We love camping. We always have. When my wife and I found out nine years ago that neither one of us was sterile, one of the ways we psyched ourselves up for parenthood was imagining beautiful star-drenched evenings singing along to acoustic guitar around a campfire, eating s’mores, being very natural and at ease.
It’s never quite so peaceful, but camping has become an important annual activity for the family. We all vibrate at such a high frequency, with such awesome energy, that it’s become vital to spend time sleeping with trees. Reminded of how much bigger the outside world is than the one in our brains.
I wouldn’t say we were camping experts. We’re semi-experienced. But we’ve put together some tips from our time in the tents that we think will help get you ready for your first family camping excursion.
Go camping without kids
Children will pick up on your excitement or your anxiety, so it’s important that you’re comfortable with the whole camping thing. No one can figure anything out for the first time with a child around, because they will ask questions until your brain breaks. Make sure to take a few grownup camping trips for practice before you lug the little ones into the woods. It’s especially important to familiarize yourself with setting up and breaking down the tent, just in case it takes all day to get out of the stupid house and you have to erect a six person, two room, vestibuled domicile in the dark.
Be extra (prepared)
I was a shitty Boy Scout. That’s not true. I never made it to Boy Scout and was only a shitty Cub Scout. But I did learn to camp, and that motto – “Be prepared” – is maybe the best thing to remember before heading out on a family camping trip. We take a cue from our super-extra-at-all-times daughter, who won’t go for a walk to the grocery store without putting on her finest outfit and filling a bag with books, snacks, a change of clothes, and an extra pair of sunglasses.
Make a detailed list of everything you need to camp and double-check it before you leave your house. If you’re going camping for two days, bring four day’s worth of food and water. Bring clothes for extreme heat and cold, just in case. Set up the tent in your yard to make sure it doesn’t have holes. If you don’t have a cool multi-tool like a Leatherman, bring screwdrivers, knives, and scissors. It doesn’t hurt to have a camping ax. There’s no such thing as too much twine, sturdy rope, or tarps.
Know the area and weather forecast
Splimm has East Coast roots, and camping in the Catskills is very different from camping in the Cascades. Take the necessary time to find a spot that’s good for your family. Know beforehand what your kids are comfortable with. If they like water, try to locate a slow moving river or even a campground with a lifeguarded lake. Learn about the dangerous animals local to the region (including snakes and invertebrates) and other things to avoid. But kids of a certain age can also get pretty excited about legends and folklore, so learning some fun facts about the history of where your going (like “this is a path settlers used to displace native peoples” or “here a great and bloody battle was fought”) can provide some fun extra context and get them a little more excited about the trip.
Frequently check the weather and don’t hesitate to cancel a trip if it looks like rain. Sure, there’s something fun about huddling in a tent for a few hours playing card games, but then it starts to get real steamy real fast and then it doesn’t take too much longer before everyone hates each other.
Start low and go slow
Don’t drag the kids on a two-week backpacking adventure down the Appalachian Trail. Some people just hate camping. You don’t want to find out your kid is one of those people during hour two of a four-night stay. With children, car camping is your best friend, even if it’s not the most hardcore way to go. And while it’s kind of a pain to go camping for just one night, with all the effort required, it’s a great way to gauge how your child will respond to the environment.
Food is important
Obviously you need to make sure you have enough sustenance to sustain your family. But packing the most basic and boring trail snacks means having to listen to children talk about how you only packed things they don’t like, and now they’re hungry, and why didn’t you bring things they like. Camping can be a time to introduce kids to new kinds of food, but make it fun. Plus, Buzzfeed has already done the heavy lifting by assembling some lists for us!
Come ready to keep the boredom at bay
Kids can get bored pretty quickly, but since they are generally very stupid, they can also be quickly distracted. Similar to the list of all the things you need to not die in the woods, an activities list can be a lifesaver. Scavenger hunts, Frisbees, squirt bottle or water balloons battles, hell even badminton can tag in once you start to hear that oh so familiar refrain of “I’mmmm booorrrrreddd”.
Bring a friend
Now that she’s getting older, our daughter loves camping, and wants her friends to love it too. Which, as parents of an only child, actually makes our life so much easier. Once you’ve got the hang of family camping, invite a friend along. Then marvel at the free time you get while they play dolls in the tent or build fairy houses under the picnic table.
If we want our kids to love camping, we have to load the deck. Me, I’m happing watching fire burn and breathing in the wilderness. But I learned right away that, for my daughter, if camping means watching me chill out in the woods, then camping sucks. So I fake it a little more, play games I’m not super into, games she directs that generally involve yelling in a way not socially acceptable in our city life. Because when we do, camping is awesome.