How-to Camp with Kids
Tips for a rewarding camping experience

By Kathy Chin Leong

When my kids were four and one, my husband decided we should become partakers of the Great American Experience: camping. I grew up in San Francisco, and the closest thing I ever did to nature was play with ants on our brick porch steps.

We began our camping experiment haphazardly, but through the years we have learned from our mistakes. Taking cues from other campers, Frank and I finally have a system down that minimizes the planning, preparation, and cleanup time, so that we can actually have fun with our little explorers.

If you have never camped before or need a refresher course, consider the following:

PLANNING

  • STATE PARKS: Begin with the state park system for camping. They are maintained daily and usually have a camp host and park ranger to assist you. Expect to pay anywhere from $16 for a redwoods-type of park to $30 per night for a beach site. On your first trip, find a place close to home and go for a couple of nights when the weather is at its optimum. Also, you have to bring your reservation voucher or confirmation number and ID with you. Don't forget!
  • DRIVE UP ONLY: Find a park that allows you to drive up to your campsite; some make you hike in with all your gear. With little kids, you do not want to do this.
  • ADVANCE BOOKING:Camping reservations in the California State Park system allow you to book up to 6 months in advance. If you have a specific weekend in mind, you have to do it as soon as possible. For reservations for camping, this web site is best: www.reserveamerica.com, or you can call 1/800-444-7275.
  • HOMEWORK: Research your sites well in advance. Go to www.cal_parks.ca.gov and go to the Park Index site for a listing of all California State parks. Different parks offer various activities: boating, swimming, hiking, organized campfire talks, group walks, etc. Check out amenities such as showers, water faucets, restrooms, barbecue pits, and picnic tables. Call the park itself to get more details concerning mosquitoes, bears, or other wildlife in the area during the time you go. Find out whether there is poison oak or other irritating plants.
  • GET OTHERS: Consider asking one or more seasoned camping families to go with you. This way, you can share the load for cooking and cleaning while you are there. And, if you forget something, usually another family can loan you whatever you missed.

PREPARATION

  • GEAR: Obtaining high quality camping gear is important, especially if this is going to be an investment over the long haul. At the beginning, you may want to borrow a tent and cookstove. If you are starting from scratch, consult the REI.com website for expert advice on what to look for in sleeping bags, baby carriers, and hiking boots.
  • COOKING STUFF: Set aside camp cooking gear in clear, large plastic boxes with lids. Your cutting boards, pots, pans, marshmallow roasting sticks, plates and mugs and other non-perishable items can be designated for camping, and you can keep this box in your garage and pull it out for every trip. This way, you do not have to raid the kitchen each time you go camping. If you are really organized, you can tape an itemized list inside the plastic lid. Put the list in a zip-lock bag to keep it dry.
  • MENU: Your dining experience can be as simple or complex as you wish. Simple means warming up canned food, or even getting takeout pizza while you are there. You can pre-cook food such as spaghetti from home and heat it over your stove. Pack your ice chest with plenty of ice to keep things fresh. If you plan to barbecue, bring your own grate to place over the fire. Many state parks have pits with wide spaced grates on them; the grids are so wide, food often falls into the fire. Bring heavy-duty foil to wrap over the grate if you need. The foil is great for wrapping leftovers. Each time you camp, you can become more adventurous with the menu. The Internet also features recipes for camping.
  • ESSENTIALS: Essentials you may not have thought of include: quarters for the coin-operated showers, shower shoes, extra large garbage bags, a large box of wet-wipes and hand disinfectant, clothesline or rope for hanging your towels to dry, air mattress and pump if you have a bad back, tarp for under your tent, broom and dustpan to sweep your tent out afterwards.
  • ACTIVITY CENTER:Another camping box you can make can be the family activity center. Keep it filled with fun items such as a kite, hammock, Frisbees, jump ropes, cards, water guns, coloring books, and other toys. You may want to bring scooters or bicycles if the campground permits.
  • FIRST AID: Kid preparation is also important. Do bring doctor/dentist phone numbers, a basic first-aid kit, plus allergy medications and/or other meds that you would need in case of emergency. Consider giving each child a small fanny pack to wear which includes: flashlight, lip balm, mirror, child-sized plastic garbage bag, whistle, trail mix, ID. When you go hiking, and if your child gets lost, he can use the mirror to reflect the sun, the whistle to make noise, and plastic bag to cover himself if it rains.
  • KID CLOTHING: Remember that when you go camping, it gets really, really dark at night. For this reason, equip your child with a hand flashlight or a miner's helmet with lamp. Adhere glow-in-the dark tape or strips on clothing so you can see them. And at night, have your kids sleep with knit hats and socks on to keep them warm.

ONCE YOU'RE THERE

  • SET UP: Find a reasonable spot closest to the bathroom to place your tent. Somehow, camping always seems to draw out the need to go potty in the middle of the night.
  • GROUNDRULES: Just like on any vacation, establish the ground rules with the kids. No leaving outside the camp site, get an adult to go with you to the bathroom at all times, don't throw things into the fire.
  • HIKING RULES: When hiking, keep one parent in front, and the other adult in the back, sandwiching children between you at all times. Kids are notorious for getting distracted, and you never know when someone needs to stop and tie his shoe. Many rangers recommend getting a footprint of each hiker's shoe in case someone gets lost. Simply take a paper garbage bag, wet the dirt, and have each camper put one shoe imprint on the bag, labeling the name.
  • VISITOR'S CENTER: The ranger station or visitor's center is where you can buy trail maps and find out all the good information such as where the best hikes are, whether there is a fireside park talk or program for children, and other interesting stuff.
  • JUNIOR RANGERS: The California State Parks system has a wonderful Junior Rangers program where kids can earn prizes and patches for completing several activities during their stay. Find out what your state park offers.

While this list sounds like a lot, once you start camping, it becomes ingrained in your thoughts are you prepare for each trip. If you do your homework ahead of time, you'll become more efficient with experience, and you will be able to appreciate the rustling of the trees, starry, starry skies, and tucking in your loved ones at night in their tiny sleeping bags.

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