Kids Need Room to Roam: Tips on Taking Your Little Ones Camping

by Darren Bush on September 8, 2011 · 35 comments

in Fatherhood, Relationships & Family, Travel & Leisure

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My generation (nearly 50 years old) had an extensive range from home base.  We’d disappear for a day.  No helicopter parents, no cell phones.  If we crashed our bikes, we fixed them as best we could and limped home.  I took a nice digger five miles from home (I still have the scar on my chin), used a t-shirt as a bandage, and a Good Samaritan took me home, and from there to the emergency room. I got 25 stitches and ate small things for a few days. I picked gravel out of my chin for years after that.

The truth is that the world is no more dangerous than it was 40 years ago, but 24-hour news channels have tricked us into thinking that if a kid spends more than half an hour outside, he’ll be eaten by a puma.  Lightning strikes every kid who steps in a puddle.  A laceration will lead to a flesh-eating bacteria.  CNN says it.  It must be true.

Our family is bucking a trend.  Maybe it’s because we don’t have cable and find CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and the Home Shopping Network a waste of electrons. If given a chance between outside and inside, both my kids will choose outside irrespective of conditions.  They know there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing. Since my kids have been dirt moles and water rats since they could sit up and hold their own weight, I am often asked, “When is the best time to start taking kids on outdoor excursions?”

My answer is always the same: on the way home from the birthing center. We owe it to our kids…heck, we owe it to all kids to get them outside.  Television has its place, but it is hardly an active, manly pursuit.  If the only injury children experience is repetitive motion syndrome from playing X-Box, our species is doomed.  We owe them scratches and scrapes, summits and snakes, sunburns and sunsets.  We owe them an authentic life.

Practical Matters

Kids are not little adults.  Their needs are very different, and if you want to enjoy your time with kids, pay attention.  There are five things I tell people when they ask about taking kids camping or hiking or paddling:

  1. They get cold faster.
  2. They get hot faster.
  3. They get hungry faster.
  4. They get bored faster.
  5. They want to be helpful.

Note #1: For the sake of ease of writing I’ll talk about kids as if they are your own. However, this information is as good for uncles, grandfathers, and other role models.

Note #2: Many of the same rules apply to taking babies camping, but we’ll tackle that situation separately down the road.

They get cold faster.  It’s simple thermodynamics. Little bodies lose heat faster than big ones.  They get cold before you do, so don’t assume because you’re not cold that your little ones aren’t either.  This is especially true in cases where you’re active (paddling a canoe or what have you, generating heat) and they aren’t (sitting in the canoe, shivering).

The solution is easy.  Take more clothing than you think necessary.  Because their clothes are smaller, it’s no big deal, and after a certain age (around six for our kids) they started carrying a lot of their own clothes and gear.

The first line of defense is good outerwear.  Make sure it fits: boots, raingear, hats, gloves, etc.  The difference between a good raincoat and a poncho is not worth it, especially when you have a wet and tired and hungry five-year-old.  Suddenly the extra $25 seems like a bargain.  Rain hats are particularly important.  Keeping little noggins dry goes a long way in keeping them warm.

Layer them up.  Fleece is great, but a good wool sweater will work as well.  A warm head is a happy head, so wool or fleece caps are great even under a rain hat.

It’s true that many kids outgrow their clothing before it wears out.  Take the sting out of it by starting a kid’s clothing swap with other outdoor friends.  Sometimes local outdoor stores will provide a venue for such trade.

For non-clothing items, you can tweak things a bit.  An adult sleeping bag will work fine for a kid if you use a piece of webbing to tie off the bottom of the sleeping bag so their little bodies don’t have to heat up the whole bag.  It works fine.  Down bags are generally less desirable for little ones who may still lack bladder control.  Synthetics have come a long way.

