When it comes to camping, it’s essential to start ‘em young. That way by the time these kids realize what’s going on, they’ll think battling mosquito bites, being covered in dust, skinning their knees in the woods and sleeping on the ground is all part of the fun. What’s parenthood if not an excuse to foist all our ambitions, hopes and dreams on our beloved unsuspecting children, anyway? Seriously though, few things are as fun and rewarding as sharing the love of the outdoors with your offspring, even with all the little challenges along the way.
There will be hiccups, headaches, the constant threat of sunburn, likely an unfortunate run in or two with a pricker bush and a seeming mountain of gear. Pre-parenthood we used to hit the road with little more than a small backpack and a camp stove for weeks at a time. These days a simple overnight trip has turned the back of my pickup truck into a nightmarish oversized Jenga game of gear and parenting contraptions. Here are a few tips for camping with your kids. Just remember to keep things simple and keep a good attitude.
You could spend endless hours researching gear, but why not take our word for it? This isn’t an exhaustive list, just a few of our favorites specific to the kiddos on the camping end of the spectrum. No matter what you end up bringing, remember less is more. In my experience 60 percent of frustration comes from loading, unloading, sorting and sifting through piles of gear. Skip the hassle by staying organized and making every item count.
Kids’ Camp Chair
Whether it’s waiting for breakfast to cook in the morning or lounging by the campfire at night, camping involves a lot of sitting around. Bring a chair specifically for your child they can move around the campsite just like the grownups do so they'll feel part of the group. The REI Co-op Kids’ Camp Chair is a great option that will last you many trips.
Any headlamp that fits will do, but the Black Diamond Wiz has a bunch of features that are awesome for the little ones. It works right-side-up or upside-down, illuminates in a bunch of colors and has an automatic shut-off after two hours so the battery doesn’t accidentally wear down.
Everyone needs a sleeping bag. For the kiddos, choosing one where their arms are free—like the Morrison Outdoors Big Mo—helps them feel a lot more self-sufficient and comes with convenient features like a two-way zipper for diaper changes, all while still being warm.
My daughter is obsessed with her water bottle, especially when she’s camping. The Hydro Flask Kids 12 oz Wide Mouth is a little spendy at $29.95, but its double-wall metal construction will keep drinks cold even on hot desert trips and survive countless drops on the ground.
We could go on and on about gear, but let’s keep it simple by sticking just the essentials, and—I can’t stress this enough—don’t bring too much. That goes for toys, too. Bring one or two favorites along for the kids to play with, but leave the big bucket at home. You’ll all be happier for it.
I wouldn’t dare tell another parent how to feed their children, but I can offer a few tips to make dining easier while camping. Put simply, bring foods your kids like to eat and are easy for you to prepare. Camping trips probably aren’t the best time to be a stickler about the perfect diet if you want to maintain your sanity. Here are a few favorites we like to pack.
What on earth is camp milk? It’s ultra-high temperature pasteurized milk, of course. UHT milk is heated to almost 300 degrees, making it shelf-stable, so it doesn’t require refrigeration. Horizon Organic has UHT milk in both chocolate and original flavors in juice boxes, which are extraordinarily convenient for camping trips and especially while out hiking.
Who doesn’t love pancakes? In addition to being a very exciting breakfast for the little ones, they’re super easy to make if you bring along some just-add-water mix. I’m partial to the classic Krusteaz buttermilk mix. Just don’t skimp on the syrup.
Perfect for on-the-go refuels, fruit snacks are nutritious, delicious and rather refreshing to eat with a dry mouth from, say, swallowing sand during a desert windstorm or baking in the sun on a more-than-you-bargained-for hike. They’re a lifesaver.
These are just a few options I like to bring along. As long as you keep the snacks flowing in whatever iteration your kiddos prefer you can stave off hangriness and keep camping fun.
Your campsite is home away from home. That goes without saying, but it’s even more important to choose the ideal campsite when you’re camping with kids since you’re going to spend a lot more time there than normal. We’ll include a few tips below, but the most important thing is to pick a spot that’s safe, both for the obvious wellbeing of the children and also for maintaining the mental health of the parents. If you're looking to camp near some of Utah's ski resorts, a list of some of our favorite spots can be found here.
Watch out for Water
While everyone loves the idea of camping near a babbling brook, the serenity that comes from nature’s background music will cause immense headaches when you’re constantly trying to make sure your kids aren’t going for unauthorized swims.
Flat is Where it’s At
Pick somewhere wide and flat with plenty of space to run around and play. If the campsite is on or near a rocky slope you’ll run into many of the same issues of running around trying to keep the little one in check instead of watching them enjoy the outdoors with relative free rein and reckless abandon.
It can get windy out there, especially if you’re in the desert. If you can incorporate some natural protection in the form of a rock outcropping or a stand of trees into your campsite, it can give you a great place to seek refuge from the weather without resorting to hiding in the car.
No matter how stoked your child is to go camping, I can pretty much assure you they’re going to tire of hiking, biking or and campfire lounging long before you do. Keep things fun and engaging by infusing a bit of outdoor education into your activities. Birds and plants are everywhere, and you don’t need to be a trained botanist or ornithologist to enjoy them. All you have to do is pick up some birds and plants of Utah pamphlets, and boom, you’re an amateur naturalist!
There are comprehensive apps for your phone, but the lightweight pamphlets are easy to carry and help show your kids the outdoors are a great place to ignore your devices. I’ve salvaged many a near meltdown with a quick, “Hey did you see that bird? It’s a cliff swallow!” Was it really a cliff swallow? I don’t know, but I said it confidently enough for my toddler to think it was.
Everyone is going to get dirty. Especially the kids. It’s prudent to really lean into it and embrace the mess. Remember, we’re not out there camping for Instagram pictures of our children in fashionable outdoor gear. We’re out there to see the smiles on our kids’ faces as they run around in nature and get good and dirty doing so. Clean hands are nice, so pack some soap, wipes or hand sanitizer, but the rest is all window dressing. You bring that mindset, the kids will adopt it, and everyone will have more fun for it.
Don’t go too big. Set attainable goals and make them happen. Your camping trip with a toddler isn’t the time to tick off your bucket list hike, climb or ride. Strava and the like have no place on this trip! Let’s all leave those hang-ups of unrealized athletic ambition and social media one-upmanship at home. Try two short hikes instead of a longer one. Leave plenty of time for rest in the shade, looking at flowers and copious snacking. Always keep the focus on fun.
When in doubt, don’t be afraid to give everything a trial run in the backyard before heading out for the real thing. On your trip, keep tabs on what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do better next time. Then get out there and to it all again!
Have any tips for camping with the kids? Let us know!