When the Captain and I got engaged, we were camping in Tasmania. We had flown there without a shred of camping equipment, stayed in a hotel for New Year’s Eve, and then hit an outdoors store on New Years Day, both feeling a bit hazy and under the weather from the festivities the night before. Though we were completely unprepared in terms of gear (or reservations) we didn’t have a worry in the world because camping was no big deal to us. The idea of hitting a down-under version of Dick’s Sporting Goods and then heading into the wilderness for a week didn’t phase either of us in the least. And when it hailed all night our first night out there, we obviously decided that this boded well for our future and promised to spend our the rest of lives together. We were at camping level: expert.
But camping with kids is a different story. I’m all for letting my children embrace their inner jungle creature during normal waking hours, but in the round-the-clock eternal lavender glow of the summer solstice wherein free range kids are up until midnight and wake with first light at 4AM? No thanks. We are still admitted novices at family camping. We have only brought the kids a few times. And each time, it takes days of planning, packing, and forethought before I can comfortably wrap my head around our plans. But we’re getting better at it and each time is a little easier than the last. In fact, I’m developing a system to simplify the process. Someday, we are going to be able to decide that it’s a great weekend for camping on Friday afternoon, chuck our camping bins in the car, and hit the road. Here are my top tips for family camping so far.
- Pack in bins. Duffel bags are for air travel and sporting events. Backpacks are for backpacking. Plastic lawn bins and beverage tubs? Totally for car and boat camping. They are sturdy enough to get knocked around, they hold tons of gear and they can double as wind, water and animal-resistant storage at the campsite. Think about it: bags would need to be packed into the tent each night to keep them dry and safe. Bins and buckets can stay outside. They also stack easily and can double as kitchen area worktops when they have lids on. Large beverage buckets are similarly great for hauling things like sleeping bags, pads, tents, etc and then can double as dish buckets at the campsite.
- Have dedicated camping gear. Though it originally seemed silly to me that we would have one set of cooking ware and cutlery at home, one set on our boat and yet another set packed away and only used for camping, it really does make it so much easier. When you have a dedicated set of plates, bowls, cutlery, cookware and serving utensils, you can keep your camping kitchen bin packed and ready to go. Include your camp stove, a dish towel, sponge and dish soap. By keeping as much of your gear as possible packed and ready, your pre-camping prep gets trimmed significantly.
- Make a packing checklist and SAVE IT. Type your list up and each time you go camping, edit it down to delete things you didn’t need and add things you wish you’d brought. I know it seems anal and borderline obsessive, but a list takes so much of the stress and forethought out of the equation. Need a cheat sheet to get started? Check out my packing list here: 365Outside Camping List: A Work in Progress
- Prep food ahead of time. There is something about camping that makes a hot meal seem beyond luxurious. But prepping it, cooking it and cleaning it up outside makes the whole thing ten times more complicated than at home. I simplify the process by doing as much prep ahead of time as possible. I pre-cook as much as I can and freeze it before it goes in the cooler. I try to make things that can be reheated over the campfire to conserve space on the stove. Bonus points if it can be cooked in foil for no-clean-up. On our latest trip I cooked chili, breakfast casseroles and quinoa salad ahead of time. Friends brought meatloaf-stuffed peppers and onions along with foil-wrapped sweet potatoes and a ready-to-eat chicken salad. Coordinate with camping buddies and host a potluck. And include a few super easy meals like hotdogs or precooked sausages and some instant oatmeal so that you have some simple options to fall back on in a crunch.
- Indulge the little ones. We run a pretty tight ship around here, but camping is another story. Kids are happiest when they feel like they are experiencing something special and being given extra freedoms. When we camp, they stay up late, they run wild, they get dirt and food caked into their sunscreen and bug spray plastered cheeks. And we don’t care. They snack all day long. They stuff their cheeks with s’mores and they enjoy steady peace offerings of glow sticks and bubbles. Some may say we spoil them, which may certainly be the case, but vacation is a chance for everyone to indulge and any adult who doesn’t eat, drink and indulge more often on vacation clearly isn’t doing it right. Why not give kids the same experience we create for ourselves?
Our camping trip last weekend was the stuff of summer dreams. We were surrounded by good friends in a full-on multi-family camping slumber party. There was plenty of good food, indulgent drinks and relaxation. But at the same time, we were surrounded by natural beauty and removed from the chaos of daily life. The kids romped across the tidal flats, catching crabs and snails. We watched the sun set slowly and the nearly full moon rise. We sat around the camp fire late into the night with sleepy kids who eventually, thankfully, asked to go to sleep. We woke early and sipped our steaming coffee while watching the gentle water lap along the shore. We spent long hours exploring the sound in our boat. And when the last day arrived, we packed up slowly, regrettably, glancing back over our shoulders as we left the island behind until next time. It’s still a bit of a ordeal to create these moments, but it’s getting easier and it’s always worth the hassle.