Under the Big Tent

Life is different now. When you get out in the wild, you bring your brood. But it doesn’t have to be a chore. Here are our top tips for camping with kids.

Rocks, sticks, pinecones, streams, trees, fresh air, sunshine and copious amounts of dirt. The outdoors offers everything a kid needs to have a good time. And camping is the ideal way to immerse children in nature—not coincidentally unplugging them from the digital device of the moment—and bond as a family unit. While camping requires a certain degree of packing and planning and amassing of gear, it’s a supremely economical way to vacation with the kids. So save those first class tickets to the Caribbean for a romantic getaway and head for the woods this summer with your brood.

1. plan your menu

Kids can be finicky eaters. Anyone who’s served chicken with a smidge of parsley knows. (“Yuck! What is that green stuff?! Get it off. Get it off!!”) Choose meals you know your kids will like. If you want to try something new, don’t do it the field. Do a dry run at home. Write out daily menus for a camping trip, including each breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. In addition to the basic ingredients necessary, make notes about what condiments you’ll need and the cooking tools required.  Otherwise, you’ll forget ketchup for the burgers and you’ll be rolling out pizza dough with a bottle of Merlot.

Even if you’re car camping, pack foods in small containers. Little salt and pepper shakers, tiny spice jars, small tubs of mayo. It makes it easier to find things if your cooler and camp pantry aren’t packed to the brim. Label everything so you don’t mix up your olive oil and your dish soap.

2. plan “B” activities

Fact is, most kids will be fully engaged by the woods around your campsite. Our kids have spent entire afternoons building rock bridges over streams. Plan A should be simple unstructured imaginative play. But wise parents always have a backup plan. Plan a hike and bring along a nature journal or a scavenger hunt list. For a summertime hike through a wildflower-filled meadow, pack a butterfly net. If kids get a little squirrelly at the campsite, pull out a deck of cards, a Frisbee or a hackey sack, coloring sheets and crayons. We try to bring along supplies for outdoorsy arts and crafts projects like bark and leaf rubbings or flower pressing. Build a fairy house or an inukshuk (rock figure). Bring a few lengths of rope and teach your kids to make a bowline hitch.

3. recalibrate your hiking goals

Before we had kids, hiking was a strenuous, calorie-burning, summit-scaling all-day adventure. Now that we have little people in tow, we have learned to get over those preconceived notions about hiking. Take a deep breath and let it go. Kids are pokey. They like to stop and smell the pines, pick up sticks–and then whack the pines with the sticks. Kids need snack breaks, water breaks and pit stops. Instead of rushing them down the trail, let children set the pace and determine the length of a hike. If they have fun, they’ll go farther and maybe even faster.

When you’re planning to walk a distance on a trail with kids, remember this: “hike” is a four letter word. Tell the little chiddlers you’re going to explore a cave or an old miner’s cabin. Or that you’re going on an adventure to skip rocks in a lake. Another tactic: let your child bring along a pal. Kids are chatty with friends, which passes the time, and they tend to be less whiney around their peers. When kids start to grumble about their tired legs, sing songs, tell jokes, play games like “Eye Spy.” If all else fails, bring along a bag of gummies and dispense one for every stretch of ground covered.

Helen Olsson is the author of The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids (Roost Books, April 2012). Read her outdoor blog, Maddog Mom: Adventures with Kids: maddogmom.com.

Best Colorado Family Camping

One of our favorite destinations for family camping in Colorado is Molas Lake near Silverton (molaslake.com). Many of the sites are right on the water and offer a surprising amount of privacy for car camping. Bring a pole and spend the day casting for trout or hit the trails and soak in postcard views of the San Juans. We’ve also had memorable camping trips to Great Sand Dunes National Park (nps.gov/grsa, see page 27), where you can hike, ski, or sled vast mountains of sand or simply build sand castles and wade in the Medano River. A bonus for curious kids: a short drive from the dunes is the Colorado Gator farm, home to 400 alligators, and an honest-to-goodness UFO Watchtower. It’s where the truly weird intersects with the phenomenally strange. —H.O.

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