The weather forecast promised thundershowers, but Bekah’s little heart was set on a mommy-daughter backpacking trip. She was only 5, but she would not be deterred. Honestly, my mind was made up as well, so we packed the ponchos and headed for the wilderness.
We arrived at the trailhead around three in the afternoon, sun rising high over the mountains. Everything we needed for the next 24 hours was jammed into my enormous internal frame backpack, and she graciously volunteered to carry her pink princess backpack to supplement the weight distribution. We had all the basics: water, tent, food, sleeping pads, first aid kit, bear spray, bear bag, matches and extra clothes. We also had some fun extras: playing cards, a notepad, candy and powder for hot cocoa.
After a seemingly endless two-mile hike into the site, my girl was beat. She lay sprawled flat on the pine needles and gasped, “Water, please.”
We paused for a water break, then got to work clearing the ground for the tent, intentional about erecting a shelter before the impending rain soaked us. The sky was dreamily blue, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
Once camp was arranged, we sauntered down to the river, where we cooled off in the cool water, skipped stones, searched the shore for toads, and soaked in the beauty of it all.
The entire weekend was a success. She loved dinner cooked over a fire, s’mores for dessert, songs by the river before bed, and the thrill of waking up to the sunrise illuminating the canvas of our temporary home. We drew pictures, read poetry about the sky and the hills, and enjoyed simply being together. She learned that she is able to survive with her mom in the woods for a night and added camping to her list of favorite activities. My wilderness-loving heart embraced it all.
Whether you’re considering camping at an established site 10 feet from your vehicle, or venturing a few miles into the wilderness, here are five suggestions for making a camping trip with a young child a success:
Watch the Weather
This might seem obvious, but most of us have heard the story of the family huddled together in sopping wet sleeping bags while lightening threatened to strike the metal tent poles at any given moment. Remember that you want your kids to have a fantastic time. For this reason, postpone the trip if it’s going to rain for more than 20 minutes. You’ll be glad you did.
Pack Downtime Activities
Great attention goes into packing everything needed for a camping trip: sleeping bags, appropriate food, matches, clothing, sleeping mats, cooking utensils and more. In the rush to remember the basics for survival, don’t forget entertainment. What will you do when you’re not sitting by the fire, cooking or sleeping? If your kids enjoy games, bring a deck of cards. If they like to draw, bring a sketch pad for each of them. If small toys would bring hours of entertainment, pack a few. The goal of the trip isn’t scarcity; it’s fun.
Find the Water
Camping near water will provide hours of entertainment. Swimming, searching for aquatic life, throwing stones, fishing, making mud pies, and building sand castles can provide hours of entertainment. Basking in the sun is sheer relaxation for the adults and splashing in the water is sheer joy for the children. We always camp near water.
Bring Their Favorite Foods
While adult campers might enjoy dehydrated vegetables and beef jerky, remember to bring foods your kids will love. Even if it means a bit of extra effort, it will be worth it. The novelty of cooking hotdogs or grilled cheese over the fire is a great place to start. Try to keep it balanced, but remember the treats. Fun snacks by a crackling campfire creates lasting memories.
Identify Local Attractions Before You Go
If you’ll be staying multiple nights, check out local attractions online before leaving. Most likely, you won’t be camping far from your car. Hopping in the car for an afternoon at a local animal park, waterfall or scenic attraction could be a highlight of the trip. Check out the options and plan ahead. These attractions make great places for memory-building.
Embrace the Stillness
It’s important not to plan so much that you forget to embrace quiet moments spent in nature. These have been the best times to talk to our kids about life, share stories from the past, and affirm them as individuals. Leave the electronic devices at home and find refreshment from unplugging. It’s amazing where conversations can lead when there are no competitors for our attention.
Finally, make it fun. I tend to worry about remembering everything on my list and feel anxious if things don’t go as planned. Most often, there will be surprises on camping trips. Embrace the surprises, laugh at the mishaps and make life-long memories.
Resources to Help You Plan
For a list of State Parks, check out the State Parks Page.
For a list of National Parks, check out the National Parks Service.
For a list of campfire recipes, try Reserve America.
Stacey Pardoe lives in western Pennsylvania with her husband, Darrell, and two children, where she is also a mentor, Bible teacher, freelance journalist and outdoor enthusiast. She writes weekly at staceypardoe.com.