As a child, I remember camping with my family as being a super fun event that I always looked forward to. I loved spending the night outside- the novelty of it, the sounds, the gadgets, the s’mores….
It wasn’t until later in life, when I started packing for my own camping trips, that it occurred to me how very differently my parents approached the subject.
My mom had the giant Coleman tent, the camp stove, the folding chairs, the big Stanley Thermos of hot water, the camp cots, huge tabletop lanterns, and full meals planned for our stays in campgrounds in national parks all over the U.S. We were ready for anything and we loved to explore the near (the Smokies) and the far (Glacier National Park).
My dad, however, threw some sleeping bags in the car or in the boat and found bits of seemingly uninhabited shoreline or maybe an empty field in East Tennessee and voila!- campsite! Maybe we had hotdogs or maybe we ate a dinner of Nabs. Maybe we got wet when it rained or maybe we saw the stars--it was always a toss-up.
Two very different philosophies of camping and I have fond memories of both. At the heart of it, I just remember the fun of sleeping outside, of enjoying my parents full attention (I enjoyed that more as a younger kid than when I was a teenager), and feeling capable when I set up a tent by myself for the first time.
Now that I am older and taking my nieces and nephews camping, I try to split the difference between my parents--between being prepared while also keeping a little “we’ll figure it out as we go along” attitude.
It has been a learning curve as it is a lot harder to camp when you add little people who are not always interested in helping or even in trying to actively avoid danger. But it is a learning curve worth climbing and was not as steep as I anticipated.
Camping with kids has required a bit of a learning curve but it has not been as steep as I anticipated. It has been easier in some ways than I thought it would be, but it has also had its moments of calamity (mostly hilarious in retrospect) and nothing that makes me regret one minute of time spent in a tent.
We have great family stories of learning the hard way that American tents were not made to keep out Scottish midgies, that eating mac n’ cheese with your hands (because you forgot the utensils) can be both a huge mess and super fun, and that tents must be properly dried out when packed up in a rainstorm or they smell really, really bad when you pull them out later.
We also learned that a full moon in southwest Utah means that you don’t need a headlamp to see at night and that a moose may peer in through the fly netting on the top of your tent when camping in New Hampshire. These are stories you can’t tell unless you get out there.
Just Go For It- The Most Important Advice I Have
If you wait until the kids are a little bit older, or until life gets a little less busy, or until after baseball/softball/basketball/soccer season is done, or maybe it not so hot/cold/humid/dry/etc, you will never actually go camping. So pick a weekend, be like Mike and “just do it.”
The First Time Is Hard But It Gets Easier
The first time you go camping can be a struggle--you will bring way too much stuff, the tent will take you forever to set up, and the kids will wake up approximately every 15 minutes because they aren’t used to sleeping on the ground. You might even swear to yourself that you will never leave the comfy confines of your own bed ever again.
But I promise that it gets easier. On your next trip, you will only bring 2/3 the amount of stuff and by the 4th or 5th time, you will be a speed packing minimalist. The kids will get used to sleeping on an inflatable mattress (to the point of asking to set it up in their room at home and forgo the nice bed you spent good money on).
The best is when you realize other people are looking enviously at you because you have set up your entire campsite while they are still trying to figure out their tent poles. This generally happens when the kids start pitching in, and they get to that point faster than you think.
It is great moment when your kids set up the tent all by themselves for the first time, and they will be pretty proud of themselves. My nephews had it down pat by age 9 and it gave them such a sense of confidence. Of course, it took a lot of patience on my end watching them on the first few attempts, but it was well worth it as I now can sit back with a beer and let them have at it.
Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff. And It’s All (Mostly) Small Stuff.
This old cliche holds pretty true when camping. Especially when camping in a campground with your car.
Forgot the pancake mix for breakfast? Morning s’mores! Guaranteed to make this camping weekend the kids’ favorite trip ever. Tent leaking in a rainstorm? Hide out in the car. The kids will forever tell the story of playing UNO at 3 am in the car while the tent became a swimming pool. Truly- it will probably be recounted to their kids and grandchildren one day to gales of laughter.
What I am trying to say is that even the seeming disasters can end up being cherished family memories because you are all together and that’s what really counts right?
Plus, you taught the kids to get used to not having everything right at their fingertips, to learn how to improvise when things don’t go according to plan, and to figure out what they really need to be happy because you can’t pack everything.
Most importantly, you introduced them to nature and to all the tangible and intangible benefits of spending time outside, which are immeasurable but so salient. All this from a camping trip? What are you waiting for?!!
*Bonus Tip- Bring A Camping Hammock
Bring along a parachute hammock for instant kid entertainment around the campsite. This will be the first thing the kids want to set up when you arrive and will keep them happy for hours, which is nice when you are trying to get dinner ready or simply enjoy your morning coffee for a moment before the day starts.
These portable hammocks are super easy to set up and well worth the investment of buying and packing. Get the original ENO hammocks for about $70-90 or a cheaper knockoff on Amazon. I have a $25 MalloMe hammock that works well but the straps aren’t as easy to use as the ENO.
For more packing ideas- see our comprehensive Camping Pack List (car- not backcountry). It has been honed over the years by forgetting something different on each trip.
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