Camping Is Fun With Kids by Gary Benton
One of the best ways of getting a child involved with your outdoor activities it to have them involved from an early age. My children started camping as infants, but that may be too early for some children, and parents. When I take an older child on their first over night camping trip, we start getting ready days in advance! Let me give you an idea of what I do and perhaps it will work for you. Keep in mind each child is different, so approach them differently. I do know if the child is in the early stages of planning for a trip and stays active during all phases of it, they really have a good time. And, I have been camping with kids for more than thirty years.
The weekend prior to the trip I will sit down and just talk to the child about what they can expect on a camping trip. Many kids will be concerned about things that may never enter your mind. For instance, my oldest daughter’s best friend was concerned about bathrooms; while my nephew was worried about how and what we would eat. Both are valid concerns, but hardly anything to be seriously worried about. But, not just children have vivid imaginations. When I was in jungle survival school in the Philippines we had a lieutenant that sat up all night around the fire, because he had seen spiders the size of cars in old Tarzan movies. No way was he going to sleep with any critter that big running loose! And, kids today have much better imaginations than most of us, as adults, could even consider. But, talk to each child and explain what you know about their concerns and be honest with them.
Also during the same week as the trip, I will pull out all of my camping equipment and double check it. This does two things, first it makes sure the equipment is still in serviceable condition, and second, it gives me a chance to show the child how the equipment works. I will even have the child assist me in erecting the tent in the back yard, repack the first aid and survival gear, double check the mess gear and so on. I use this time to teach the child in a controlled environment. You find the average youngster is fascinated by the different kinds of gear and equipment you may have around.
Make sure your gear, food, and other supplies are in good shape. Nothing discourages a young camper like a trip that has been poorly planned. I once spent a rainy night in the Missouri Ozark Mountains because my uncle could not put up our tent. That was over forty years ago and I still remember how miserable the trip was. Prepare and plan, so the child’s first impression is a good one.
The night before the camping trip, we prepare our dinner for the next day. I have each child assist and believe me they have a lot of fun doing it. Remember, some kids have not done much camping so it excites them. I have each child select a meat item (chicken, pork, or beef), two veggies, and a piece of fruit for dessert. I place one square of heavy-duty aluminum foil down flat and have the child center the meat and veggies. I then have the child fold the aluminum over the food. We then place the folded meal in another piece of aluminum and fold the edges, sealing it well. Now the meal has double seal of aluminum foil. Next, we take the fruit, apple, banana, or pear, quarter it and wrap it in aluminum as well. The next day the only thing your child has to do is place the meal with dessert on the hot coals, not flames, and the meal will cook in its own juices (pierce the metal covering with a fork prior to cooking). An Adult should turn the meal about every 5 to10 minutes to keep it cooking evenly. The children love these meals, because they made it.
Once I arrive at the campsite, I assign camping chores to each of the children. I have found they enjoy the responsibility and it actually makes it easier on the adult leader. I have one wash the dishes, one rinse and dry, and have another child gather water and so on. I think you have the idea. Before we get down to having fun, all of us gather up as much firewood as we can. It is important here to explain to the children to gather only dead and dry firewood. Also, it is a good idea to discuss the danger of snakes with them before you start. I hope all of you noticed I said, discuss and not scare (less than 10% of the world’s snakes are poisonous). Teach children to respect snakes, not to be paranoid about them.
I also think each child should be warned of certain dangers that are just natural when we camp. For instance, explain to the child:
Do not wander off away from the camp, and give each child a whistle to blow if they do become lost. My son once sounded like a train moving through woods when he became lost as a youngster.
Explain to each child that only an adult can start the fire, add wood to the flames, or cook on the fire (of course this depends on the experience and ages of the children). Keep a fire extinguisher on hand or a couple gallons of water or sand.
Remind children that wild animals are just that, wild. They are not to be petted or fed. Bites, scratches, and claw marks can result from children attempting to pet a wild animal. Not to mention the dangers of rabies.
Make sure each child knows they are not to drink any water that is not from your water container, no matter how clean it may look in a stream or lake.
Show each child where your toilets are. I have found girls will usually go to the designated spot, for privacy, where boys just use the first tree. Enforce the use of your bathroom area, even late at night. Hygiene is very important when camping.
Stress the importance of keeping clean. This means clean clothes each day and the reporting of all cuts, scrapes, and scratches. In the woods small injuries can quickly become infected. Make sure an adult cleans and covers each injury.
I am sure there are other rules you may have in mind as well. If you think they are important, then explain them to the children. But, I have to warn you, they will ask you why, so be prepared to answer them. The idea here is to keep the list of rules short, we don’t want to restrict the fun, except safety should never be compromised. Plus, I have seen children that followed the rules much better than most adults. So, be sure you set a good example for the younger ones.
Plan the day’s activities with children. I usually get up early and have them help me prepare pancakes and eggs. Pancake mix can be placed in a large zip locked bag, water added, and then the child can mix the whole mess by squeezing the bag. I do the actual cooking, but they can hold the plates, hand me the mix and eggs. Make them part of preparing the meal, because they love being a part of it all.