They get hot faster.  Of course they do.  Keeping kids comfortable in the heat is just as important as keeping them warm. Again, you may not notice because you’re not hot. A red flushed complexion is a good sign things are toasty.  Make use of evaporative cooling.  A baseball cap dipped in water can cool them off quickly, and a wet bandana around the neck is helpful too.

Long-sleeve nylon wind shirts are wonderful for everyone.  They keep off the sun but allow air to move freely.  A wind shirt is one of my key pieces of gear for paddling, hiking, or backpacking.

It goes without saying that many adults forget to apply (or reapply) sunscreen.  If you forget, chances are it’s not even on your kid’s radar.  Make it a point to reapply every hour, even if it’s just a touch-up.  Let the kids be in charge of watching the clock.  A bad sunburn can ruin a trip in an hour.  Prevention is the best cure.

They get hungry faster.  That’s probably not exactly true, but it is a fact that my kids would not tolerate hunger as well as we did.  Rather than three squares a day, count on feeding them snacks throughout the day as well as good sized portions at breakfast and dinner.  You will be shocked at how many pancakes a hungry twelve year-old can wolf down after a few days of outdoor life.

Keeping high-energy snacks handy is critical and can help avoid meltdowns.  Gummi worms worked for our kids, with the added benefit that we got to chug a few once in awhile.  Granola bars, GORP, etc. are best packaged in small baggies to be dealt out as needed.  Bonus: the kids can help prepare it before the trip.

This is not the time to withhold calories.  If your kid is overweight, don’t use the outdoors as an amateur fat camp.  They’ll resent you and hate the outdoors.  Feed ‘em lots of good fat and carbohydrate-rich foods.  They’ll burn it off with activity, plus their bodies burn more in general to keep their temperature regulated when there’s no thermostat.

They get bored faster.  This is especially true with passive activities when they’re younger, like sitting in a canoe while Mom and Dad do all the work. Again, they’re not little adults, and I’ve seen adults who are unable to grasp the opportunity to observe the world around them.

Be fair; don’t expect a kid to have the attention span of an average adult.  Darren’s Rule is that for every year of age, a child can stand about 15 minutes of an activity before they need a change. It has worked every time.  Just a few weeks ago I took some friends for a little river paddle with their kids, eight and ten.  After two hours, the eight year-old started poking the ten year-old, almost to the minute.  A half-hour later the ten-year-old wanted blood.  We stopped, did something else for a while (chased dragonflies on shore) and we were able to continue. No problem.

For base camp, coloring books, plain white notebooks and crayons and colored pencils are great.  After a certain age, kids can whittle, which seems to captivate all kids, even 49-year-old kids. Another sure-fire winner is an old fashioned game of mumbley peg. A good book or two is essential for my kids. A portable cribbage board is essential for our family.

We have some family games that help a lot.  When Daughter 1.0 was about four we took her to the north woods for a week in a canoe.  She was great, but a little fidgety after a few hours so we played Cash for Critters.  A squirrel was a nickel, a gray jay or loon was a dime, a moose a quarter, and a dollar for a bear.  This kept her busy for hours, she saw things we’d miss, and it cost me, if memory serves, $1.85.  It’s not really about the money; that’s just a tally mechanism.  You can use jelly beans if you want to.  The point is to give them a goal.  Wildlife Bingo.  Tree Bingo. Alphabet games. Anything to stimulate their minds.

We also sing.  Voyageurs used songs to keep in cadence when paddling together.  We use “great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts…”  We tried to make additional verses.  Even the kids took it to PG-13 quite quickly, so it’s back to gopher guts.

They want to be helpful.  Our kids were always helpful in camp because they had assignments that were age appropriate.  At four, a kid can collect twigs for tinder; at six, pump a water filter.  At eight, they can help start the fire, and at ten they can start the fire themselves.  At twelve they help with dinner; by fourteen they’re cooking dinner.

