Why Go Camping With Kids?
Nowadays, there’s a lot of fun to have at home. Between computers and smartphones, children young enough to control their movement have access to the entertainment of the world. That said, there are some things you just can’t learn from a screen – and camping is one of the best ways to show your children the world beyond technology. Besides, kids tend to love camping – as long as you do it right.
For young children, camping offers sights, sounds, and experiences they can’t get at home. Many camping areas are located in family-friendly areas like farms, which can double as a petting zoo for the youngest crowd.
For slightly older children, camping turns their ideas to reality. This could be having a private den of their own, getting to stay up late and tell stories, or exploring nature and seeing where their mind takes them.
For teenagers, camping offers longer and more significant challenges for them. They’ll learn how to be independent and self-reliant, and both of those can boost their confidence when they need it the most.
Of course, children aren’t the only ones who benefit from camping – you will, too! Camping is a great way to get away from the pressure of everyday life and spend some time with your family. No television, no news bombardment, and no social media – though you should have a phone (normally kept off) for emergency calls or checking in. On top of this, science has shown there are multiple health benefits of being outside in nature.
As a bonus, camping is relatively cheap once you’ve obtained the essential gear. The right set can last you for years and allow you to stay at places all around the country.
Further Reading: If this is your first outdoors trip then check out our beginners guide to car camping.
What Skills Can My Children Learn By Camping?
There are many important skills your children can learn by camping.
First and foremost is wilderness safety. This covers everything from how to create a fire pit to how to recognize the presence of wild animals. You can also teach them to recognize the signs of sickness or injury in wildlife, either of which can make them far more dangerous than usual.
Next, you can educate them on wilderness survival. This includes foraging for food, avoiding poisonous plants, and safely navigating without the help of GPS. It’s never a bad idea to know how to get where you’re going without electronic support.
Finally, your children can learn various life skills. If you just show them how to tie a knot, they may not remember how to do it. On the other hand, if they regularly use several essential camping knots to set things up, there’s a much higher chance they’ll retain the skill when they need it. Many of camping’s skills are useful in other areas – camping just happens to be a great place to teach them.
Acclimatizing Your Kids To Camping
Camping is fun, but if you suddenly drive your children out one day, they may feel lost and have no idea what to do. Here are the best ways to acclimatize them to camping.
Well Before You Go
There are a couple of things you should do several weeks before your trip.
- Practice Inside: If you have young children, start by creating a tent somewhere in your home and having your kids sleep there. If you have enough space, move this tent around the house each night. This will help your children get used to sleeping in different spaces. If you have teenagers, you can skip right to the next step.
- Practice Outside: Set up a small campsite in your backyard. If you’re not sure how your kids are going to react, consider borrowing the tent from a friend instead of buying one. This will help your children get used to the idea of sleeping outside. This has the added benefit of helping you figure out anything they need, like a certain pillow or stuffed animal.
- Have A Day Trip: Before you stay anywhere overnight, take your family hiking for a morning/afternoon or day to a park or lake. Be sure to leave technology behind – they shouldn’t have any access to it on the day of the trip until you’re all back home.
- Measure Your Kids’ Skills: Some children are better at camping than others. If you’ve never been camping yourself, you may want to look for a site with lots of features and amenities. Even if you’re an expert, remember that your children don’t have your skills – and you should pick a site that’s challenging, but not too much for them to handle.
- Talk To Them About Camping: Kids like to feel involved, so it’s important to talk to them about what camping is and why you want to do it with them. Be sure to address any concerns they raise. Kids often think of things you didn’t because they have a completely different point of view – and if you don’t address their worries, they’re not going to have fun.
Preparing For A Camping Trip With Your Kids
Preparation is one of the most important parts of camping – and one of the best ways of getting your kids involved.
- Ask For Ideas: Talk to your children about the trip and ask them what they want to do or see along the way. They should feel like their input is important – if they want to see a waterfall, find a campground with a waterfall. If they want to make s’mores, bring the ingredients for that. At every stage, they should feel like their decisions matter – this is an important groundwork for the safety lessons they’ll have later on.
