6 Essential Tips for Camping with Kids

An outdoor adventure expert shared these pointers with TLCme for parents who want to make their kids happy campers.

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How to Help Your Little Ones Become One with Nature

Most parents probably had a camping trip under their belt before starting a family but hitting the trails with children in tow can feel like climbing a mountain — intimidating, emotionally exhausting and physically challenging. It’s an altogether different experience from that leisurely woodland weekend with college friends when you put your feet up, drank your weight in cheap beer and slept till the sun made a sauna of your tent. Yet, introducing kids to the outdoors makes them more likely to respect and appreciate nature while soothing anxiety and building confidence. Like climbing a mountain, the payoff comes at the end and the rewards can make it all worthwhile. Here are six tips for making lasting family memories in the fresh air.

Be Prepared

For Andy Nichols, director of programs for Teamlink and Shenandoah Mountain Guides, the Scouts’ motto of “be prepared” is the best place to start. The father of three grown boys teaches everyone, from beginners to park rangers, how to enjoy the great outdoors and he’s noticed over the years that nothing makes a child more uncomfortable than seeing adults that are in over their heads.

“Be prepared for all possibilities — running out of water, running out of food and kids getting cranky,” Nichols said.

If you’re not confident with your survival skills, he suggests seeking the help of professionals. “Start off with a state or national park ranger program, where someone is there to hold your hand,” he said. “Before you know it, you’ll be wanting to do it on your own.”

Start Off Small

Nichols cautions against adults getting caught up in their own agendas, which can really turn off kids who just want to explore.

“Don’t expect kids to go for a 10-mile walk,” he said. “Have micro adventures instead of macro adventures. Look at the wonder of a fern. Look at a snail shell. All these natural wonders — it’s perfection, and it’s kid-sized discovery.”

Nichols believes that if a kid is having fun skipping rocks, that’s the time to let go of your master plan, put your feet in the water and work on your technique. The point, he says, is to slow down and “take your adventure level down to the kid’s level.”

Go with the Flow

Let’s face it — kids are kids, even when surrounded by Mother Nature’s glorious wonders, which means not everything will go according to plan. Nichols considered how a 5-year-old can be having a bad day and just doesn’t want to climb to the top of a rock. Or maybe the clouds are looking ominous and it makes sense to turn back rather than forging ahead on your quest for that Instagrammable vista.

“Don’t focus on having an adventure so much as just having fun,” he said. “If it looks crappy, turn around and go back. Don’t press on when it’s stopped being fun.”

Keep Them Engaged

While some kids are content with spending 20 minutes thinking about how cool a snail shell looks, others take a little longer to warm up to life sans screens. In order to avoid the dreaded “I’m bored,” be sure to have a few things tucked up your sleeve to help them break the ice and interact with their surroundings. Nichols recommends an age-appropriate and simple scavenger hunt, such as gathering a certain number of acorns or finding a flower that’s in season. “It causes people to look in a little more detail,” he said.

Geocaching and ranger talks are two other options that are often available if you’re staying at a state or national park.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Nichols also suggests involving the littlest campers in the decision-making process. This shows them that you’re all in this together and need to work as a team. Try starting before you leave the house, allowing input on what to bring (within reason) and menu planning — which will hopefully get them excited to help with the cooking. There are several sites with great campfire recipes, ranging from a simple corn on the cob to more elaborate concoctions like beef stroganoff. Or you could attempt Nichols’ favorite, a one-pot meal he calls Thanksgiving Dinner, which includes a jumble of boxed stuffing, chicken, gravy mix, instant mashed potatoes and dried cranberries. (He admits it sounds terrible but swears it’s delicious.)

Try Glamping

If you’re simply not the outdoorsy type but still value the idea of getting the kids to commune with nature, a growing number of glamour camping — a.k.a. glamping — companies are willing and able to coax you outside with minimal effort on your part. (However, it’ll cost you far more than your average national park campsite.)

New York-based Terra Glamping will operate its annual glamping site in East Hampton’s Cedar Point County Park this year, offering a hotel-like experience complete with queen-size beds, morning yoga, bonfires with a s’mores bar, kayaking on Gardiners Bay and a lounge tent stocked with books, board games and couches.

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