How to Take Your Kids Camping…and Have Them Love It!
Have you ever laid back on a clear night and viewed the Milky Way, sailed in the running winds preceding a tropical wave, or scaled a mountain ridge to see the sun rise over the thunderheads of a storm as the lightning played on plains below? I have… and oh how I love it. But… I’m no longer a 20-something adult with time and money to burn. I’m a 30-something mom with 3 girls under 5, so how on earth can I find time to seek the adventure and the peace that my hiking, camping, and backpacking brought me before I had kids?
Seriously now, it’s hard enough keeping 3 little humans alive from day to day in a stable, predictable environment. How do you do it while camping?! What kind of bug spray can you use if you have a thumb-sucker? I mean, is that a poison control situation or what? What if they don’t eat the food we packed or worse!…what if their sleep schedule — that most sacred ritual around which all activities revolve- gets thrown off by all the excitement? Will they ever sleep the same again?!
Six years of Boy Scouts prepared me to be lost in the middle of nowhere without a compass and to be able to find my way back, but…when it came to going camping with 3 little girls, I couldn’t fathom where to get started. I wanted to take my girls camping because I missed the adventure, beauty, and peace I always found out there. I wanted to share that with them, but where do you find peace with 3 energetic girls along for the hike? How do you get them to stop and take in the beauty of a sunrise?
I decided to start small, and you can too.
Take a Walk
Wherever you live, whether in the suburbs, the city, or the country, there are places to walk and parks to visit, so I took my children for a walk. If they can’t walk well yet bring the stroller, but if they can walk, let them. Make it short because the goal is for them to do the walk without needing to be carried. You want them to feel the accomplishment of doing it themselves. Point out all the fun animals you see: the birds, the worms, the squirrels. Look for the animal tracks, the types of flowers; this gets them involved so that they’re not just walking, but they’re looking too. You’re calling their attention to nature, and you’ll be surprised how quickly they catch on. After the walk is over, give them a big high five and declare they just completed…their first hike!– And the fact that it was just up the street and back doesn’t matter.
Take a Backpack
After you’ve taken them on a couple “hikes,” now it’s time to progress. Get ready to take them on a “hike”, but you get your backpack on (a day pack works just fine). 9 times out of 10 your children will ask you, “what’s that for?” I showed them what I had in mine: my water bottle, phone, first aid kit, whatever, and the next thing I know they want a backpack too! So now you’re going on your “hikes” with…a backpack…you see what I did there? Your children are now getting used to the idea of carrying their own necessities.
Time for a Picnic
Now your children are used to walking and even carrying their own water bottle and such, so it’s time to level up to…a picnic. Pick a place with a trail that goes to a destination like a lake, or a waterfall, a canyon, whatever is accessible to you. (Hint: Check out any Nature Preserves near you. They are usually free and have shorter trail options)
Pack their favorite lunch with something special they like, but don’t get to have a lot. My girls get trail mix or chocolate covered raisins with their PB and J’s–nothing fancy here. Head to your destination of choice. By now they already know what to look for, and they know it’s their responsibility to carry their pack, so you’re not lugged down with a stroller to carry everything or some awkwardly packed bag for you alone to carry.
Once you’ve hiked the trail and made it to the destination have a little picnic, while they’re eating–cause if your kids are like mine that’s only time they’re quiet–point out those the little beauties of nature that you appreciate.
The way the sandhill cranes stand tall. How the alligator glides effortlessly up stream. How the wind makes little whispering noises that you can only hear when you’re quiet and listening. They may be too small to understand, but let your kids surprise you. They understand more than you may think.
Once you’re back at the car, be sure they know how proud you are of them–even if they were entirely too loud, ran too far ahead, and wouldn’t eat their lunch. You are proud…because they just finished their first backpacking trip! (…we can work out the kinks later.)
Let’s Camp Out
Now it’s time for a camping trip! But don’t do what I did. Don’t take them camping on a desert island in late March…in Florida…(think hot, humid, maybe a mild 80 degrees at night). Oh, and she had never slept outside in a tent…yeah that was not fun.
The backyard now…that is where you do your first camping trip! Firstly, it’s a safe space that they already know, so you’re only changing one factor: where they sleep. The bathrooms are super close. You don’t have to pack food. It’s a simple cookout and night out under the stars…or big black sky because…street lamps. It’s novel enough to be fun and exciting, but familiar enough to not throw them off.
Let’s take a break from the steps to talk about something else real quick: money. We haven’t spent any. Let that sink in for a moment…Unless you had to pay an entry fee to a park or something, it costs nothing to condition your children for backpacking. In fact, warming them up to the idea will save you money and frustration.
Laying preliminary groundwork helps to set expectations for everyone, and lets you, as the parent, gauge when your children are ready to level up. I’ll tell you; mine took to it quickly, but they’re young and adaptable. An older elementary school child might need a little more coaching before going all in.
So save your money for the finale, and spend it on things that would make or break your outing, like a tent that doesn’t leak–yeah, I’ve all been there…hanging out the dripping wet sleeping bags…drying out the tent. Let’s not do that again; a non-leaking tent is essential!
Get Lost…in a Good Way
And now, finally…after months of walks and picnics and preparations and training on appropriate noise levels, take the trip…a short one…with bathrooms nearby because…potty training, and even when you think they’ve been trained for years, new surroundings and excitement tends to make them forget. But do the weekend trip. It’s worth it to find your peace again.
I did. And you know what? Even with 3 little monkeys running around, I found peace. And I experienced a different kind of beauty.
I saw my twins chasing that butterfly that I’d been pointing out for months, yet didn’t think they actually noticed. My oldest pointed out all sorts of trees and flora that I don’t even remember telling her about. We ate hot dogs and beans with s’mores for dessert, and I listened to them sing Frozen songs by the fire.
No, we didn’t sleep well. Yes, they got some bug bites, tripped on sticks, and almost fell into the fire. (I cover fire safety in another blog.) But when we packed up to go and were all buckled in the car, my oldest said very matter-of-factly, “You know mom, we should do this again.”
Teach your children the love of nature, and they will have a lifetime of adventure!