It’s camping season and time to get out into the great outdoors.
But wait a minute. You’ve got babies, young children or grandkids and don’t think you can possibly pull off camping with little ones. Think again.
The key to your success is a “kid camping kit,” and some great friends to join you on your wilderness adventures, or more realistically, a park close to home.
That’s how Heather Rose and Sarah Kerrigan got out camping while their daughters were toddlers.
They met at swim classes for the toddlers, instantly bonded, looked around at the beautiful mountains surrounding them in Steamboat Springs and wondered if they’d ever get out camping again.
“We were all coming out of babydom and missing the outdoors,” said Rose, a manager for UCHealth’s community hospitals.
So, she and Kerrigan, a nurse manager in the operating room at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, made a pact.
Come rain, sick kids or babies who couldn’t walk yet, they were going to make regular camping trips part of their summer routine.
Rose and Kerrigan invited friends with other young children to join them, booked reservations at Pearl Lake State Park, a short distance from Steamboat and off they went.
“We had four families the first time with seven kids under the age of four. There was power in numbers. We had that love of the outdoors and wanted to share it with our kids,” Rose said.
Rain nearly drowned the campers during their first weekend adventure. But, they stuck it out, had a blast and were hooked.
“It was almost more fun with the kids,” said Rose.
“The social component was great,” added Kerrigan. “The kids benefited from having all these young kids to play with. And camping allowed this safe independence for them. They could explore, but really they were at the empty campsite across the road.”
Kerrigan’s husband, Andy Kerrigan, has a canoe. He brought tiny life vests so he could paddle around with the children. The Kerrigans had the first aid covered too since Kerrigan is a nurse and her husband, also a nurse, is trained as a wilderness Emergency Medical Technician.
All the parents adopted a strict no-technology rule for adults and kids alike. Parents stashed their phones, except for photos. And good old-fashioned books were ideal for bedtime stories and guides for daytime adventures.
“It gives you such great quality time together,” Kerrigan said of the technology-free camping trips. “You forget how distracting our world is now.”
When life gets especially busy, she knows camping will be the perfect antidote.
“You shut off the technology and get grounded,” Kerrigan said.
How to create kid camping kits
To make it easier to get out the door on Friday nights, the parents came up with the ideas of keeping big plastic storage bins packed and ready to go. These totes evolved into “kid camping kits.”
The parents divided the totes into basic needs: a kitchen bin, food bins, games, clothes and of course basic camping gear.
For clothes, the parents packed older shirts, pants and shorts that could get dirty and were perfect for plenty of wear and tear. They brought layers to make sure campers would stay warm and dry. Hats and mittens are part of the kit along with rain pants, raincoats and plenty of extra underwear and socks. Little children love to stomp in puddles, which is a blast. But wet feet can make kids grumpy or cold fast. A simple change of socks can make all the difference.
To get out the door fast, the parents always keep the camping kit clothes separate, wash them after every trip and put them right back in the duffle bag so they’re ready to get out the door easily for the next camping adventure.
The same is true for the kitchen kit. You keep all the basics ready to go from a camping stove to matches, fuel, spices and simple dishes, silverware, mugs and other gear.
Kerrigan suggests shopping at second hand shops for camping kitchen gear and utensils and she always brings a tablecloth to add a homey touch, along with tarps to cover everything since thunderstorms frequently bring rainstorms on Colorado summer afternoons. Clothespins also come in handy to dry out wet gear.
Along with the kitchen gear, you need to pack a cooler and a food box with dry items like pancake mix, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, spaghetti, etc. You can keep your basic food box ready to go and full of the basics. Just replenish as needed before the next trip.
A game or entertainment plastic tote is also key. The parents packed plenty of card games, balls and simple arts and crafts. Little nature journals and glue kept the children busy for hours. Parents brought guidebooks with pictures of birds, flowers and other plants and sent the kids off to find items to use for arts and crafts.
“You want to allow them time to explore and have free time, but you also want some planned activities,” Rose said.
“We’ve had some crazy family kickball matches too,” Kerrigan said.
To keep games mellow, adults have to kick their non-dominant foot.
These days, the children are older, but still love to camp.
Kerrigan has two daughters, Aidan, 14, and Henley, 10. Rose and her husband, Frank, also have two girls: Ava, 14, and Brynn, 11.
Along with hiking, mountain biking and paddle boarding have become popular activities during camping trips as the children have gotten older.
Depending on who is going along, the families sometimes divide the meals. They always do individual lunches to keep food planning simpler.
And don’t forget treats. Children will enjoy hikes, but they get hungry. Have snacks or your family’s favorite treat when they reach a destination. Speaking of destinations, keep the goals modest. Don’t expect young children to make it to the top of a peak or on a miles-long hike when they’re little. Celebrate small goals. Keep it fun and before you know it, the children will be leading you up the trail.
Advice from the kid camping kit pros:
- Make reservations. Especially if you’re camping with a large group, you need to know that you’ll have campsites reserved.
- Get dirty.
- Use headlamps instead of flashlights. Each child and adult gets his or her own. Headlamps are fun to wear and easier to keep track of than flashlights.
- No technology. Leave iPads at home. No movies in the tents. And phones are only for photos, not for games or checking emails. Parents need to serve as role models. Tune out from technology and tune in to the beautiful environment and people around you.
- Bring treats to making hiking more fun.
- Celebrate accomplishments.
- And last, but not least, enjoy snuggle time in the tent. “That’s priceless. No matter the kids’ ages, we still all wake up together and laugh,” Kerrigan said.