A few summers ago, my buddy and I took our kids camping. It wasn’t the first time we’d taken them, but each time is something of an adventure.
At one point, I was cooking dinner on my camp stove (that has two settings—”off,” or “burn your food in five seconds.”) He was starting the campfire.
Neither one of us was paying super close attention to our four-year-olds who were playing at the picnic table. But suddenly I heard a shout of glee and then one of them say, “Do it again!”
Then, out of my periphery, I watched one of them shoot a citronella candle with an aerosol can of bug spray, creating a moderate-sized fireball that shot across our camp site, bringing that look of complete amazement to their faces.
This brings me to my first bit of advice when taking kids camping for the first time:
Give Yourself Some Space
As I caught the two little pyromaniacs in their second act of butane combustion, a string of profanities escaped my lips.
Chances are, on your first camping-with-kids experience, you’re likely going to lose your cool at some point. Better that there isn’t a nice retired couple, honeymooners or another family 20 feet away.
We’re assuming that your first camp trip with kids isn’t into some remote outback. If you have that kind of confidence, good for you. But most likely, you’re at a family campground with other folks around.
On a busy weekend, you’re probably not going to be able to find a private spot. But maybe ask for a site that isn’t right on top of other campers. You won’t have a bunch of college kids playing music and tossing beer cans in the fire a few feet from your family and no one else is going to hear your kids when they have a “lost-marshmallow meltdown.”
Your first camping trip with the kids might be something as simple as an RV park—On a clear night you can see the glowing lights of the Dairy Queen a quarter-mile away.
Doesn’t matter that you haven’t left actual civilization, you can still use this as a chance to unplug. Make a concerted effort with the other adults that you won’t be handing your kid your phone or tablet.
Even though you’re not in the outback, try to get them to disconnect from the devices, even for one night. Encourage them to do the kind of things that made camping so cool when you were a kid.
Once they start walking to the general store, collecting pointy sticks and playing with fire, they may not even ask for a screen. (That also means you can’t stare at your phone the whole time either.)
If you’re taking the tykes camping at a young age, it’s likely that you’re trying to instill a love of the outdoors. The goal should not be to camp on the summit of Long’s Peak, but to take them camping a second time.
When I was a kid, every family camping trip coincided with the storm of the summer, some kind of torrential weather that left us soaked for three days.
Fortunately, there was enough canoeing, trekking, surfing, and bike riding that we didn’t get turned off. You don’t want to push that first experience and have them ruined to adventure. If the forecast looks like a cold front or heat wave, reschedule.
Keep it simple. Maybe it’s just one night. For a first time, consider staying at a campground close to home.
If worst comes to worst and you get clobbered by mosquitoes, a thunderstorm and a band of gypsies, you can just pack up and retreat to your house. There’s no shame in that.
Keep them Busy
When planning your trip, look for campgrounds with pools, trails, or a stream. It may not be the kind of outdoor travel you’re used to, but when the kids can simply run, hike, and play, it keeps them occupied.
They’re not as concerned with history, migrating birds or your new expedition kit. They’ll be happy in a lake. Have them help put up the tent, make dinner and roll out the sleeping bags.
And that will wear them out, so they’ll be in dreamland just after sundown and you get a few minutes of peace by the fire.
Find friends with kids. Nothing occupies little people like other little people (and watching things burn).
It’s helpful, especially with a pack of groms, to have a couple of adults. The kids can play together. You can shower knowing your kids aren’t harassing wildlife.
And at the end of the day, you can have a conversation that doesn’t involve poop or snot.
On the last trip, when we finally got the tribe settled, my buddy took a deep breath, cracked a beer, sat in his beach chair, looked at me and said, “Dude, they built a blow torch.”
It was a great way to end the day.