I grew up on about 40 acres of woods and swamp. I spent a lot of time outside as a kid, though I didn’t really do a lot of camping. But once I started college, I got into rock climbing. That was eventually followed by whitewater kayaking and backcountry skiing. And each of those activities often involved weekend trips to pretty places, car-camping along the way. Once I became a father, it seemed pretty clear that camping with kids was going to be the next step.
It wasn’t particularly easy to get started. Camping with kids can feel like it takes any difficulties you might have with camping, any difficulties you might have with kids, and then multiplying them. We started when Belle was about a year and a half old with a quick, one-night family trip to a creek about an hour from Denver. Later that summer, we ventured further afield, usually with friends, and we took one or two longer trips. Things got tough here or there, usually with sleep. And we had to deal with the occasional, pitiful, “I want to go home.”
Things changed the following summer, when Belle was two and a half, going on three. By then, my wife was pregnant with our second kid, and she had difficulty sleeping in a bed, much less on the ground or in the back of a truck. So Belle and I started going on trips without mom; sometimes with just the two of us, and sometimes with friends and their kids. By this point, Belle had a little better handle on the whole camping thing, so the bigger challenge was convincing her that it could still be fun without mom. “But I want my mommy” became the more common complaint. After a few trips, things started to improve quite a bit, especially since we kept these trips to one-night affairs. In the morning we would eat breakfast, pack up, and head home to mom.
Things were even smoother the following summer. We were still camping without mom and without the new addition, Scout. Missing mommy still cropped up here or there, but not very often. And we had learned other tricks to smooth things over. As extroverted as Belle is, she had a lot better time if we had other friends along. Even if those friends were adults, she had people besides me she could entertain, and who could entertain her. We also had camping gear pretty well wired.
All told, by the time Belle turned four, she had been camping 15-20 times. It’s been a great way to get her out in nature and spend some focused father-daughter time with her, particularly since I’m present in the moment the entire time, and so is she.
Advice for Camping with Kids
Here are some of the things we’ve learned that will help make camping with kids a little easier:
- Have your camping stuff wired. Sitting in the woods when it’s dark and getting cold isn’t the time to figure out how to assemble your new tent. Or how to light your stove. If you don’t have that stuff down cold already, practice! You can even camp for the first time in the backyard. But make sure you treat it as a full dry-run. Cook outside, sleep outside (though maybe poop inside, depending on the size of your backyard).
- Make sure your kid stays warm. Pack more insulation layers for them than you think they need. Take the likelihood of accidents into account.
- As a sub-part to this, it’s doubly important to make sure they have a kid-sized sleeping bag. For our first year or so, I made the mistake of trying to make one of my old bags work for Belle. But she’s a lot smaller than I am, and in hindsight, she had trouble heating up the bag, even when we tried to cinch things down. We got her this bag from REI and it’s been great. It’s warm, it’s her size, the stuff sack can’t get lost, and it cinches down the bottom of the bag so it can grow with her. She now wakes up from cold nights cozy and warm.
- Invite your friends. Friends who have kids around the same age are ideal, but even kid-less friends can have a great impact. Kids learn a lot from modeling and example. If they see your friends are casual about camping and not stressing out about things, it’ll help put them at ease.
- Optional: bring kid-sized stuff. I never go car camping without my camp chair, since sitting on the ground isn’t any fun. A kid-sized camp chair like this one has gone a long way in showing Belle she has her own place around the fire. You could go further with kid-sized utensils, etc. Make sure the kid has a headlamp while you’re at it.
- Make it Easy. For kid-camping and camping generally, I put a plywood platform in the back of my truck so that we always have a flat sleeping platform, so long as we can level the truck. I’ve lined it with a paco pad, so sleep is easy (the link is to a one-person pad; mine is about the width of my truck). I also keep our car-camping stuff in separate bins, and keep a big jug of water in the truck. That way, if we decide we want to go camp for a night, all we need to do is grab some food, through the camping bins in the truck, and we’re off. If that’s not an option for you, consider a big tent you can stand up in; in our first year, we just dropped our pack-and-play into the tent on warm nights.
- This includes making food easy too. Easy to cook and easy to convince the kid to eat. This isn’t the time for new culinary inspiration. It’s the time for hot dogs and marshmallows for dinner and donuts for breakfast.
Camping with your kid can seem really daunting at first. But like anything else, it gets easier with practice. And the rewards are more than worth it.