A Guide To Stress Free, Healthy Camping With Kids (That They’ll Remember Forever)
Camping seems to be a love it or hate it kind of holiday. We sit firmly in the ‘love it’ camp (pun not intended but kind of inevitable) and at the other end there are those in the ‘I need my home comforts’ tribe. Wherever on the scale between the two you find yourself, it’s worth considering the benefits of camping to a young family (or family of any age).
I have two boys (12 and 7 currently) who are still ripe for holidays with dad that aren’t considered boring or embarrassing, so long as they are pitched (enough with the puns!) as adventures rather than vacations or holidays. When less is more (and with camping, as with most things, less is definitely more), you need to make sure you sell the potential to their fun radars as carefully as you do with healthy food.
If your kids aren’t seasoned campers then you’re going to get rolled eyes and audible sighs if you try this approach:
“Hey kids, how about we jump into the car, drive into the middle of nowhere and sit under a tarp in the rain for a few days? We can eat cold beans from a can and play cards with absolutely no phones, electricity or wifi driven distractions to stop us!”
It’s all in the sell; try this:
“Anybody fancy heading to the woods with limited supplies and training for a zombie invasion for a few nights”
You can interchange zombie invasion training with ‘learning to surf’ or ‘tracking wild animals’ or anything else that’s likely to spark their imagination. The point is, it’s adventure time (so come on grab your friends, we’re off to far and distant lands).
Kids are built to explore and seek adventure, they’ve evolved to do that and although often suppressed by screens and what passes for ‘peer reviewed, acceptable fun’ these days, their DNA is screaming for this sort of activity. There couldn’t be a more purpose built holiday for kids than camping.
Let’s look at some of the benefits for them and for you as a parent and for you all as a family:
Throwing off the shackles.
Routine and rules run their lives for the most part. Wake up, breakfast, school (lots of sitting and focus and learning) home, tea, homework, structured escapism, bed, repeat). They spend a lot of time doing that and it’s no wonder they seek out opportunities to escape the routine into unstructured adventure whenever possible (naughtiness as it’s often known). Camping gives you the opportunity to set them free. Ordinary rules don’t apply. You can go the toilet in a bush. You can stop playing when you’re ready to drop, not because you’re bedtime is being monitored, you can eat when you’re hungry, wear what you like, wash sometimes, stay up late and get lost safely. All without phones, screens, Netflix or the internet!
Remembering how much you make each other laugh
This is an obvious benefit but so crucial. Kids aren’t the only ones to be trapped by routine and structured days, you too can find your self in the same boat and time passes so quickly when we’re distracted by the routine chaos of our lives. If only we could do more than just unplug for a few hours every Sunday and exist in a bubble of nature with our kids, exploring and being present together. You can, it’s called camping.
Problem solving with the pack.
Camping sits just far enough outside of the real world to be a genuine adventure. Normal rules are put to one side and anyone can step up and lead the pack. It’s amazing how resourceful you can all learn to be together when you need to plug a leak in your tent with just some gaffer tape and a plastic bag. Camping is a chance for kids to think practically and reap rewards; start a fire (and then get s’mores on it), build a rope swing (and leap into the river from it), to wrap up in a onesie, then a sleeping bag and lie on the grass under a blanket of stars that just isn’t visible from your light polluted back garden. They’ll find ways to do things and when you find that you can find ways to do things, previously tricky things become easy and you do more things (that makes more sense in my head).
Associations with better things
When you look back at your own childhood, what do you remember? Not all of it is great for everybody, some of it is magical for others, all our own experiences are different, but if you’re here, reading this, then I’ll bet we all have want the same thing; happy, healthy kids. We all want our kids to have the same magical memories of childhood that we have (or that we didn’t). The things that they associate with feeling good, those experiences that supercharge their serotonin and reward their pleasure centres can be sugar and screens and levelling up on Skyrim and wifi enabled relationships, or they can be freedom and playing and exploring and discovery and nature and stories and being present with their families as they laugh and grow and have adventures together. Guess what helps build those positive outdoorsy associations? Yep, camping helps.
