Environmental Learning Natural Play

Camping with Kids

Tips, Types, What to Pack…and Leave Behind

Outdoor adventures await you!  Camping can be a fun and easy way to play outside, gain a sense-of-place, experience your environment,  and practice sustainability as a family.  State parks and national parks are like giant natural playgrounds for kids of all ages.  Here are some things to consider when preparing and packing for your trip.



Whether you were an avid camper before or just getting into camping with children.  Expect that camping with kids is a different ballgame.  Shift your thinking to their experience rather than yours.  For example:

– Know the goals.  If you involve kids in the planning (show them the state park website, show them the route to the national park on the map, get some books about forests from the library) they can then share with you what they want to see and do, too.  Be prepared for excited, engaged kids!

– When you arrive at your destination get to know the place by going on a hike, seeing the visitor’s center, exploring the creek.  Having some nature time first will cool off any nerves and get wiggles out which makes everything else at your campsite more fun.

– Offer choices.  My kids can play on a beach or by a creek for an hour straight when given the chance to choose.   This “taking turns choosing” is helpful later on when another family member takes their turn and chooses a hike, canoe, fishing, etc.

– Make setting up the tent becomes a team challenge, not a timed race.  Little ones can unfold and hold poles.  Adults can lead by asking guiding questions such as, “What do you think should come next?”  “How could we keep it cool in there but still keep the bugs out?”

– Of course kids will want to play in the tent, because it’s a cool new fort.  When my daughters were toddlers the tent was the perfect playpen while cooking dinner- I could even zip them in!  Make it more fun for everyone by giving expectations ahead of time:  all shoes/sandals stay out, zippers are for adults to work with, giggle a lot.

– Technology can be handy or overwhelming.  Do what works best for your family.  Some choose to leave it all home while others use it to boost the fun.  In what ways would it increase your wilderness experience?  For example, on a hike kids can take photos with the iPod to identify wildflowers or phenology observations.  In what ways could it decrease your wilderness experience?  For example, “Turn the DVD player off and look at the scenery!”  Working together and setting clear boundaries might lessen the tension around tech toys, phones, and screens.


  1. Start small.  Try a night close to home, even the backyard, before going away for a week.
  2. Less is more when camping with kids.  With less stuff you’ll get to carry less, organize less, pick up less mess, and hopefully lose less stuff along the trail!
  3. Good sleep makes for a more enjoyable day.  Set up the tent and beds early so they’re ready to go when the s’mores are out and the campfire is done.  Sleeping mattresses for Mom & Dad are worth the investment for camping (and around the house they are the best fort-building tools!)
  4. Teach sustainability from the start.  While packing food or gear, work together while asking, “Is that a want or a need?”
  5. Whether you are canoeing, or packing and RV, of course you will forget something!  Consider it an opportunity to get creative and engineer a solution together.  For example, do you need the metal hot dog roaster when you can find a stick instead?  Could the used plastic package from the muffins work to store your snack at lunchtime?  In this way, less can be more.



Whichever type of camping you are trying, flexibility in your planning is a very important item to pack.

Car Camping  Through it all in the back of the car and let’s go!  We keep our gear organized in one closet with a bin for cooking, dishware, first-aid, and misc needs so we can pull it off the shelf and go.  A friend of mine stores his camp kitchen gear in an old cooler reserved just for car camping.  The cooler allows a lot of flexibility with lunches and dinners at hand for any rest stop or picnic grounds we come upon.

– Back-country Camping  Many state and national parks have walk-in/ski-in sites with some trails offering cabin-to-cabin hiking.  Camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area can be a beautiful, nature-based, life-changing experience for people.  It does take experience and expertise but canoe guides and gear rental are available.  If your family knows camping basics, a great way to start with a BWCA trip for kids is to eliminate portages.  Most BWCA lakes have multiple sites or you could paddle in to your site, make a base camp, and do day trips from there.

Fly-in  National Parks are amazing places but the lodges are so expensive!  Camping rather than hotels saves enough money to make these trips possible, and more adventurous, for our family.  A few years ago my family of four flew from Minnesota to California for a ten day Redwoods camping adventure that was amazing.  We tried something similar this year to Alaska.  It works well to fly into the airport nearby or with best ticket prices then rent a mini-van.  Check as few bags as possible but be sure to pack the gear into a cooler that you duct tape shut.  We tend to make a general route with some reservations for campsites but keep some nites open for adventure or hotel.


The climate, weather changes, and length of your trip are important to consider when packing.  A longer trip does not mean a lot more stuff to pack, except food and a few more changes of clothes, since sleeping and cooking gear you need each day anyhow.   Clothing for warm climates takes up less space while layering for warmth is important with cooler climates.  Wet clothes will cool you down so rain gear is a must.  When back-country camping be sure to pack a wool or synthetic fabric item for warmth.  When wool is wet it will still keep you warm.  Cotton will take a long time to dry and not keep you warm.

Be Sure to Bring…

– comfortable sleeping air mattress such as Thermarest

– sleeping bags

– tent with footprint and rain fly

– tarp with 4 bungee straps or rope

– pillow case (put clothes inside for instant pillow)

– rain gear

– first-aid kit

– beach towel

– 2 pairs footwear (1 pair watershoes/sandals, 1 pair hiking type)

– wool socks, warm hat (I’ve even used these on stormy days sailing in the Caribbean!)

– toiletries, medications, and small pack tissues

– sunglasses, sunscreen & bugspray

– clothing (dress for the weather, layers especially)

– swimsuit

– food for cooking meals, non-cook meals, and snacks

– s’mores stuff

– refillable, reusable water bottles

– Camlebak or gallon water jug

– birding/animal/story books

– binocs/phone/camera

– kitchen kit (plates, utensils, sharp knife, matches, stove, fuel, 1 large pot, 1 small pot, 1 griddle pan)

– old sheet or tablecloth for picnics in the grass or your picnic table at the site

– clean-up kit (wash towel, drying towel, small biodegradable soap)

Leave Behind…

– rigid plans and tight schedule

– too many toys (give kids the chance to create, enjoy, and explore the outdoors)

– bad attitude

– too much stuff


Play. Learn. Love.

July 2014