Some thoughts on camping with children

picnic at Athabasca Glacier
© K Martinko -- A stunning backdrop for a family picnic while camping in the Canadian Rockies

It's not easy, but it's worth all the work. Just be ready for it.

I spent my childhood camping every summer. My parents, who were self-employed, would take off several weeks, pack us kids into the car, and head off. By the time I turned 18, I'd camped in every province of Canada and visited the East coast at least ten times. My parents thrived on camping. Since they didn't have much money, it was the only way they could travel, and they seemed to come alive the further we got from home. In retrospect, I am amazed at how no amount of inclement weather ever dampened their enthusiasm. (On one particularly dreary trip to Newfoundland, it rained 28 days out of 30.)

After starting a family, I assumed my husband and I would be the same. We headed off on our first camping trip all together in 2011, driving all the way to the Bay of Fundy, where it poured rain and loud drunken people in the campsite next door kept us awake. So we kept driving, ending up on Prince Edward Island, where the mosquitos were so thick we could scarcely get out of the car and our toddler sat on the car horn at 7 a.m. and developed a case of chicken pox. Needless to say, it was an exhausting trip that made me regard my indomitable parents with considerably more respect.

Since then (and many camping trips later) I've realized that camping with kids is not easy. In fact, it's incredibly challenging, and don't let anyone ever tell you differently! You basically have to do all the same work you do at home, except without the amenities, no physical boundaries to keep small kids contained, and with endless amounts of dirt all around.

That being said, it remains one of the most worthwhile things you can do as a family, so don't be discouraged. The important thing is to approach camping with the right mindset. Some of the lessons I've learned over time are:

1. Get the family involved in planning.

Find out where everyone wants to go. Seek out interesting historical and cultural sights and parks along the way that can break up the driving. If someone loves hiking, commit to doing that a few times. If a kid is into shipwrecks, visit a maritime museum.

2. Don't overpack.

There is a fine balance when it comes to packing because you don't want to find yourself without a dry change of clothes after it's been raining for days, but neither do you want to be crammed into a smelly car without any leg room. You can probably manage with less than you think. Be very nitpicky about what goes and what doesn't. Take time, make lists well in advance, and then use your Tetris-like brain to pack them most efficiently in the trunk. A few things make camping life much easier: (1) compact lawn chairs, since picnic tables are awkward for sitting around a campfire; (2) containment for young children, such as a playpen; (3) some toys.

3. Shop for food daily.

Unless you're driving a bus, fitting food for a family into a car, in addition to camping gear, will be a challenge. (We have 5 people in a Toyota Matrix, so it's always a tight squeeze.) A good strategy is to hit up a grocery store each morning and stock up on the day's food. That way you're not carrying an excess of goods, and it's fresh and tasty. I now typically camp without a cooler. Milk keeps longer than you think.

4. Have a lot of picnics.

Picnics are a godsend on long family road trips. It's so much better to get out of the car and stretch your legs, instead of sitting still in a restaurant. Stop at playgrounds, along pebble beaches, at magnificent lookouts, or wherever else strikes your fancy.

5. Delegate the campsite tasks.

If the kids are working, it means less work for you and entertainment for them. Have them wash dishes, pack up sleeping bags, stack firewood in a protected area, run the trash to the bin, hang up the wet laundry.

6. Forget bedtime.

Camping trips are a time to let go. Kids are usually so riled up in tents that they can't fall asleep for hours, so you might as well let them kick back and enjoy the campfire.

7. The kids don't care.

No matter how wet and buggy and uncomfortable you, the adult, may be, there's a good chance the kids have barely noticed. Just think about it: they're having a blast being away from home, out of school, hanging out in nature, building fire and whittling sticks, so don't stress about less-than-perfect conditions on their behalf.

8. Stay in one spot as long as you can.

I've always found packing up and moving sites to be the most challenging aspect of camping with kids. On a trip to the Canadian Rockies two summers ago, despite have a lot of ground to cover, we decided to spend at least two nights per site in order to reduce moving time and increase time spent visiting each place.

Some thoughts on camping with children
It's not easy, but it's worth all the work. Just be ready for it.

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