There’s a gazillion reasons to do this thing, so let’s have a look at how to make it so easy that anybody can grab their kids, stuff a few bits and bobs in the car (or even on the bus), get the hell out of dodge and into the wild. Yes, even you.
A good camping trip requires planning
I’ll admit it, there’s more than a little OCD flowing through my veins (I know OCD can’t be measure in your blood but you get the idea) I like a bit or chaos, just as long as it’s organised. I’ve learned over the years that a bit of preventative maintenance reduces the stress and allows you to be more present in whatever you’re doing when it comes to activities with the munchkins. Never truer than when it comes to camp. Start your adventure with a list, involve them at this stage by all means because three crazy heads are quite often better than one logical adult. The need for planning is two-fold.
1. Plan ahead in terms of what you’re going to take with you, not so that you don’t forget something, but so that you can travel light.
2. Prep (not plan) your days so you have less stress, less stuff to do around the camp and more time to let loose and enjoy being where you are.
Let’s look at each of these:
The following advice is perhaps better suited to walkers and talkers rather than your poopy nappy wearers. But that’s not to say you should avoid camping with baby, on the contrary, they and you will cope just fine and the list doesn’t grow to everything and the kitchen sink sized either; you can camp light with baby too, just needs a bit more planning ahead.
Do this: Make a list of everything you think you’re going to need. Then screw it up and throw it away.
Then make another list with just these things on it:
- A tent just big enough to for you all to sleep in (we’ll discuss the gear in a bit more detail later on)
- Clothes for all. Don’t worry if you only pack one pair of pants each, the priority is warm stuff for the evenings. Everything else you can cope with (or without). Sturdy, weather appropriate footwear.
- Enough dry food to keep you going for a day and a night and plenty of drinking water and a kettle (because you should be going for an electric pitch)
- Sleeping bags, a head torch each, sporks, disposable cups and plates (paper party packs from the supermarket), roll of sturdy bin bags, reading books, pad of paper, pencil, roll of strong tape (I love gorilla tape), ball of string and a knife. And most importantly, a pack of baby wet wipes.
Honestly, you’ll get by just fine with just that, so if you forget anything – don’t sweat it, these items will see you through.
When I take the boys camping I’ve learned to take it easy, reduce stress and enjoy the time rather than tearing my hair out trying to control it.
Your home from home.
The tent is for keeping you dry, sleeping in and having just enough space to stretch out or sit in together without sitting on top of each other. Does all that? That’s all you need. I tend to go for pop up tents because I don’t like the hassle of ‘putting up a tent’ – it’s a pain in the bum, a pop up tent is perfect for taking the kids camping – throw it down and peg it out – you’re good to go! Super light travel tip: I don’t even take a mallet for the tent pegs, I’ve never been anywhere where there isn’t a brick or rock that will do the job when I get there – keep it simple.
Pack light, stress less.
No matter what you take, your kids will probably wear the same t-shirt/shorts (or fleece and waterproofs if you’re in the UK like me) combo all week and will totally ignore your pleas to change their underwear. So why take more? Hang loose, be grubby, it’s only a few days, bend the rules. Whatever they wear needs to keep them warm and dry and allow them to play/climb/run freely so no skinny jeans trendy mums! (Top tip: jeans are rubbish for camping; heavy and movement restrictive and take a week to dry if they get wet – ignore cowboys on this one) and unless they fall apart then they are all good for the whole trip.
