So you want to take the family camping for the first time? This is a good place to get started. I’ll take you through some basic tips on how to camp with small children, and point out some great gear along the way,
CAR CAMPING vs BACKPACKING
When I say camping, I mean car-camping. Not backpack-camping, when you carry everything on your back and hike to your destination. I’m talking about camping in a designated, managed camp site where there is a fire or BBQ pit, a flat open area for tents, and hopefully a picnic table, all located within shouting distance from your car. This means that you don’t need to worry too much about the weight of your gear.
Research camping sites in your area online, or wherever you want to go. You should be able to see what type of facilities are available. Many have bathrooms and showers (shared, of course), playgrounds, and swimming pools. So you can ‘rough it’ to varying degrees, based your family’s spirit of adventure. When making a reservation, always call first to see if everything is working properly. You don’t want to expect running water and not have it available when you show up!
After speaking with friends more experienced than me with camping, they recommended that I go to REI, because they have a good selection, and retail locations in case you need help. The first tent I got from REI had a small issue with one of the poles, but I was able to exchange it for a new one without any issues. Always do a practice set-up of all your new gear at home, well in advance of your camping trip!
Since we were car camping, I opted for something easy to set up. I also don’t plan on using the tent more than a few times a summer, so I wanted something relatively cheap (but not too cheap). For a deeper dive into tents, check out this article: Family Camping: Caddis Rapid 6 Tent
LET THERE BE LIGHT
You’ll definitely need to get some lights, you don’t want your little one’s stumbling over tree roots on their way to pee. Headlamps work really well for kids (and adults). They are hands-free, and always point the light where you need it. Kids are also less likely to drop or lose them.
It’s really helpful to have a few Lantern-style lights around as well. Hanging a lantern from the ceiling of the tent will allow you to stay up late reading and playing games. I would recommend investing in something a little more rugged, since your kids will drop these repeatedly. I originally got some really cheap one’s off Amazon but they are really poorly made and broke quickly.
Cool Dad Tip: For a good time with the kids after dark, bring some Glow-Stick Bracelets. They go nuts over them, and it’s way easier to keep track of everyone when they are moving around at night.
THE COOLEST COOLER
For most of my life, I never considered coolers to be any special. Now there is actually a trendy, cool cooler – the Yeti. While quite heavy and smaller inside than you would expect, the Yeti is made in America, keeps things cold for a long time, and provides a very sturdy and handsome seat to sit on. You can plan meals that don’t require any refrigeration, but having a cooler is necessary for keeping meat and dairy chilled. Nothing is better than delicious food cooked and eaten outdoors!
COOKING WITH GAS
Sure, you can cook over a wood fire. But why go through all that hassle and smoke inhalation when you can just flip a switch and start cooking like you’re at home in the kitchen? All asian families have one of these portable butane burners. My Mom calls it the ‘5th burner.’ It’s a really simple device, and it runs on cans of butane that are super easy to replace. Coleman makes one that looks just like the cheap asian version we have.
If you have a small child who might accidentally fall into the campground’s outhouses, you might want to invest in a portable potty like the OXO Go Potty. You can line it with plastic bags, and dispose of the bag safely (like dog poop) in the trash. In the event of an emergency, you can dig a hole in the ground and dispose of the poop in there, but be sure to do it far away from the campsite and especially any source of water. If you use baby wipes, be sure they end up in the trash, not the ground.
I knew that even with a picnic table at the campsite, we would still want additional surface area for eating, cooking or coloring books. I brought along a handy Folding Table we have for the kids, that has adjustable leg heights. I also purchased a couple of Camp Chairs that were great for relaxing while sipping on your coffee / tea / bourbon. The kids also loved playing in the Hammock that our friends brought.
Obviously there are other things to know before you take the kids camping. Like how to keep bears away from your campsite at night. Or how to start a fire for s’mores. I’ve listed some additional online resources for you if you’re still hungry for more camping knowledge. Good luck with your first camping trip, and let me know how it went!