Even for experienced campers, taking kids camping can be overwhelming. The gear and the planning multiply exponentially, and sometimes it hardly seems worth the trouble. But by slowing the pace of your next trip and adding a few new traditions to the mix your next family campout can be a standout.
In my family growing up, camping was a big deal. Every summer we would set off for Big Cottonwood Canyon for a full week of dirt, s’mores, and streams.
These are some of my favorite childhood memories, and as an adult I now fully appreciate what an overwhelming task it was to take six kids camping for a week. My parents made it look effortless.
A large part of that ease came because they established consistent rituals and traditions that let us know what to expect while still keeping camping exciting. We carried these traditions on with our own children, while adding some new traditions of our own.
One of my mom’s smartest camping strategies was bringing a new dollar-store toy for each kid each day of our trip. We would await the opening of the big red chest after lunch every day, wondering what new joy was in store.
The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying our new treasure, whether it was a plastic bow and arrow set, a Frisbee, or a small package of Army men.
The toys filled in the time gaps between chasing squirrels. Identifying new insect life and setting marshmallows on fire, gave my parents a break from having to keep us constantly entertained. And all at less than a dollar a day.
Another must-do activity at our family campouts is rock painting. This is a great way to create a yearly ritual and also build a collection of souvenirs from your camping adventures.
Every year during our campout, each person chooses a rock to paint. This is a serious decision, and finding the perfect rock often takes a lot of deliberation. The table is covered with plastic, grandma breaks out the paints (regular acrylic craft paint works best) and everyone joins in. The finished product might be anything – a landscape on a flat smooth stone, a gargoyle created with the contours of a particularly strange formation, representations of current world or family events – anything your imagination can supply.
Everyone participates, from grandpa to the toddler barely old enough to hold a paintbrush, and the resulting art is proudly displayed year-round on grandma’s deck. Over the decades, the rocks have become treasured artifacts, and everyone enjoys finding their own particular masterpieces when we visit. There aren’t many ways to create priceless family heirlooms with almost no cost, so this one is highly recommended.
If your campsite has a small stream nearby, another fantastic, kid-friendly activity is boat racing If you have a small, safe stream running through your site, bring along some cheap plastic boats and watch your kids design elaborate courses for their boats. Using sticks, rocks and leaves, they’ll spend hours creating obstacles and eddies to make their race more exciting.
This leaves you free to prepare dinner, set up camp or even just read a book. Just make sure you’ve thoroughly dammed up the end of the course so their boats don’t disappear downstream at the end of the race (Make sure that the stream is absolutely safe before you let your kids wade in and remember, for the very small ones, be sure a grown-up is always on duty).
Another variation is for older kids to create their own boats out of pieces of wood, twigs, leaves, twine or glue. Kids who are familiar with whittling can carve their own watercraft and younger ones can find an already-boat-shaped stick to decorate. The added personal touch makes their boat’s victories all the sweeter.
The very simplest camping traditions come from just doing something differently than you would at home. Food is an easy way to accomplish this. For example, “sugar cereal” is generally not allowed at our house, but we always make sure to bring some along for camping and it’s become one of my kids’ favorite parts of the trip.
You can bring a big box of a fun, “forbidden” item or several small surprises to dole out day by day. My kids are especially big fans of single serving boxes so they can choose a different forbidden fruit each day. Another beloved camping tradition we picked up from my husband’s family is making s’mores for “breakfast dessert.” Any kind of unusual or not usually allowed food can be a big deal for kids, so on your next trip, find a way to bend the rules and watch your kids grin.
But our family’s favorite camping tradition, passed on from my own childhood, is a visit from the Brownies. Brownies, little elf-like creatures who live underground and don’t interact much with humans, will bring your family little treats after dark if you know their secret song. Each of our evenings around the campfire end with our family singing the brownie song, the lyrics of which are very simple.
It goes: Hello, Mr. Echo, how do you do? Hello! Hello! Then repeat.
Then listen for the echo when the Brownies sing back.
Then we all hunt through the bushes around the edges of the campsite for the treats the Brownies have hidden for us. They always bring something new and exciting, candies that mom and dad would never allow or treats we’ve never even heard of before.
And so far we haven’t found any campsite in the world where the Brownies won’t come – from Big Cottonwood Canyon to the Iowa prairie to a campsite in the shadow of the Great wall of China, the Brownies are always there.
So take the leap and take your kids camping this year. With a few new traditions to help your kids have a wonderful time without much fuss, you can all have a memorable relaxing experience in Gateway country’s beautiful outdoors.