Written by contributor Katie Kimball of Kitchen Stewardship.
Bugs. Dirt. Sticks. More dirt.
If your child is at an age when everything goes right to the mouth, you may not feel inspired to take said child out into the wilderness where the list above is all you can find as far as the eye can see.
I, on the other hand, am always inspired to go against the flow. My kids are all younger than five years old, and our family camped in a tent with no facilities – whatsoever – available on site. We had a fire pit. That is all.
Two years ago we left our home for the hour and a half drive while it was raining, crossing our fingers that we could set up at a dry camp by lunchtime. Our 3-month-old daughter had a goopy unidentified eye infection that required a sterile, hot compress twice a day.
Last year the weather forecast called for temps in the low 40s at night during our planned camping time. With our then 15-month-old everything-goes-in-the-mouth daughter, we did it anyway. It was 42 degrees when we exited the tent wearing knit caps and mittens.
And you know what?
We had the best time.
I highly recommend camping, rustic or not so much, as a frugal, adventurous, eco-friendly, memory-making, family togetherness sort of vacation. You CAN survive in the woods with little children, who really won’t eat quite everything.
6 Things to do with Preschoolers and Toddlers in the Big Woods
1. Let them help. Setting up jobs like carrying smaller items and actually helping with the real tent and sleeping bag set-up, daily jobs like collecting twigs for the fire, and mealtime jobs like passing out plates or being the “runner” into the screen tent are actually fun for this age group, and it’s good practice for later when you’ll expect help from them.
2. Go for a nature walk. Children can be expected to walk one mile per year of age. Don’t underestimate their capabilities. Be sure to point out the different leaves, insects, tracks on the ground, vegetation, etc. Allow kids to touch and interact with things. You have nowhere to go, after all!
3. Bring a kid-sized shovel. Dirt + something to dig with = contented kiddos. It’s almost impossible not to start digging holes when you’re 3 or 4 and surrounded by nothing but dirt.
4. Make leaf rubbings. It’s nothing to pack a few crayons and some paper. Once your kids see the plethora of different leaves in the woods, you’ll have a hard time stopping them from participating.
5. Pack outside toys. There’s no better place than the great outdoors to play a game of catch and/or Frisbee. I pack outside toys in an empty 18-lb. grapefruit bag. It works perfectly.
6. Bring a rainy day bag. Pack small things like a few crayons and coloring books, homemade playdough that can be thrown out if it gets dirty, card games and small toys.
4 Survival Tips for Family Camping
1. Use a sling and a pack-n-play for infants. Being outside tends to calm even fussy babies down a lot, and being held by mom most of the time in a sling generally puts baby right to sleep. For 6-18-month-olds, consider a sheet or blanket on the ground as a place for all toys. Did you catch Megan’s article on Babywearing While Traveling this month?
2. Make your vehicle “home base”. Keeping your clothing in the back of a van allows you to access them while still standing up and without giving bugs one more chance to get in your tent.
4. Accept dirt. Dirt happens. Wear your “campin’ attitude” the whole time you’re in the woods and realize that you’ll never really feel shower-fresh clean until you’re home again. Just enjoy the organic nature of it all…literally.
I’ve compiled tips like these, checklists galore, and real food adaptations to traditional camping recipes in my new eBook, “Real Food in the Big Woods: A Family Camping Handbook for the Unwoodsy.” Whether you’re a newbie camper or a veteran, I hope you find something to chew on.
Is family camping a tradition or wishful thinking for you? What’s your best tip to survive with little ones?
Photos by Katie Kimball