Kids want to be useful.  Resist the temptation to do everything because it’s faster.  Hey, Einstein, if you are in such a hurry, why are you camping?  Put your Blackberry away and be present.  Here’s a chance to coach.  It’s pretty cool to see a ten-year-old lift the lid on a Dutch oven to see his first cobbler.

About Safety and Risk

Taking these axioms and applying them without an eye toward safety is foolhardy.  Clearly, you want to pay attention to safety, but realize that there is inherent risk in outdoor activities.  The key is to minimize risk through education.

If you are going more than a 9-1-1 call from help, you’ll want some training.  Wilderness First Aid (WFA) is a weekend course designed to give you a basic understanding of dealing with injuries and other mishaps that happen outside.  If you’re hard core, the Wilderness First Responder (WFR) is an eight-day comprehensive course that teaches you how to provide some pretty serious aid while waiting for the professionals.  If you’re an EMT, there is specialized training for you to fill in the gaps when it comes to wilderness.

I still hear from people who question my sanity about taking my kids into wilderness areas.  I have had people question my sanity for much better reasons than that.  My response is that I minimize risk through planning, education and keeping my wits about me.  I also tell them that the risks of not taking my kids to the rivers and woods are far higher than if I take them.  They may be more physically safe sitting in front of a big screen playing Wilderness Bear Assault III, but their souls are shriveling on the vine.

Risk cannot be eliminated, but it can be managed.  Only a foolish man faces the wilderness with a pocket knife, a piece of twine, and a can-do attitude.  A wise man educates himself, teaches others, and shares his knowledge generously and graciously.  After all, he had a mentor who taught him his skills.  It is gentlemanly to pass them on to the next generation.  A man who teaches children has a legacy that may stretch generations.

What are you tips for camping with kids? Share them with us in the comments!

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daren Redekopp September 8, 2011 at 12:57 pm

They want to be helpful: One of my fondest memories from this summer is watching my 2.5 & 4 year old boys gathering wood for the fire, rushing through the brush with elvish delight.

2 Frank September 8, 2011 at 1:06 pm

My boy has been camping since he was six months old, and fishing since he was three. He is more comfortable and confident on a wooded path than a city street, and will be the better man for it.

Thanks for reminding everyone that our kids need to know the outdoors.

3 Paul September 8, 2011 at 1:24 pm

We have taken our kids camping when they were less than 1 year old. There is just a bit more planning and some extra gear but you can easily do it. It is easier to take a baby than it is to take a toddler who will want to run around with no regard to fire or hot cooking gear.

My boys love using my axe while we are camping. Teach them how to use it and how to be safe with it and then they can turn a log into kindling while they wear themselves out before bedtime.

When we go on hikes they kids take turns being the leader. They love leading the group down the hiking trail. I remind them to keep an eye out for snakes and follow their lead.

I have never thought of allowing my oldest son to start the fire. I guess because I enjoy that part so much. Next time I will be teaching him and hopefully he will be able to start the fire by himself.

4 Bob Staley September 8, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Our Granddaughter Adelynn went camping when she was like 6 weeks old. Probably would have went sooner if Grandma and Grandpa and Dad and Mom would have. Now, 3 years later, she cried last week when Grandma and Grandpa wasn’t camping along with them. Makes ya feel good!

5 devin September 8, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Great post. Another thing to remember – most kids are a whole lot tougher than we realize. Their power to weight ratio is excellent and they have pretty good endurance from running around and playing all day. Generally, it’s the adult’s expectations (or lack thereof) that limit them. My oldest was nordic skiing 5 miles without stopping at age 4, mostly because I never let him think that it should be tiring in any way. He just skied the trails and had fun. He did his first winter camping trip in mountainous terrain with me at age 7. We skied 15 miles in 2 days, 3,000 feet of elevation gain, and he hauled 12 pounds worth of gear. He loved every minute of it and wanted to do it again the following weekend.

