My ultimate guide to first-time camping with kids was a guest post in 2016 for the North American outdoor website Cool of the Wild.
Here it is in full, amended back for the UK audience.
Camping? With KIDS?!!
(Are we serious?)
The two most common responses to this time honoured question have to be “Love it! Best holiday ever!” or, “Who would even consider it? Hell on Earth,” and from personal experience, it’s safe to say the answer to the question can truly be both of the above, often on the self-same holiday!
Camping with kids can be as easy and rewarding or as tiring and difficult as you choose to make it. As a huge advocate of learning in nature and through play, a camping trip with my daughter is a no-brainer. Children revel in the freedom and confidence they gain from being outdoors, often to the point that pre-planned activities get cancelled to simply let the kids enjoy running wild in a gang on the campsite (with respect for other campers of course).
If your kids camp from an early age they automatically follow your example to respect the needs of fellow campers, becoming adept at making new friends wherever they go. In addition to all this wonderful outdoorsy nature-nourishment, the adults get an easy time of it too – on a recent camping trip in Cornwall, UK, my sister returned from the bathroom at 10pm and noted happily that all the children were tucked up in bed, only for the rest of us to realise that in fact NONE of the children were in bed, they were all quietly playing in the twilight under some bushes in the games field, babysitting themselves! Aaaah, more sloe gin please.
Top 10 reasons to camp with kids
- Outdoor adventures
- Time in nature
- Camp fires and dark sky activities
- Experiencing all weathers
- Learning new skills
- Meeting new people
- Free time for parents/shared parenting
- Unforgettable memories
- Cheaper than other holidays (once you’ve bought the gear)
Campfire fun with a young Caroline, yurt glamping in Devon
Tips for camping with kids
Having spent a lifetime under canvas in tents, tipis, yurts and caravans both with and without children, bivvying in the countryside; scorpion-catching in sleeping bags round a fire in the Jordanian desert; on starlit Mexican beaches and, infinitely less glamourous but no less enjoyably, as a member of and later a leader in both the Guide and Scout movements, I’ve put together a few top tips when considering your first (or any) camping trip with children:
- Don’t set expectations (this is no longer camping for couples!)
- Plan in advance
- Buy the right tent
- Book your pitch
- Take the right gear – see Cool of the Wild’s camping checklist
- Plan a flexible menu and pre-prepare a first night meal
- Agree some Tent Rules
- Bring ‘stuff’ to occupy the kids
- Make rainy weather back-up plans
- Have fun!
- Be prepared to bail out if it all goes wrong
Planning and Prep
For the perfect camping trip with your kids, as with all of parenting, start with some serious family planning!
Research the area – find local child-friendly attractions and events, including wet-weather options. Consider dog-friendly attractions and beaches too, whether you own a dog or wish to avoid doggy areas.
Choose a campsite – do you prefer wild camping with no facilities or a full holiday park with bar, pool and cabaret? Personally, a rural site with a decent play park, bathrooms and washing-up facilities is my absolute basic recommendation for camping with children. On my very first solo trip with my daughter I choose a site with electric hook-up, wiFi, a shop, cellphone charging point, a play park and gated security. Basically, all the facilities to avoid panic if anything went wrong. It snowed, we went Otter spotting in the rain and collected multi-coloured sea glass on a windswept beach, and the site was perfect.
A glamping trip on a Devon, UK farm provided hours of animal fun when my little one was three, and the New Forest, UK was wonderful the same year, when the children were enchanted by visits from the wild ponies, one even checking out our sleeping quarters.
Book a pitch – gone are the heady days of last minute adventures when the campsite was an after-thought. Your kids will not forgive you for dragging them from campsite to fully booked campsite at the end of a long and boring journey. Book your pitch in advance, you’ll be so glad you took the time. And for your first kids camping adventure just book a weekend initially, and not too far from home.
Our annual ‘family camp’ with cousins
The one thing which will make or break your camping trip with smalls is a great family camping tent. Before you book your first kiddie camp, be sure to beg, steal or borrow tents of all shapes and sizes to test drive in your yard beforehand. One night is enough to decide whether a tent suits your family’s needs so research, research, research in order to get the best value and design for your requirements.