Once breakfast is done (and the chores) I usually take them on a nature walk. On this type of walk we hope to see some wild animals, flowers, and beautiful countryside. Keep the length of your walk short enough for the smallest child you have along. Also, move at the slowest child’s pace. Point out different aspects of nature as you walk. The more you know about the outdoors the more excited they will become. If you can keep them quiet long enough you may even see a deer or two. I also try to have a small snack for each child as we hike. We usually stop and eat near a lake, stream or in an open field. This serves two purposes, it feeds the little guy or gal (they are always hungry in the woods), but it also teaches them that we do not liter the trails. I have each hiker place the empty paper and containers in their backpack to carry back to camp.
Once I return from the hike, I give each child time to just play around the campsite. Usually a quick game of tag or catch will break out. If not, and they become bored, then I use my old secret, I take all of them fishing! Fishing always works, but you may not get much fishing done if you have a group of younger kids with you. They constantly need the hook baited or help getting the line untangled. I enjoy the excitement when a child catches a small fish, though my daughter once caught an eight-pound bass drowning a worm in some nearby reeds. The important thing is to just let them have fun!
For lunch I usually (depending on the age of the children) let them cook hotdogs over the fire under close supervision, have chips, and veggies sticks (carrots, celery, and so on), and milk (if you have an ice chest). Our dessert is usually fresh fruit. Fresh milk is never an issue for short camping trips and on long ones you can get the milk that does not require refrigeration. I tend to eat the same types of foods camping as I do at home.
During the afternoon, if the children are old enough, we take another hike in the woods or go looking down by the water. I do not let them get too close to the waters edge, but they can still see frogs, an occasional snake perhaps, and small fish feeding. Most children are scared of the large dragonflies when they first see them and this is normal. My niece thought they were large bees! You can have almost as much fun as the children just watching them!
Start dinner early. Most kids I have taken camping build up a terrible hunger during the day. Just like at home, I tend to control the amount of snacks they have during the day, except fruit and veggies, but feed them often and a lot! On my last camping trip the boys and I had grilled steaks, real baked potatoes, fresh green salad, and a can of peaches for dessert. They ate every last bite and then as soon as it got dark the real fun started!
Children, and most adults, love a campfire at night. I can’t sing, but I do try when I camp. I teach the kids old country songs, funny songs, or we take turns making songs up. Often, after the kids have some experience camping, the subject will turn to scary ghost stories. We take turns going around the campfire telling the best scary stories you have ever heard! I wish I had a dollar for every time I have told (and I made it all up in my head) of “The Hand That Wouldn’t Die!” Keep the stories toned down if you have a new member or an inexperienced camper. The idea is to have fun, not scare a child so badly you are up all night with them (I know this from experience). However, use your own judgment here about the horror tales. They may not be appropriate for your age group of kids.
At night I have the girls go to one tent and the boys to another. You can, usually expect a night raid by the boys. I normally sit between the tents and wait. Most of the time the raid comes very early, because the children are too tired to wait long. I have caught more boys this way! Though, I did once catch a group of young girls. As I said, most of the time they will raid early, because they are tired.
In the morning I will wake them at a reasonable time, let’s say around 7am. I get them up early for a number of reasons (they may be difficult to get up if they are still tired from the day before). The first reason is so they can help me with breakfast and then all of us can clean the campsite. Second, I will have some activities planned for the day. I usually ask the children on the second day what they want to do. Listen to their plans and ideas; they may have a great suggestion or two. Now remember, you want just enough things planned to keep them from getting bored, but don’t plan every single minute! Allow the children to have time to do things as a couple or alone. This is healthy and good for them to have some unstructured time. But, keep them safe and know where they are at all times.
Also, bring along some books and board games the children have chosen. It is important for the children to pick these items and not you. I refuse, personally, to allow a child to bring electronic games, radios, or cd players. I feel camping is the time to get away from those things. Of course, you may decide differently, I have never had a child miss them if they had other things to do. You should bring books and games with you so the child has something to do if the weather turns ugly. I once spent three days in Alaska with a 10-year-old boy and with nothing for him to do as it rained, rained, and then rained some more. I will never do that again.
When you depart a campsite make sure the fire is out, trash has been picked up and stress the importance to each child of “leaving only your foot prints.” I have found most children, who are taught good camping skills, responsibilities, cleanliness, and safety, make excellent campers as adults. It is you and I who can motivate these youngsters and turn them into responsible campers!
Camping with children can be a great deal of fun. But, as I have said, the big secret is to get the child involved from the very start. Keep them involved during the whole process! Make them feel as if they are part of the trip and not just excess baggage. Give them camp responsibilities and explain why the chores have to be done. Let them do as much as they can for their age. Stress safety, hygiene, fun, and turn the trip into an educational time for them. Teach them the wonders of nature, preservation of our woods and streams, and a deep appreciation of what America has to offer our campers, hikers, and outdoor families. But, most of all, teach them we can all, regardless of our age, have fun outdoors!