Let’s face it, camping rules. Once you get away from the city and everything that comes with it – work, devices, lattes – and sink into the nature around you, the rhythm of early starts and early nights, waking to the noise of birds and bugs, you’re always glad you’re there. It doesn’t matter if you’re bivvying solo on a high ridge in winter or with other people at a beach. The beauty is getting out there and leaving everything behind.
But with young kids? It’s surprisingly easy, as we have discovered. I wanted to say “here are some tips”, but there’s no need. Because little kids are, above all else, curious and keen to learn. Camping for them is new, different, and exciting. All you need to do is take them into the outdoors. And car camping at the beach is a great place to start…
Hiking in with full loads is not for everyone, whether they have kids or not. Whether because of navigation, or the physical challenge of load-carrying, lack of preparation time, or lack of confidence in skills, plenty of people prefer a different approach. Car camping is a great option because you can use the car as a storage area for your stuff (especially if you have a hatchback, but any kind of car is fine). You can drive into a small remote campsite and set up camp quickly, then enjoy the local area by hiking, or playing at the beach, or whatever takes your and your kid’s interest. You’re away from it all but you have the insurance of the car – if things turn bad, pack up, jump in, and drive away.
Our first family camping experience was on the glorious New South Wales south coast when W was not yet two. Since then, I did indeed take her on a difficult overnight hiking trip, but the three of us also camped twice again as a family. Once, for about eight nights straight in western Mongolia, and the other time, like the first, at the beach back home.
What I think I learned – well, had confirmed – is that kids just want to do what you are doing. They want to be where you are, to join in. The rest is easy if you enable them – hold these tent pegs for me, grab that stick, etc. Over those trips, W scarcely got a device in her hand, had no story books, no toys but a bucket and spade. She found her toys in sticks, stones, bugs, leaves, and a hundred other curious items she rustled up near the tent or on our little walks. Her stories came from the surroundings – the crab who lived in a shell on a black sand beach, the goat who huddled by the barn, the cicadas who chirped in huge waves of rising and falling sound, so loud it was hard to talk.
The trick seems to be remaining upbeat. Kids pick up on your uncertainty or tiredness: staying bullish helps a lot. Run them ragged and they’ll have a blast and, just maybe, a nap!
As for practicalities at campsites with few or no facilities:
– nappies are helpful but if your kid’s toilet trained then you need to be comfortable digging her a hole and showing her how to use it. Always bury poo deeply and obviously do it away from water sources and the campsite. Either pack paper out or bury it deeply too.
– tent choice is pretty personal and you base it on your likely uses and your budget. The first few times we used our small backpacking tent (the green one in the photos) but by the time our kid was nearly three, that was a really tight squeeze. With an eye to future trips that might involve packing our stuff in on a hike, I went for a larger 3-season tent that’s still small enough to carry (it weighs about 3 kg). If you’re only going to car camp, you might choose a larger tent for more comfort but which would be too heavy to carry. Pro tip for friends in Australia: good gear is a lot cheaper in the US and www.rei.com has regular sales and free international shipping for orders over US$150. If you look carefully you can save a lot of money. I got the tent above (Big Agnes “Van Camp SL”, the red and grey one) for a lot less than something similar would have cost in Australia. Don’t baulk too much at the cost because a well-made good quality tent will last you a long time (the little green one has served faithfully for 12 years and is still going strong).
– with sleeping arrangements, forget about what you do at home and go with “whatever works”. In our case, W sleeps between us and in colder climates we dress her up in everything we can because she refuses to go under blankets for long. If it works, it works.
– keep a good eye on hygiene – hands, face, etc – but don’t worry too much. Your kid will indeed survive a few days without a bath. That said, be very careful to watch out for ticks if you’re camping in a tick-prone area (like the south coast of NSW). Don’t ask me how I know, it’s a pretty disgusting story! Snakes, too. Watch out for those!
– pack carefully for your kid with a checklist that includes suncream, sunhat, and SPF-protection swimsuit and plenty of spare clothes.
– bring a first aid kit with materials to treat scratches, insect bites, and sunburn (but do your level best to avoid that)!