Camping with Kids: Whatever it Takes

On Tuesday, the 3YO spied the tent under the bed and got that Gleam in her eye.

“Let’s go camping!” she cried with joy and excitement.

“Oh, yeah, okay. Good idea.” I thought quickly, “We can set the tent up in the backyard!”

“No.” She says indignantly. Grown-ups really need you to spell everything out for them. “I want to go real camping.”

Uh-oh. I can see she means business.

With feigned mama enthusiasm, I grasp for a creative redirect.”Oh, I know! We can go set up the tent at the park, and have a picnic!” (Oh boy!)

“NONONO! I want to go real camping!” The tears are already forming.

Time to beg reason.

“Well, sweetie, it’s really cold. I think we would be too cold.”

The tears turn to a triumphant smile of problem solving, “Don’t worry mama! We can wear all our clothes at once!”

“Oh… my love…” I can’t really keep the pride out of my voice, or the hesitation. She knows I’m a sucker for her love of camping. We go back and forth with reasons and 3YO solutions, and more reasons. I offer camping tomorrow, but even still she cries real tears of devastation, because she wants to go camping “this day” and “I yuv camping, mama.”

I spent the evening packing and we left in the morning, me solo with two bitties. To go camping at the beach, despite a forecast of 34 degrees with north winds 5-10 mph.

Crazy? I know. Camping with little kids is always crazy. But it’s wonderful too. It’s a microcosm of mothering intensities. Going as the lone adult, with two separate directions for disaster, takes everything I’ve got. And I couldn’t do it for more than one night I don’t think. But for one night, if I give it my all and everything, it can be great.

This was our second trip with myself as the only adult present. There was a couple of other trips where My Man couldn’t come, but I did have other adult backup. Add in a couple of trips with My Man, and I can happily say, I’m starting to get good at packing for camping with kids.

I hate to say it, but it really is all about the gear. We started out with all our pre-kid backpacking gear, of course. Mummy bags, whisperlite stove, tiny tent. Before our trip to Alaska this last summer, I splurged on a whole new set-up, for the only kind of camping we’re likely to do for awhile. Car camping.

Our first kid-camping trip was with just the one, when she was about a year and a half. We went to the desert in Northern Arizona. It was winter. Cold. The coldest night was 20 degrees. The days were warm, and fine. But the nights were something like hell. This was pre-kid-camping-gear-splurge. I had sewed her a tiny little sleeping bag, cute– but totally inadequate. Plus, she ooched out of it constantly. In addition to the night nursing, which was at a fever pitch right about then, I kept waking up afraid she was freezing to death. We tried all the sleeping bag arrangements, and none really worked.

I have since bought two of those old school big rectangular bags that zip together into one giant family bag. Well, we haven’t used it yet with My Man, don’t know how that will work. But I fit in there with one kiddo on each side brilliantly. The key here is that they can’t fall out the sides, and if they ooch up and out into the cold night I can easily pull them back down into the warmth. The sleeping bag situation isn’t so critical of course if the weather is warm. Like it is when normal people go camping. But if you’re going to camp in anything colder than say, 50 at night, you’ll want to have a good set-up. Sleeping when you’re camping is hard enough without worrying about your kids all night.

I shouldn’t say it’s all about the gear. There’s a least one other crucial ingredient.

You must lay to rest all your early 20’s hard-core camping standards and expectations.

I have learned to let it all hang out when we go camping, especially when I’m the solo parent. Bring anything you think might help, anything! Fill your car. (Just leave plenty of room for lots and lots of super special snacks. All the fancy packaging stuff you don’t normally get.)

Most people don’t even go camping with little kids. I could just give up and stay home, no one could blame me. But, I love watching their little brains and bodies suck up all that primitive woodsy goodness. They adore playing in the woods, they adore setting up the tent, they adore the campfire. I figure, whatever it takes to get us out there.

