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Family Matters

Exploring the Great Outdoors with Family Camping

April 21st, 2015

picture from MEC

By Josephine Baran

There’s nothing quite like sleeping under the stars, sitting around a campfire and spending quality time with the family. Some of our best family memories were made beneath the stars and out of the way from the city lights.

Camping is a great budget-friendly family vacation option that gives you and your kids the chance to disconnect from the daily routine and reconnect with each other. It’s a way to teach your children about nature and experience the joys of the outdoors. But for first-time family campers, packing up the kids, setting up a tent and living in the outdoors can seem like a daunting task.

With the right gear, planning and organization, family camping can be a fun and enjoyable activity for everyone. Taking the time ahead of your trip to plan is essential, but doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are a few helpful tips on planning, family camping safety and packing for any camping adventure.

Planning your trip

The most important part of family camping happens when you’re still at home. The following are important points to keep in mind before embarking on your trip:

Choose your location wisely

  • Pick your campground early since the good ones fill up early. Many of the bigger national and provincial parks are very busy during the summer.

  • Choose a campground with amenities like flush toilets, hot showers, fire pits, and running water to help make life outside a little easier.

  • Keep it close to home so if someone gets sick or you run out of s’mores you can head home for supplies.

Get familiar with your gear

  • If you bought new gear or are borrowing from a friend, set it up at home before hitting the road. Pitch the tent, light your stove, and test the lantern. This will make it easier to set up when you get to your campsite and will ensure you’re not forgetting anything.

Plan fast, easy and healthy meals

  • You don’t have to eat out of cans around the campfire! Plan some special meals and let the kids pick some treats to build excitement about the upcoming adventure.

  • Keep the ingredients simple and consider pre-packing meals into appropriate portions to avoid loading up your cooler. For your first adventure, try cooking your food beforehand and freezing it solid so all you have to do it warm it up at your campsite.

Don’t leave your family in the dark

  • Pack plenty of flashlights and batteries for those late-night bathroom breaks.

  • Make sure every child has their own flashlight or headlamp – they double as a toy!

Keep it clean

  • Bring a reusable plastic tablecloth to preserve a relatively clean eating area.

  • Create a designated hand-washing station to keep germs away.

  • If required, bring a roll of quarters for the showers and use biodegradable soaps.

Plan for fun

  • Travel size board and card games are perfect for when the sun goes down and are a great way to keep the kids around the campsite while dinner is cooking.

  • Remember that camping tasks can be fun for the little ones. Ask for help sweeping the tent, gathering sticks and preparing the meals.

  • Let the kids bring a few extra toys and their go-to comforts.

Planning goes beyond what you do before your trip. When you get home, air out the tents and sleeping bags before storing them to avoid mold or musty smells. Keep all your gear in one place in large containers with a packing list to eliminate having to check and re-check equipment before your next trip.

Family Camping safety

When away from home, it can be easy for our children to forget household rules and difficult for parents to enforce them. Despite our best intentions, it’s impossible for us to watch them 24 hours a day. Camping requires us to become creative in parenting to ensure our children remain safe.

Here are some tricks I’ve picked up over the years that have helped to keep our children safe from infancy to teenage years:

Set the boundaries

  • Assign a boundary for kids to stay inside, such as the perimeter of your campsite. Bigger kids may be allowed to travel to the perimeter of the campground. Set clear rules: “Don’t cross this line unless you have an adult with you.”

  • Bring skipping ropes to set a physical boundary that children cannot cross. This is also helpful around the cooking area to keep curious hands away from the fire.

Get your children involved

  • Ask for help building the fire, bringing over the pots to the cooking area, or watching you light the fire. This gives you a chance to educate your children about how to cook outside the home and makes them aware that a fire has been started and requires special attention.

Calories are your friend

  • Depending on the time of year, it’s important to keep your children well fed to ensure they are staying warm. Being outside and active all day burns more calories, so it’s not a bad idea to bring a couple chocolate bars with you or place a chunk of butter in their hot chocolate to ensure they’re getting enough.

  • Our fire toaster kept our kids well fed on many occasions, because no matter what mood they were in, they would always eat peanut butter and toast. This is also a good snack option if you run out of granola bars.

Choose sleeping arrangements wisely

  • For young families, sleeping is a big concern for safety. Sleeping bags pose a suffocation risk for toddlers when they wriggle down, so instead, try dressing your children in warm clothes and using a sleeping sac similar to over-the-shoulder snow pants to keep their legs warm.

  • For young kids, a mummy bag is preferable to a rectangular sleeping bag to ensure they don’t roll out or down when tossing and turning in the night.

  • For babies, we used a small camping cot and bug net to keep them contained and safe from nasty bug bites.

Remember that you’re the visitor

  • Pack food and dirty laundry away in the car when it’s not being eaten or worn to avoid hungry animals visiting the campsite.

  • Do not feed or play with any wildlife as it’s harmful for animals to eat human food and unhealthy for them to become accustomed to humans.

Figuring out what works best for your family is the best way to keep them safe. Growing up, our children were always runners; to keep them safe, I would attach a red flashing bike light and a bear bell to their clothing so that if they ran away, it would be easy to see and hear them in the green foliage. You know your family best and can come up with great ideas to keep them safe.

Having the right gear

Having the right gear makes a world of difference when you’re away from home. It’s easy to improvise if you forgot some toys for the kids, but much harder if you forgot to pack the tent. The side bar includes essential camping equipment you’ll want to have for your camping trip.

Additionally, here are some tricks and tips I’ve picked up in my 35 years of camping experience:

  • Avoid packing cottons and jeans, as they take much longer to dry.

  • Depending on the ages of your children, pack a small potty or designate a potty bowl for late notice bathroom breaks.

  • Use a backpack for children 6 months to 3 years. It keeps your hands free, is safer than front loading carriers for cooking, and is easy to use for longer family walks and hikes. 

Camping is a wonderful experience to share with your family and the perfect time to try things you wouldn’t normally do at home. One of our favourites is waking the kids up for a short midnight walk. Without the air pollution from the city, it’s easy to see the stars and fun to play some flashlight tag.

Josephine is an Outreach Coordinator at Canada’s leading outdoor retailer, MEC, at the Edmonton store. She has been camping for over 35 years and has 15 years of experience camping with her three children. When she is not at MEC, she can be found running or skiing with her kids and dog in tow.

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