Usually all it takes is one meteor bolting across the sky to persuade any young adventurer-in-the-making of a fundamental fact of life—camping is cool.
—Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books)
It’s true. One of the best ways to introduce children to the great outdoors is to take them camping. As with other learning experiences, it’s best to start small, hiking in nearby woods or pitching a tent in the backyard. If you have a special perspective to share, all the better. For example, no hike with my brother-in-law, a meteorologist, is complete without having the kids, ages 4 and 6, identify the clouds and “predict” tomorrow’s weather. But whether your first campouts are in the backyard, at a nature preserve or at a state park with campsites, the goal is to make bonding with nature, and with the family through nature, a positive and fun experience.
To ensure your first family campouts are a success, we suggest planning ahead and covering the following bases:
Equipment. Lists of camping essentials abound (at rei.com among other sites). You’ll need a tent, sleeping bags and pads, backpacks, a cookstove or grill and cookware, a utility knife or multipurpose tool, fire starter and matches, flashlights and lanterns with backup batteries, and, if possible, a GPS with backup map and compass. Mark Brennan, a software developer, former Eagle Scout and father of two campers-in-training, ages 4 and 7, advises newbie campers: “Keep it inexpensive and uncomplicated. Use your own old stuff, even battered old pots and pans, or borrow. You don’t need an expensive tent and a titanium mess kit.”
Clothing. Whatever the season, think layers, insulated wear and lots of changes, especially socks, shoes and/or boots. Temps go from hot to cold and back again in the blink of an eye, and kids get wetter and dirtier in proportion to the fun they’re having. Opt for waterproof gear when possible.
Medicine. Brennan advises two first-aid kits, a larger one for the car or campsite and a smaller one for your backpack. Plan on assorted bandages, antibiotic ointment, aspirin, cold medicine, antihistamines, tweezers (for the inevitable splinters), poison ivy deterrents and (if those fail) treatments, sunscreen and lots of sunglasses (kids tend to lose them). At-home basics—liquid soap, shampoo, hand sanitizer—apply as well.
Diversions. If you’re headed for water, pails, shovels, swim goggles, Croc-type shoes, life jackets and water toys are essential. If yours is a biking or boating family, bring along the bikes or the boat if your vehicle can handle them. Back on land, assorted balls and bats will provide sure hits by day, and a small portable telescope will bring the night sky to life. And Brennan is a big fan of the old-fashioned campfire—“There’s something primal about it,” he says. The whole campfire scene—gathering the wood with the kids, singing songs, telling stories and doing skits around the fire—is great for family bonding.
Food. Granola bars and trail mixes are good any time, likewise fresh fruits and veggies, water and drinks in reusable bottles, and come mealtime, family-friendly grill food (organic and meat-free where possible for the most environmentally friendly campout). Bring reusable plates and utensils, too, instead of disposables, and if you’re using charcoal, opt for slow-burning lump charcoal from wood scraps which are less polluting.
Awareness. One of the most valuable lessons you can teach your children is that we are stewards of our environment, and part of our mission is to leave the Earth in as good shape, or better, than we found it—otherwise known as the “leave no trace” principle. So keep trash to a minimum, and properly dispose what trash you do generate—and leave your camping spot as pristine as you found it for future campers and the critters who call that spot home.