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great smoky mountains national park
We dropped everything last week and took a week-long camping trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.

I’ve seen quite a bit in the news lately about more families going camping this year due to the economy. It is an inexpensive way to vacation … if you already have your camping gear.

You might want to borrow some or most of what you need if you are trying it for the first time — or you might find you spend just as much! Some universities and camping outfitters rent gear, and Craigslist is a good resource for finding used tents. You don’t need much — err on the side of less and take an overnight trip to see how it goes!

Here are a few of my tips for camping with kids:

Kid Gear. Make sure your kids have versions of all your gear. Unless you enjoy walking through the woods looking ahead at your children wearing and carrying all your stuff. I have no trouble differentiating between photos of the beginning of the hike and the end of the hike; I simply check to see who is wearing my hat.

my hat .. my jacket .. my kidI am not willing to buy my children outdoor gear the same quality as mine. I will be wearing my fleece jacket for years to come. (When they’re not wearing it.) They will wear theirs one season. By the time they pay attention to labels, hopefully they will be old enough to get a job and buy their own stuff.

Forget about the Sponge Bob flashlight; your child would rather have the flashlight from the dollar store that looks like a “real” one. It’s cheaper, too.

(In fact, the dollar store is a treasure trove of “looks like mom and dad’s”. After finding atlases there, I realized I would never again open mine to negotiate a tricky detour only to hear a chorus of “CAN I SEE THE MAP” from the backseat.)

The boys do carry their own bags to entertain themselves in the car — see them here and here.

bug huntIf you are camping with other families, you may be tempted to do typical adult math like so: “Let’s see, we have seven kids so I will bring two bug nets, two flashlights, four bottles of bubbles…” However, camping is not like running a daycare. If one kid wants to catch bugs, they *all* want to catch bugs. Right now. I would rather have seven bug nets and fewer alternatives. This isn’t the time to teach kids how to share. Instead, appreciate how much they learn when they are all sharing the same activity together. (Also, so much more peaceful — especially if you remember to bring an extra one for when the inevitable occurs.)

21-month-old hiker with stickThe best camping toy is free and available on site; it is called “stick”.

Packing. Like most journeys, the advice stands: When you’re done packing, halve your stuff and double your cash.

I keep a camping list (it is a matter of fact that even disorganized people enjoy making lists that pertain to a favorite hobby) and I ruthlessly cull things we didn’t use on the last trip. All the stuff you don’t use is just keeping you from easily putting your hands on the stuff you do.

As it turns out, we need very little. Our outdoor toys are down to a collapsible nylon kite, a Nerf football, and a tennis ball.

Indoors, we entertain ourselves with travel Scrabble, travel chess, a deck of cards, and a single read-aloud book for the whole family.

Most of the time, of course, we are communing with nature. You won’t need to bring along too many entertainment props — most of the time you’ll be busy doing things you can only do while camping.

When packing clothes, eschew the normal “Mom’s bag, Dad’s bag, Jimmy’s bag, Susie’s bag” formula and pack like with like. One bag for swim stuff, one bag for cold weather gear, etc.

I pack cheap lightweight duffels with three outfits for each person. Pulling one bag out is immensely easier than four.

exploring a creek

State of Mind. The point of camping, in my opinion, isn’t to “rough it” but to realize what is essential and what is not. Don’t make the mistake of sacrificing comfort. Being cold, wet, and tired doesn’t make for a fun, memorable trip. Make sure you have something warm to wear even in the summer — mountain summits and early mornings are chilly. Make sure you have comfortable bedding and a good pillow — a good night’s sleep means a great day tomorrow.

Don’t treat necessities as luxuries — if you have to have hot coffee in the morning in order to be pleasant and enthusiastic about the day ahead, for goodness’ sake, make sure you have hot coffee!

Finally, to increase your enjoyment, lower your expectations. Lower them as much as possible. If you can, let them rest on the ground.

Much like the child who ignores the expensive toy and plays with the cardboard box it came in, children will enjoy themselves doing the simplest things. If you keep trying to force your idea of the experience on them, you may miss watching them make their own experience. Relax.

catching minnowsIf you are a camper, please share your tips in the comments!

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Reader Comments (61)

Thank you very much for this super helpful post!

May 23, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkaren m.

thank you, karen! :^)

May 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterLori

Thanks! This is all super timely for us, since we're camping on our trip to Oregon.

I've found that I need to concentrate my energies on making sure we have enough food, fuel, and stuff to keep us warm (and yes, the coffee). The fun tends to take care of itself. Also, we load the car so that the tent and necessities are last in/first out so we can set up camp quickly and then get to the other stuff.

May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Jackson

i agree about the fun taking care of itself! i tell you what my personal necessity is — clean, dry socks. (i don’t drink coffee.)

in my experience, if we are dry, warm, well rested and well fed, we are in great moods — and that’s really the only thing we need to have fun on the road! if any of those essential needs aren’t met, then it doesn’t matter how much fun we *should* be having … we aren’t.

May 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterLori

Good grief, those Smoky Mountains look like a matte painting backdrop in the movies. Which is to say, no WAY is that real. It is too amazing.

May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnnika

Great post. For us comfort is all about warm bags, dry socks, and the food. Gotta have those smores, ya know.

May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTheresa

annika, i remember seeing the white mountains in NH for the first time and exclaiming, “wow — this looks just like a puzzle box!” hey, i was from the midwest. ;^)

theresa, i almost said that my sons’ camping highlights are things like being allowed to eat three s’mores and then fall asleep without brushing their teeth. ;^)

May 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterLori

My son would tell you that it is all about the fire. I don't think he's alone in that, I've watched a whole bunch of little boys stare and poke at a campfire for hours. There are other places in our life that involve dirt, water, wind or sticks, but it is only when we camp that he can hold a burning stick, watch embers fly, be warmed by the morning campfire. That and the fact that we only have instant soup when we go camping. My necessity? a stainless steel french press for my coffee.