Here’s my list. My hard-core, pre-kid self considers this excessive, even luxurious. But some people will consider it spare. Obviously, every family will have vastly different needs. Anyway, it’s a starting point.

Camping with Kids

Sleeping

  • tent, big enough for all the sleeping bodies plus lots of gear
  • sleeping bags, don’t skimp, plan to be warm!
  • sleeping pads, we have thermarests
  • extra blankets, one for the bed, a couple small ones for kids to snuggle in around the fire
  • pillows, it took me years to come around to this one. Don’t wait!
  • their warmest footie pajamas
  • favorite bedtime books
  • toothbrushes, toothpaste

General

  • chairs, if you have room in your car, this is a great luxury. You might get ten minutes to sit down!
  • ground pad for sitting on, we use yoga mats
  • lighter, plus fire starting material and firewood
  • trash bags
  • flashlights or headlamps, one for every kid plus a grown-up one
  • camera, extra batteries
  • TP, don’t forget
  • diapers
  • wipes

Playing

  • buckets
  • shovels, scoops, even just plastic spoons for digging
  • string
  • balls
  • obnoxious but effective toys, for when you really need to distract them so you can make breakfast

Cooking

  • stove
  • fuel
  • pots/pans
  • bowls, silverware
  • grown-up cups, sippy cups
  • knife
  • water bottles

Food

  • coffee– it may not be food, but it tops my list of absolute essentials
  • half and half, without which coffee is useless for me
  • sausages– why cook dinner when everyone loves to put food on a stick and hold it over a fire?
  • buns, mustard *optional
  • marshmallows, or you’ll catch hell
  • milk, if your kids are milk drinkers
  • oatmeal makes a great rib-sticking camp breakfast, I pre-measure mine out into a baggie along with the salt, mornings can be rough…
  • butter
  • brown sugar
  • hot cocoa

Snacks– like I said, whatever is a treat for your family

  • cheese sticks– despite all my attempts, the 3YO is just not interested in cheese as a snack unless it comes wrapped in plastic, which I almost never buy her
  • crackers
  • “bunny rabbit cereal” (at home we eat homemade granola, so storebought cereal is a treat)
  • individual yogurts or kefir drinks

After you’ve crammed all that stuff into your car, carefully unpack all expectations and take them back into the house. After all your work, the kids might prefer to spend an hour playing in the car when you get there. Take a deep breath. Small souls confronted with overwhelming newness turn toward the familiar. At least, that’s what I told myself. Consider it a chance to get the gear unpacked and set up. Or, take yer chair out, find a good spot, and admire a tree your own damn self.

7 thoughts on “Camping with Kids: Whatever it Takes

  1. You are so BRAVE and so to be commended! Went on my first camping experience with kids last year and found it soooo difficult. And that was with another adult.

  2. That’s great. I am inspired. Your kids have it good! I love those photos. My grandmother used to tell stories of taking her babies camping in an era before disposable diapers and any kind of convenience food. But I can see how I’ll need to trade in my lightweight/tiny stove/tent/etc. for the old coleman stove and big dome tent. It’ll be a nice switch anyway.

  3. We went camping on the weekend with two pre-schoolers. It was an experience – and we forgot the pillows and our pre-kid 3 man twnt was too small for the four of us! The kids loved it nonetheless!!

  4. SO timely! We just came back from a week of tent camping, although going to a camping ground and plugging various electrical comforts into a power socket isn’t really roughing it, now, is it?

    Totally agree about packing everything you can think of. It’s such an enormous job, but so much easier when you are out there and you have that hot water bottle or extra bucket (because the one you had planned on using for washing dishes the hubby has knocked off for his fishing bait..ugh).

    I camped once for two nights solo with my girls about two years ago, the one thing I really missed was having another grown up to talk to – especially at the end of the day.

    Now I am on a mission to find a decent sleeping mat for myself and the other half, and maybe an extra gas bottle for the stove…nothing worse than thinking you might not have enough for that next cuppa! Thanks for a great post. :)

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