We went camping as a family for the first time last week. Two kids. Two nights. Three adults (all the praise hands, a dear friend visited from Chicago and braved the wilds with our brood).
I’ll admit, I was a little terrified. Part of my fear was borne from a childhood of camping trips. We made great memories, sure, but since I am basically a walking Capri Sun for mosquitos, there was always a significant element of misery.
The other part of my fear was due to the fact that we have two small children, one of whom is incredibly particular about his sleeping arrangements, and the other of whom wakes up a couple times a night just to check in. (“HI, MOM! ARE YOU STILL THERE?! HI! OH, DAD! YOU’RE THERE, TOO! HI, DAD! MISSED YA!”)
Yet we are a family on a budget and there is a lot of the country we want to see. I’m also a believer that kids need to grow up eating some dirt and poking campfires with a stick. I want a wild childhood for my kiddos, and in manicured Orange County this takes intentionality.
So we camped.
And you know what?
We had a blast.
I’m far from an expert (this is my first camping trip in 10+ years, and my first ever with kids), but my camping friends shared wisdom and expertise and gear and our entire family had so much fun that we are already planning our next trip.
Here’s what we learned.
1. Pack a bazillion snacks
Cooking on a camp stove is a blast, but being outdoors makes kids ravenous. If they have to wait for the pasta water to boil they might die. Ok, not really, but they might think they are about to die and then their whining might make you want to die.
So pack tons and tons and tons of snacks.
We liked simple, non-messy foods that were easy to transport and store, and not averse to temperature changes. Raisins, almonds, pistachios, animal crackers, granola bars, beef jerky, apples, and bananas were our main go-to foods.
2. Consider car camping
Someday we will backpack into a beautiful campsite. This was not that time. Small kids need lots of gear, so make it easy on yourself, at least the first time or two.
3. Use the biggest tent you can
We borrowed a tent from a who was quick to tell me that space is key. Her 10-person tent (!) was inexpensive, roomy, and perfect. We could stretch out, stow gear, and not be breathing into each others’ faces.
During naptime we were able to separate the kids so they didn’t keep each other awake, and at night we pushed our beds together for more warmth.
Especially if you’re car camping, don’t jam four people into a four-person tent. Give yourself a little breathing room. You never know when the weather might turn nasty and you have to spend the whole day in there.
4. Prioritize sleeping comfort
Our toddler slept in a Pack n’ Play (big tent = key). Our preschooler had a cot and a brand new sleeping bag. My husband and I blew up an air mattress.
(Side note: check to see whether there’s power at your campsite if you want to do this… otherwise you may find yourself begging neighbors with RVs for a few moments to plug in your mattress pump…)
It’ll often be colder at night than you expect, so keep beanies and extra blankets handy. If no one is sleeping well, no one will be happy.
If the kids sleep with lovies or blankets or special water cups, bring them. Camping is not the time to break a binkie habit or let them go cold turkey on the white noise machine.
5. Plan a few surprises
I’ve never seen my preschooler’s face light up like it did when I told him he could have unlimited s’mores.
“As many as I WANT?!” he shouted with glee.
I threw in a bin with bubbles, a Frisbee, a jump rope, and some sidewalk chalk. My plan to slowly mete out all these goodies was foiled when the kids found it all within our first ten minutes at the campsite.
Still, the few extra bits of fun bought us enough time to set up the site, even if I did plan to have those surprises last the entire three days…
6. Let organic fun happen
Our preschooler’s most enjoyable hours came in climbing the beach rocks, breaking up little pieces of sandstone, poking sea anemones, and riding his bike. Each one of those activities he came up with on his own. We didn’t need to curate the experience as much as we needed to just let him be wild and free.
The baby’s most enjoyable hours came from eating dirt.
Resist the temptation to plan too many activities.
7. Involve the kids in the camping labor
Kids actually love to help, when it’s presented in the right way.
“Come help mom wash the dishes!” isn’t as effective as, “Hey, look, we have this cool sink outside where we can splash and clean these spaghetti pots! Want to do it with me?”
Preschoolers can set up camping chairs, unroll sleeping bags, and prep meals. Older kids can blow up air mattresses, pack snacks, and feed the fire.
Even the baby “helped” sweep out the tent.
8. Plan for setup/takedown
If we hadn’t had a friend visiting, setup and takedown would have been a DISASTER. It takes two people to fold up a tent, which leaves no one to watch the kiddos.
Next time we camp on our own, I’ll make sure to have a few special activities for the kids for the hour on each end when mom and dad are incapacitated because we have to stuff sleeping bags, pack trash, and untie the clothesline.
I’m not above showing them a movie on my iPhone. Not a bit.
9. Go with the flow
Did we take a side trip to Trader Joe’s on our second day? Yes. Yes, we did.
The fewer concrete expectations you have, aside from “be together and be outside,” the smoother things will go.
If it rains torrentially, there’s no shame in going home a day early. If you forgot your swimsuit, no one has to know you’re improvising with shorts and a tank top.
Part of the fun of camping is that it’s a little bit unpredictable. Let the things happen. Enjoy the surprises.
(And remember: there is no shame in a McDonald’s run. You are camping with kids, not auditioning for Survivor.)
10. Take a picture or two, then put the phone/camera away
The first time we went to the beach, we forgot our phones in the car. The second time, we also forgot them in the car.
I had a moment of wondering, “If I don’t take a picture of the kids playing in this tide pool, did it even happen?”
Then I had a moment of, “Oh my word, have I become so social media addicted that I can’t even enjoy a day of camping without documenting it for the entire Roman world?”
Detoxing from the digital age is one of the best parts of camping. There were 1,000 photogenic moments in our two days together. We documented maybe twenty of them. The kids relaxed. I stopped mentally framing everything for Facebook posts. My no-shower hair, zinc-oxide-sunscreened ghost-white-face, hat-head became a nonissue.
It was glorious.
Have you camped with kids? What advice do you have?
Do you plan to go camping this summer? Where are you headed?
A thousand words of thanks to my friends H&T and A&M who loaned us gear, to N and K who gave us lots of advice on what to bring, and to J, whose presence made this trip truly sweet.