If you're going camping to "leave it all behind," don't let "it" include your baby or small children. A family camping trip can spark a child's lifelong love of the outdoors and, besides, it's fun to have the kids along. The addition of babies or small children to your outing will pose challenges, but a few tips can help you get off to a good start.
On your first trip out, camp in your own backyard. You simply want the kids to enjoy sleeping outside, and they will. A tent is a house built to kids' proportions, and small children enjoy sleeping cuddled up to a parent or two. A backyard campout lets you pack and set up as if you were away, but it provides the safety net of home.
After a round in the backyard, hit a favorite spot. It helps if you've been there recently or can talk with people who have. That way you'll know what conveniences the site does and doesn't provide. Call ahead. Ask the ranger or attendant about facilities the area offers visitors with babies and small children. If a pleasant but more remote campsite is available, reserve it or arrive early to claim it. You'll appreciate that distance between you and neighboring sites, especially in the event of night crying or tantrums.
Some adults, accustomed to traveling without kids, try to sustain their own grown-up pace. Rethink your plans with your kids in mind. Make sure that activities, including the drive to your destination, aren't too long or monotonous. Remember that kids run on kids' time, and an uneventful 15 minutes will seem like an hour to them. Consider inviting another family to join you. The kids will enjoy one another's company, and parents can take turns caring for the kids.
After settling on a destination, pack what you need, but pack light. For the kids, choose clothes that will keep them comfortable and safe in heat, cold, rain, bright sunshine, briars and bugs. Remember hats, gloves and footwear, including extra socks. Don't pack to keep the kids clean, pack for function.
For a family, support gear may include security objects, such as stuffed animals and bedtime books, and rainy day or quiet time activities, such as puzzles, games, crayons, paper and toys. Small trucks and tractors are ideal for play in the dirt and pea gravel so commonly found in campgrounds. Outdoor activities will engage the kids, but familiar items from home can help reinvigorate them when they're tired.
A few extra pieces of equipment are really handy. Take a backpack for carrying a baby, toddler or small child. It enables you to keep a child comfortable and near you when you're busy in and around camp. Bring a couple of big throw rugs or old blankets to set babies on. This gives them some freedom, while isolating their activity to a safe place.
Give each child a bandanna handkerchief that can serve as a towel, bandage, sweatband, belt, sunscreen, mosquito shield or make-shift sack for stones, shells and leaves. You can even use it to wipe a runny nose.
When taking kids away from home, it's important to be prepared for illness and accidents. For emergencies, bring along a good first aid kit. It's also reassuring to have a thermometer and kids' over-the-counter medicines along, in case they suddenly come down with a bad cold or the flu.
If your kids have conditions that require prescription drugs, don't forget those medicines. Pack syrup of ipecac and activated charcoal as precautions against poisoning.
Learn about hypothermia and heat stress, to which children are particularly vulnerable. Monitor their dress and comfort and be vigilant. Babies can't tell you what's wrong. Small kids may not notice or report growing cold or overheated until they're in trouble.
Your food should be nutritious and easy to prepare. Take some of the kids' favorites and include lots of snacks. If you are not certain the campsite has available water, you should take enough to provide at least a gallon per day per person. Any untreated water at the site should be boiled for 10 minutes before you drink it or cook with it.
Although you assemble the gear, the kids can help pack it. Let them see that their help is essential to the trip. They can stuff clothes in packs and carry bags to the vehicle. At the campground, with your supervision, they can help unpack the vehicle, pick up sticks and stones and smooth the tent site, drive stakes, load pads and sleeping bags into the tent and get water. Encourage responsibility and cooperation throughout the venture.
Stay on top of things. Don't let the kids get wet and chilled, sunburned, bug bitten, hungry or scared. Don't let morale plummet. Your actions will guide them, and they rely on you.
Camping introduces kids to new surroundings and a new routine. They'll notice all sorts of details, from birds' nests and animal tracks to crowds of butterflies at puddles. In nearby streams, you can catch frogs and crayfish and, in the evening, you can collect a jar of fireflies.
Show the kids how to handle these creatures and make sure they treat them properly. At night, listen for owls and whip-poor-wills. Watch for bats or look at the stars. Let the kids suggest activities. Maybe they just want to dig a hole and fill it with water. Or they might want everyone to pretend to be wild animals.
Certain lessons are critical to a child's outdoor education. Foremost is safety. Establish rules to be followed around water, camp fires and cook stoves. Teach kids to recognize venomous snakes, biting insects and poison ivy. Remind small kids to remain where they can see you (and you can keep your eyes on them).
Teach them to respect the outdoors. Leave your campsite as clean or cleaner than when you arrived. When early explorers roamed the continent, it might have been interesting to run across the camps of people who had passed before. Not anymore. Ask your kids to help pick up litter-even if it's not yours.
Respect other campers. Most people camp to get a little closer to nature and a little farther from society. If the "Golden Rule" is too abstract for small children, tell them this: "Don't bother other people's things (which includes short-cutting through their campsites) and don't be noisy." Courtesy toward other campers generally encourages their courtesy toward you.
Camping with kids is as old as civilization in North America. Nomadic tribes seasonally traveled the plains with their children. Pioneer families headed into the wilderness, and everyday challenges were a part of their lives. They prevailed and thrived, and you and your kids will, too.