My husband (whose idea of camping perfection has never diverted from the use of hiking tents with minimal kit and zero personal hygiene) still rages internally at the fact that our 5-man family-sized outdoor mansion would comfortably garage a Chevrolet Sonic, but from personal experience I would defy even Bear Grylls or Ray Mears to survive a week of mixed weather with children in shared backpacking tents. Here are some things to consider when buying a kid-proof tent:
- Headroom – would you prefer to stand up straight in your tent?
- Sleeping space – are you content to share a single compartment with your children or do you need private space? Are you happy with a hanging divider or do you each need a fully zipped room? Camping is a great opportunity to experience co-sleeping if you haven’t already. Be prepared for what my daughter lovingly calls the ‘leg blanket’. It’s surprising how many hugs sleeping children feel the need to steal!
- Rooms – with children I would personally recommend three internal rooms or two and an external shelter or tarp; the bedroom(s), an internal dry compartment for playing in wet weather and a third outer area for wet gear, shoe storage, cooking, smelly wet dogs and their towels. Our tent has two rooms and we use an additional event shelter for cooking, drying wet gear, eating in and entertaining the neighbours while the children play.
- Storage – gone are the days of travelling light as a couple and living out of one bag. Children come with a mountain of clobber, however minimalist you attempt to be, so consider a tent with wall pockets, shoe racks, in-built storage and even wardrobes.
- Weight – will you always have use of a car or do you cycle or use public transport ?
- Ease of assembly – some friends bought their dream tent (even bigger than ours!) after years of camping and much research, to discover on first use that it required four people to erect. They kept it but the kids very quickly learnt some new skills!
- Gizmos and gadgets – kids love shiny and sparkly so if you have spare cash consider glow-in-the-dark guy ropes, in-built.
- LED internal lighting etc
Gear for camping with kids
This camping checklist is a good guide to make sure you have all the usual camping gear, but also consider some oft-forgotten and self-explanatory extras to make camp life sweeter with smalls. Here’s my list of kids-camp must-haves:
- The right tent
- Warm bedding and nightwear – warm hats to sleep in are a great extra for little ones; even summer nights can be chilly so take lots of easy to remove layers too. Hot water bottles are also wonderful on a cool night
- A door mat/floor towel – see below
- A dustpan and brush – see below
- Blindfold and ear plugs to help avoid Grumpy Dad Syndrome (sometimes nothing will do the trick!).
- Bikes – a bike or scooter will encourage the kids to go to the bathroom or play park on their own and provide hours of extra fun and exercise
- Watertight box for games, books, colouring items
- Fun things for kids to do – see below
A few ‘Tent Rules’ for camping with kids
Sorry folks. You might not love the idea of setting ‘camping rules’ on your happy-go-lucky outdoor adventure but with children in the mix, house rules make a huge difference to everyone’s comfort and wellbeing. You’ll probably consider some of these suggestions petty (and for those who know me, unexpectedly authoritarian!) but you should at least consider the points in your pre-holiday planning, even if you choose to reject them:
Wipe feet on a mat & remove shoes at all times inside the tent
We always take an old dog towel to spread at the tent entrance for both footwear and feet. Whilst a wilderness idyll of complete wildness and freedom might sound appealing, the reality is that the kids don’t care a jot about stomping all over the sleeping bags wearing muddy boots until it’s their bedding that’s damp and gritty when they’re overtired and cranky after a long day’s outdoor play. Sweep daily with a dustpan or mini broom – the kids enjoy helping too.
A place for everything and everything in its place
This is vital for maintaining parental sanity on any camping trip. Firstly, your smalls are so excited to be out and about they will forget that the rest of the world exists so prepare for myriad questions yelled from the play park – “Where are my wellies?”, “I want my spade” etc. If you know where these items are you’ll be a much happier camper. Even better, if the kids know where things are they can go fetch themselves! Equally, it may be fine on a rushed morning to leave nightclothes, bedding, washing-up or toys on the tent floor but if you return in a monsoon needing to dash undercover in wet gear, you’ll regret not putting things away when they become soggy and wet from your family’s drippings. And ensure everyone knows where the torch is stored overnight in case of Wee Ones wanting wees.
