(Car) Camping with Kids: The Basics

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We have a campout coming up with our Waldorf co-op this spring equinox, and a couple of families have asked for advice on some of the basics of camping with children. I remember the first time I was contemplating whether it would be worth it to camp with my first child. I grew up camping and have always camped as an adult, but had never been since I had a child. I scoured the internet for good, practical advice that would tell me how to do this and whether it would be worth it or would end catastrophically. I found enough practical advice that I was encouraged to go ahead and try it, and now camping is a staple of my family’s life. I think every family has to decide for themselves whether or not it’s worth it. A big factor in whether it will be worth it is the perspective you bring to your trip.

Maybe instead of asking how you can go camping with kids, you’re asking, why in the h*** would I want to go camping with kids? Camping is kind of funny. We take a whole bunch of our stuff to the great outdoors and set it up out there so we feel like we’re at home. It’s a lot of work. It’s exhausting. There are bugs. Those criticisms are totally true, of course. But even so, I still think that the reasons to haul your gear and your kids outweigh the practical naysaying.

I’ve always believed that being out in nature made me feel better, not just a little bit, but in a deep-down, in touch with my soul and balanced with the earth sort of way. Scientists are now mapping what causes these feelings and finding compelling evidence that just being in natural spaces, (or even just near them!) physiologically lowers stress, which in turn lowers heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, and negative feelings. Contact with nature also lights up the parts of the brain associated with empathy and altruism and improves concentration. These effects can be seen after just a 15 minute walk in the woods. (“Call to the Wild”) Imagine the changes that happen in your body and mind when you stay in the woods for the weekend! There’s nothing better than being out for a hike, and, as the sun goes down, not having to return to the highway, to the daily grind, but instead, to enjoy the falling night, hear the nocturnal sounds, experience the stars coming towards me instead of away, and feel the fresh air waft across my face as I try to sleep. I want the experience I have while hiking to keep going. If you can relate to that, then camping is probably a good fit for you.

If camping is good for you, it will be good for your kids. Kids will experience all the same physiological and psychological benefits that you will. On top of that, they’ll benefit from being with you when you’re less stressed. Being out in nature will teach them a myriad of lessons that they can’t learn inside. They can learn to take risks and know their own limits. They can experience discomfort —in the different elements, with bugs, with minor scrapes and bruises—and learn to adapt. They build resilience in the outdoors (for more on this, see Last Child in the Woods). They can connect with the world without a timeframe pushing them to just keep walking and stop looking at every daisy along the way. When they’re camping, they have the freedom to just look at a daisy for days. Maybe at the end of the trip, you’ll even want to take a look, too.

So, what about the practical matters? What makes for an enjoyable camping trip with kids? For me, it boils down to bringing the necessities and letting go of what is not essential. (Also, letting go of what you forgot).

Here’s my list of essential things to consider/bring:

  • Shelter:
    • You’ll need a good tent to fit your family. If you’re just starting out, you may be able to borrow a tent from a tent from a friend. Be sure to bring the instructions! If you don’t have one and are going to invest, as with most outdoor gear, spending a little more will get you something that will last longer and be more enjoyable to use. A less-expensive tent will likely work just fine.
    • We also bring a big tarp with rope to make a shelter over our fire pit and table when it’s raining steadily. This really helps to keep from getting stir-crazy, so you don’t have to just sit in the tent together.
  • Sleeping
    •  A foam sleeping roll will be perfectly comfortable for most kids. These are pretty cheap to purchase. Several blankets folded up would also work fine.
    •  Try to get them a warm sleeping bag, depending on what season you’re camping in. The degree comfort levels marked on sleeping bags are pretty accurate. Be sure to check the nighttime lows for when you’re going. It’s really not fun to worry all night if your kids are freezing.
    • Sometimes we have issues with our kids rolling out of their bags and waking up cold. I think it’s generally a good idea to bring a few extra blankets—to cover over their bags and to place beneath all the sleeping pads. A lot of the cold seeps in from the ground.
    •  Strange things can go on at night while camping (well, and at home.) This can be the most difficult part of camping—dealing with kids waking up and not going back to sleep when you’re exhausted. A good friend of mine shared this perspective with me: I asked how her night was, and she said, “Great.” I asked how she slept, and she said, “Well, I didn’t sleep, but I don’t plan on sleeping much when I camp.” While this philosophy is a bit much for me (I always plan on sleeping, even when it’s not likely), I think it’s a useful attitude for camping. Just know it’s going to be very different from home. Try not to get angry or stressed about it, but try instead to focus on the sounds you can hear out in the woods that are so rare in normal life. Remember that kids are learning how to relax in a very different environment, and learning to be comfortable in the wild is lesson that will go deep in their bones. The work you may do in helping them rest at night will go a long way.
    • I like to put my kids in the tent, read to them and snuggle for awhile and then go back out for a drink by the fire. I think it’s good for them to learn to fall asleep by themselves, even if they cry a little. I always go to check on them and reassure them that I’m right here. After a few nights, they become more comfortable with the night, and it’s beautiful to see them developing that capacity.
  • Chairs: Having a camp chair is nice for everyone. It makes sitting around a lot more comfortable. But if you don’t have one for everyone, don’t sweat it. Unless you have specific health reasons to use a chair, sitting on the ground or a tree stump will be fine. Bring a picnic blanket to sit on.
  • Les toilettes
    • If you have kids that are potty training or even just still little enough to sit on one, bring a portable potty. That way, if your kids have a hard time peeing on trees or squatting, they can use the potty for the million times a day they have to pee, and you won’t have to walk at a toddler pace back and forth from the restroom all day. You can toss the pee away from camp.
    • When they poop in the potty, just take it to the restroom and flush it. Be sure to bring wipes to clean it out. If you can’t take it to a restroom, you can also bury it. Go about a hundred feet from your camp, others’ camps, and water sources, and bury it at least 6 inches deep. Use a rock or stick to dig if you don’t have a trowel. But hopefully you can just take it to the restroom.
    • If you have a child who is newly potty trained at night, you may want to take extra precautions at night while camping. One good trick is to put a diaper outside her underwear. They won’t feel like they have permission to pee in the diaper, because they’ll feel the underwear. But the diaper will keep the pee from soaking the sleeping bag and ruining your night. See my post about backpacking with children for a detailed glimpse of what this look like.
  • Food
    • Eating while camping is for some reason extremely pleasurable. Being outside just makes you more hungry and makes food taste better. Maybe the scientists will tackle this benefit of nature next. Maybe they already have?
    • I like to make a little chart for each meal and the days I’ll be camping to figure out exactly what I need and then make a grocery list from that.
    • I make things that I can prep a little bit ahead of time, or even have pre-cooked. Kids love to help with camping food. Try to slow down and remember this is part of what they’re learning about the work of living outside. Let them help assemble, stir, whatever they can do safely.
    • Don’t forget the coffee, salt, and cooking oil/butter!
    • Coffee: We use a French press, which works well, except the clean up is messy. Percolators are fun, but take awhile. There’s always instant coffee!
    • Try to do meals where you can use ingredients for more than one meal. This will cut down on your groceries considerably.
    • Bring a stove to make cooking much easier. Cooking over a fire can be tricky, and having a fire is never a certainty. Don’t forget a pan and spoon to stir. A two-burner Coleman style stove is pretty ideal for car camping.