- Have The Kids Pack: Make a list of things your children should pack, but have them do the work. You should double-check it before you leave, but this is another aspect of teaching them that they’re responsible for bringing the right things on the trip.
- Teach Organization Skills: Having matching bags might look great in photos, but it’s a mess in practice. Instead, use different-colored bags for each person and teach them to return things to their bag as soon as they’re done with it. This will help stop them from losing things at the campsite.
- Bring A Toy: While you shouldn’t bring electronic toys, it’s a good idea to bring something your children are familiar with. Stuffed animals are a good choice for this (as long as they remain somewhere clean, of course). This creates an emotional connection between camping and their safe space.
- Bring Other People: If possible, bring some family friends along. Children tend to do better if they have playmates their own age, and having more adults around means you can take turns keeping an eye on them.
- Check Campsite Restrictions: Many campsites have restrictions about fire, pets, and so on. It’s your job to vet the sites and come up with a list of acceptable locations. That said, once you do, allow your kids to decide on the site you’ll visit.
- Teach The Buddy System: This can help your children avoid getting lost. Be sure to set some rules for the buddy system, such as “you can only buddy up with an adult.” This will ensure they don’t feel free to wander wherever they want just because their playmate is with them.
- Reinforce The Experience: Your child should have the opportunity to listen to (or talk with) other people before you go. If possible, these people should genuinely enjoy camping themselves – but don’t be afraid to ask them to bluff a bit if you really need to. This will help reinforce the idea that camping is fun, not just a bad experience where children are dragged away from everything they like.
- Have A Plan B: Sometimes, the weather just doesn’t cooperate with your camping plans. Have an alternative schedule ready – and as with the main plan, get your kids involved in planning it so they feel like they have control.
Further Reading: Don’t forget to check your medical supplies are fully stocked with our camping first aid kit checklist. Once your kids become more accustomed to camping, why not up the adventure by dispersed camping in national forests. If you don’t own a tent, then read up on the best tents for family camping.
What To Do At The Campground
There are quite a few things you’ll need to do when you’re at the campground. Fortunately, most of these will quickly become a habit.
While You’re There
Establishing a new routine is critical to a successful experience.
- Stay Positive: Everything is different – and usually less convenient – while you’re camping. Be positive and vibrant – if you start acting like things are a chore, your children will notice and respond accordingly.
- Locate The Important Things: Find the bathrooms and emergency stations – when available – as soon as you can. Your children probably need the former after a long ride anyway.
- Organize Things: As you unpack, keep things organized. Everything should remain in the same place as much as possible – this will help you avoid losing stuff. Consider writing a list of what is in each container – and color-coding each container to make them easy to find.
- Orient Yourselves: Once you’ve started to set things up, talk with your children and find landmarks you can use to remember your position. Children should always know how to locate their camp from within the campgrounds.
- Determine The Edges Of Your Campsite: This is a vital part of helping your children feel established. Once they understand that there are limits to the campground’s size, they’ll mentally separate things into “my camp” and “not my camp”. Once they recognize the campsite as “theirs”, they’ll be more likely to remember where it is.
- Assign Meaningful Chores: Most children prefer to be involved when camps are being set up. Give them some important jobs to do, and give them adequate praise when they’re done.
- Provide Safety Gear: Children should have lights and whistles, preferably attached to their belt loops or another location where they won’t easily come off. Teach them to blow the whistle if they get separated – this will help you realize they’re gone so you can go get them.
- Ask About Animals: Talk to park rangers or camp staff about the local wildlife. You’ll need to be proactive about learning this, then teach your children the same information.
When You’re Outdoors
There are some additional factors to consider while you’re outdoors with your children – especially if you’re heading away from your tents.
Pro Tip: Bring Pocket Guidebooks
Kids love hearing about cool facts so why not indulge them by being a walking encyclopaedia! Unless you are already well-versed in all things nature, bring along a few pocket guidebooks that relate to the items on your childrens list.
- Enjoy Nature To The Fullest: You have options. You can examine plants, check out bugs, search for rocks, or look up at the sky. A field guide can help you identify the plants, animals, and stones native to the area. Express interest in the things that interest your children – this will help them feel confident about exploring.