No questions asked hygiene
Camping might seem the perfect time to forego your little ones’ regular bathing routine but there’s nothing worse than a 3am toilet wake resulting in meltdown because the sand dune inside their sleeping bag is itchy and stops them getting back to sleep; make a quick wash or shower a non-optional part of your evening routine on return to the site.
Menu planning and food preparation ideas
The kids won’t let you forget to cook so make sure that you’ve given some thought as to what to cook. Or not. If your site is located near shops and tourist areas you can stock up or eat out daily but if not then you will need a cool box to keep basics chilled (does the campsite have a freezer for re-freezing blocks?), or a camping fridge, or a bucket in a stream if you are wild camping – not recommended for a first vacation with children unless you are hardened bushcraft and foraging experts! Simple, basic meals are best for camping and most families I know prepare an easy 10-minute stir-fry in advance to throw in the pan on arrival. Pasta and rice meals are always good but don’t forget the veggies which can be easily steamed in a pan whilst something else is on the go.
Cooked breakfast should be a camping prerequisite but sometimes the kids just want some good old cereal – take a brand you don’t have at home as a double-whammie treat!
If you have a mini fire pit or stay on sites permitting campfires then making your own bannock bread is a must which kids also love helping with. And of course marshmallows, s’mores, Singing Hinnies (totally delicious) and this yummy campfire dessert.
Huge friends & family gathering for my 40th, inspiring our subsequent family camps
Child-friendly activities and games ideas
Wet weather/down time
- Reading and colouring books, spotters guides
- Travel games
- Postcards/writing equipment
- Crafty things – macramé yarn for friendship bracelets, loom bands (yuck, but they love them)
- Screens/DVDs/computers – personally I’m against all screens when camping but with some Minecraft or Pokemon Go addicts going cold turkey may not be wise. If you must take screens or games consider a solar powerpack or ensure that your chosen campsite has battery charging facilities (and perhaps add another tent rule about time spent on screen?)
- Travel swingball, cricket, tennis, football, frisbee, kite
- Rockpooling nets, bug hunting kit, binoculars, dinghy
- Scavenger hunts
- Adult camping games for when the kids are happy on their own
- Mystical Fire coloured powder for campfire magic
- Giant bubbles, poi, musical instruments
- Fairy lights, bunting, windmills and wind socks – these all personalise your tent making it easier for smalls to find home on a big site
Whatever the weather
You can never overestimate the wildness and freedom that kids experience when exposed to fresh air, the elements, adult-free exploration and the promise of a barbie or two and late night campfires with toasted marshmallows (and the odd sneaky sip of Dad’s Coors Lite behind Mum’s back?). It really is the stuff that childhood memories are made of – late-night stargazing; long days at the beach; hikes deep into the country; deep, exhausted sleep under canvas and early mornings cooking bacon on the fire with wellies and shorts because the dew is still high.
Of course, fair weather is never guaranteed so, in the event of a set-back, return to your ‘Planning and Prep’ to make use of those well thought-through bad weather Plan Bs and Cs. And again, the children will follow your lead – hang around the campground lamenting the downpour and that hole in the tent and your kids will whinge and whine too. Cook breakfast under a shelter and carry on as normal and the kids will follow suit, all too often without their waterproofs and inexplicably staying drier than the adults, as we discovered on one campsite recently. It must be to do with an exercise/movement : body-heat ratio thing.
Don’t forget though, despite all your efforts and the best forward planning in the wild, not all children will love camping even if you as parents do. If it’s your first family camp, watch your child’s cues closely – they will undoubtedly be far more tired than at home, they may not sleep well due to night-time noises or light mornings and they may not enjoy being out and about all day long. Enforced downtime might be necessary and make sure you always have snacks on hand as they will be ravenous when least expected. However, if rain sets in or if camping simply doesn’t work for your family, don’t be afraid to pack up and leave early. There’s no shame in making the most of a great (outdoor) adventure film back home, with a large hot chocolate and the left over marshmallows!
There you go, as first seen in 2016. Thanks to Joey at Cool of the Wild for allowing me to copy it here.