May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCordelia

I recommend triple checking your camping list and making sure to compare menu with cookware. Nothing like going to make that planned dinner of chili dogs and realizing that you forgot the can opener. Or only packing one mug, cause dh doesn't drink coffee, and then realizing you'll need to take turns with your nighttime hot chocolate. And always bring warmer clothes than you think the temps require. It gets COLD in the mountains at night and you're not going to have walls and insulation to help keep you warm. Our last camping trip got shortened because we were FREEZING! Beautiful hot sunny days but a constant cold breeze off the lake just gave us a chill we couldn't get rid of. It is awful to plan a vacation for months and then be completely miserable on it.

We haven't gone camping with our son yet (he's only 4 months old) but all the mistakes we've made on our camping trips make me really appreciate my dad's camping preparation. Either he really did think of everything or else as a kid I just didn't notice the forgotten things.

I can't wait to introduce Xander to the art of roasting marshmallows and the wonderful gooeyness of 'smores!

May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Great post. We camp or do some version of camping every year. So true and important to keep a list and only pack the things you need. For so long I packed way too much and just frustrated myself with it. Now, I pack less and enjoy my time more. Happy Camping!

May 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Here from souelmama.

We are planning a trip form Chicago to Seattle and back in a little over three weeks. We have a 6 months old and a 2.5 years old. And we'll be camping and stopping a lot. So in our kind of trip we are not packing light. We are making sure to take enough clothes coz we wont be doing laundry for a long time, and our kids are pretty small. My husband is an experienced camper. So here's a couple of tips I learned from him: if you have little ones, the mobility gets to be slower, so plan for enough time so you enjoy the experience without stressing out ( that's why we planned three weeks) Also mosquito nets. Natural bug spray and a first aid kit is important to have on hand and easily accessible. I always have Arnica( homeopathy remedy helps fast healing and trauma) in my hand bag/ or back pack when hiking.
I love all your tips and especially the state of mind one.
Thanks for sharing!

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMuslim hippie

we love to camp, but honestly haven't gotten out there with the kids much yet... at 6 & 3 we're getting back into it. here on long island, the local campsites are very close together (we call it parking lot camping... NOT my favorite) the first time we went, the youngest was 2, and he & i sat from 6 am to 8 am in the car reading books (thank goodness i brought a whole bag full) and eating graham crackers, so he wouldn't wake any of our neighbors up with his adorable, but very loud voice... "mom!!! lets go to the beach!! mom!! marshmallow!!" and so on... sometimes you have to have those extra entertainment options... needles to say, we didn't make it a second night!
check out national wildlife federation's "great american backyard campout"
we did one with several families last year and it was a great hit!!
thanks for the great story- my 1st time on your blog

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjamie

How nice that you could take off a week! Great tips for camping. Beautiful pics of the mountains!

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Tan

That post hit the nail on the head. Since having kids i have forgone camping in favour of the "resort with kids club" or "grandparents houses" for our family holidays, but i realise now i just have to change my viewpoint from "roughing it" (which is how i used to camp as a young adult) to "sleeping in a tent" which is how to camp with kids.

I'll give it another try, with a "real" pillow from my bed and my doona (do you guys call it a duvet? comforter?) and LOTS of torches for spotting animals at night.

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAussie Linda

As the season for camping, boating and other adventures begins we always organize our gear. Obviously the food and clothing has to be gone through but all our camping gear is stowed together so we don't have to hunt for the pieces or remember anything, just grab the right milk crate. WIth or without kids I've noticed that the easier it is to get out of the house the more often I will do it. We also have a rule that the time we spend in the car needs to be less than 1/3 of the time we spend at the place, otherwise the the trip becomes a "sightseeing" trip.

When camping with a "little" the only expectations are to be out, to be together and to take in everything. We let A take a lot of initiative about what we do (hike, play at camp, find a stream).

We are constant list makers so when we return from a trip we update our packing list and crates with the improvement we come up with. We also have an on going list of trips (small and big) that we want to take.

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStacey

Some great advice, although we have been camping a few times, we learn each time what we need and what we dont, most often we take far too much.

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterThimbleina

When we pack for camping trips we put kids outfits in ziplock bags -- each outfit has its own bag. Then if someone accidentally throws a wet sock into their duffel bag, the rest of the clothes don't end up wet. And anything that didn't get used, doesn't have to be washed. We pick "camping clothes" at the beginning of the camp season and those clothes don't go into the regular rotation -- just packed back into the camping bag so we are always ready to go. I'm also a fan of the "space bags" that collapses bulky items so there is room to pack more. We have an air mattress small compressor with us, so we are able to suck the air out to repack the bags.

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

We use air mattresses so everyone gets a good night sleep.

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercatalinakel

Thank you for this, I'm a little ashamed to say that we have not taken our girls camping yet. Great tips.

-Lisa :)

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlisa

I really appreciate what you said about the state of mind, and not pushing your idea of the experience on the children. I will try to keep that in mind more often.

I have a question: I am very nervous about camping in a tent with my 18 month son, for very practical reasons - I fear he could wander away in the middle of the night, and we wouldnt even realize. Is my fear unfounded? How did you manage? Are there any safety features on tents nowadays to lock them from the inside, so to speak? I have been thinking of going to a cabin for this reason, which we did with out DD when she was about 3, but the site itself was too artificial - no real nature, etc... and I would prefer something more the woods. Of course there are cabins in 'real' campsites, but they are hard to come by and many are quite far. Any thoughts?

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMama_Goose

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