“Mom, a squirrel ate the marshmallows!” This could be the first thing you hear one morning if you become a tent camper with kids. Squirrels have eaten our marshmallows, hot dog rolls, corn on the cob and graham crackers in the past, and they are likely to do so again.
If you are contemplating tent camping with kids, the first thing you need is good advice. That is what you will get here as I am a lifelong seasoned tent camper who has traveled across the Nation, towing her three children and tent behind her. Yes, my husband comes sometimes too!
Each of my three girls slept in a tent before they were a year old. They all know how to make fires and find their way through the woods. Each of them has learned how to entertain themselves during rainstorms and how to live a week without electronic gadgets.
If the bright blue skies, the lush green forests and the fresh summer breezes are calling your name, here is what you need to know in order to take advantage of the refreshments nature has to offer without falling victim to the stresses novices encounter when attempting to tent camp with kids.
One – Buying Equipment
Tent – The easiest way to begin is to borrow a tent from a friend or acquaintance. If you find that tent camping is your thing, purchase your first tent in September when the clearance sales are in full force. Domes are the easiest tents to set up; however, they offer little elbow room. Cabin tents make better family tents as they are roomy and most adults are able to stand up inside them. When tent camping with kids, families are more comfortable hanging out inside cabin tents on the rainy days.
Sleeping Gear – Everyone needs a sleeping bag; however, kids can use their lightweight slumber party sleeping bags if the local climate is moderate to mild. Personally, I prefer sleeping without a cot or air mattress, but my husband insists on one or the other. Whenever shopping for cots or air mattresses, keep in mind the amount of packing room you have in your car. Cots are durable and long lasting, but air mattresses are compact and easier to pack. Let the kids have their pillows with them in the car so they can nap plus it frees up room in the trunk.
Cooking – A propane campstove is a must. Even though I cook most meals by open fire while tent camping, fires and rain do not mix well. For cooking over an open fire, you need a metal grate of some sort. Most department stores carry small folding cooking grates, but I have found them inadequate for anything longer than a weekend camping trip. We went to a junk yard and picked up a metal grate from an old refrigerator to use for our extended camping trips. Many novice campers waste money on pots, pans and utensils specifically marketed to campers. For most campers, everything you need is already in your kitchen. For cooking on an open fire, take the cooking utensils you already use for your outdoor grill. When choosing pots and pans from your kitchen, pick the ones without plastic handles. Personally, I pack two iron skillets, my small Corning glass pot, and the hand-me-down all-in-one camping pots my father-in-law used when he was younger. My family also has a small metal box where we keep our old mismatched eating utensils to use while camping. Until you have accumulated your own supply of camping gear, use disposable plates and eating utensils.
Food Storage – The one piece of advice I always give new campers is to use two coolers. One for their food, which will only be opened a few times a day and one for their drinks, which will be opened almost hourly. Kids will open a cooler as much as they open the fridge at home, so expect to go through two bags of ice a day in your drinks cooler. My family uses two old milk crates to hold our dry goods. If we are in an area where the squirrels are active, we put a cooler on top of each milk crate to discourage scavengers during the night.
Tarps – I recommend two tarps, unless you have a screen tent in which to eat, entertain and store your gear during rainstorms. One small tarp should be used to keep your firewood dry. One medium to large tarp can be used in a variety of ways to keep your food, gear and dining area dry. Make sure you have adequate ropes and of varying lengths.
Seating – If you already own folding chairs of any type, use them. Stores sell a variety of camping chairs, some of which fold small enough they are worth the money to save the packing space. When choosing the chairs you take with you, remember your comfort. If you like to sit and read while camping, you will want a more comfortable chair than someone who is more active and is willing to sit on logs or the picnic table bench.
Lighting – You need a couple good quality flashlights with extra batteries. Every camper needs a propane lantern to light their area as people generally stay up several hours after sundown. This is a safety issue, especially when you have kids with you. You can use it at your picnic table for playing card games with your kids late at night. Never use a propane lantern inside your tent. For lighting inside your tent, purchase a battery operated lantern. Improvements have been made in recent years, and these battery operated lanterns emit more light than ever before. Their downfall is how fast they go through batteries.
Insect Control – The campfire itself is a great insect repellent. Adding dead leaves and bark to a fire will smoke away an unusually large swarm. Stores carry various types of citronella candles, and having one at your picnic table will make mealtime more enjoyable. Make sure you purchase personal body insect repellents such as DEET, Avon’s Skin So Soft or eucalyptus oil products.
Two – Finding Campgrounds
Most campgrounds now have websites with photos and descriptions; however the best way to find a campground is by word of mouth. Ask your friends, family and co-workers. Go to a specialty store that deals with outdoors and camping merchandise and talk to their employees. The best places to camp are usually the ones that do not need to advertise.
If this is your first time tent camping with kids, your best option is to go to a commercial chain such as KOA. Chain campgrounds have amenities such as pools, laundry rooms, game rooms, campstores and daily activities. Their staff usually lives above their campstores, so someone is always nearby to help if you have a question or concern.
