You've always camped as a couple, but now you have a couple of kids, and you're wondering about when and how to make the jump to camping with kids. Getting your kids out into the woods when they are young helps them feel rooted and connected in nature, and helps them to develop a love of the outdoors and give them a place that they can always feel grounded, no matter what the world throws at them. Camping helps child development in so many ways, from the physical, concrete growth in gross motor skills, to the development of self-confidence and a sense of adventure, and of course to the creation of a sense of connection and comfort in the outdoors. Children who camp will grow up to have a constructive relationship with nature, a positive self-image, and a love of activities that engage the mind and body in healthy, positive ways.
Location, Location, Location
The saying is true in real estate, but it's also true for first camping trips. Location matters. We've all had camping trips where we end up driving down dirt roads in the dark, well past looking for a perfect site, and just hoping for any pull-off big enough for your car and tent. That's not how you want to camp with your kids. Choose a site that you know well, or something that you can reserve in a designated campground, so that you can arrive early in the day and have the time you need to set up a kid-friendly camp. And of course, you want to make sure you aren't camping too close to any major hazards, like cliffs or rushing rivers. A campsite high on a cliff overlooking a valley might have been fun when it was just the two of you, but it won't be fun with a toddler that you have to watch every minute.
You do want to choose a spot that has some opportunities for age-appropriate exploration, however. For very young kids, a sandy wash where they can play in the dirt, or a campsite with a small creek trickling by, can be tons of fun. As your kids get a little older, the creek is still guaranteed fun, and they may also enjoy areas with rocks to climb or enough forest where they can build forts and have adventures. Just be sure to set boundaries and make sure your kids are old enough to understand the importance of staying within them. And all kids should learn the adage to "hug a tree" if they think they are lost, and to just wait for you to find them. Don't forget to check on them, probably a little more often than if they were in the back yard.
Pack it Up, Baby!
Camping is generally thought of as minimalist, but if you're camping with kids, banish that thought. There will be time for backpacking later, when the kids are big enough to carry their own sleeping bags and know better than to walk off a cliff; but you want your kids' first camping experiences to be positive and memorable, so it's important to be prepared. Number one is warmth. Nobody is comfortable when they are cold or wet, so make sure that your kids have what they need. Even in the summer, in many areas the temperature can drop considerably at night, so it's a good idea to toss in winter hats and mittens for the little ones, along with fleeces and a good wind/waterproof layer. Thrift stores are good places to find these kinds of things at reasonable prices, because good gear can be pricy.
When you're packing for young children, you also want to think about containment. You might want to relax out there at some point, and it's important to have some places where your children can play safely while you sit back and relax, or build a fire, cook dinner, set up the tent, hang the bear bag, etc. For the littlest, a Pack 'n Play, or similar playpen, can be your best friend. You can also use your tent, as most little ones can have loads of fun in a sleeping bag with a few stuffed animals; and if you have an extra tent, maybe one designed for single person backpack trips, these can make great playrooms too. Natural boundaries can work well for older kids, and if you have a campsite that has natural rock borders, these can serve as both play area and fencing! To help keep the kids close by and occupied, bring a few basic toys to help them explore nature. Magnifying glasses, shovels and pails, a bug box (for temporary capture and observation of insects), and even a few matchbox cars or toy bulldozers can provide for hours of exploration if coupled with the right natural areas.
And of course, don't forget favorite foods! If your child douses everything in ketchup at home, and you forget the ketchup, you're going to hear about it. Take your time in packing food and try to find a balance between their "comfort foods" and some special camping treats. You could plan to make a dump cake in the Dutch oven or a breakfast French toast casserole over the fire in the morning, and s'mores are always a special treat guaranteed to make memories, although your memories might be related more to how you will get melted marshmallow out of your kids' hair. Along these lines, make sure to bring a reliable method of hand washing. Disposable hand wipes work, but if you can set up a simple handwashing station, with a water jug spigot, soap, and hand towel, that will help eliminate trash and keep little hands (relatively) clean.
Consider what adventures you want to have during the day, and plan accordingly. If you're going to hike with kids two or under, you need a comfortable, sturdy backpack to carry them in. Some of the more outdoorsy ones also have some storage, usually just enough for baby things, like diapers and wipes, so make sure to have another pack for all of the other items you need on a hike, like water, raingear, and a poop kit. Some outdoor programs name the shovel "Doug" (because after you dig the hole, you have "dug" the hole...), and tactfully call it a "Doug kit." Whatever you call it, don't forget it, because little ones always seem to have to "go" at inopportune times, and being prepared with a shovel and some T.P. (toilet paper) can mean the difference between a comfortable hike down and an uncomfortable rash. T.P. goes in a bag and gets packed out, poop stays in the hole and gets buried, at least 6 inches, please. Teach your kids that it's not a big deal to go number 2 in the woods if you're prepared. Bonus points if you see an animal while you're out there.
For those kids old enough to walk on their own, keep the distance proportional to the size of their little legs. A five-year-old child might be taking 2-3 steps for each one you take; so a hike of a mile or two at most is probably sufficient for a child of this age. Think about your destination, too. Will you be hiking to a lake where the kids can fish or go swimming? Bring what you need and teach your children to enjoy nature safely and conscientiously. If you plan to swim, bring life jackets; if you're planning a picnic, pack it out.
Finally, remember that it's all in the packaging. If you frame the day as a rugged hike, some kids might shy away. But if you describe the day as a special adventure, you're more likely to get buy-in. Believe it or not, kids often don't see the beauty in a scenic view, and many parents have been disappointed that their kids are more interested in watching a common ant crawl around than in looking at the scenic view they just spent the whole day climbing up to. Enticements like spotting wildlife, trying to find old cabins or gold, or having a whole lake to themselves, might be more exciting to young kids than reaching the top.
The Big Picture
Let's face it, no matter how you go about camping, whether you're staying in a tent, RV (recreational vehicle), boat, or lean-to, camping with kids will require work. It takes effort to care for kids at home, and when you're camping, there's even more to do. But in the end, you are not really building a tent or a camp kitchen, you are building memories. And your kids might not remember every detail of every trip, but they will remember the highlights. They will remember the time the dog stole an entire fish from the frying pan and ran around trying to eat it while it was burning hot. And they will remember the time the wind blew the sticky French toast casserole in mom's face after you refused to eat it because there was char on the corner of the bread. Despite all the planning and preparation, part of the excitement of camping comes from the unexpected, from the spontaneous wild spirit of the great outdoors. And when you take your kids camping, you are giving them an opportunity to participate in that great, marvelous story that is taking place all around us, the story of the wild. Sharing your own love of nature and wild places will help you create memories that your children, and you, will treasure forever.