words :: Kristin Schnelten.
After a decade spent gallivanting about the continent with nothing much more than a camp stove and a dog, stopping to rest wherever I pleased—in tents, modified beds of trucks, often right in my Subaru—my first experience with family camping was quite a smack in the face.
The tight quarters, the constant needs, the sleeplessness, the forever-hungry bellies. The sheer volume of stuff. Thinking back on that adventure, “fun” isn’t the first word that comes to mind.
Family Camping + Friends = More Happiness
But it did get easier, and far more enjoyable. With a bit of experience, camping with kids brings with it all the highs and lows of camping without kids: crackling campfires and quiet sunrises, maddening bug swarms and forgotten tent poles. The secret to success is simple, really, and it applies to nearly everything else in life: Bring friends. And lots of food.
With very young children, friends offer an extra set of hands. Someone to hold the baby, chase the toddler, entertain the hungry while dinner simmers. A fun, non-parent grown-up can provide encouragement for weary legs on a longer hike, or novel entertainment on an endless paddle. Good friends will even keep the fire burning and your drink cold while you tuck the children into their sleeping bags—a critical step in a newer parent’s routine.
Littles are known for their specific wants, and keeping things as even-keeled as possible can be a saviour. Pack favourite foods, bring more than necessary (too much food is not possible here), even add a few never-evers. Sure, you wouldn’t let them eat Oreos by the fistful at home. But at the campfire, everything is fair game.
If you’re really brave, dive into that bag of marshmallows with the toddlers. Or, if you aren’t fond of marshmallow-hair extrication, wait until they’re a bit older. Once they’re safe to roast a puffy glob of corn syrup on their own, you know they’re big kids.
Campgrounds = More Freedom
Big kids can paddle their own board, carry their own pack (albeit a symbolic smaller one) and invite their own friends. Preferably those friends will bring their parents along, too. Finding another family to share your camping escapades can be a lifelong arrangement, and now is a great time to rope the right ones into the mix. Adults commiserate, reminisce and generally disregard their age and responsibilities around the fire while the children—well, they pretty much bugger off.
Campgrounds offer freedoms most kids don’t have at home. Bring the bikes, establish their boundaries and let them ride. They’ll make new friends, explore new trails, and, if all goes well, come back filthy and exhausted. For downtimes, pack a few surprises into the mix: a new book, a complicated fire-roasted dessert (with marshmallows, always with marshmallows), a jumbo-size package of sparklers, maybe even a hammock or two.
Even in the backcountry, kids will have more latitude than in their yard, and will generally relish in the responsibilities of setting up the tent, gathering firewood, starting a fire. Pack a flint and steel. Everyone digs new gadgets, and kids love to master skills with their buddies.
For Happier Family Camping, Include Everyone in the Planning Process
If you do head to far-off sites, take small steps. Although the very biggest kids may be physically ready for a two-km portage, hours of sullen highschooler complaints that may last through the return trip are a high price to pay for solitude among the pines. Choose shorter routes at first, and include everyone in the planning process. Which route is best? What’s the most creative way to feed three families? Digging out the gear, shopping for groceries and packing for a trip is often one of the most gratifying steps of any adventure, and giving kids ownership and experience may very well turn them into lifelong campers.
Heading into our 13th year in the family camping business, we’ve run the gamut of sleeping arrangements—setting up our tent in hot, buggy farm fields in Maine; packing gear in dry bags for multi-day canoe expeditions in New Brunswick; tucking high into a rooftop tent on an empty cliff, safe from howling coyotes in Michigan. The memories we’ve made, the stories we tell, are of nature, people and meals, all intertwined. We remember Algonquin: The blackflies. The warm swim on the beach. The moose who swam next to our canoe as we paddled. The storm that kicked up and nearly trapped us on a tiny island. Theresa and her outstanding, sticky dessert. Music by the fire. Let’s do that again.