There are two types of camping trips, if you ask me. One that you go to with your vehicle or a camper van, and one where you hike all the way to the camping ground, also known as backpacking.
As you can imagine, camping with kids on a hiking trip requires more planning because you must fit everything you need in a backpack. It means giving up some luxury items people with vehicles get to carry because of weight and bulk. But more importantly, giving up the security and convenience that a car brings, especially when you have kids.
We, as a family have done both types of camping severally and learned a few things over the years. If you plan to give backpacking with kids a go, I have some tips for you. My friends from our Facebook camping group also contributed to this post with their own recommendations.
1. Choose the Right Camp for Kids
Before kids, our vision for hiking involved great places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Now with kids, we have to consider how far and steep we can go. For now, our local state parks and nearby campgrounds will do, and kids have just as much fun there as they would anywhere else.
This helps in two ways- one, these places are easier to reserve even during busy hiking season and they are nearby. I always have to think about an exit plan in case one of the kids gets sick or injured on the hike. Two, most of them have amenities and recreational attractions we can use. Plus it doesn’t take very long to hike there and back the following day.
To find out if your area has campgrounds, go to Recreation.gov.
2. Pack Easy, Fun Food
Again, you may be unable to carry a stove to cook food in your backpack when hiking because of weight and space. Packing ready-made food that preserves well and doesn’t need to be heated up is better. Examples of this include instant oatmeal, long-life milk, grilled corn on the cob, trail mix, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Campfire Apple Crisp.
And because we also use food as an incentive to make kids enjoy the camping trip, we pack things that they love. Energy bars, popcorn, chips, hot dogs, s’mores, Quesadillas and a whole lot of other snacks. We also pack light but filling fruits like apples, peaches and pears for sugar and energy.
This list strikes a balance between easy-to-prepare foods and delicious things kids don’t usually eat every day.
3. Have a Water Filter
We carry a water filter even when van camping, but it’s more valuable when you don’t have a car. I have found that most places we camp have tap water, but you never know how clean it is. A portable water filter like this one from Bachgold ensures you have clean water that also tastes good throughout the hike, so you don’t have to carry tons of water from home. You can purify any water you come across, from lakes to rivers and even public taps.
4. Be Ready to Snuggle
My son prides himself in being the bravest man in the house, and he is. That bravery however takes a backseat every time we go camping. Children are likely to be scared of the woods at night unless you have teenagers.
Be ready to sleep with them in the same bag and have them snuggling up on you throughout the night. Personally I find it cute because kids pretend to be big and independent at home. Plus sleeping together means you don’t have to carry multiple tents, sleeping bags and blankets in your backpack.
Now, if the kids are big, feel free to let them carry their own backpacks and sleeping situations. Teenagers will need their privacy, and they can handle a good amount of weight.
5. Start Early
We discussed this in the Tips for Backpacking with Kids, and ill insist on it again. Hiking with kids should be an adventure, not a quick pass-through on the way to the camping site. Walk slowly, enjoy every sight, take time for pictures and rest on the way, and experience the journey to the fullest. This will require ample time because days are very short.
But the main reason you need to start the journey early is because you should arrive at the camping site when it’s still daytime. I recommend getting there around 4 or 5 pm so you can tour the site and find a suitable place to set up and pitch the tent. You don’t want to do this at night.
6. Enjoy the Night
As a child, my fondest camping memory is sitting around a campfire listening to dad’s horror stories. While the hike is fun and memorable, the real bonding happens at night when you finally settle down. This is why I always choose camping sites that allow a fire. (Not all of them do).
Here, we get to roast marshmallows and corn dogs, tell corny stories and laugh hysterically. Sometimes we also lay some mats on the ground and lay there to watch the stars. If you live in the city, watching stars hits differently in the wilderness. It’s like seeing something for the first time.
Whatever you do, take time in the evening to bond before bed. This is why you should leave all devices at home (at least all kids’ devices) and practice just being a family without distractions.
My summary advice when camping with kids on a hiking trip is to plan ahead. I know you have seen everywhere that you should do a practice test in your backyard, and it sounds like a cliché by now. Take it from us; you need to do that for planning.
The trick is to do it for real. Pack everything you need as if you are going on a real hiking trip, and pretend the house is not five steps away. This will help you identify some things you may have forgotten to pack, and it’s also good to practice pitching a tent and sleeping together outside.
And for the love of camping, remember a first aid kit.