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CAMPING FUN WITH KIDS

May 1, 2006
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By Daniel Kreisberg
When I introduced my wife to camping, I started with a five-mile hike to something close to 12,000 feet. To put it simply, things did not work out. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. This time, with our two-year-old son Zack, I would learn from my mistakes.
Camping with young children can be done and it can be made easier. With proper planning, you and your children will enjoy an amazing family adventure. Spending time outdoors with children is a time of wonder. Camping means you wake up right where you want to be, ready to explore and have fun. You just have to start off on the right foot.
FIRST STEPS
There are some important and fun ways to get your children ready. Early in the summer Zack and I set up the tent in the backyard. We played in it and slept in it. We also talked about the upcoming trip. I found that the best way to do this is through picture books. Each night leading up to the trip we would read one of our camping books.
Another important way to prepare is to take day hikes. These experiences help make everyone more comfortable with the outdoors. Before our first overnighter, Zack had taken countless day hikes ranging from 15 minute strolls to all-day adventures. Those hikes made him feel comfortable outdoors and also taught him that there is fun to be had by going out on the trail. He sees the outdoors as a chance to wonder and explore and to challenge himself.
The first big decision: Where to go? There are a few factors to consider. Your need for spectacular scenery is different from your child’s. It is a good idea to find a campground that is close to home (no long drives the first time), offers a lake for cooling off and swimming, and of course, easy hiking trails. Trails should be flat with no cliffs, no river crossings or other major hazards. It is fun to have some attractions along the way, such as water to play in, rocks to climb and hide around and the chance to see wildlife. However, remember that a grasshopper can be just as exciting as a moose, and a small stream is as good as the Colorado River to a five-year-old.
A two-day trip is a good place to start. It is better to leave wanting more. If you are going to try backpacking with your children, it is a good idea to hike no more than a mile or two, set up camp and explore from there.
SECOND STEP
Once you have moved past the first experience and established some criteria as to what you can and want to do on camping trips, it is easier to sort through all the possible places to go. To find places to camp, you can begin by simply asking friends, people at local outdoor equipment stores or even by “surfing” the Internet.
At the national and local level, the Sierra Club leads hikes for groups of all ages. A call to your local chapter will likely have you talking to someone with ideas about where to go and what to do. The Sierra Club is also a good way to meet other interested families and receive guidance. The United States Forest Service and National Park offices in your area can also assist with suggestions.
When you decide where to go, ask questions. Call the ranger at the campground you are considering. What facilities are at this campground? Are there flush or bunk toilets? Are there showers and hot water? When I am alone on my own trips, I am happy to rely on guidebooks and maps. However, when bringing the kids, I want to talk to someone who has “been there, done that.”
I also strongly suggest having at least two adults along for any outdoor trip with children. There will be plenty of times when one is needed to supervise the children (especially if they are four years and under) while someone else sets up camp or cooks dinner. You will need the extra hands. In planning your trip you may also want to consider inviting another family. The “more the merrier” and it’s always great for your kids to have their pals along to share the fun. It also gives you some time to relax.
THE ESSENTIALS
The next step is to bring the right gear. The trip will be less fun if you leave an important item behind. Write out a list of what you need to bring and leave plenty of time to pack. It’s worth being careful. It’s also worth being sure you have the clothes and equipment that will keep your children warm, dry and safe.
Pack and dress for changing conditions. The exact clothes you will need depends on where you are going and when. No matter when or where, there are some general principles to keep in mind. Wear layers of clothes to adjust to varying temperatures. Avoid cotton during the cold months; instead use wool, fleece or other synthetic materials. Cotton is great during the day when it’s hot, but it will sour your kids in no time if it gets wet and it’s cold outside. Don’t forget sunscreen, even in the winter, and insect protection. Other handy items include a hat, water shoes for water play and an extra pair of shoes for that irresistible mud.
Tents offer warmth, protection from insects and are fun places to cozy-up or hide-out for fun and games. Since weather conditions or other factors may prompt you to spend some time inside, a two-man tent may be too small for two adults and a child. Select a tent that will provide plenty of extra room. Do not rely on the availability of a lean-to or pre-existing shelter.
When the weather is warm and your child is very small, it is easier to share a sleeping bag. You can even bring a port-a-crib if your tent is big enough. Correct sleeping bag sizes are critical to get the most warmth from your bag. This is why “mummy bags” come in various lengths. Good quality children’s bags can be found, but if you’re going to use an adult bag, cinch an accessory strap around the toe box at a point somewhere just below the child’s feet. This way, your child’s body won’t be working to heat all that extra space.
In addition to a simple kitchen set, you should include a stove. Stoves are easier, quicker and more reliable than campfires. Campfires are fun, but they take a lot time and energy to build. They can be dangerous, and collecting firewood can have a negative effect on the forest. Make sure your stove works well before you go.
