A Beginner's Guide to Camping With Kids

By KyAnn Lewis, GalTime.com

We used to go camping all the time as kids. Most of our summer vacations consisted of tent camping in the Oregon wildnerness. As a kid, it was fun running around the woods, learning how to fish and making s'mores, but as I got older I lost interest in the great outdoors and discovered the joys of hotel vacations. Now that we have a young daughter, we've gotten nostalgic about camping and wondered if maybe we should take a tent vacation. I'll admit that the idea of camping in our new home state of Florida scares me just a little. Have you seen the bugs around here?

Rather than jump into camping unprepared, I decided to seek out some professional advice. I hit up the experts at PlayOutdoors.com. In addition to selling outdoor gear for kids, they also have a blog packed with ideas for outdoor fun. Heidi Drake of PlayOutdoors says, "We're here to help turn the time you spend outdoors with your kids into moments that will stay with them for a lifetime." Sounds like the perfect people to give me some camping advice, right?!

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GalTime: Do you need camping experience to plan a camping trip with your kids?

Heidi Drake, PlayOutdoors: No! But, you don't want to fly blind either. Books like Tent and Car Campers Handbook: Advice for Families and First Timers by Buck Tilton can be great research tools before and during your trip. The most fun way to learn the ropes? Grab some friends with experience and take your first trip with them! And don't be afraid to ask questions and take notes.

GalTime: What equipment do you really need?

Heidi Drake, PlayOutdoors: Gotta start with the lodging! Whether you decide to test the waters by renting a yurt or you're the jump-in-with-both-feet-into-tent-camping type, you do want to make sure your tent or RV (like a camp trailer) will accommodate everyone and stand up to the weather. Other than that, here's the bare minimum you'll need to take:

  • Food! Always take more water than you think you'll need, and healthy snacks to keep everyone going happily. It's best to plan meals ahead of time so you know you have everything you need on hand.
  • The right mix of clothing. Even in summer, nights can get cold and wet weather can show up uninvited. Research the forecast and ponder what activities you'll want to partake in, and plan accordingly. Hiking boots, long pants and shorts, layered shirts and jackets, and sun-blocking hats are always a good idea. Pack swimsuits and water shoes if you'll be near a river, lake or ocean… and don't forget PFDs for the whole crew!
  • Places to sit. Your camp clothes will last longer and the kids won't be quite as filthy if everyone has a camp chair or blanket to sit on.
  • First aid supplies, including a well-stocked kit, sunscreen, and bug repellent
  • Flashlights

GalTime: What are some nice, but not necessary extras to bring along?

Heidi Drake, PlayOutdoors:

  • Toys and games. Kids aren't always entertained by rocks, sticks, and the like, so hide-and-seek games like Educational Outdoors' Snipe Hunt or S'mores card game can ease boredom. Or try a Gibbon Slackline for some well-balanced shenanigans.
  • GPS unit. If you're new to camping and hiking, it can be easy to get off-track in the woods, and a GPS can be programmed to take you right back to camp if you get lost. Your smart phone often comes with Nav and GPS apps you can use in the woods too.
  • Infant travel beds. Bring a familiar place for baby to nap and everyone will rest easier! Many of us have survived trips without one, but why make things difficult?
  • Electronic devices. If you're not dead-set on being a camping purist, let the kids watch a DVD or play a quick round on the Gameboy DS, especially if the weather takes a turn for the nasty.
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GalTime: What are some easy meals to make?

Heidi Drake, PlayOutdoors: Check out these Campfire articles for details: Breakfast & Lunch and Dinner. Wrap-type sandwiches always go over well too, especially if the kids can make their own (or help).

GalTime: Any snack suggestions?

Heidi Drake, PlayOutdoors: A little sugar's a nice treat, and kids burn off a ton of energy when they're outside terrorizing the campsite, so let 'em indulge in the S'mores and such (within reason). Here are some fun S'more ideas.

Let the kids help you create a custom trail mix full of things they'll actually eat! Hit up your local bulk foods section and gather ingredients like granola, nuts, yogurt-covered raisins and pretzels, and such.

Keep cut up fruits and veggies on hand. The bright colors will catch the kids' attention every time they pass the picnic table, and they usually can't resist grabbing a quick bite. Nibbling all day is the healthiest way to eat, anyway.

GalTime: How does the "bathroom" work for young kids who aren't used to "going" outside?

Heidi Drake, PlayOutdoors: Our campfire story "How to Poop in the Woods" is full of tips on what to do when there's no bathroom in sight!

You might want to make some trial runs near home before you try making your kid "go" outside. A corner of your backyard can work just fine, and taking a drive to a nearby trail with an outhouse is an easy way to see how it goes before you're in a desperate situation. It really is a good idea to test out both outhouses/rest area-type toilets and full-on going in the dirt-you never know what's going to freak your kid out! My two girls are opposite: one can't stand smelly outhouses and prefers to find a tree to squat behind, while the other goes for odorous privacy over "going" al fresco.

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GalTime: You advise parents of young kids to do some trial runs before taking a big trip. Explain how "practice camping" works.

Heidi Drake, PlayOutdoors: Basically, "practice camping" is taking one aspect of the camping experience, such as bathroom training, cooking, falling asleep somewhere other than bed, etc. and trying it out close to home. Your backyard or local park can work great. It's just a great way to work out the bugs in a setting that allows for quick escape if it doesn't go well.

GalTime: What if the weather doesn't cooperate?

Heidi Drake, PlayOutdoors: When you're dealing with kids, it's best to have a backup plan in place. With a waterproof rain jacket and boots, most kids will happily frolic outside no matter what, so let 'em! Just make sure they take frequent snack breaks and don't get soaked to the bone.

Scope out covered or indoor activities if it gets really bad. When it poured non-stop for several days on our last Wallowa Lake camping trip, we took a day for museum and brewery tours, which was a nice break for everyone.

Have you taken your kids camping? What advice do you have for parents without much camping experience?

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