We love camping! It’s a perfect outdoor activity, plus it really resets you as a family, when you feel as if the indoors world has intruded just a bit too much into your daily life. It can sound daunting if you’ve never done it before or haven’t been camping since you had kids. Let me tell you about our most recent trip, why it was so fun, and a perfect example of how you could get started if you aren’t used to camping life.
First, I should point out that it wasn’t perfect; not much in life is, right? Camping certainly falls into that category. Ours was the toddler who screamed for two hours at 11 p.m. when he woke up soaked through his sleep sack. And he was the one who woke screaming at 6 a.m. on the last morning. Everything about your life is on show while living outdoors. But is that a bad thing? It’s scary, but it doesn’t take long to realize that everyone else is terrified of their kids being the screaming one, plus every family had their turn of dealing with an uncomfortable situation. I barely noticed other people’s horror stories, because when we weren’t deep in ours we were caught up enjoying camp life. And sometimes it’s nice to gain some perspective and realize that other families are going through what you are too.
1. Pick somewhere close.
We camped at a state park just over an hour away from Boise. It was just the right car drive to allow Smalls a nap on the way, and for us to get there in time to make camp well before the sun set. We were all recovering from colds, and Red had had a fever for two days before, so we spent the days leading up to the trip simultaneously prepping and wondering whether we should call it off. A short journey meant we could comfortably commit to the two-day trip, knowing we could head home fast if it just wasn’t working.
2. Pick a designated campsite with great amenities.
I have camped at smaller locations without showers and not much more than a long drop toilet where you had to take your own toilet roll. These trips can be fun for one night, but for a first trip or for longer stays, look for somewhere larger and carefully examine the amenities. A lot of camping areas that can be used for tents and RVs mean there are electricity hook-ups, toilets and showers close by, and a relatively safe and enclosed area for the kids to play.
3. Camp with friends.
On our trip to Three Islands State Park, we camped with three other families. This meant the kids had instant friends to play with, which meant they were out of our hair a lot of the time. We also shared meal prep which minimized how much we had to bring in the coolers. We shared kid watching, campfire tending, medications, coffee, whiskey. . . . Friends make everything better!
4. Take more clothes than you think you’ll need (and less).
Whenever we return from camping I empty the backpacks and find about 80% of the clothes unworn, but still need to be washed to get rid of that smoky campfire smell. I don’t mind, because if it gets colder than you think, or a kid gets wet, you need to be prepared. If there’s any chance it will be cold, pack layers, hats, gloves, extra socks. I don’t worry too much about the kids going to sleep dirty, but I know them and the chance they’ll be dirty and wet is high, so I need to pack enough to deal with that. In the heat, extra layers can help if kids get sunburn. It always surprises me how chilly it is when you first wake up, even on a day that ends up in the 70s or 80s by dinner time.
5. Meal Prep, Meal Prep.
Especially if this is your first trip, plan all your meals and do as much of the prep as you can before you leave. While the idea of whipping up something fresh over the fire might seem romantic as you peruse all the fantastic Pinterest-worthy camping meals, think carefully before committing. Flies, dirty tables, cold fingers, hungry kids, there’s a never-ending list of things that will prevent you from wanting to do any of it when you get to camp.
Here are some great ideas for camping food if you want to chuck it on the fire or camp stove and eat quickly. One of my friends prepped more breakfast burritos than I have ever seen for our four family trip, and they were all eaten over two mornings. Breakfast is a serious business when you’re camping! Wrapped in aluminum foil, they were thrown both on the campfire and the camp kitchen in a steady stream as people made it out of their tents.
6. Plan some activities for the kids.
You’ll be surprised how well your kids can entertain themselves outside with none of their normal toys, books or screens for a period of 24 hours or more. Having said that, a few activities can help if there is a lull. We took bikes for all the kids on our trip – even the two-year-olds had their balance bikes. Luckily the campsite was a loop of which we could see about 80%, and so we could let them ride around it together without an adult in tow. And there are a lot of camp activities that you can have them help with, even if at home they would normally see such things as chores. Washing dishes, collecting sticks for the fire, setting up the tent, cleaning up each morning and carrying trash bags to the dumpster. It’s great for them to see all the work that goes into camping, and to learn that all hands on deck makes everything happen faster.
We also took them on night hikes just as the sun was setting, which on this trip meant leaving camp around 7ish. We handed out glow sticks and head torches, wrapped up in hats and warm jackets as the temperature dipped, and followed a cute little trail right next to our campsite. The kids had so much fun listening for birds and animals, picking up sticks, and watching the sun disappear and the stars twinkle. And by the time we got back to the tents, it was dark, their little legs were tired, and they were ready to go to bed. Phew!
I always throw in a bag with some outdoor toys; the one I keep in my car for trips to that play park that has the big sandbox. A few diggers, some buckets and shovels, some toy cars. This time there was a funnel and some sieves in there too. If they were getting antsy (usually when they were hungry and the food wasn’t ready yet) we could send them out with a bucket to collect more firewood or ask them to scoop up some dirt and build a home for the cars.
By the time we made it home we were all exhausted, there was a lot of unpacking to be done, and the bathtub was in full-time use for the rest of the day as we all cleaned up ready for work and school the next day. But the rhythm of our lives had changed subtly as a result of the trip – the boys didn’t request a TV show as soon as we got home, but were excited to get back to their Lego. Smalls asked for more breakfast burritos, something he wouldn’t have touched before the trip, but hungrily munched through when a friend offered it to him. And everyone slept soundly that night, which if you know my family is not the most common occurrence in our house! I had hardly any photos from the weekend, but we still talk about this camping trip with friends often. It was probably our last of the year, and I can’t wait to plan some bigger ones for next summer!