The reasons are obvious: Be sure to toss a roll of toilet paper in your backpack for both you and your kids while hiking on the trail. Take along something to dig a hole and plastic bags to pack out the soiled paper. Be sure to dig a hole at least a foot deep if someone needs to do “a number two” and completely cover the hole.
A first aid kit is an absolute essential. You don’t want your hike to end simply because you don’t have a bandage for a skinned knee. Other items to include that may not be in your store-bought kit are tick removers, nail clippers, and any special medications.
If your child is going to do any exploring alone, he or she must have a whistle to call for help. Be sure your child understands the whistle is only for emergencies. Review a family plan if a child does get lost. Remind children to simply stay put while blowing the whistle.
It is not fun to get lost with young children. Be sure you know where you are going and how to get back. Pack trail maps of the area and a compass in your daypack. Be sure to pack plastic garbage bags for trash disposal and emergency rain protection.
It’s generally best to bring along your own water, but if you can’t, or if you run out, boiling is the best method of sterilizing. But it is extremely time-consuming. Iodine pills are easy to use, but do not taste very good. There are lots of good water filters and purifiers on the market. Get one and be prepared to use it.
MEAL TIME
Keep your food simple. One-pot meals are easy to cook and clean. Macaroni and cheese, rice, oatmeal, granola, trail mix, peanut butter and jelly and carrots are good staples.
Hiking apples are great and simple to make. Just take a large apple and core out the middle. Cut out another inch or so to make the hole wider. Take the part of the apple you just removed (minus the core), chop it up and toss it into a bowl. Add peanut butter, raisins, granola or trail mix. Use peanut butter as the base “glue” that keeps the other goodies together. Spoon the mixture into the center of the apple. Wrap it up and you have a great snack for kids and adults that stores easily in your pack and requires no refrigeration.
Toys are helpful during an afternoon rain shower or while cooking dinner. However, trust your children to find ways to have fun with what’s out there. I am constantly amazed at how talented Zack is at finding ways to play. On one trip, a tent pole kept him busy the entire time I packed up camp. To Zack, it was a fishing pole, a way to write, a magic wand, a horse and few other imaginary things.
You can bring other fun stuff to help you and your children explore, such as “bug boxes,” magnifying glasses, field guides, paper and pencil, trowels, cameras, nets and jars.
Depending on your child’s age, you may want to bring a favorite blanket or whatever else will help your child feel at home. The child’s pillow from home is often a source of real comfort at night in a tent.
For washing, use biodegradable soap or wipes. However, remember it is OK to get dirty when camping! Be sure to put some water aside to wash in; don’t wash in a steam or lake. When you’re done washing, be sure and dump the gray (dirty) water at least 100 feet from any water source.
Camping with young children can be done safely and sanely, but use common sense. There are times when the weather does not cooperate, the insects are bad or the place is not what you thought it would be. It is important to know when to go home. Camping with your kids is a lifetime activity. One trip cut short is much better than everyone being miserable and not wanting to go again.
WHEN YOU GET THERE
While you are hiking there are some ways to keep everyone’s spirits up. Hike at a reasonable pace. There should be plenty of time to get where you are going. It is your responsibility to keep everyone safe. Make your rules clear. Your attitude really matters, so set a good example. Well-timed compliments help along the way, as do needed rest stops. Watch the weather and avoid getting caught in an afternoon shower. Set up camp early.
Once at the campsite, survey for any hazards. Make boundaries to keep your children close. As much as possible, have your children involved in setting up camp, getting water and hanging the food and whatever else goes on during the trip. We all like to feel a part of what is going on and that we are contributing. Practice “Leave No Trace” (see the website at www.LNT.org for guidelines). Leave the site in better shape than you found it.
Camping can teach children many things. They’ll learn to appreciate simple pleasures such as food and drink, and to overcome challenges and an occasional hardship. There is no better way to feel a part of the natural world. They will thrive on the challenge and enjoy the attention of having their parents all to themselves. They will also remind you and teach you what you have forgotten about wonder and fun.

MORE KAMPING KID TIPS
1. Bring a game of checkers. It’s a simple game for children to play. Young, old, and in-between can enjoy the action.
2. A good old-fashion deck of cards is a winner on any camping trip.
3. Spend a night together in the tent in the backyard before their first trip. It’s a good way to familiarize them with sleeping outdoors.
4. Let them bring their own pillow. A little bit of familiarity goes a long way.
5. Give each a flashlight. Teaching them appropriate use of this basic camping tool is a good place to start. It’s also a good “security blanket” at night.
6. Consider battery-powered “camp” lanterns. No flames and no heat.
7. Dress them as you would yourself in appropriate layers. Children chill and overheat faster than adults.
8. Make long car rides in segments. It breaks the monotony. Plan stops that have some special interest.
9. Trekking poles, or a hand-carved walking stick for that matter, make hiking easier and more fun for them, too.
10. Pick a trail with a fun destination, such as a pond or beautiful meadow.
11. Give each a camera. Inexpensive, one-time-use cameras are ideal for this.
12. Teach them the basic rules of how /not/ to get lost: Don’t go off alone. Think about where you are. Remember where you’ve been.
13. Teach them the basics of being lost: Stay put. Stay calm. Make noise.

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