I hate camping.
Oh, I'll do it in a pinch. I'll camp on an overnight hunting or fishing trip, or if my destination is just too far from a town. However, if there is a lodge, cabin, or hotel close by, that is where you will find me.
My two and three year old daughters have a different opinion of camping. After watching Curious George do it on TV, they have decided it is the most fun possible. So, a camping we will go!
Take it from someone who does not like to camp, without the proper preparation and equipment it is no fun. Everyone with young kids knows that things go down hill fast when the kids are not having fun. So before you try camping with young kids, you need to head over to a outdoors store like Bass Pro Shops (or Cotswold Outdoor if you live in the UK) and stock up on kid friendly camping gear.
Before I go any further I should note that this guide is for casual campers. You know, the families that camp once or twice a year. If you bring your kids out every weekend, then they are real troopers by now and can handle more camping hurdles.
There are three enemies to camping with kids, the weather, biting bugs, and poisonous plants. Any one can ruin your trip in a matter of minutes. If you can overcome these enemies, then you are almost guaranteed a positive trip.
Cold, Heat, or Rain will ruin your camping trip. Kids cannot handle chilly weather or extreme heat. Rain will keep you all cramped inside a tent. Kids cannot adequately expel energy in a tent.
The fix for this could not be simpler. Check the weather report before you leave to go camping. If it is going the be cold, very hot, or raining, simply change your plans. Do not go camping.
Mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, and gnats will ruin your trip in an instant. Fortunately, there are a lot of things to protect you from them.
Start with a bug repellent. Not one of those crappy all natural repellents. They simply do not work well. Find something with at least 30% DEET. DEET is the most effective insect repellent available. Before you start whining about rubbing a chemical over your precious little children, remember this: Not one person has died from DEET, but millions of people have died insect born diseases. I'd rather expose my kids to a safe chemical than to a disease.
Next, wear proper outdoor clothing. This will create a physical barrier to the insects. Most people have no problem buying nice outdoor clothing for themselves, but neglect to get it for their kids. This is a mistake. Clothing made to camping and hiking is made with a tighter weave than the stuff in the kids section at Target. North Face has a nice children's line.
Lastly, you can keep bugs at bay around the campsite with a nice smokey fire or even better, a Thermacell. The Thermacell is probably the best outdoor product made in the last decade. They are expensive to run, but create an invisible force field that keeps the bugs away.
Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac will not only make a camping trip miserable. It will make the next three weeks of your kids life miserable. The only thing to do here is scout your camp for these plants and teach your kids to avoid them. Use the rule "Leaves of thee, Let it be!" Of course, young kids can't count, so you are going to have to watch out for them. Here is a good site on how to identify these plants.
Now, there are also a few things you should do to make things more fun for the kids.
Cook Familiar Foods
Most young kids are picky. While, normal camping foods taste great, they often look yucky. Bring the peanut butter and jelly, hot dogs, juice, and cereal that your kids like to eat. They will eat better. A hungry kid is a grumpy kid.
Sleeping in a tent (or under the stars!) is the highlight of most camping trips. Make it comfortable. Find a nice, smooth, level place for your tent. A mat or cot can really help everyone get a better nights sleep. Buy your kids their very own sleeping bag. Quality kids sleeping bags can be hard to find, here is a link to some. Give them their own flashlight or a glow stick. Don't forget to bring their favorite doll, stuffed toy, or blanky.
Most of all make it fun!
Light a fire
You need a fire. A fire gives your campsite a focal point. It will keep your kids entertained. Building it is a fun activity. (Try using different fire starters for extra fun!) Cooking over it is fun. Poking it is fun. Staring in it is fun. Fire is fun!
It is also a great way to teach your kids about the dangers of fire and fire safety.
Keep your activities short
Please don't drag your 2 year old on a five mile hike! Unless of course, you have one of those fancy child backpack carriers. Keep you hikes short and bounce between activities. This makes for an exhausting day for the grown ups, but a fun day for the kids!
Know when to pack it up
There is a fine line between a fun trip and a bad trip. The longer you stay camping the higher the chance something will go wrong. It is better to quit while you are having fun than to stay to long and have a bad memory.
Camping with young kids can be one of the best memories your family can have. You just have to limit your expectations and know what your kids can handle.