6 Michael Langford September 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm

On the evaporation cooling front, there are these * eerie* towels that stay permanently cool as long as they’re wet at all, and are like 10 bucks:

They’re a lifesaver for kids and adults in Florida or Georgia

When you get them out of the UPS box they’re even cool from the ambient moisture they’ve picked up.

7 mike September 8, 2011 at 3:36 pm

My parents were taking me camping when i was still unable to walk, and i will be doing the same with my kids once i have some.

8 Darren September 8, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Devin, you are SO right. Otherwise none of us would be here. Paul, there was a section about camping with infants but we had to trim it a bit. There will be a separate one on just babies…complete with diaper protocol.

9 Tom C September 8, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Great article. People thought we were crazy taking an 8mo on a wilderness canoe trip. We had fun.

I like the 15min of activity per year of age. That said my kids (3 and 5 yo) have been accostomed to withstand a couple hours in a canoe. XC ski trips are more along those lines.

Is that a Blackhawk Fishhawk your daughter is paddling? My wife has the version with a regular seat.

10 Josh Knowles September 8, 2011 at 6:55 pm

This is so true. I know that modern urban life does pose problems that were unknown in the “good ol’ days” of our grandparents (i.e. pedophile rapists abducting children, etc). However, kids today are much safer today than they were even a couple generations ago. Think about it. modern medicine has eradicated many illnesses (polio, scarlet fever, whooping cough, smallpox, etc) that wiped out countless children and left many others affected for life. And yet we are faced with this paradox: while our children today are more likely to survive into adulthood than at any time in human history we are paranoid that death is lurking almost everywhere for them! I think this article is right to point out news broadcasting as one of the primary culprits. The fact that 100,000 children played outside this afternoon and had a good time is not newsworthy. The fact that one child was abducted or fell victim to a freak accident is.

11 Dan September 8, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Great post,

Write like a mainer… Maine north woods? WFR was a great course, i still want to pull traction on a fractured femur in real life. I took as a requirement for my guide service.

12 Justin September 8, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Taking the three year old to South Branch pond this weekend, Baxter St. Park, Maine. Timely post for sure!

13 Jeff September 8, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Hunting is another great outdoor activity for kids. My dad first took me squirrel hunting when I was six, then progressively introduced me to deer hunting. With squirrel hunting, you don’t have to worry as much about noise or scent so its a good place to start. He would show me squirrel nests and point out deer trails and other animal sign. He also taught me gun safety, patience, and respect for living creatures. Now that I’m a junior in college hunting has kept me out of a lot of trouble, too. Many times I’ve stayed in so that I could get up early and hunt instead of going out and partying. Then again my GPA always seems to drop during the second half of fall semester, but I least I don’t have to buy steaks.

14 Jesse September 9, 2011 at 8:17 am

This was a great article! I loved it!

15 Darren September 9, 2011 at 8:39 am

Tom (C): nope, but a boreal forest is a boreal forest. :-) Love northern ME, but most of my time is northern WI/MN and Ontario. Close on the Fishhawk — it’s Moore Adventurer, a rare boat that was built especially for my daughter (that picture was on her 4th birthday).

Jeff: right on. Ironically, hunting can teach a child reverence for life if done properly. To quote Aldo Leopold: “There are two dangers in not owning a farm: the belief that heat comes from the furnace and food comes from the supermarket.” I sometimes feel vegetarians have a better idea of where meat comes from, and it’s not from little plastic trays with cellophane over them.

Nice to see others who see the need to get kids out there. You all are making my day.

Coming soon: camping/tripping with babies (essentially 0-18 months).

16 Danny September 9, 2011 at 8:45 am

I couldn’t agree more! First about the paranoia of society today. I live across the street from an elementary school, all the kids who attend this school live within a mile but from that whole school there are probably fewer than 100 that I see walking home but after and before school that place is a parking lot of parents picking up and dropping off their kids. I remember walking to school in blizzards and had a blast. It was an adventure and a badge of honor that I braved the storm and made it through. recently I saw on tv a mother who was being brought up on child abuse charges for having her 6 year old walk to school. What the hell! This is ridiculous let kids be kids. If they get hurt they get hurt. I think we are doing a huge disservice to our children by helicoptering them.

