Last weekend, I went camping with our five kids and no other adult help. My husband had work stuff to do, and I had been waiting years and years for the smallest of our kids to get big enough to take on a camping trip. I grew up camping and I really missed it. No one tells you the woods are something you’ll have to give up for a time when you have babies. Maybe that’s not entirely true, but I sure felt that way. So, I’ve been more intentional since our last kiddo was born almost 2 years ago in getting us all out for nature walks and short hikes. We finally got to a point in our sleep habits where I felt like we could maybe, maybe, make an overnight camping trip work. I decided even though hubby couldn’t join us, that we just needed to jump in and try it.
Here is what I learned:
Attitude is EVERYTHING.
If you’re miserable, the kids will be miserable. Things will inevitably go wrong, and as long as you can remember to roll with it, you will have a MUCH more enjoyable camping experience. We left the husband home because we had to, but it turned out that this was probably a good thing. I only had to manage my own frustration with things that didn’t go right. If you have a spouse or partner who is a downer on your hopes for outdoor adventures, consider leaving them at home. You might be surprised that even though you’re doing the trip solo, it might turn out better than you expect.
Big kids can help more than you or they think.
They will feel empowered. My 12-year-old built a fire the second evening, after I showed him how to do it the first evening. My 7-year-old helped watch the toddler while the 12-year-old and I took down the tent.
Quick food on hand is priceless.
Despite my plan to cook yummy breakfast burritos in the morning, my littlest couldn’t wait and ended up eating 3 bananas and some Cheez-Its for breakfast instead. Camp cooking takes extra long.
Gear I wouldn’t go without:
Jetboil Flash JavaKit + Summit Skillet. Okay, this thing was AMAZING. I got it for myself for my birthday and it totally lived up to the hype. It heated up everything faster than any camp stove I’ve ever used. It’s small and efficient, since we didn’t even finish off one 230g fuel canister during our whole campout. I never even got out the big Coleman camp stove & white gas I brought as a backup. One warning, though: it’s supposed to be compatible with other brands’ fuel canisters, but the ones I had on hand didn’t work with the Jetboil. Thankfully, the Jetboil fuel is pretty affordable. The coffee press was a nice bonus.
These mess kits from WalMart are super affordable and durable. The plates can act as bowls. They’re sturdy, and best of all, the silverware is not flimsy. We chucked the annoying folding cups and use Nalgene water bottles instead. (Specifically, this is the one we use for the toddler, these for the preschoolers, these for the big kids, and this giant water bottle for my fish of a husband). Couple these cooking tools with our dishpan, a wash cloth, and some camp soap, and you’ve got a sustainable dish situation without having to use millions of paper plates.
Camp Spark sticks. These were fantastic for cooking hot dogs and roasting marshmallows. I tried our shorter, cheaper sticks and immediately stuck them back in the van, never to be used again because these telescoping sticks were so much sturdier, and longer.
A good knife is a must. I use this minimalist bowie from CRKT. It’s tiny and I’m able to do everything I need with it, except chop wood :).
Speaking of firewood. I’d buy more next time. More firewood = bigger, longer lasting fires (duh). Always a good thing.
Sleep between the two neediest sleepers, usually the two youngest kids. We rearranged sleeping bags multiple times. Next time I’ll just start out between these two.
Also, use melatonin or chamomile tablets to give the kids just a little boost into sleep. This paid off big time. I brought it, but forgot to make some bedtime tea for myself. I won’t forget next time.
Minimize unnecessary stress.
We left the dog at home. You may be fine bringing dogs, but ours is a bundle of anxiety. One less mouth to feed & water, and less to deal with at bedtime was a load off our first time out.
We didn’t do a hike. It’s one thing to camp with kids, and an entirely different thing to hike (exercise) with kids. I chose to avoid the hike and it was a good thing. With less sleep than usual, I was glad I didn’t plan any activities. Lazing around camp all day, reading and taking a nap was wonderful. The sand toys I bought on impulse as we left the grocery store were the highlight of the trip for my very little littles. I didn’t have to do anything for them to have fun digging in the dirt.
Bring cards, games, or toys, but leave all the devices at home.
I had one kid who spent a good chunk of the day listening to an audiobook on her Kindle instead of engaging with nature as much as I would have liked. I tried to get her to leave the device in the van, but that was a hassle. Next time, we’ll leave all devices except cell phones at home, and only bring real books, not e-readers.
Rules for safety:
Fire circle: no running inside the circle of chairs that surround the campfire. Blood circle: stay more than an arm’s length away in every direction from someone with an unsheathed knife. Buddy up: no one goes anywhere alone. Always take at least one buddy. Expect big kids to help enforce these rules. We talked about these rules at the beginning of camp, so expectations were clear. Clear rules and expectations keep everyone safe and having fun.
Don’t underestimate the power of s’mores.
And fire-cooked hot dogs, for that matter. They’re fast, easy, and quintessential, memory-inducing camp food. Just brave the sticky mess and do it. They’re worth it every time.
Some basic amenities are worth it.
We stayed at an established campground in a state forest 45 minutes from home. It had composting toilets and good cell service. I didn’t have to deal with poop in the woods, which was nice for the first time out. The cell service meant I had backup if we got into trouble, which was a real comfort since solo camping can be scary. We didn’t have a water source, but brought 6 gallons with us. For 6 (mostly small) people, that was enough for 24hrs. I wouldn’t bring any less, that’s for sure.
We planned for one night. If it had been a crap-fest, I planned to come home and scrap the whole thing. By remaining noncommittal and keeping my expectations low, we didn’t have to dash hopes when we decided to come home after only one night. Being flexible and feeling like we had a way out was key to having more fun camping with the kids. Again, attitude is everything.
In the end, I just had to finally jump in and try it, even though it was intimidating. As with most things parenting and homeschooling, overcoming my own fears had a big payoff.
Hopefully some of these lessons from my first campout with the kids will help you get up the courage to do a campout with your kids.