It is important to find places where kids have something to do other than sit around the campsite. Pools, lakes, fishing ponds, game rooms, campground activities and hiking trails are all things to consider. Another thing to consider is the restroom facilities. Campgrounds range from no facilities to everything down to a sauna. Because you will have kids with you, make sure you find a place with toilets and hot showers. I have stayed a few times in campgrounds with only an outhouse and no showers. My kids were not happy, and they made sure I knew it.
Three – Planning Meals
Anything you are skilled at preparing using your outdoor grill is something you will be able to prepare on an open fire. Just build your fire an hour ahead of time, adding fuel to it as needed, to build the coal base you need to cook your food.
Anything you are able to fry or boil in a small saucepan or skillet is something you will be able to prepare on your propane campstove.
The easiest breakfast is simply cereal and fruit juice. Eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries and pancakes are all things you can enjoy while camping too.
Sandwiches and soup for lunch is perfect for kids while camping. They will be busily engaged in fun and will not want to be pulled away for anything more formal. If you plan to hike some trails, pack your lunch of sandwiches and fruit and take them with you. Carry a sheet or tablecloth to lay on the ground for your picnic in the woods.
Appetites will be larger than normal after a day of fresh air and exercise, so plan on a larger dinner each night. Easy dinners are hamburgers and hot dogs, just expect everyone to eat one more than they normally would at home. Steak and baked potatoes is a fantastic camp dinner. Once you have coals from your fire, bury your potatoes (double wrapped in foil). The potatoes will cook in about one hour, so start your steaks accordingly.
Four – Planning Activities
Build memories by planning appropriate activities with your children during your camping trip. Take a hike in the woods with a nature guidebook so you can point out trees, flowers, shrubs and birds. Some State campgrounds have Naturalists on staff who hold daily themed nature hikes and my kids enjoy them so much that they request camping in State Parks over regular campgrounds. Teach your kids to fish by finding a campground with a fishing pond. Many campground fishing ponds or lakes do not require a local license since they are on private property.
Five – Packing
Always pack more clothing than you believe you will need. Kids will get dirty, muddy and wet while they romp around having fun, especially if it rains during your trip. Pack extra shoes for the same reasons. Each person needs one lightweight jacket or sweatshirt, even in mild climates. Sometimes it can be very cold in the early morning. Umbrellas are not practical items to bring camping, so pack a rain poncho or lightweight raincoat for each person.
Other items to bring are: first aid kit, matches, aluminum foil, miniature sewing kit, hammer, ax or saw, and duct tape.
Six – Setting up your Campsite
Tent – Everyone should start off the season by setting up their tents in their own backyards. This serves several purposes. It is a refresher course on how to set the thing up, plus it allows you to check for any damage that may have occurred during storage. Allowing the tent to air out for twenty-four hours at the beginning of each season and immediately after each trip will expand the life of your investment.
At the campsite, locate a level area slightly larger than your tent. Ideally, find an area under trees which will provide shade and keep the interior of your tent cooler. Clear loose rocks and debris before setting up your tent. Lay the tent out over the area and arrange the door facing towards the center of your campsite. Have the kids arrange the tent poles by size and shape to make construction easier. It is helpful to use different colors of utility tape to match up the tent poles so they are easier to locate during set up at the campsite. Engage the older kids in the construction of the tent, while younger kids gather small sticks and twigs for your fire stash.
Fire – Most campgrounds have designated campfire rings within each campsite. Because of forest fire prevention, you will not be allowed to build a fire anywhere else. More important than anything else during your campsite set up is to think about sparks from your fire and the placement of your tent, tarps and other flammable gear. Your tent must be placed a minimum of twenty feet from your fire.
About five to ten feet from your fire ring, lay out your small tarp and have the kids gather firewood while you finish setting up. Set rules about where they are allowed to forage. After an adequate supply of wood has been gathered, fold the tarp over the wood and use one of the larger logs to secure it in place. Keep a bucket or gallon jug of water next to your wood pile in case of emergency. Any wood cutting tools should be kept in the car to ensure the kids do not use them without supervision.
Dining Area – If you have a screen tent, install it over the picnic table, as it is easier than attempting to carry the table into the tent afterwards. Otherwise, move the picnic table to an area where you can best rig your tarp over it in case of rain. Some people put their tarps up regardless of weather, others wait until they are needed. Some people use their tarp to cover their dining table overnight and never rig it up in the trees overhead. Store your coolers, food storage containers, cooking supplies and propane stove in your dining area.
Seven – Rain Contingencies
If it rains for most or all of one day, you need to be prepared with activities that will entertain your kids while they are stuck inside the tent. Bring cards, books, coloring books, sketch books and craft items. Do not bring crayons into your tent as they melt, a better option is colored pencils. Think about your own entertainment as well and bring a book or magazines for your own use.
Tent camping with kids is one of the least expensive ways to build memories for your family. It puts everyone into an isolated situation where talking and human interaction is the main source of entertainment. Recharge your family’s batteries and plan a tent camping trip that your kids will remember for the rest of their lives.