Few things beat seeing a child’s eyes light up as they discover the natural world, but heading on an outdoor vacation with young kids in tow requires a little more preparation than your average camping trip. Here’s how you can make sure your next adventure is as safe as it is memorable.
Planning Your Trip
The U.S. is home to more than 300 million acres of national parks, forests, and wildernesses awaiting your discovery. Many parks offer developed trails and campgrounds that are perfect for families with young children. Whether you road trip through America’s most breathtaking parks, like the canyon country of the Southwest, or opt to explore a lesser-known gem like North Cascades National Park in Washington, you’ll find jaw-dropping natural beauty at every turn.
Look for parks that offer frontcountry camping, also called car camping, for comfortable campsites with access to restrooms, water, and picnic tables. While established campgrounds lack the solitude of backcountry camping, that’s usually the right choice with young children. You don’t have to worry about carrying tired kids’ camping gear, teaching little ones to use the bathroom outside, or clearing a campsite of rocks and brambles. Plus, having camping neighbors means other children to play with as the gang winds down at night.
The safest camping trip is a well-prepared one. Make sure your family is ready for all the fun the great outdoors has in store by packing appropriately for your destination. Here’s everything you can’t forget:
- Tent with poles, footprint, and rainfly.
- Sleeping pads or air mattress.
- Sleeping bags and pillows.
- Headlamps or flashlights with extra batteries.
- Cooler with ice.
- Firewood, charcoal, or camp stove with fuel.
- Skillet or pot.
- Cutting board and knife.
- Plates, cups, and utensils.
- Trash bags.
- Dish towel or sponge.
- Biodegradable soap.
- Water bottles.
- Hiking shoes.
- Trail map.
- Survival whistles.
- Child carrier.
- Bug repellent.
- First aid kit.
- Clothes for hiking, sleeping, swimming, and inclement weather.
- Tarp or canopy for rain protection.
- Camping chairs.
- Travel potty for kids in toilet-training.
- Toys and games.
- Kids’ field guide.
No matter how many times you’ve looked over the itinerary and double-checked the packing list, nerves will hit when it comes time to keep little ones safe outdoors. Thankfully, a safe camping trip is easy to achieve with a few tips in mind.
When you get to the campsite, clearly define the boundaries that your children are allowed to wander within. For very young children, that may mean the boundaries of your individual campsite. Older kids can roam a little further as long as they remain within eyesight.
Check fire restrictions. This is especially true if you’re camping in the West, where fire bans are often in place during dry summer months. While kids might be disappointed to learn they can’t have a campfire, they won’t miss the flames when they cook up s’mores over a propane-fueled camp stove instead.
If you have a fire, keep boundary-testing tots safe by building up the fire ring’s physical barrier with large stones. Explain the danger of touching the campfire and how adults safely interact with it. Make sure one adult is on kid duty at all times when the fire is burning, and extinguish fires completely with water, dirt, or sand before turning in for the night.
When you hit the trail for a hike, give kids room to explore and stimulate their natural curiosity, but instruct them to stay on the trail and within sight of Mom and Dad. Assign chaperone duty for each kid to a specific adult so you don’t have to keep your eyes on several pairs of wandering feet at once. Talk to kids about what to do if they get lost: Stop, stay put, and blow their survival whistle three times.
When it comes to wrangling kids, the rules of the great outdoors aren’t all that different from home: be prepared, make sure everyone knows the rules, and watch little ones closely. With that — and a healthy dose of enthusiasm and tenacity — you’re ready to take your kids on their first great adventure.
Jamie Strand, together with his friend, created Scicamps. He is an unashamed nerd. He teaches community college and loves spending time with his two daughters.