    • Dishes: I like to bring metal plates and utensils, to cut down on trash. These can be cleaned with a sponge (or fingers) and a very small dab of soap, then rinsed with a little water and wiped down with a bandana. I know a lot of people heat water and have washing stations and all that. I admire that. But I’m usually totally worn out by that point and just do the bare minimum. Follow your own hygiene tolerance!
    • Trash: Bring a trash bag or two and tie it to the pole that’s likely provided if you’re in a public campsite. Bring another bag for recyclables and tie it up too.
    •  Keep food in your car at night, or inside a heavy-duty, well-sealed box. Raccoons and skunks (we don’t have bears in Texas) can get into ice chests. Your safest bet for not being up with scavengers all night is to put it in the car. Don’t bring food in your tent! Some critters, like skunks, can also open zippers (really!).
    •  Resist the temptation to toss food scraps, even fruits and veggies, into the woods. It seems fine—it’ll just decompose, right?—but think about all the people at a public campground who think the same thing. The effect of all these food scraps is that animals are attracted to the site. If you don’t want to be the main raccoon attraction when you’re trying to sleep, put your scraps in the trash, or burn them thoroughly in the fire.
  • Fire: Bring your own firewood. Most state parks don’t want you to gather wood. Bring newspaper, cardboard boxes, dryer lint, or even fire-starter sticks to help get it going. Don’t forget matches.
    • Kids are actually generally respectful of fire. Teach them clear boundaries and enforce them strongly. But sometimes getting a little too close to the fire is the best way to learn. Kids usually back up when they get too hot.
    • Keep water close by to put out any errant flames.
  • Dirt: Resign yourself that the kids are just going to get dirty. Don’t worry; it’s actually good for them. They’re building up their store of good bacteria (more on this Let them Eat Dirt). I let mine get dirty all day and then clean them off before they get in the tent. Also, no shoes in the tent is a rule kids can learn pretty early. Mine had grasped it by age 2. Before that, you have to enforce it yourself or else you will sleep in a sandy sleeping bag. Also, teach the kids to keep the tent closed all the time. You’ll be amazed how many bugs will find their way in just so they can buzz around your light when you’re trying to read.
  • Babies? How young is too young? We waited till our first was 6 months old before we went on our first venture. Then, that weekend was the first time she learned to put things in her mouth! She spent the entire weekend trying to fit an assortment of sticks of rocks in her mouth, so I spent the whole weekend getting them out. Is this reason not to camping? Nah, I’d be the same thing at home, right? I’m just saying that it’s actually easier to go with an infant than a baby who is moving around and getting into mischief. As soon as you recover from labor is probably the best time. The baby doesn’t move, you’re already not sleeping…why not be camping?
  • First-Aid: Definitely bring a first-aid kit. It doesn’t have to be an actual first-aid kit. Just gather the basic supplies you’d use at home if someone was injured. I like to include:
    • Band-aids, iodine or alcohol or some other disinfectant, a relieving cream like Neosporin
    • Benadryl and Benadryl cream—a real lifesaver if someone finds their way into a fire ant pile
    • Dr. Zarbee’s kids cough syrup (honey and melatonin)—I’ve had kids get sick suddenly while camping, and this syrup really does help.
    • Ace wrap
    • A few larger bandages
    • Tweezers
    • If someone gets seriously injured, do your best to stabilize and relieve the pain and high-tail it to the closest medical care center. It’s a good idea to find out where this is before you get to camp, in case you don’t have cell service.
  • Finally, there’s the whole letting go philosophy. On a canoeing trip with my dad and step-mom in Big Bend, we had a guide in Big Bend who told us, “If you don’t got it, you don’t need it.” It’s always interesting to make do. Use your creativity, and learn to adapt. Everything is an adventure when you’re camping. Everything that goes wrong can teach you something about yourself and your relationship with the world around you. If you can hold this attitude for most of the time you’re camping, your kids will catch on, and the minor catastrophes will be great stories for your family to laugh over.

Is it possible that something catastrophic will happen while you’re camping? Yes, definitely. But it’s also possible in your front yard, or even in your house. For me, the risks that we take in being outside the security of modern conveniences are worth it because they let us avoid another catastrophe: living life without being connected to the wild natural world.

Well, those are the basics of camping with children in my world. What are your essentials?

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Published by Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser

I’m a writer, educator, and mother living in San Antonio, TX.

2 thoughts on “(Car) Camping with Kids: The Basics

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