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Family Camping

By LaJuana Oswalt
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 15 No. 5, September-October 1998, pp. 132-35

Our first family camping trip started out as an unmitigated disaster. Unfamiliar with the intricacies of packing enough camping gear for a weekend into the luggage space of our vehicle, we crammed gear and clothing into the car. Since we'd gotten a late start, we rolled into our campsite after dark. Setting up the tent for the first time with no light proved to be a huge challenge. And did I mention the temperature? It was cold. We had not brought warm clothing. So we sat next to the meager fire, bundled in every quilt and blanket I had packed to use as bedding.

By bedtime, we were chilled to the bone and seriously doubting our sanity. We finally drifted off to sleep, serenaded by the Boy Scout camp across the way. Suddenly, I was awakened by my friend's voice. She and her three daughters were camped in the tent right next to us. "Don't throw up in the tent! Don't throw up in the tent!" she cried frantically. I could hear her rustling around in the sleeping bags and piles of supplies in their tent. She was pushing her daughter toward the opening of the tent, but the zipper proved to be too much for a sick 12-year-old to manage. She threw up in the tent.

What a wonderful introduction to camping! However, in spite of this less-than- stellar beginning, my family and I have become veteran campers. Any time we get the chance, we load up the car and take off for some rest and relaxation in the outdoors. After such an ill-fated maiden voyage, why would we try again? Because everyone needs a vacation and we've grown to love the special charms of camping.

Saving Money

Camping is an inexpensive alternative to the vacations many families would like to take but cannot afford. Camping equipment runs the gamut from the simple family tent and sleeping bags to the most elaborate travel trailer or motor home. For your first trip, try renting gear or borrowing it from acquaintances with camping experience. That way, you can see if your family is suited to the great outdoors without investing much money.

Campsites vary widely in both amenities and prices. State Parks, National Parks, and the Corps of Engineers sites offer moderately priced camping all across the United States. Campsites with water, electricity, and sewer hookups usually cost around $12-$15 per night. Primitive camping sites with no hookups are available for free or for a nominal registration fee. Privately owned campgrounds with organized recreational activities, swimming pools, game rooms, and laundry facilities are still priced well below even the most bare-bones motels.

Another price-saving feature of camping is preparing your own meals. Camping meals can be elaborate or simple. Appetites are usually keener with all the outdoor activity, and it's prudent to keep substantial snack food on hand. Food cooked outdoors seems to automatically taste better than the same food prepared inside.

However, the benefits of camping with your family go further than affordability. In today's world, it is difficult to find a large block of time to really focus on your family, your partner, and your children. Even when we set aside a weekend, telephone calls, errands, and household chores intrude. At the campsite, you can leave these things behind and instead find yourself talking with your family around the campfire. The whole family pitches in to do chores, and the chores at a campsite are often more fun than those at home. Picking up kindling for the fire can turn into a nature walk when you look for the tracks of wildlife. Setting up the tent is a study in geometry and physics and cooperation. When you are finished, that same tent is a brand new environment that fascinates a curious toddler who needs to be confined while you unload the rest of your supplies.

What about camping with children? When are babies "big enough" to go camping? Start them out young! On our ill-fated first camping trip, Caitlin was two months old, and she's been camping ever since. Babies do well in a sling and enjoy spending the time outdoors. When camping with a toddler, it is best to have someone on "toddler duty" at all times, just to be sure your curious little one does not explore outside safe boundaries. Have a "no-kid zone" in a wide circle around the campfire.

Children play hard when they are camping, and once it is dark, they tend to drop off to sleep early. On our last camping trip, I looked around the campfire at my friends. Our laps were all full of little ones, sprawled in sleep, full of toasted marshmallows and the contentment of a relaxing day spent outdoors with their families and friends.

The joys of camping are not only for children. My most treasured camping memory came one fall afternoon. My two older children were off on a bike ride with their dad, and I had the baby in the tent for an afternoon nap. Our portable CD player was set up near the campfire and the strains of a lovely piano and guitar piece were floating across the tiny meadow where we were camped. A light breeze blew through the screens in the tent, and as my baby quietly nursed to sleep, tiny golden leaves fell down around us like the gentlest of showers. It was a moment the finest resorts would give anything to duplicate, and it cost us $12 a night!

