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The Essentials Of Camping With Kids: A Family Story

camping with kids

Many people think that they have to make elaborate travel and entertainment plans when they go camping with kids. From personal experience, I find that most children need as little entertainment as possible. Simple trips are often more fun for the kids because they stimulate creativity.

When given the chance to find something fun to do, most kids will succeed. If you hand them over a DVD player, smart phone, or any electronic device, they of course will gravitate towards that method,rather than a book or a game of chess.

Here is the big news flash: Your kids know more about what they want to do on family camping trips than you do. Keep the schedule simple and give them a lot of freedom. The trip is not about you or for you.

Don’t Ask Your Kids Where They Would Like To Go Camping… Show Them

I am not saying that your kids cannot think. I usually tell my kids where we are going and get them involved in planning stages, by showing them online photos and maps. We order maps and talk about visiting old mining settlements and ghost towns. I have them so pumped up about traveling to new areas that they frown when I suggest that we camp an hour away from home. Showing them photos of parks and camping areas give me clues about their likes and dislikes.

Allow Your Kids To Enjoy The Parks Through Their Own Experiences, Not Yours

I am the master planner when it comes to extreme-camping trips. This can be a problem as most kids (and parents too) don’t really care about all the beautiful parks and forests that you are going to visit nor the mountains that you plan to climb. My kids would rather chase squirrels or find other new kids to play with, than go on a hike to an exotic water fall that requires hours of hiking to get there.

For example, the Grand Canyon was just another big hole to my kids. Hiking down to the bottom for them was not on their radar screens as it was on mine. They enjoyed playing and interacting with kids in the park more than gawking at one of the most amazing and deepest canyons in the world. My youngest son thought that the Grand Canyon was made for throwing rocks down the abyss until I warned him sternly that he could hurt a hiker a mile deep in the canyon. If my kids took in all the activities that I want to do on camping trips, they would probably rather stay home. My biggest thrill is seeing them enjoy themselves through their experiences.

Surprise Your Kids With The Unexpected

Last summer after arriving early to at our destination, I suggested that we all catch an afternoon matinée movie in the small town of Salmon, Idaho. It was a total shock to my kids as we rarely go the theaters. It was one of the biggest highlights of our camping trip. We saw a first run movie for less than half the price that we would have paid at home.

Other times we surprise them by stopping at Costco and ordering a take-out pizza. You don’t always have to cook over a stove or an open fire to have fun.

Bring The Kids Favorite Toys

My wife and I learned some valuable lessons years ago on our first camping trip. My wife packed several of the kids favorite toys in a small bag that she called “treasure bags”. She placed the bags next to our children’s car seats. She never gave them instructions or even suggested that they use their treasure bags.

The treasure bags contained colored crayons, toy cars, a bottle of bubble maker, coins, balloons, and a bug catcher. Additionally, she packed several books for reading, a DVD player and a few children’s audio and video DVDs.

The treasure bags were an instant hit. They spent hours playing with the small toys while traveling. When we arrived at camp, they built small cities out of dirt and water from the faucet and arranged the toys in the small cities.

The bug catchers were a great source of fun and joy. They collected grass, sticks, twigs, flowers, and all kinds of insects such as lady bugs, bees, beetles, and grasshoppers.

Often, small lizards ended up in the bug catchers. One of those lizards found its way into one of our food storage boxes and traveled unknown to us from Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah to Great Basin National Park in Nevada.

I can remember at one campsite in Washington State when my youngest son did not have his bug catcher with him when he was catching tiny frogs. He thought his pockets were an appropriate place to store dozens of frogs. This did not go over well with my wife after she discovered a few squashed one in his pant pockets.

Don’t Take Your Kids Fishing If They Don’t Like Fishing

I made the mistake a few years back taking my kids fishing when they were not really interested. They ogled over the new poles and fishing tackle that I bought for them at Walmart. I took the boys fishing off the dock on a large lake located a mile off the coast in Oregon. Both boys managed to catch several fish as well as loose one pole. For a brief moment they were both excited about fishing. This lasted maybe 20 minutes tops until some kids arrived and started running around the nearby playground. I saw the look on my boys face and asked what they wanted to do. They fled from the fishing dock in lightening speed and ran to the playground. The poles remained idle for another year.

Was I disappointed? No. I take my kids on these trips so they can enjoy themselves in a different environment. Outside of doing routine chores such as washing dishes, I don’t make them do anything. It’s their time to play as hard as possible without the burdens of life weighing them down. They usually sleep 10-12 hours a day which gives me plenty of time for an early morning hike to those exotic water falls or snow covered mountain peaks.

Inflatable Fishing Rafts Are Not For Fishing

Last summer, I got the kids excited about fishing again. We picked out 2 nice inflatable rafts to fish from whenever we were near alpine mountain lakes. We used them only once to fish in at Bucks Lake in northern California. My oldest son lost interest in fishing within 5 minutes. It was more fun for him to paddle the craft through the waves rather than catch trout. The rest of the time, the kids used them to float up and down small streams filled with logs, weeds, and sticks. We used them for an entire month and managed to poke a hole in only one raft. Even if they trashed the rafts by having fun, it would not have bothered me, as they were used for their purpose-to be enjoyed.

Give The Kids Time To Play During The Day

I found that if we are traveling during the day, a late morning brunch works best for all of us. We look for city parks in small towns that we travel through. Most have rest rooms, playgrounds, picnic tables and running water. The kids get a chance to eat and play around before we hit the road again.

As I reflect back on all of our camping trips, I think the kids have enjoyed the various city park playgrounds more than the national parks that we have visited. Finding other kids to play with really goes well with them. The camping trips are really about family bonding time and interacting with others.

When I asked my kids if they can remember all the cool places that we took them before they reached the age of 6, the answer is usually “not really”. However they remember the kids that they played with in local city parks, running through streams, making a mess with water faucets, and roasting marshmallows.

Camping with kids and family trips are great when you give your children enough freedom to be themselves surrounded by your guidance and sound judgement.

Mark Keeler is a full time husband to wife Idylline and father of two boys, Zachary and Josiah. Their favorite past time is family camping in their white stealth camping van. They seek out new adventures all through the year with the aim to camp on the cheap. Read more from Mark by visiting his website ‘Campward Bound’.

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