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Tips for Camping with Children

Updated on March 11, 2014
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Samantha is a mom of 4 who loves crafting, DIY home improvements, and interior design.

Camping with Children

Doing anything with children can be a chore but packing up a car and driving to the wilderness and then setting up all your stuff in the middle of nowhere while your children are running wild seems to be more than overwhelming to me. However, I was talked into camping by my husband after my oldest son joined boy scouts. Obviously I wasn't thinking clearly when I signed him up because not once did the thought of actually having to sleep outside cross my mind. Luckily our Cub Scout group did not venture into camping trips during the winter so we were able to attend for several months before the mention of camping came about. I'm not a girly girl by any means; I played outside and built forts as a kid I just never camped outdoors. The extent of my camping experience was plugging in the motor home and telling my father when he had backed up the proper distance. When the first mention of the camping trip came about my oldest was 8 and my youngest was 18 months and it was a one-nighter with no plumbing! Once I wrapped my mind around the no bathroom facility then my mind went to the logistics of having an 18 month old in the bear infested woods with no shelter other than some nylon walls. I tried very hard to convince my husband that this would be a great opportunity for some father/son bonding time but then he pulled out the "you're the one that signed him up" card. I borrowed a tent and bought some camping chairs and that was about the extent of my camping purchases at that point. Luckily I thought ahead enough to bring several comforters and quilts to pad the ground with and our pillows. Each family brought their own food and drinks which basically consisted of juice boxes and hot dogs on a stick over the fire. In a simplistic way it was kind of nice; you could actually see the stars and hear the river in the background. For my first experience it wasn't horrible and I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. After that trip I started looking into more camping gear that might make things more comfortable for us and the kids. I also looked into more meal options; not that hotdogs on a stick aren't good but who wants to eat that every night. I also looked into some activities that might give the kids more things to do when we didn't have an entire group of kids for them to play with. In this article I will share my wealth of camping knowledge with you and hopefully make your camping experience fantastic.

Waterfall near our favorite FREE campsite!
Waterfall near our favorite FREE campsite!

Tip 1: Start out Small

Even though the thought of no plumbing may freak you out initially those camp sites are usually either very cheap or free. If you can't get passed the lack of bathroom facilities and running water you can usually book a "primitive" camp site (aka. tent camping) for $20 a night with bathrooms and showers. Camp sites at an actual camp ground are slightly unappealing to me because they are right on top of each other. At this point in my life I would rather pee on a tree stump than hear some random stranger snoring in the tent next door. The main reason we took such a shining to camping is because we have several children and are on a budget and can't afford road trips and vacations all the time. Camping at a free camp site means we can get out of town for the weekend and not pay anything other than the gas to get there. There's no cell signal, there's no road noise, no TV, no fighting over video games; it's pure family time. Try it for one night and see how you like it. Do Not commit to a week long camping trip as a first timer.

Bisquick Shake and Pour Pancake Batter.  Add water and shake.
Bisquick Shake and Pour Pancake Batter. Add water and shake.

Tip 2: Food Planning

I am always the designated meal planner for every vacation or camping trip that we go on even when my extended family attends. I am frugal but creative which is how I gained the "meal planner" title. Breakdown your meals by day (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, snacks, etc.) and try to use items that can be used for multiple meals (example: a loaf of bread can be used for sandwiches and toast for breakfast). Try to use things that don't require bowls for mixing or a lot of pans (example Bisquick shake and pour pancake mix). I usually take 1 frying pan with us and we have a grate to go over the fire for that to sit on (you can purchase a camping stove for less than $50). See the example menu I planned.

Example Meal Plan for a 1 Day Trip

Pancakes and sausage links
Ham and cheese sandwiches, chips, and applesauce
Hot dogs with grilled corn

Tip 3: Plan fun activities

While camping you are in the middle of nowhere; you are going to have to find things for your kids to do. My kids are generally just happy with exploring the campsite for the most part but eventually they need you to start giving them ideas. We usually try to take nature walks to the waterfalls, taking photos along the way to capture our memories. We bring their baseball gloves and a baseball and play catch. If it's warm enough they play in the river (at our usual camp site it's only about 12" deep). I usually bring coloring books and crayons for them. When it gets dark we play with those light up bracelets and sparklers. We've even made a glow in the dark ring toss game before where they throw the bracelets over one of the thicker glowing sticks that we've buried so it stands straight up. We've played flashlight tag (word of caution for younger kids to partner with an adult).

Our house-like tent
Our house-like tent

Tip 4: Get yourself some comfortable gear

If you are going to camp without the luxury of plumbing you might as well splurge on your other items. Obviously, I don't recommend going out and spending $1000 on gear if you're not sure that you're even going to like camping. I recommend borrowing someone else's tent your first time and just see what you think about the experience before you invest in good gear. Our tent was on clearance at a Kmart that was closing so we paid $150 for it but it was originally a $300 tent because it can sleep 12 people and it has 2 closets and room divider. We have had absolutely no issues fitting all 6 of us comfortably in our tent. We did invest in a blow up mattress that is double height because we had originally purchased a standard cheap queen size blow up but every time my husband rolled over I would feel like I was on a roller coaster ride. The double height are more sturdy and you do not feel the other persons movement as much. So we gave our older boys the queen size to share and purchased a $10 twin size for my 4 year old. Our playpen for the baby fits perfectly at the foot of our bed and we line up all the other kids beds on the other side of the tent and that leaves a 2 foot walk way down the center.

I also recommend getting camping chairs because they are cheap and relatively comfortable and can be used at ballgames just as much as while camping. Academy Sports and Outdoors sells them for $7.99 in various colors so you can get each child which ever color they want and they won't fight over someone stealing their chair.

A camping stove is fairly cheap but gives you more of an even cooking then cooking directly over your camp fire. We purchased ours at a Coleman Outlet Store for $40 and it uses small propane canisters.

A good lantern is a must because when you are in the middle of nowhere you will not be able to see once the fire burns out. You can get them that use propane or that run on batteries and that is more of a personal choice.

I also recommend using a tote box to put all of your food items in so that when you are completely done cooking for the evening it can be placed in your car to prevent the attraction of bears. Put your cooler in the car as well.


-Bring Bug Spray!

-Bring lots of blankets, it gets cold at higher elevations at night.

-Check the forecast before you go. Just because a tent is water resistant does not mean that water will not eventually penetrate and soak all of your belongings.

-Bring fire starters. Dryer lint can be used as a great fire starter in combination with a lighter.


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