The best advice I can think of for camping with the under-five set is to multiply the number of kids by 2 and bring that many adults along. Older teens, like babysitters, make handy adults-stand-in, but 2 times the kids in adults is a sane ratio. Trying to make dinner, tend a fire, stop one child from climbing a tree 5 times my height and keeping the other from eating the forest are simultaneous tasks. Obviously anyone who went to the woods for ‘fun’ would like some help with this.
Leaving the Luxury
First of all, why would any rational person who has doors, windows, indoor temperature control and a microwave think going camping with little kids would be a good idea? Well as an answer, there is the conversation I had with my parents... One year, our family went camping just as my parents were heading off on a cruise, coincidentally we were all coming back the same day. I pointed out that however luxurious their cruise would certainly be, we would be coming home to luxury, relief and rest – running water, sheets, toilets closer than 1/4 of a mile from the bed. They would be coming home wondering where the steward with the pillow chocolate got off to.
Getting a Break
As it has been said, a change is as good as a rest. In fact, resting, as a holiday tactic, doesn’t work very well. After the sleep has been caught up, and the sights have been looked at, a ‘restful’ holiday wears a little thin. A working holiday, though, particularly one that allows you to contrast your real life in a positive light, is definitely a welcome change. Apparently, the ‘honeymoon’ for how relaxed anyone is after a holiday is about 36 hours (see more about this in my article Parents & Stress Relief, also called Nano-Vacations). Because camping is kind of an anti-vacation, in terms of the less-stress, more relaxing idea, the length of time it takes to forget how lovely the modern conveniences of home are is far longer.
In fact, once home, it typically takes months before people stop saying things like ‘oh, dear, that’s barf on the bedding... it’s a good thing we’re not out camping, that would be a nightmare...’
There are tips and techniques for backpacking with kids, camper camping with kids, general vacation tips for taking children along, and just about every kind of ‘how to do it’ imaginable about food, equipment and lifestyle. Lots of people have lots more experience than I do.
What I have is a set of parameters that have made camping relatively easy...
We live a mostly whole-food diet here, much to the ongoing annoyance to my children. I’m sure they’d rather have storebought pancake mix, made with that lovely soft white flour. I don’t care. I make my own pancake mix (it’s a no-brainer, and in Canada the price difference is worth it), and take only enough for the meals I’m going to serve pancakes – if that’s 2, there are 2 pre-measured baggies of pancake mix, made so the only addition put in at camp is water and egg, not milk. Milk lasts about a day and a half in a cooler, unless you freeze it, then it is frozen for the first few days and goes bad in a day and a half after that... (going bad, in this context = smelling like the inside of an old cooler.) Fresh eggs, on the other hand, can be individually wrapped tightly in saran and will keep at air temperature for 7-10 days. Keeping them in a cooler will keep them from getting broken and extend their shelf-life to 10-12 days. Wrapping them matters, as shells are air-permeable and eggs take on cooler odours in a really unpleasant way (see 'going bad' above), and are also not improved for being concentrated in the shell...
I plan out every meal for every day, and take only what is necessary to make those meals. When we’re there, I may not actually do what’s on the plan in the order it’s there (a hot lunch may be pulled ahead for a rainy day, while a cold one might be taken to the beach unexpectedly), but it is all the food I take. For a trip longer than 7 days, we always take a day ‘in town’ when we can wash the accumulated laundry, buy the planned groceries for the remainder of the camp, and eat lunch somewhere indoors, with cutlery, just for fun.
Most of the meals are taken in components – if we need mayonnaise, I take the amount called for in the recipe, or individual packets (which are available to buy at most warehouse/big box grocers) as a condiment. Cooler space is always at a premium, and I’d rather not have half a litre of mayo going skunky after the 4th day, all things considered. We start the camp with perishable, fresh foods and move further and further toward preserved foods, including dried grains and beans. We are generally carnivores early and vegetarians late. The grocery shop in the middle is almost always to replenish the meat and fresh veggie supply.
I cook on the fire as much as possible, because I find it far more economical (faster, uses far less fuel) than a comparable meal on a camp stove. I sometimes cook ‘in’ the fire, but mostly I make fires that are far too hot for that, so I keep my cooking on the grate above. I’ve baked everything from biscuits to upside down cakes on the fire with no more than the biggest pot that comes in the camp set. There are all kinds of things people believe ‘need’ an oven (and I know some campers who make camp ovens)... but almost all cooking began in a vessel over a fire, so most of it can be done that way today.
Efficiency and The Flow
Overall, the more planning and preparation that goes into the meals at camp, the easier it will be to live at camp, particularly with small children. The less you have to do while watching out for the little, chaotic ones, the more fun camping is. It is important to know, in this planning and preparation, that campers (even the little ones) will need 25-50% more food in a day than they would eat at home. Walking around, being outdoors and sleeping in uneven air temperatures all takes up a lot more energy than normal life, and should be considered if you want to ensure you’re not camping with the famished grouch family.
It’s a good idea to have some structure in mind for the day – outings after meals (or for meals – picnics anywhere in the area, including at the playground, at the beach, in the woods, near the nature house, along the riverside, are all pleasant diversions from feeling nailed to a campsite), quiet time before bed, activities to do while meals are being prepared or cleaned up...
I’ve never yet met a child who didn’t think painting on things was fun – and painting at camp can be much broader than normal life: firewood, rocks, shells, trees, stumps, leaves, picnic benches, concrete pads, campers – tempra paint won’t hurt any of them, and will wash off when if thinned with a bit of dish soap.
Weaving is fun and even little fingers can manage to mangle together dreamcatchers, gods’ eyes, shambles or other dangling hangy things from yarn, twigs, leaves, found shells, feathers and rocks. A couple of bright colours and the run of the nearby woods will occupy young children for half an hour with ease.
A bucket and spade can be used at the site as well as the beach, digging trenches for the rain, playing in mud puddles, splashing in water near the woods, ‘painting’ things with water and a brush – or a brush made from twigs and leaves and string... as a doll pool or bath, a lego pond or whatever attracts their imaginations. There is nothing quite like water to fascinate a young child.
The fire pit poses the single largest, ongoing danger to small children. Fire pits stay hot a lot longer than people think after a fire is doused, and tripping suddenly into a fire is hard to explain with a straight face in the emergency room, so creating a no-go zone for little children around the whole of the fire area is diligent and smart. Walking between people seated at the fire and the fire is a seriously stupid thing to do, and small children must be directed to go around back every single time. Diligence is necessary for safe handling of fire, just as it is for safety around water.
Having a water feature a very short stumble away from camp is not a good idea with small children – it is a constant source of fascination and they are too fast to be trusted even for a moment. Pitch the tent an easy 5 minute walk from the water, and much less diligence is necessary to stave off predictable tragedies.
The Sales Pitch
So, with all this effort and diligence and planning, what is the real reason people are crazy enough to take small children camping? It’s addictive, honestly...
The wonder of watching small children’s eyes open to the wonder of the wilderness around them, for hours and hours, day after day is different from visiting a local park, even every day. Taking them back, year after year, even to different parts of the country, gives them a real, personal appreciation of nature and their part in it. There is nothing else quite like that...