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Advice for first-time family campers

It's been awhile, but you're ready to get back outdoors—this time with kids. Here's how to plan for a fun family camping trip.
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February 22, 2018 03:11 PM
  1. Mentally prepare your troops

    Camping will be a lot more fun for kids who have been primed to anticipate it. Before you go, start reading camping-themed stories at bedtime.

    Have kids practice getting ready by outfitting a stuffed animal, or even just drawing pictures of campers, and making lists of what they'll need. Then do a dry run in your backyard.

  2. Choose your destination wisely

    The appeal of a remote wooded location might seem obvious to you, but kids may need a bit more to lure them in. Look for parks with nature centers and activities for young people, and choose spots with a lake or stream nearby.

    Being able to swim, paddle or even just dip feet in rushing water could make all the difference for a first-time camper.

  3. Help kids build a relationship with nature

    The top thing people forget when they go camping with kids, says Jaimie Matzko, a guide with Tennessee outfitter A Walk in the Woods who has been leading family trips in the Great Smoky Mountains for 15 years, is "how important it is to have little things for them to do or spur their imagination around camp." She suggests butterfly nets, binoculars, magnifying glasses and giving kids their own daypacks so they feel like the experience is theirs too.

    Consider organizing a scavenger hunt, or look for game ideas.

  4. Keep everyone nourished (except the bears)

    "On hikes, it's important to really push eating and drinking with kids," Matzko says, because they're easily dehydrated and or tired out from all the activity. Bring favorite snacks and plenty of water for stops along the way.

    On the trail and at camp, reinforce the idea that keeping yourselves and your food away from animals is about making wildlife safe and being good stewards of the land. The message Matzko tries to relay is, "If we're not responsible [in our camping practices], these animals may have to be relocated to a different area."

  5. Plan for downtime

    Not everything needs to be a nature-intensive experience, of course. Think about what will make your kids feel occupied and excited to be at the campsite.

    Let older kids bring a friend, set up a hammock or two and carry games that everyone can play—family camping expert and author Helen Olsson includes playing cards, frisbee and travel-size board games on her checklist. She also recommends making campsite desserts, from the tried-and-true s'mores to shaking up ice cream in balls that use rock salt and ice.

    "There are so many fun things you can do as a family," Matzko says. "it just takes a little bit more planning and preparation."

  6. At night

    To reassure skittish campers at night, Matzko suggests using a buddy system for bathroom trips; distributing night lights and lanterns; and going on guided night hikes, where nocturnal animals like owls become points of fascination rather than fear.

  7. Consult our guide to camping with kids

    For more tips on how long you should consider staying, family friendly extras to bring along and safety tips, see our guide to camping with kids. You can also find our suggestions for day-time, night-time and rainy day activities for kids as well tips to keep them busy while you cook.

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