Keeping everybody fed
You’ll notice I said dry food and didn’t mention a gas stove or BBQ. This is because digging out all the cooking gear (gas bottle might need filling, all the pots and pans, chopping boards, cooking implements, blah blah blah) is a pain. So is setting up the gear, so is cleaning the gear, so is packing it away and remembering to put under shelter in case it rains etc. Time I could be making bows and arrows with the boys. Dry stuff can be super healthy (fruit, dried meats, nuts & seeds etc) in mega convenient packaging and if you check your labels, some items can pack a nutritional punch (we look for gluten free options) – certainly perfectly acceptable for a few days off the regular diet. I tend to cheat and supplement this with anything that can be rehydrated with boiling water and trips to pubs for tea! Never be afraid to cheat and don’t put pressure on yourself to cook a 3 course camp stove meal every evening.
All the gear, no idea.
So yes, a kettle. I always (when possible anyway) choose a camping pitch with an electric hookup. You’ll need an adapter but they’re an uber-camping hack. We’re not about keeping it real, we’re about having a memorable adventure and a kettle gives you coffee (or green tea) every morning for the purposes of sanity (better you = better them), rehydrated cheat meals, hot chocolate for all in the evenings under the stars (yes I know, or clouds) and more coffee and more coffee and more coffee. Get the picture? If you can’t get or don’t want an electrical hookup then just take a small gas stove just big enough to boil a kettle on.
The less you have, the less you’ll need.
The essentials listed above will cover most bases, from fixing leaks and repairing stuff, to rigging up clothes lines to dry gear. If you’ve only got books, paper and pencils then you can only use down time to read, draw, play paper based games together or have actual conversations! Imagine that! Less is more when it comes to distracting options. Besides, you’ll all be too tired after your days exploring and playing to worry about the lack of screens (which you won’t take, because you won’t need because the odds on you having some kind of ‘emergency’ that requires a phone are massively less than the odds of you having an accident in the shower, where you also don’t take your phone and have never needed one. Just get over it, you don’t need a phone).
Staying a tiny bit clean
Bin bags are great, one for any dirty clothes and another for all the rubbish. Keep it simple. Paper plates and cups means no washing up, everything just goes straight into the bin bag. How do you wash up your sporks? With your mouth! There won’t be any mess because everything is disposable and any little spills, any dirty mouths that need a wipe or poo-shoes or other little accidents – wet wipes! I love wet wipes, I don’t leave home without them, they are essentially a full cleaning solution in a packet.
Doing it your way.
Now of course, you don’t have to stick to just these bare essentials, you can scale up any of that with your fancy camping gadgets and cooking gear (It’s not like I don’t ‘get’ bacon sarnie for breakfast) – I’m just trying to show you how easy it is to grab a few things that you can keep in a box under your bed and have enough to hit the woods/beach/mountains with your kids and have an adventure. And if you forget anything, then it isn’t important, you’ll cope without it, nature is packed with useful tools and it’s kind of fun problem solving them with your kids. So long as you’re warm, dry, together and out there then you can have a blast and if you keep everything super simple then you can relax and the spend the time having fun rather than chasing your tail trying to keep the camp in order.
The most important reason to stop thinking, grab your kids and make an adventure.
There’s another reason to sleep outdoors with your loved ones and to keep it mega simple; to adjust everybody’s expectations a little bit. We’re all surrounded by all sorts of stuff all the time; the stuff we’ve bought and surrounded ourselves with in the hope that it will make us ‘happy’ – you know, the TV, the games console, the iPad, fancy kitchen gadgets, snazzy car, bigger house than you really need (it is bigger than you need, you’ve just filled it with too much stuff). Suffering, buddhism would call it. Or frustration as it actually translates. The sense that you need another thing to have or look forward to or aspire to be because the rest of it isn’t quite enough anymore. But have you ever noticed how you whenever you downsize anything in your life, you adapt, and cope? The world doesn’t fall apart and you don’t get ‘less happy’. Quite the opposite if anything. Less is always more when it comes to happiness and the only way we ever get to remember that is to actually minimise a bit. Camping is a distillation of all the things you need to make you happy. Teach your kids this, not by telling them but in the only way that kids learn anything important; by example.
Sermon over, now turn this screen off, get your diary out and make some plans (not excuses).