Study after study reveals a connection to how nature impacts social, emotional and physical well-being. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics considers unstructured, outdoor free play time to be essential for children’s mental and physical health. But, busy lives often get in the way. Between school, homework and other commitments, kids often have as busy a schedule as adults.
If your family is in need of a healthy dose of the outdoors, camping just might be the right prescription. Fresh air, beautiful scenery and a slower pace await you.
“Camping gives families that unscripted, unstructured time they need and a disconnection from our digital world to engage directly with our primitive world,” said Kyle Thoreson, park ranger at Osage Hills State Park.
Here are five pro tips for camping with kids to help make sure your outdoor endeavors reap the plentiful benefits.
Preparation is vital.
Preparation is extremely important when camping with kids. Taking on too much right off the bat just might sideline your family’s future camping excursions. For those who are completely new to camping or have young kids, a great place to start might be in your own backyard.
“Backyard camping takes very little preparation and money and helps you work out some of the kinks and learn about your equipment,” explained Thoreson.
You might even consider a trial run and spend the day at a park nearby to see how your family reacts to the experience, taking notes about what you learn and what you need for future trips. Be sure to involve the kids as much as possible in the preparations and activity planning to build their sense of adventure, suggests Emily Hiatt, naturalist at Martin Park Nature Center. The more they are involved in the process the more they will want to go again, she said.
“I like to see the experience through kids’ eyes,” Thoreson said. “I let my daughter pack a bag with whatever she wants. I don’t even look in there. She puts together some comfort items on her own that will help her feel at home.”
Realistic expectations also are important. Consider what your family can and will enjoy. For example, if you have a toddler in your group, a long hike isn’t likely to turn out well.
“Know your children, and their attention spans. Younger children are usually the most happy when they are given plenty of free play. Often just being outdoors is all the entertainment they need,” said Nick Conner, park manager of Osage Hills State Park. “As our children get older, they enjoy more structured activities, but don’t neglect free play time for them and yourselves. We all could use some time at a creek skipping stones or chasing grasshoppers and butterflies.”
Educate yourselves before you go.
Safety must be a top priority. Nothing will turn a campout upside down quicker than an accident.
“Learn about the local flora and fauna of the area where you are camping,” said Conner. “There are plenty of resources online to learn about what sort of plants and animals you may encounter. Park professionals will be glad to answer all of your questions and help put to rest any fears you might have of the outdoors.”
No matter your destination, there are specific safety precautions you need to follow while interacting with and in nature.
“Don’t feed the wildlife. Human food is generally not good for animals,” Thoreson warned. “It is against policy in most parks and it can be dangerous. They are wild and should be treated as such. In Oklahoma, we don’t have much of a bear or cougar population to be concerned about but snakes, ticks and mosquitoes are our primary concerns.”
Insects can be more than just pesky pests. During the warm months, insect repellent is a must to deter ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes from making your family their next meal and potentially passing along unpleasant illnesses.
“For tick and mosquito control, DEET products are best. Other options don’t have the same efficacy,” Thoreson said. “You can also treat your camping clothes in permethrin.”
Once treated, permethrin (an insect repellent for clothing) will protect against insects even through a few washes. Connor suggested doing a thorough tick check before bed, even if you use insect repellent.
- DEET: According to Thoreson, products with this ingredient are best for tick and mosquito control.
- Permethrin: Thoreson suggests treating camping clothes in permethrin, a product that will protect against insects for a few washes.
- Tecnu cleanser: Hiatt recommends bringing this cleanser along because it can remove the rash-causing oils of poison ivy if used within two to eight hours of exposure.
Other important things to keep in mind when it comes to safety are weather and food safety. Be sure to prepare for inclement weather and always follow safe food storage and preparation practices.
“Stress free is the way to be,” Conner said. “Bring all the things for proper sanitation and food storage, especially when bringing along raw meat and dairy products. Prepackaged and pre-prepared meals and snacks are good ideas to avoid having to think on your feet when your campfire won’t cooperate or you accidentally drop all of the bacon in the fire.”
Pack for success.
Camping with kids isn’t exactly a good time to pack lean. There are important creature comforts that help ensure a positive experience. What you need to pack varies based on your destination and skill-level. Packing lists will look different for the family car camping than the family backpacking.
When car camping, families pitch their tent and set up camp by their vehicle allowing more space for supplies and extras. More experienced campers might enjoy a remote location and load up all they need in a backpack. Whichever your family prefers, Thoreson suggests starting small when collecting your camping gear.
“There is a good selection of inexpensive equipment available on the market,” Thoreson said. “Go ahead and spend $30 on a tent and give it a go and find out if you like it. Then keep getting bigger and better, collecting more as you find your interest level.”
Must-have items include: shelter, water, food, clothing, insect repellent, a first-aid kit, toilet paper, trash bags and sunscreen. If your destination includes water play, add life jackets to that list.
Since a tent will likely be on most families’ packing list, a good rule of thumb is to add one or two to your desired capacity to allow for gear and a comfortable sleeping arrangement. Also, those temperatures on inexpensive sleeping bags are usually more of a survival rating than a comfort-level guide, Thoreson warned.
“The more inexpensive the sleeping bag the more optimistic they tend to be about those temperatures. I would say to take away about 15 degrees to be comfortable.”
Many families will likely leave electronics off their packing list. Unplugging is typically a main goal when camping. Coloring books, word puzzles, yard games and decks of cards are fun options for campsite entertainment. However, forcing a technology-addicted child to go cold turkey might leave them not wanting to repeat the experience. So what you decide to pack or not pack goes back to those realistic expectations mentioned previously.
Choose your destination wisely.
There are several factors to consider when choosing where to go including experience, interests and budget. Close-to-home options are good for the new-to-camping family and can be budget friendly. Parks with a nature center and ranger-led activities offer fun things to do, easing the burden of keeping the kids entertained.
“Parks with rental facilities are a fun bonus,” said Thoreson.
Some Oklahoma State Parks offer unique shelter options including cabins, teepees, covered wagons and canvas wall tents. Most also feature playgrounds, mini golf courses and water entertainment.
Veteran campers might prefer dispersed camping. These off-the-beaten path sites have less people but usually also lack access to water and restrooms.
Wherever you choose to go, help protect and preserve the natural world by practicing the principles of leave no trace and do not bring firewood. Leave no trace by camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly, leaving what you find, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting wildlife and being considerate to other visitors.
Learn how to build your own campfire using wood sticks and logs that you find at your campground. Bringing firewood in with you is discouraged as it can also transport invasive species of bugs which can be very harmful. Dontmovefirewood.org is a good source to learn more.
Know when to leave.
Despite all of the best preparations and Pinterest hacks, sometimes things just don’t go as planned. Having an exit strategy if things go for the worst and knowing what to do in the event of an emergency will help keep your family safe.
“Don’t overstay,” Thoreson said. “Know when to go and where to go.”