- Don’t Have Too Rigid Of A Schedule: While you should have a general plan for the day, try to avoid setting exact times for things. If your kids seem more interested in one thing, do more of that. If they seem bored by something else, cut that short and move on. As before, they should feel like their opinions really matter – not that you’re forcing them into certain things.
Cooking is one of the best parts of camping – you get to enjoy what you worked on! Let’s start with setting up a proper cooking site, then take a look at some easy recipes.
Setting You Your Cooking Site
- Don’t cook in your tent. Most camp cooking involves a fire or grill, and tents are not designed to handle the heat or the smoke.
- Start with your shelter. A good cooking shelter includes a tarp overhead and a windbreak in any direction you get a lot of airflow. This isn’t necessary if you’re only using an open fire pit, but we don’t recommend that for longer trips. Similarly, don’t put a tarp over the fire pit if you have both. Alternatively you could invest in an outdoor pop up canopy.
- Set up your table. This is easy to get wrong because the table should be as flat as possible – and many campgrounds aren’t flat. Ideally, you’ll have a table where you can adjust each leg’s height individually.
- Set up your stove. Most families do better with a two-element stove, rather than a single one. Make sure the gas cylinder – if you’re using one – isn’t located anywhere people are likely to bump into it.
- Decide how to use your fire pit. Most people prefer to set a stand over the fire and hang a pot or roast over it. Guidelines for fire pits can vary. Some campgrounds only allow them in certain areas, while others may insist the fire pit itself be hung off the ground. Either way, be sure to practice (and teach) fire safety, and be certain the fire is out before you leave it unattended.
- Use a kitchen storer. These bags are specially designed to hold cups, plates, utensils, and other bits of kitchen gear in one easy-to-manage pack. Having a single place to find and return things significantly reduces the likelihood of losing track of them.
- Set up your coolboxes. Try to avoid coolboxes that require electric hookups – that places too much of a restriction on where you can go. Instead, bring one or two boxes (with plenty of refreezing ice packs) for the things you need to keep cold.
- Figure out how you’ll wash things. Some campsites have facilities for washing dirty dishes, but in many cases, they’re too far away to be convenient. Instead, bring a collapsible bowl and some camp soap, then add water at the campsite.
As you continue camping, you’ll figure out what works best for your family and the types of campgrounds you prefer to visit. Don’t be afraid to experiment a little, but do have a backup plan just in case.
Here are some of our favorite camping recipes – and best of all, they’re easy for kids to get involved with! Check out this article for 89+ camping food ideas!
This delicious snack is easy to make and everyone will enjoy them.
- Seasonings (peppers, salt, herbs, etc., to taste)
- A barbeque or hot embers from your fire
- Aluminum foil
- Colander and Bowl
- Cutting surface
- Hot gloves
- Wash your potatoes.
- Slice the potatoes into relatively thick wedges.
- Get two sheets of aluminum foil ready.
- Thoroughly oil the top side of one of the sheets.
- Put the potato wedges onto the oiled sheet. Make sure there’s plenty of room around them.
- Add any seasonings you like.
- Toss the potatoes around a little and make sure they’ve covered in oil.
- Wrap all of the wedges up in the first sheet.
- Wrap the entire container in the second sheet of aluminum foil.
- Place the container over your barbeque or on hot embers. Do not put it directly in a fire.
In most cases, the potatoes will be done in about 40 minutes. Be sure to turn them every 10 minutes or so using your hot gloves, and start checking them for doneness once you reach half an hour. Don’t put too many potatoes in one container – they won’t cook very well if the heat gets spread out too much.
Variation: Try cutting carrots into the shape of fries rather than cutting potatoes into wedges. You can even cook them together since they take about the same amount of time.
Most kids love pizza – and mentioning this recipe to them is one of the best ways of getting them excited about the trip.
- Pits bread (make sure you can split it to create a pocket)
- Spaghetti or pizza sauce (1 jar/can is usually enough)
- Grated cheese (preferably fresh, but store-bought and non-refrigerated will suffice if necessary)
- Toppings (pineapple, corn, cooked chicken, etc.)
Avoid raw ingredients, such as uncooked chicken.
- Aluminum Foil
- Using your knife, cut the pita bread in half and create a pocket.
