I love camping, but my idea of a great trip has evolved over the years.

In college we hiked into the national forest, pitched a tent, and sent somebody back for the cooler of beer. As young adults we were equally as suited to backwoods minimalist, as parties in the woods. We once fit four adults in a Camry and drove 12 hours to a multi-day camping festival.

Things have changed. These days we take two cars to camp 30 minutes away. It’s worth it, but making the most of the adventure requires some know-how.

Here’s what to do:

Find your compromise

Camping with small kids is an entirely different experience. We have left behind the days of hiking in with just the packs on our back, and have embraced car camping. For us, that means camping somewhere with a bath house and water. We still prefer not to have our cars right on top of us, and to have room to really spread out. Group camping at state parks usually fits the bill perfectly. And we have traded our packs for fully-packed cars. We look like we’re moving into a dorm room or small apartment, but I can guarantee that I won’t get cold at night.

Friends make it better

For the past five years the same core group of friends have been going camping together several times each year. Today we have ten children between the four families, and the kids currently range from age one to age 10. You can imagine how much things have changed! Our toddlers are now big kids and there are new babies to snuggle. It takes a lot of pressure off the parents when the kids have friends, and when everyone knows the expectations and boundaries of the group. Someone is always willing to hold the baby when I need a break.

Get the kids involved!

Teach them how to find the right firewood, and how to build a fire. Help them learn what is OK to put in the fire, and what is not. Quiz them on poison ivy. Encourage them to find the perfect marshmallow stick. There are a million possible lessons disguised as fun when you are in the woods. Imagination has no bounds in nature, either. This past trip I took a bunch of old-fashioned clothespins, some pipe-cleaners, and some watercolors for the kids to make fairies. Then they searched the woods for everything a perfect fairy garden would need. Boredom doesn’t exist when you are camping.

Organize, organize, organize

This is possibly my most practical tip. Get plastic containers and organize your small camping gear. Mine is filled with things like my first aid kit, flashlights, baby wipes, weather radio, cooking accoutrements, glow sticks, batteries, trash and sandwich bags, washcloths, and much much more. Collecting all of these little items the night before the trip is maddening, and I save so much time by having it all stored in a closet and ready to put straight into the car. So go down your packing list and add anything that makes sense. Speaking of your packing list, I suggest keeping an ongoing list that you update as needed. I keep mine in a spreadsheet.

Make safety an on-going conversation

I ask my daughter safety questions in different ways in the days leading up to our trip, and really drive it home on our way to the campsite. Your group dynamic, and location, will inform what questions you ask, but ours go something like this:

  • What do you do if you get lost? (Answer: Sit where you are and yell.)
  • Do you go to the lake without an adult?
  • What should you do before you go off with another adult? (Answer: Tell your parents.)
  • Can you go to the lake with the bigger kids without an adult?
  • Do you eat berries you find in the woods?
  • Should you run near the fire pit?
  • And then I make her repeat these ideas back to me as complete statements.

Pack a great first aid kit

  • Bandages
  • Burn cream
  • Anti-itch cream
  • Sting reliever
  • Tweezers
  • Pain reliever (child and adult)
  • Antihistamine (child and adult)
  • Saline solution or other eye wash
  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Hand sanitizer

Glow Sticks

I have tons of products that I love for camping — far too many to include here. But there is one that is indispensable: glow sticks. We buy the tubes of 15 bracelets for a couple of dollars each, and dole them out as night falls. They are useful for more than just keeping track of the kids. I attach them to the guy wires for tents, around major tripping hazards, and around the leashes and collars for the dogs.

Pennies for trash

No matter how conscientious you may be, there is going to be trash around the campsite at the end of the weekend. Save your aging back and get the kids to clean it up. A favorite in our group is to give each kid a bag and tell them they will get one penny per piece of trash they find. Suddenly they are fighting each other over who gets to pick up that banana peel. It’s literally worth every penny.

I love unplugging for a weekend and removing the temptation to let the TV do the babysitting. I love watching my kids and their friends explore, and learn, and create their own fun. It’s a measuring stick of sorts, all of our pictures from five years of camping. 

So, we’ll continue to do it for as long as we can, or at least until we have teenagers who’d rather sit in the campsite bathroom with their phones plugged into a wall than be lured back to nature. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll give our kids enough reasons to want to unplug from electronics, and get into a more organic sort of  trouble. Like, hiding beer from the rangers. Not that I would know anything about that.