I light of my recent camping experience with my kids, this is what I found that worked great. I was a Girl Scouts for 12 years, so I had been camping plenty of times myself, but this was the first time we went as a family, the first time I went as a mom. However, I drew on those years a lot in preparing for the weekend.
- Car – I suggest going “car camping” the first time. This has several advantages, the main one being that you don’t have to physically carry everything to your campsite. You also have a place to lock valuables and keep electronics (such as your cell phone) so they’re safe.
- Food – This was mostly taken care of for us because we went with the scouts and they had a food committee., but if you are camping by yourselves, keep it easy. Instant oatmeal, cereal and fruit are great for mornings. I suggest having cereal the first morning since the milk will be cold, and then have oatmeal the second morning. Fruit is great for snacks at any time. Sandwiches like PB&J or lunch meat (again, lunch meat is good to sue the first day while it’s still cold) are quick and easy. If you’re limited to a fire, cook things like mountain pies (you can get a mountain pie iron for about $20). Things that can be wrapped in foil are good too. Cut up potatoes with cheese, bacon and other toppings are easy to cook on a fire. Hot dogs can be skewered on a stock and roasted. And of course, you need marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate for s’mores. The key is to keep it simple. Little prep, little cooking, because you also need to bring the dishes, pots and pans. Don’t forget dish soap, just make sure you have running water, and matches or a lighter if you’re cooking on a fire.
- Tent – Get a tent that’s right for the season. We have a 4 season tent that really hot in the summer, but great for the rest of the year. You may want 2 tents, 1 for you and 1 for the kids, but I liked having the kids with me. Also be sure to put it together before you go. Make sure all of the parts are there, there are no holes in it and everything works properly. No shoes in the tent and always always always leave it zippered, or you’ll have bugs. Well, you’ll have bugs anyway, but this is the difference between a stray ant and a tent full of flies and mosquitoes.
- Sleeping – Sleeping bags, pillows and sleeping mats are a must. We used our air mattress and the kids used sleeping mats (which you can but at a camping store – ours inflate and deflate for easy transportation). We also let our kids each bring one stuffed friend for something comforting and familiar. I also brought an extra blanket for each of us, which can also be used at the campfire if needed.
- Hygiene – Find out what kind of running water you’ll have available. Sometimes camp sites have showers (with hot water!), we didn’t. We only had cold water. We brushed our teeth and did wipe-downs, so we needed wash clothes, hand towels, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Baby wipes are also great. I also bought wet ones for after bathrooms and before meals.
- Sun Block, Hats, Sunglasses, Bug Spray – Even if you’re going to be under cover, you need to protect yourself and the kids from the sun. Bug Spray is a must for evenings when the mosquitoes come out.
- Proper Foot Wear – You (and especially the kids) need close toe shoes. Sneakers and hiking boots are best. It’s nice to also have a pair of flip flips for going to the bathroom at night, especially for showering. There’s no shoes allowed in the tent, so having these right outside makes short trips like that easier.But for any really walking you need good shoes. There’s also lots of sharp things around a campsite, so no bare feet ever!
- Weather appropriate clothing – Check the forecast, and pack accordingly. I always being a pair of pants and a sweat shirt for everyone even if it’s going to be warm because it can get chilly at night. A knit hat for a cold night makes a HUG difference too. Keep it near your pillow and pull it on if you get cold. Socks and warm PJs are good to have as well. Layering is good for hikes, kids can take off a long sleeved sweatshirt if they have a t-shirt underneath. I don’t let the kids wear tank tops camping because I like to keep their shoulders covered when we’re outside all day.
- Chairs – Camp chairs are great, they fold up to easily store and transport.
- Water Bottles – We love our Nelgene bottles. They can be refilled, which means less garbage at the end of the trip. We each have our own color, so it’s easy to know whose is whose. Find out if you need to bring your own drinking and cooking water.
- Stuff to Read and Do – I brought books, magazines, coloring books, crayons, cards, games and balls with us. Camping is a great time to let the kids have some unstructured play, but it’s also fun to plan a few structured activities. When we go for walks sometimes I’ll have the kids make a list of things to find, like a red leaf, a white flower, a rock shared like a heart. I just make it up on the spot and give the kids some blank paper and they draw it. Then they cross it off as we go. If you geocache you can also do that. Sometimes, however, it’s nice to just take a walk and enjoy the scenery. If you have a child that’s old enough to read a journal would be nice to give him or her. Little ones can draw pictures. You can also take googly eyes and some glue and let the kids make “friends” with found objects.
- Garbage Bags – For garbage, also for dirty clothes. It’s easier to toss them into a garbage bag and then take it all to the laundry room when you get home. Just don’t mix them up.
- Flashlights and Whistles – Each member should have a flashlight and/or head lamp as well as a whistle. I have my kids wear the whistle around their neck whenever they leave the campground, even with us. If they were to get lost this could save their life. I also hang a glow stick or glow light from the ceiling of the tent. It serves as a nice night light for the kids (and you!).
- Rules – If kids have never been camping, they need to know what they can and cannot do. Things like staying within a certain area, never leaving the tent at night without a parent, staying at least 2 feet from the fire, never straying off the path, and staying within sight on a hike are all important safety rules. Other rules, like going to bed on time, can be more flexible. Before we left the kids had Hug A Tree And Survive training. It’s a great program and teaches kids what to do if they’re lost. You can buy the DVD online: http://www.nasar.org/products/60/Hug-A-Tree-and-Survive-DVD and download the handout for free: www.isrch.org/pdfs/hugatree.pdf and coloring book: www.nicoletsearchteam.org/Sar…/Hug_A_Tree_Coloring_Book.pdf. My kids really enjoyed it and it covered things I didn’t think about, like it’s OK to talk to strangers when they’re looking for you in the woods (some kids hide from rescuers because they know they’re not supposed to talk to strangers).
- First Aid Kit and Medicines- A small kit with the basics will be fine. You can buy a pack ready to go or pull things you have at home. Don’t forget any medications and/or vitamins you may need.
If you’re thinking of going camping, there’s lots of good resources out there. Here’s some that I’ve pulled together:
- REI: http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/camping+kids.html
- KOA: http://familycamping.koa.com/camping-with-kids/
- Fodor’s: http://www.fodors.com/trip-ideas/national-parks/planner/tip-2202971.html
- Family Fun Magazine: http://familyfun.go.com/sitesearch/results/q=camping/
Visiting a store like REI or LL Bean or walking through the outdoors section of Wal-Mart or Target can be overwhelming. I suggest starting small, getting the basics, even renting bigger items like a tent and sleeping bags. Then keep it to one or two nights out somewhere close to home and semi-familiar. That way if the kids (or you) have a freak out, or something goes wrong (say, someone falls and needs medical attention) you’ll know where to go. Being so close to home, only a few miles away, gave us peace of mind, but still felt like camping because we were away from home. The kids did great, so now we know if we go somewhere farther away they’ll be fine sleeping outside (and, in fact, slept through a thunderstorm).