Camping Equipment

At the bare minimum, you will need a tent, sleeping bags, and some basic cooking equipment. Most sites have a fire pit or grill, so your cooking can be done over the fire. The same fire will illuminate your campsite after dark and provide an excellent setting for singing, story-telling, and conversation. Plan ahead. Find out if the campground provides firewood (most do not) and bring some along if necessary.

While not an absolute necessity, an air mattress or some other sort of pad is a nice addition to your family camping supplies. Children don't seem to notice that they slept on the bare ground, but adults are a different story. Other items to consider taking along are: flashlights and batteries, lanterns and fuel, matches, hatchet (for firewood and kindling), camp stove, bug repellant, first-aid supplies, lawn chairs, extension cords, and a portable radio/cassette/CD player for music.

We rarely camp without our bicycles. Campsites are generally low-traffic areas where even the youngest bikers can ride safely to their hearts' content. Don't forget their helmets! No one wants a camping trip interrupted by an injury.

Another camping necessity is toiletries. A plastic tote filled with soap, toothpaste, and a small bottle of shampoo can be carried easily to the shower house. Shower shoes are inexpensive and can be tucked down inside the shower tote. When selecting a campsite, take into consideration the location of the toilets. It is much easier to be close! A portable potty is good to have for those middle-of-the-night trips when climbing over sleeping children and unzipping a tent zipper seems like a daunting task. Most campers prefer to limit the porta-potty's use to nighttime and emergencies.

Cooking While Camping

On your first outings, keep it simple. Hot dogs grilled over the fire are not only fun to prepare, but they require a minimum of utensils. Hobo Dinners are another favorite, and they can be prepared at home and packed in your ice chest for cooking on the fire. Place a hamburger patty (or chicken breast or pork chop--you choose) onto a square of heavy-duty aluminum foil, and surround it with chopped vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, onions, bell pepper, celery, mushrooms, or squash. Seal the packets and place them in the coals. Eat them right out of the foil, and toss your dishes in the trash when you are finished. What could be easier?

Breakfasts can be light--cereal and milk--or hearty and filling. The smell of coffee brewing over the fire will wake the sleepiest camper. A cookstove is a nice accessory for fixing breakfast, although eggs and bacon can be cooked in an iron skillet over the coals. Pancakes are traditional camping fare and can also be cooked over coals.

Lunches are usually serve-yourself affairs at our campsite. We take sandwich fixings, chips, and fruit, and the children eat whenever they get hungry.

Meal cleanup is not difficult, but it takes a little planning. Take along a large kettle. It can be used for campfire chili or stew, then put to use a second time to heat water for washing dishes. Don't forget to pack dishwashing detergent and a dishcloth and towel. While it is more ecologically sound to wash your dishes after each meal, it is easier to use disposable plates and cups. Decide which is more important for your family. Remember that many campgrounds and state parks monitor garbage and expect campers to separate all their recyclable waste materials.


Take a variety of clothing when camping. Often, it is cool at night and early in the morning, but warm during the afternoon. Layers work best. Don't take your best clothes. Dirt is one of the main components of any camping trip. Before you leave your house, resign yourself to the fact that your children will have dirt under their fingernails, their clothes will be filthy, and it really doesn't matter! Keep a laundry pre-treating stick handy to treat the most horrendous stains right at the campsite. Take extra of everything, especially socks. The younger the children, the more extra clothes they will need. If they have old shoes, take those. If possible, dress your children in bright clothing because it makes it easier to spot them at a distance.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

A trial run with the tent in your back-yard is a nice introduction to camping for children who are uneasy at night. The sounds you hear in a tent, while soothing and sleep-inducing for many, can take some getting used to for a child. Listen for different animals and insects. The chirp of a cricket is easily distinguished from the song of a tree frog. Was that a bear brushing up against the tent? More likely it was a leaf falling on the canvas or a squirrel scavenging for the roasted peanuts you dropped.

