Camping with Kids

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Photo by Jennifer L.W. Fink
Photo by Jennifer L.W. Fink

My boys and I love to camp. We’ve spent many weekends at state parks, including one memorable hotter-than-you-know-what weekend at a new-to-us park in the southwest corner of our state.  We spent the majority of our days down by the lake — swimming, paddleboating, kayaking, playing in the sand and otherwise enjoying a slower pace of life. We also hiked to a waterfall and traipsed up and down the rocky hillsides along the creek. We caught lightning bugs, listened to a variety of different languages and toured a cave. All in all, it was a perfect, boy-friendly getaway.

That’s not to say it was easy. Camping with kids is a lot of work. There’s the packing, loading, unpacking, setting up, taking down — and laundry once you get home. Not to mention the seems-like-constant-bickering of four boys in close proximity.

Still? Totally worth it.

I’m far from an experienced camper — this was only our third outing — but I’ve learned that my boys do better when they’re allowed to contribute to the workload. Boy #2 was my master packer. He’s always loved playing with block and is an expert at spatial relationships, so he took on the job of loading the van. It was his job to cram everything in — and he did a great job!

All of my boys gathered wood for the campfire. They love to explore, so while I was setting up the tent, they took off in search of firewood. Soon, they returned with some fallen-down limbs and birch bark. (Did you know that birch bark is great for starting fires?) Thrilled by their finds, I sent them back for more birch bark. They returned with 8- to 10-foot fallen birch branches. So while I continued setting up the campsite, the boys took turns with the hatchet, chopping the birch into more manageable pieces.

Yes, hatchet. Last year, I bought a hatchet for use on our camping trips, and it’s proved to be one of our most useful camping tools. It keeps the boys busy for hours! Certainly, I supervise its use, and I teach them the basics of tool safety before they get to use it. But they LOVE to chop wood! Boys like to feel useful, and chopping wood is (in their eyes) a fun way to contribute to the well-being of the family. Plus, they like hacking at and burning things.

If you’re planning a camping trip with kids:

  • Bring snacks. Nothing says camping like smores.
  • Let them get dirty. Because it was so hot, my boys lived in their swim trunks for three days. The little two also refused to wash their faces on the grounds that we were camping. I let them stay dirty.
  • Have the kids pack some diversions. My boys packed scooters and raced up and down the path to the bathroom. They also packed their baseball equipment and played a bit in the open area behind our campground.
  • Be a stickler about safety. Yes, I let my boys use a hatchet. And the oldest two start campfires (under supervision). But when you’re in the woods, on the lake or around a campfire, you can’t let down your guard. Insist on life jackets while boating, teach your kids about poison ivy and enforce a do-not-enter zone around the campfire.
  • Explore! Every state park or campground is different. We made it a point to see the waterfall that’s a highlight of this particular park, but I also let the kids explore the area around our campground on their own.
  • Don’t push learning; let it happen. I certainly don’t carry lesson plans into the woods. But I am aware of all the natural learning that happens when out in nature. Observe the flora and fauna. Discuss the similarities and differences of the local environment with your home zone. Follow your kids’ interests.
  • Allow for some independence. Camping means close quarters, and not all kids do well with that. Older kids, especially, may appreciate some time to pursue their interests independently. My 13-yr-old spent hours out fishing on the lake, alone.
  • Involve the kids in the work. Younger kids can help collect sticks and fetch water. Older kids can plan meals and help with the set-up and take down.

What are some of your best tips for camping with kids?

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