
Choosing sleeping accommodations and gear: I would recommend a nice big family tent unless you have older children who can sleep in their own tent. You should also bring sleeping bags and pillows, as well as pads or cots. For babies, I recommend a travel crib or bed. When our kids were little, we brought a portable crib and bundled our babies up with warm blankets. If you have a trailer or recreational vehicle, make sure the campground has hookups.
At the Campground
Stay positive: When you’re camping, you have to be prepared to cope with inconveniences. 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.
Expect 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 try to make sure my kids wash hands well when they go to the bathroom and eat meals. Having hand sanitizer and wipes around the campsite is helpful. Some campgrounds have coin-operated showers, but they may be closed because of the pandemic.
Stay organized: Keep important items in fixed locations. It can be really frustrating trying to find your son’s favorite sippy cup in an overly stuffed storage container or car trunk.
Give your kids jobs: Kids like to feel involved. If your child is old enough, give them camp chores such as helping with dinner or washing dishes.
Be safe: Before we left for our camping trip, we talked to our kids about the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing. It’s also important to make sure your kids always have access to a flashlight or headlamp. It’s not a bad idea to give children a whistle to blow if they are lost.
Plan for wildlife: Ask rangers about any wildlife activity in the area. Make sure your child knows how to react if there’s an up-close encounter with an animal. Many campgrounds have regular visits from bears. Usually campsites have bear-proof containers for storing food. If the campground doesn’t have containers, store all food in your car trunk, make sure it’s covered with a tarp or blanket and lock your car doors. Our friends once stored their food in the back of their car where it could be seen and left the door unlocked. Bears opened their car door and got into the food. Fortunately, there was no damage to their car.
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 different things you see. Maybe you can even bring a field guide to identify different things they find.
Be active: Camping is also a great time to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors. We always go hiking and swimming. If your kids are young, it’s a good idea to bring a child carrier or backpack just in case trails are too rugged for strollers. Now that our kids are older, we have added kayaking to our list of activities. If you are camping near a lake, you can usually find places that rent kayaks and boats.
Nighttime fun: Roasting marshmallows is always a great after-dinner activity. But as your kids grow older, they may want to change it up a bit. Some of our favorite things to do at night include dressing up in glow sticks and parading around the campground, telling ghost stories around the campfire, playing instruments and singing, performing skits and looking at the stars. There are some great astronomy apps available that make viewing the night sky more interesting. We’ve used Star Walk 2, a GPS-based app that helps you find celestial bodies, satellites and constellations.
Tent, trailer or recreational vehicle
Pads or cots to sleep on
Flashlights and lantern
Warm clothes, rain gear, shorts, jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, bathing suits, boots, sturdy slip-on shoes for campsite
Pots and pans
Paper or plastic plates, bowls, utensils, cups, napkins
Matches or lighter
Tub for washing dishes
Biodegradable dish soap and washcloth
Easy-to-prepare food and drinks
Resealable storage bags
Cooler for food
Firewood (check park rules about building fires)
Toys (balls, frisbees), board games, books, a deck of cards, beach floaties
Toiletry items (toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, deodorant, feminine hygiene products)
Diapers and wipes for babies