One of the best ways to connect with your child is to help them unplug from everything and explore nature. As an environmental educator, I’ve taken tons of kids outside for fun and educational experiences in the woods. Now, I am looking forward to taking my own son out for his first discoveries and creating memories we’ll share for years to come.
Since some of my friends have asked me for pointers on taking their kids camping, I figured I would share this with you too. I hope it helps.
Kids require a lot more prep than adults, so here’s your go-to guide and tips for planning a camping trip that will make things fun for them, and for you too.
1. Involve kids in the planning stages
Gauge what they are most excited about seeing or doing. Is it waterfalls or caves, searching deep in the forest for bugs, or looking for larger animals like eagles or moose? The possibilities are endless. You can use the things they are excited about to reinforce behaviors like following instructions or being open to trying new things.
2. Plan a trip that is the right size for everyone
Sure, I can easily cover 10 miles in a day, but the little guy probably wouldn’t enjoy or couldn’t handle that pace. Go based on your youngest person’s abilities, or even consider options for carrying them at times. There is no one size fits all, so tailor your trip to fit your family.
3. Be aware of your own expectations
I want my son to enjoy nature and camping as much as I do, so instead of the speed of the hike, I will be sure to note things like smiles-per-hour. Who cares how long it takes us to get to the waterfall? After all, it’s our vacation time to spend together. I’ll encourage him to stop, explore and even teach me about the new things he notices.
I work in one of the best units in the Forest Service, and my son has become a de-facto marketing tool for Conservation Education. He is well-versed in the fun stuff, such as Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl. Those also lead him to becoming a miniature expert in Leave No Trace outdoor ethics. He’s been studying the Leave No Trace Principles for Kids, a much simpler form of the longer version for adults.
We create thoughtful and sometimes hilarious skits of what happens if people don’t follow the ethics. I can trust that he will treat other people, animals, and natural resources with respect.
4. Make use of local partnerships to find nature places nearby
You can then take hikes and journal what you find before the trip. It’s exciting to compare those journals to what you get to see on the actual camping trip. My son might not realize it, but while he’s exploring, I’m grooming him for longer and longer hikes, and he’s taking it all in stride.
5. Practice as a game
Packing your kids’ camping gear will likely be the hardest part of planning for your camping trip. After discussing our habitat needs—food, water, and shelter—we packed a bag accordingly. Although we were at home, for 24 hours, we only used things that were in that practice bag. If the weather is nice, consider camping in the backyard for a more realistic effect.
Practice sessions taught us that simple is best. We’ve figured out that sandwiches are easy to make and pack, so they have been in several of our practice bags. Don’t fret about camping recipes for dinner. Sloppy Joes are easy, and I smile about anything that only uses one pot to make. Packing burrito wrappers has been a big hit. They transform into hand-help packages of yumminess…for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
We decided that each person will carry their own clothes, with layers appropriate for the weather. The tent, grooming, and first aid kit live in my pack, while the flashlights, snacks, and toys live in his smaller backpack—the same pack he takes to school. Other things in our bags include area and hand cleaning supplies.
We decided to leave things like guitars, board games, and most electronics at home, but we will bring a deck of cards and use my cell phone for its camera and geocaching options, night sky maps, and the bird identification apps available. That little forethought transformed my smartphone into a mobile classroom.
6. Make a list of what the family will do together
Camping activities are perfect for exploring nature and having fun while at it. Give each child a small notebook and have them journal, write poetry or draw pictures of what they see outdoors. Use a camera or cell phone camera to create an online photo album or slide show about what they did outdoors.
After all this exercise and fun, it should be easy to get him to sleep. Still, take this piece of advice: if serving s’mores, do it early because 6 pm gives them enough time to burn off the sugar rush before the sun goes down…which begs the question, “Where did I put those sleeping bags?”
A version of this article originally appeared as “Camping with kids? There’s a method to this madness.”