- Drizzle some pizza sauce inside with your spoon. Add just enough to coat the sides – you’re not making soup, so don’t feel like you need to fill the whole inside space.
- Add the cheese, then any other fillings you’re using.
- Wrap the whole thing in aluminum foil.
- Cook your pizza on hot coals or above the fire, not in the fire.
At the right distance, each pizza should be fully heated in 1-2 minutes per side. The cheese should be visibly melted, while the pita itself should look a bit toasty, but not burnt.
This is so fast and easy you can do it in your backyard before the trip. Teach your kids how to make it at home, then allow them to make and cook their own once you reach the campsite.
The eternal favorite – and with good reason. This is a fun, simple, and delicious treat for your kids. You’ll need graham crackers, chocolate, and large marshmallows. Using some long, clean sticks – preferably sanitary ones you brought from home – heat the marshmallows over the fire until they’re golden-brown.
While that’s happening, break the graham crackers and set chunks of chocolate on one side. When the marshmallow is done, plop it on the open side, then fold them together and wait a minute or two.
While most people like milk chocolate, other people prefer to try things like peanut butter cups, chocolate icing, or various chocolate flavors.
Alternative: Use a waffle ice cream cone, putting the chocolate on top of the melted marshmallows and holding it over the flames just for a little bit.
Spending Time Outdoors & Finding Fun Activities
There are many types of activities to enjoy at campsites, from guided nature walks and bird-watching to geocaching and river rafting. Now, kids have different interests, so no one list can cover everything your child might be interested in doing. Instead, I’m going to give you a few examples of the kinds of activities you can do and the types of children who usually enjoy them. Treat these as inspiration, not firm rules.
This is ideal for younger children – especially those with lots of energy. If your campsite has a large, safe area to play – nowhere for ankles to get caught and broken – give your children flashlights and have them play hide-and-seek. Instead of just looking for people, though, they have to shine their light on the target.
This is best for kids who really love exploring the outdoors. Give them a couple of different tools and ask them to create a map of the area. If they’re particularly fond of this activity, make it more challenging by asking them to include certain categories. This could include marking the locations of safe-to-eat plants, showing the best evacuation routes, or even finding animal trails.
This game is great for kids with keen eyes and inquisitive minds – though it does take some preparation. A good bingo card should have a variety of things to find – some easy, some hard. When creating bingo cards, try calling the camp and asking about the kinds of things you can expect to see and generate cards off of that.
If you’re not bothering anyone else, sing away! Teaching songs is a great way to pass the evening by… or just wait until dinner is ready. Thrillspire has an excellent list of choices here – the first half is ideal for younger children, while the second half is for people who are ready for a challenge.
A battered old deck of cards can help create hours of fun if you know the rules to a few card games like Go Fish!, Old Maid or Crazy Eights.
- Don’t rough it. Kids don’t want to walk for miles to get to your campsite – find someplace you can drive right up to. Ideally, your camping spot will be less than 1/4 of a mile from your car.
- Make reservations ahead of time. Popular campgrounds fill up quickly. 6-9 months ahead of time is ideal.
- Be ready for changes in the weather. Pack your clothes for different situations – and it’s okay to re-wear stuff when you’re camping.
- Stick to your routine. Have your kids go to bed at the same time as usual.
- Don’t forget your lights. A few lamps can ward bugs away and provide all the light you need.
- Blow-up mattresses are good for kids. No stones to poke them and make them uncomfortable – but do add a padded layer below the mattress if you’re on rough terrain.
- Pack clothes in a roll. Entire outfits can be bundled together, making it easy to find everything you need.
- Frozen jugs of water make great ice packs. As they melt, you have drinkable water.
- Chloraseptic spray makes bug bites stop itching. Trust us and bring some.
- Don’t forget toilet paper. Plastic canisters – like coffee canisters – are good for keeping TP clean and dry.
- Bring hand sanitizer, too. Some campgrounds don’t have easily-accessible places to wash your hands.
- Make frequent stops if you’re driving with young children. This will keep them interested and excited about the trip.
- Remember to teach camp courtesy, such as going around other sites instead of through them.
Further Reading: For another 101 ideas, check out our article on car camping tips.