On the idea that kids want to help this is so true. The other day I was with the scout troop I work with. That day we were cleaning some camping gear. I had brought my 2 year old along and he was getting into everything. Finally I gave him a rag and asked him to wipe down a sleeping bag. A completely pointless job but he loved it! That kept him busy the rest of the time.

17 Jeremy M September 9, 2011 at 9:28 am

just wanted to say thank you for the article, my dad always took me out camping with him since I was a little kid and those are some of the best memories of my life. I appreciate the advice on how to make it a memorable experience for my kids someday

18 Seth Goldsmith September 9, 2011 at 10:27 am

GREAT POST! My kids love to go camping, hiking and insect hunting. My wife grew up in a house where the TV was on all day and no one went outside. Thanks to my mom and dad I grew up roaming the land near and relatively far from my childhood home. One day, my wife was becoming frustrated with the children because they were all fighting over what to watch on TV. I work from home so I was able to come out and kick them all out of the house to go play outside! Problem solved! Now my wife regularly kicks them out and they’re even beginning to run off on their own to pursue adventure outside of electronics!

19 Shawn G September 9, 2011 at 10:38 am

My wife and I love spending time outdoors. We are expecting our first child soon, and I’m looking forward to sharing experiences with them. Some of my favorite memories as a child are from my family camping trips. Hopefully my kids will feel the same way when they are my age.

20 lady brett September 9, 2011 at 10:52 am

wonderful post!
also, on wanting to be helpful, being able to participate is a great way to keep a kid from getting bored as quickly. when i was little, me and my bro had our own kid-sized paddles, and i am sure we were more hindrance than help for some time, but it sure was fun!

also, i wonder if you could do a follow-up with some tips for introducing older kids to wilderness? i love camping, and heartily agree with you about how good it is for a kid, but as a future foster mom and aunt to a kid that can’t sleep without a nightlight, i wonder how you introduce kids who have never left the city to the outdoors in a pleasant way.

21 Darren September 9, 2011 at 11:14 am

Lady Brett … great idea. Our business does a lot of charity work for Big City Mountaineers, which does just what you describe — take kids who are used to concrete (and often poverty and street violence) and get them to the woods. Some famous quotes:

“Who planted all these trees?”
“Are there alligators (sharks, piranhas, etc.) in this lake?” Freshwater lake.
“What is that white stuff?” (The Milky Way). They had never seen stars before.
“Oh My GOD! [cries]…” A macho street-wise kid on finding a 1″ leech attached to his toe.

So yeah. I’ll write something. :-)

22 Matt September 9, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Danny: The ironic (and sad) thing about all those kids being dropped off at school is that they would be safer walking. They’re much more likely to be hurt or killed in a car accident than having any of the things their parents are worried about happen while their walking. It amazes me how much people worry about things that just aren’t going to happen (like abduction by strangers) and how little they worry about things that probably will happen (like car accidents).

23 Joe D September 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm

“The truth is that the world is no more dangerous than it was 40 years ago, but 24-hour news channels have tricked us into thinking that if a kid spends more than half an hour outside, he’ll be eaten by a puma. Lightning strikes every kid who steps in a puddle. A laceration will lead to a flesh-eating bacteria. CNN says it. It must be true.”

Darren, thanks for the old school take on today’s world. Very funny and so very true. We don’t camp per se, but when fishing, if my son doesn’t start to catch fish immediately, he will become bored. Trying to break him of that… :)

24 Debi September 9, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I’m loving this post for so many reasons. Although I make getting outside with my two sons priority No. 1 in our family, it took us 6.5 years to finally go camping. Thought you might get a kick out of seeing what the 6.5-year-old thought of it (hint: your advice is spot on!):

25 Damien Tougas September 9, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Great article! Towards this end, we strive to take our kids out hiking for an entire day a week, and shoot for one multi-day backpacking trip a month.

