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Tips for Camping With Kids

How to Plan Your Next Family Adventure

The weather is warm and the outdoors is calling. Whether you have babes in arms or pre-teens, it is, with some planning and preparation, possible to answer the call with kids in tow.

We surveyed Backcountry.com employees, many of whom are experienced family campers and backpackers, to gather tips and ideas to help make your summer adventures successful.

Plan smart

It’s important to scale your adventure to suit your kids. You may be into peak-bagging and can’t wait to introduce your kids to the wonders of the backcountry wilderness, but make yourself start small and build, particularly if you’re backpacking. Remember: they’re not going to be able to handle as much as you are.

“Kids wearing packs do much better with distance than with elevations. A few flat miles are much easier than a half-mile of switchbacks,” counsels one employee. Slowing down the pace on the trail to keep the kids engaged with animal tracks, plant identification, photo-taking, frequent snacks, etc. can pay big dividends. And finally, it helps to be flexible and know when to quit; if you’re on day three of living in a tent in the rain, there’s no shame in retreating to a motel.

Be prepared

There’s probably no way you can think of everything, but the following are some key items that backcountry.com parents consider “must-haves” for successful family camping trips:

  • Individual water bottles or kid-sized hydration packs … and more water than you think you need
  • Snacks: Turkey, pepperoni, Babydel cheese, fruit snacks, squeezable applesauce, trail mix
  • If appropriate, diaper disposal/management (Diaper Genie, Zip-Loc bags, Arm & Hammer bags)
  • Individual flashlights and/or headlamps, enough so that everyone has one
  • Glowsticks for nighttime fun (and a nightlight for bedtime)
  • Shovels and buckets for digging in the dirt at the campsite
  • Bubble-blowing equipment and pans for dish soap (blowing bubbles can double as clean-up activity, too!)
  • Weenie/marshmallow-roasting sticks, in case natural alternatives aren’t available—and, of course, hot dogs and marshmallows
  • Extra socks and underwear
  • An extra sleeping bag (if you’re car camping) in case of accidents in the night or other disasters
  • Kid-friendly sunscreen and/or lightweight long-sleeve shirts, regardless of season. Sun hats, too.
  • Bug spray; you also might want to consider insect-repellent clothes & hats. They’re easier and not as yucky as liquid repellent.
  • Easy-to-transport games and cards, as well as books and sketchbooks
  • Bikes and skateboards, if you’re going to be at a campground. We’ve even seen tiny tots rocking downhill trails on these while their parents hike behind them.
  • Duct tape
  • Whiskey or red wine, for after the kids go to bed

Line up the right equipment

A rule of thumb for backpacking is that very active kids can carry up to 20% of their body weight, less active kids should carry less.  A 6-year-old should be able to handle a pack, a kid-sized sleeping bag, and some light clothing, but total weight should not top ten pounds.

As for the backpack itself, make sure you’re buying something with a frame. Both internal and external frames are great, but frameless (school packs / luggage) aren’t going to work on the trail. Also, make sure the torso harness is adjustable. It’s not enough to have adjustable straps on the shoulder pads; the entire torso length should be modifiable, usually via a slider. Kids grow quickly, so check and adjust the torso length every year.

In general, kids ages 5-10 can get away with a 1500- to 2500-cubic-inch pack. Pre-teens and teens can move into the 2500- to 3500-cubic-inch range. Depending on your kid’s size, and how much you think they’ll grow as a teen, you’ll need to choose whether to upgrade to something made for teenagers, or just jump to an adult’s small-sized pack once they outgrow their starter gear.

For sleeping bags, your kid’s cartoon-character sleeping bag is heavy and bulky and, on top of it all, not very warm. Look for kids sleeping bags with temperature ratings appropriate for the worst-case weather. It’s much better to have a 20-degree bag and not need it than a freezing kid in a 40-degree bag. Expect to use 2-3 pounds and most of your kid’s pack capacity just on the bag.

An inflatable sleeping pad adds another pound, and makes for a much more comfortable night. Most pads are available in a “short” size that’s ideal for younger campers.

Be careful

Even if you’re only camping at a campground, hazards exist. Bodies of water, in particular, need to be treated with the respect they deserve, and kids around them (particularly when it’s moving water) need to be watched at all times. In addition, one backcountry.com staffer who’s a former first responder reports that burns from campfires are a common injury among kids in the outdoors. Keep in mind that often the burns happen not around blazing fires, but when kids are playing around seemingly dead fires the next morning and encounter hot coals under the ashes.

Out on the trail, some parents equip their kids with whistles around their wrists. While they may drive you nuts blowing on them all day, they can be invaluable when someone wanders off. Teach your kids to stick with a buddy, and to “hug a tree” and stay put if they should discover that they’re alone and don’t know where they are.

And finally, of course, travel with a fully stocked first aid kit, and maybe even a snake bite kit. When it comes to your kids you can never be over-prepared; as you gain experience you’ll naturally figure out the difference between what is necessary and what’s overkill.

Think of the children

Backcountry Gearhead Lisa Edlund has been camping with her kids since they were very young. She dispenses some excellent advice on camping with kids through the ages, and on being purposeful in your camping experiences:

“I think the goal for me getting my kids out into the wilderness early was to foster a love of the outdoors. This was a gift that my parents gave me growing up, one that I wanted to pass along.”

“When you are dealing with little ones ages 0-6, it’s important to keep everything fun and simple. The goal is to keep them interested and willing to go with you year after year. Small ones don’t really have bragging rights yet and just want to be safe and having fun.  Non-camping activities can be helpful, such as crafts, books, and games.”

“Grade-school kids still want to have fun, but benefit a lot from camping with their peers. I always felt it was easier camping in group settings at this age with other kids. With peer pressure added in, mine were always more helpful with meals, stoked on what we were cooking, and willing to hike farther and stay up later. ‘Junior Ranger’ programs are popular for this age group. Using the outdoors as a learning tool is great, and even having  ‘homework’ for them to do based on where you’re going and what you’re seeing can create a more lasting memory and richer experience.”

“Camping with teenagers is more about supervision. Friends are key, and also allowing them to plan meals, cook, and drive can give them ownership of the trip. The goal here would be to train them to be able to get out on their own as young adults. This is the age when you can start purchasing them their own gear that they’ll use for years to come, or helping them choose what will work for them.”