I’ve been camping since I was a little girl. Every summer, my parents, my brother and I would pile into our old van, fondly referred to as the green machine, and drive to the campground closest to the beach. We’d spend our days building sandcastles and searching for shark teeth and our nights roasting s’mores and swapping spooky stories.
I don’t remember the details of our sleeping arrangements, only that I slept soundly. I don’t remember what we ate, only that we never went hungry. I don’t remember if it was hot or cold or sunny or rainy. I remember the sound of crickets and frogs at night. I remember that there were way more stars than we could see at home in the city. I remember the smell of salty air and sweat and campfire. I remember that my whole family was there. I remember feeling relaxed and free, sensations that came easily as a child but that I find myself chasing as an adult.
Now I have a family of my own, four little ones in whom I hope to foster a love for the great outdoors, for wide open spaces and for family. Which is why this summer, three weeks after our fourth baby was born and one month before school started back, we headed to the mountains in pursuit of fresh air and fresh memories. We piled all the necessities into our shrinking SUV; tent, sleeping bags, hiking shoes, board games and baby blankets. We readied ourselves as best we could for 6 hours in the car and 5 days at camp with 4 kids ages 7 to 3 weeks old. Here are the lessons we learned.
Be picky about the location. We have found that this will make or break your trip. Consider what is important to you. Privacy? Quiet? Mountains or sea? Once you decide on location, think about the facilities. Do you want running water, electricity, bathrooms? This will narrow your search significantly. Keep in mind that many parks fill up quickly during peak seasons so it might be necessary to book well in advance.
What are your sleeping arrangements? First and foremost, be sure your tent is waterproof. Second, get a tent that is rated for more people than the size of your family. For example, if you are a family of 4, get a 6 person tent. You will need that extra space for storage and play. Depending on the ages of your kids, consider a separate tent for the older kids.
Pack enough food to feed a small army . . . or a couple of kids, same thing! At home, I beg and bargain with my kids to get them to eat at every meal. When we are camping, they devour every morsel. When you think you have packed enough food, pack more, trust me.
Be prepared to have some good old fashioned fun. Turn off your electronic devices and bring on the board games. On our last trip we played Sorry for over two hours one afternoon. The kids played UNO for days. We hiked, explored, built rock castles, and stared at the camp fire. We were present. A few days later, when we turned our phones back on, surprisingly little had changed in the world.
Get your hands on a good gear list and bring everything recommended. Depending on your level of experience, you will bring stuff you don’t need and forget things you wish you’d had. We’ve all done it, trust someone who has done it more than you. Trial and error is for cavemen, use your friends, experts and the world wide web. Take advantage of the plethora of information that is out there.
Be prepared for the unpredictable by staying flexible. Things will not go according to plan. It will rain when you are cooking breakfast. The last s’more might drop into the campfire making the s’more distribution uneven and causing a riot among the younger generation. Someone will need to use the bathroom at a terribly inconvenient time on the drive up or while on a day hike or when you’ve just hauled all your gear to the beach and the bathroom is one sweaty mile back in the other direction. Be prepared to be unprepared and roll with the punches.
Most importantly, don’t forget to relax, breathe and play. We’ve been on trips that have been so tough, usually due to weather, that they have had the adults in tears. But the kids? They didn’t notice a thing except for the awesome stick that looks just like Harry Potter’s wand and the tree with just the right limbs for climbing. You might learn a thing or two from them.
And if you can, wait until your newborn is at least 6 months old before taking him camping.