Camping with kids

"I like to play indoors better, 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are."
— Paul, a fourth-grader from San Diego

"We've become a more sedentary society. When I was growing up in Detroit, we were always outdoors. The kids who stayed indoors were the odd ones."
— a parent, Swarthmore, Pa.

Camping with kids

Fresh air; amazing scenery; glimpses of wildlife; vast starlit nights. Nature delivers a full-scale sensory experience, and a great way to convince anyone age 16 or younger of this truism is to invite them along on a camping trip. It may take only one meteor bolting across the sky to persuade any young adventurer-in-the-making that camping is cool.

Before an Overnight Trip

  • Practice camping at home: If your kids are outdoor newbies, pitch a tent in the backyard or even inside your home. Let them hang out in it and sleep in it so they become comfortable with a new sleeping environment.
  • Take a trial run: Before your overnighter, try a family day outing at a close-to-home park. Spend a half-day or so at a lakeshore or park and see how your kids react to extended outdoor excursions.
  • Take notes: Write down reminders for future trips: "Pack more sunscreen." "Bring long pants." "Leave bongos home."

Preparing for a Trip

  • Be enthusiastic: Why should kids get fired-up about an outdoor adventure if you're not?
  • Involve your kids: Make trip planning a family affair. Ask kids for ideas of possible things to do or see at your destination. Take their input seriously.
  • Kids as packers: Give children the responsibility to pack their own gear at home (using a list you've created). A parent should double-check a child's packing job before leaving home.
  • Keeping kids (somewhat) organized: Have your kids pack every personal item in a duffel bag and encourage them to always return those items to that duffel. ("Mom, where's my paddleball set?" "Look in your duffel, dear.") Each child's duffel should be a different color for easy identification.
  • Favorite toys: Let kids bring some of their favorite playthings so the campsite doesn't feel entirely foreign to them. Need ideas for new toys? View our suggestions later in this article.
  • Friends are valuable: It can be fun for kids to camp with another family that has kids. Your kids may get bored with adults after a while. With playmates, they could be happily occupied for days.
  • Bring bikes: Bikes are handy in a campground, so consider bringing a few along. If it's a long way from your campsite to the beach or play area, it's faster (and more fun) to use a bike instead of walking or firing up your vehicle. Bikes keep kids entertained, too.
  • Check fire restrictions: Planning on a campfire? Before you leave home, make some calls to determine if campfires are permitted at your chosen campground. If not, make sure everyone in the family knows in advance. There's no bigger disappointment to a kid who has packed all the s'more fixings than to discover that a burn ban is in effect.

Camping with kids

At the Campground

  • Exude a positive vibe: Family-camping rule No. 1: Be prepared to cope with inconvenience. Everything is in a different place. The bathroom is no longer down the hall, it's 6 campsites down the path. As an adult, you must lead by example with an upbeat, can-do attitude.
  • Organize: Establish fixed locations for important items, such as, "The forks and spoons are in the blue tub," and "flashlights are in the green stuff sack."
  • Then stay organized: Remind everyone to always return items to their established locations so others can find them. If you're especially industrious, create a reference list of where-to-find-it locations. Tape it some place obvious.
  • Keep everyone oriented: Help kids memorize the number of your campsite or point out landmarks ("We're 4 sites from the amphitheater") to help them remember its location.
  • Make kids feel important: Kids like to feel important and involved. Assign them some meaningful camp chores, such as gathering firewood or collecting water from the pump. Recognize their contributions with praise or a treat (or both).
  • Be safe: Make sure your kids always carry a whistle (teach them to blow it if they become separated from you) and have easy access to a flashlight or headlamp. Attach a lanyard to both the whistle and light and tie them to one of the child's belt loops.
  • Wildlife: Ask park rangers about wildlife activity in the area you are visiting. As the adult, you need to take the lead and understand any precautions necessary (such as proper food storage or how to react during an up-close encounter) for safely coexisting with wildlife. Educate your children about the importance of not feeding wild animals (it negatively alters their food-gathering patterns) and treating wildlife with respect and caution so everyone stays safe.

When Outdoors, Be Outdoors

  • Make the most of nature: Look for wildlife. Check out bugs. Examine rocks. Identify birds, flowers, clouds, constellations. Lead kids on a rock scramble. Show interest in things that interest them. Bring a field guide to help you identify and learn about the things they find.
  • Be active, stay loose: Try to keep your kids active without following a regimented schedule. If they're entertained by skipping rocks on the water, give them time to perfect the multiple-skip fling.
  • Attend ranger talks: If you're camping at a state or national park, attend the ranger's evening talk. Ask staff if the park offers a junior-naturalist program or other kid-focused activities.
  • Geocaching: A GPS-guided treasure hunt engages kids physically and mentally. Check our link to geocaching to see if any caches are hidden in the area you'll be visiting.
  • Share time together: "Hey, mom, remember when we saw that deer?" Great memories are one of the payoffs of a camping trip. Come home with the sort of stories that can only be created outdoors. Shakespeare must have been camping when he wrote, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."

Fun Stuff You Can Bring

Browse our online toys and games department to get all sorts of clever ideas for campground fun. Some of our current favorites:

  • Paddleball set: At one of our photo shoots, the kids accompanying our crew couldn't put this game down.
  • Marshmallow launcher: Traditionally you toast them. Now you can shoot them at one other, too. Imagine: The common marshmallow, transformed into a summertime snowball.
  • Animal-shaped flashlights: Leapin' lizards! Sharks, orcas and toucans, too.
  • Kits, discs and flying toys: If it flies, it's probably a heap of fun. Our faves include lighted discs and Djubi balls.
  • Make ice cream: Have some low-tech fun (with delicious results) with a boot-around plastic ball that doubles as an ice cream maker.
  • Water fun: Camping in warm weather? If you can tolerate a little flying water, these water toys are a great way to cool off.
  • The glowing, multicolor flying disc: Whoa . . . it's psychedelic, man. Illuminated with LEDs, this disc changes colors while you play.
  • Foot bags: So simple, so entertaining.
  • Educational games: What? You haven't played "Pass the Pigs" or "Why Knot?" Well, why not?

Summary

  1. Practice camping close to home before taking a long, faraway outing.
  2. Involve kids in the planning for a camping trip.
  3. If possible, invite playmates to come along with your kids.
  4. Seek out activities unique to the outdoors.
  5. Focus on fun; let kids be kids.

For tips on making the backcountry fun, see the REI Expert Advice article, Backpacking with Kids.

Contributor: Doug Peterson, REI product manager and father of 2 daughters.