If your campsite has electricity, a small fan running in the tent at night provides enough "white noise" to allow little ones to drift off but still allows you to hear the sounds of nature around you. Give each child a flashlight of his own. Light is a powerful tool against nighttime fears. Mix a bit of vinegar and water in a spray bottle and make a big show of spraying your homemade "critter repellant" around the campsite.

Finding Your Comfort Level

Tent camping is an excellent way to get started camping with your family. But what if a tent just isn't for you? Maybe your family craves a few more comforts. Explore the possibility of cabin camping at a National or State Park. These cabins are usually quite rustic and offer the experience of the outdoors without the setup and maintenance of tent camping.

Pop-up trailers are another option. These are basically tents on wheels, which provide features not feasible in a tent. For example, pop-ups can be equipped with furnaces, sinks, even showers and toilets! Their beds are up off the ground and more comfortable than a sleeping bag on the bare ground. They are lightweight and easily towed behind most family cars.

Full-sized travel trailers and motorhomes are another option, although they are a substantial investment. Trailers and motor homes provide the maximum of luxury while camping. Ease of setup and packing are additional advantages to these high-end vehicles.

Final Tips

If you decide to give camping a try, remember these tips. Have a sense of humor. Camp the first time with experienced friends. Take off your watch. Stay up late, scold less, laugh more. Make your packing containers do double duty--pack in trash bags, stuff dirty laundry back into them. Be prepared; family camping can become a passion and your whole family will be richer for it.

Babies in Sleeping Bags

Camping with little ones requires a little attention to details. Some special areas of concern are:

Setup: Crawling toddlers love to explore the tent once it is set up. They may sleep through the whole set-up process, safely buckled in their car seats. If they are awake, they are usually so enthralled by the new and exciting activity going on around them that they will be happy to perch, still buckled in, on a picnic table or in the grass near your campsite. If you're camping with friends, work it out so that one adult is available to watch small children.

Diapers: Most campsites will have garbage disposal available at or near each individual campsite. Disposable diapers are easy to pack and dispose of, but you can certainly camp with cloth diapers. Large-sized plastic storage bags will hold soiled diapers until you return home, as will a sealable plastic container. The tent floor, picnic table, or a sling spread on the ground makes a changing table au natural!

Creepy crawlers: First, remember the rule: "Your children will get dirty." Dress the crawling ones appropriately, police your campsite for poison ivy, sharp sticks, or anything that appears dangerous to you, and then let them explore nature. You can spread a quilt or blanket on the ground for their play area. You can sew old towels together for a huge, easily washable, camping quilt. Border this play area with your lawn chairs, some favorite toys, or a couple of adults who want to lie in the shade and read. Babies love the company and the outdoors.

Bathing: Maybe baby has gotten dirtier than you can live with or you've applied insect repellant and need to wash it off. There are several ways to clean babies while camping. The bath house at the campsite is one option. Shower stalls designed to be accessible to the disabled usually have a tiled bench where you can sit and hold your child while you both shower. At the campsite, use a multi-purpose rubber bin as a tub. Heat water on your camp stove or over your fire, then fill the tub and bathe your baby before snuggling down to sleep.

Toddler duty: If your toddler is an especially curious and active child, consider assigning a responsible teenager or adult to "toddler duty." This person keeps a close eye on the busy toddler, making sure to steer them clear of the campfire, keep them confined to the campsite, and discourage them from dismantling anyone's tent!

Camping trips are rarely spent just sitting around. Babies and toddlers love long hikes in a back carrier or sling. A bike seat for the little ones lets them enjoy family bike rides. And there's nothing quite like nursing your baby to sleep, surrounded by the beauty of the outdoors. /font>


Little, M. and Morava, L. Camper's Guide to U.S. National Parks. Houston, Texas: Gulf Publishing Company, 1994.

Logue, V. Camping in the 90s. Birmingham, Alabama: Menasha Ridge Press, 1995.

White, U. Sleeping in a Sack: Camping Activities for Kids. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1998.

Woodson, R. and Woodson, K. The Parent's Guide to Camping with Children. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 1995.

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