I like to think of this as training. When they get older I want to be able to do some cool stuff (bigger treks) with them, but that won’t be able to happen if we don’t lay the foundation.

26 rob giannamore September 9, 2011 at 4:24 pm

We lived in columbus ohio when our first daughter was born. We bought a Kelty backpack and had her in it at 4 months. We would join the sierra club for urban hikes and popped our baby in it. Our second went on a hike in January, she was born in November. The Kelty is falling apart, the buckles are broken, the kickstand is broken and has been through all four of our girls.

27 Mike Alves September 10, 2011 at 5:06 pm

I loved the Free Range Kids mentality in the intro. Keep preaching that kids are safe on their own!

28 Peggy Collins September 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm

This is SOO in line with our family values, both our kids started canoe tripping around 9 months. They can go anywhere, you need to watch and be aware of your surroundings, but they are super troopers – though our families think we are crazy.

29 Kirsten September 13, 2011 at 3:17 am

This is a great article. It seems parents nowadays have trouble letting go. Kids must learn to spread their wings without a parent around telling them to be careful ;o). Luckily in the Netherlands (where I live) it is still very much commonplace to get kids a bike at about 3. Most of them know how to handle it and explore their neighborhood on their own at 5 or 6 and cycle to school, friends, hobbies on their own at 9 or 10. Unfortunately we do not have much wilderness over here, but we do have lovely forests to go hiking. A good tip on keeping them busy (especially kids than do not seem very interested in the plants and wildlife like mine): use fantasy. A forest can be an alien planet, a treasure island, or whatever comes to mind. Mine can spend hours in the woods, running around caught up in some story ;o)).

30 Philip September 13, 2011 at 9:08 am

You can always tell a guest post on this site because it always starts with a criticism on things are “these days” compared to the “good old days” when men were men or whatever. What draws me to the site is the way Brett (and Kate) write about being a better man without accusing you first of not being a good enough one.

31 Not_a_Man September 13, 2011 at 2:34 pm

We took our first son camping, back country with a couple of hours of hiking to get to camp, when he was only 7 months old. He loved it, we loved it. There is more planning involved, but it is a great experience. When our second son was 11months (the oldest was only 2 and 1/2), we took him on his first camping trip. This time we had to canoe for about 5 hours, with a couple of portages in between. We had our good friends with us, in a different canoe, with their 6 month old baby. Wow, other than being bothered by a few bugs, the kids were great.

Now the kids are 4 and 2, and have gone camping many times. We live in the city and getting away in this adventure trips is surely a great way to spend time as a family.

32 Traci Lehman September 13, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Reading your blog for the first time…this is an excellent post and I think I will share it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

33 Spencer September 14, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with this one. As a scoutmaster, a lot of what you said had a familiar ring to it. One of the more famous quotes of Baden Powell (founder of BSA) was “Never do anything a boy can do”. Sometimes that means things are going to take a lot longer, but I’m always amazed at how much those 11-14 year olds remember if they had to figure something out and do it themselves (with a little guidance, of course). In camping situations, I really think the BSA “EDGE” method works great. Explain, Demonstrate, Guide, and Enable.

34 Alan September 15, 2011 at 2:52 am

My days as a kid camping were getting bit and stung by Yellow Jackets.
I would also go on hunts for Blue bellied lizards.
Explore, Explore and more to explore.

A kid needs to be outdoors.

35 Caroline Tant February 3, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Some other tips you should also follow such as Tents of kids should be close for security concern, Keep a safety rules clear, Give them some communication means and Better to know your kids with environment. Also, be kid again for it’s easy to ruin kids for camping if you don’t make it fun. I think being able to participate is a great way to keep a kid from getting bored as quickly.

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