Camping With Kids 101

Introduce your children to the great outdoors with expert advice on how to make sure your first camping trip goes smoothly.

I’m not a very girly kind of girl.

Make-up and I are passing acquaintances only, and styling my hair these days consists of washing it and letting it dry in a headband.

I went through the usual junior-high obsession with eyeliner and curling irons (it was the ‘80s, people, cut me some slack), but all in all, I’m a pretty low-maintenance gal.

That doesn’t mean that I want to go camping with you.

Or with my kids.

My idea of roughing it is a Holiday Inn with no wireless connection, and trust me, I come by this predilection for luxury accommodations naturally.

My parents took us three kids camping exactly twice—once I was too small to remember it, and the second time was an absolute disaster.

We’d never taken a real vacation as a family, at least not one that didn’t include visiting my grandparents. So my mom pushed and pushed until my dad finally relented and agreed to spend a week on Cape Cod.

My dad was frugal, but he wasn’t always very wise in the ways of family travel. So he decided we would camp.

Oy vey.

He borrowed a dirty old tent from a buddy at work and off we went to the Cape Cod KOA(Kampgrounds of America), which isn’t even on Cape Cod. We lasted three nights, until a torrential rain drove us to a motel in the middle of the night.

I, of course, was sleeping—and 8 years old—so I don’t know exactly what transpired between my parents that fateful evening. However, I can imagine now, as a wife and mother myself.

I also know that we never went camping again.

How to Make a Happy Camper

Have I scared you yet?

Well, never fear. I know some folks who actually make camping with your children sound like an enjoyable experience.

Mike Gast is vice president of communications for Kampgrounds of America, Inc., and he says you can make lifelong memories—the good kind—while sleeping under the stars.

“Everyone fits with camping,” Gast says. “It’s the best way I know to re-connect with a distant teen, and as for babies, it is the parent’s job to introduce them to nature. So get started!”

He also advises making kids feel like they are part of the planning team. Because so many campgrounds today—including the more than 400 KOA campgrounds—offer plenty of amenities, he says you should ask your kids where they want to go and what they want to do once they get there.

“Let the kids take the lead and do the research,” he says. “Make them part of the selection process, and then they will feel some ownership for the trip.”

Linda L. Profaizer, president of the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds, agrees. She says choosing a campground is as easy as opening your Web browser.

“If you go onto a Web site like Go Camping America, you can search for parks with certain amenities and recreation opportunities,” she says. “Usually kids like some kind of water, recreation program or playgrounds. Choices can also depend on the age range.”

Many parks, she says, offer activities like dances for teens and adults. Profaizer also recommends Yogi Bear Jellystone Parks for families, particularly for those traveling with children under the age of 14.

Where to Stay and What to Bring

OK, so now you’ve chosen where to go. Now what? Tent? Cabin? Camper? What do you need to take with you?

Me? I’d take my digital-video recorder, flat-screen and my laptop. But you might want to bring your sleeping bags, a battery-operated lantern and a flashlight for those nocturnal trips to the loo.

Gast points out that many campgrounds today include the option to rent a cabin, if you don’t want to do the whole tent thing.

“If you go with a KOA cabin, all you will need is a sleeping bag and a cooler,” he says.

Profaizer also reminds parents to pack outdoor essentials like sunscreen and bug spray, as well as soap, towels and other toiletries. Don’t forget to bring a pair of flip-flips, as well—they’re great for walking to and from the showers.

Amy Campbell Smith is a mom of three from Nashville, Tenn., whose kids range in age from 18 months old to 19 years. She says that a portable crib fits nicely in a tent, and that you should check and see if your campground has a designated dishwashing area.

“Having to do dishes in the bathroom sinks is not fun,” Smith says. “If you do need to do them right at your campsite, packing big bowls to hold the water is really helpful.”

Smith, who even camps in cold weather, also says that your car seat can act as a de facto highchair for the smaller campers.

And, she adds, never, ever, forget the wet wipes.

I’ll be sure to remember that—when I’m waving at you from my perch in the lounge at The Holiday Inn.

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Camping

User Comments

Don't forget the s'mores We took our boys (5 & 3) camping for the first time last weekend and they absolutely loved it. Highlights according to them: - the s'mores. Parent defined limit was 2. Boys ate 4 each. - meeting the kids in the next camp site. Campgrounds are very social places and voices carry so it's not hard to figure out where the other kids are. - listening to campfire stories. I found a couple of not-so-scary ones on the Internet, printed them out and brought them along .... and I completely agree that having the right gear makes a big difference. The three must haves. Spacious all-weather tent, good sleeping pad for everyone, and a good sleeping bag. We stocked up at REI and they were very helpful.

Bring Friends Camp with other families. They can share the food buying/preparing load and the kids will entertain each other and the adults socialize. We camped with 3 other families for a weekend this summer and it was blast!