Tips from seasoned campers and RVers

By Marney Carmichael

With so many Canadian families set to discover camping and RVing for the first time, we reached out to seasoned campers and RVers about their best tips for ‘camping with kids’.

Whether you are pitching a tent, towing a trailer or driving a motorhome, it’s bound to be a learning experience with kids along for the ride. Expect that not everything will go to plan but remember that this is part of the adventure! Try to adapt and be creative as your trip unfolds and keep notes for your next journey. Choose a tent or RV with ample space for your group. Discuss and set trip expectations before you hit the road, sit down with your children and include them in the planning when possible.

Practice makes perfect

If it’s your first time in a tent or you haven’t camped in years, practice at home with the kids before venturing out. (Many children will get a kick out of sleeping in the back yard or even in their sleeping bags in the living room.) Another idea is to plan your first outing close to home; find a nearby campground and spend a night or two there before a longer trip. If you have rented an RV perhaps sleep in your driveway the first night after preparing your gear. It’s also recommended to limit your drive on day one of your vacation. Arriving stressed and tired at the start of your trip is not ideal. “Teach your children everything you know and learn about camping and the trailer,” says Joseph Talbot of Stayner, ON, who now camps with his grandkids. “You’ll be surprised how much they enjoy spending time with you.”

Where to stay 

Planning your family camping trip should involve the family if possible. The kids will learn about parks and geography and it will add to the excitement. Let them research nearby attractions or fun things to discover. 

Look for an area that best suits your family’s wants and needs. Do you desire certain amenities (be sure to note any closures or restrictions); do you like to be near hiking and biking trails? Once you have set up your campsite walk around the campground with the kids. Agree on or set rules according to your kids’ ages. Are they mature enough to explore together? Where are they allowed to roam, and do they know their site number? (See: helpful tips.)

When driving, if time permits, plan at least one activity stop per day. There are often sights just off the road, such as scenic overlooks or roadside attractions. Keep in mind to add time to the GPS (particularly if in a motorhome or towing a trailer) and allow for potty breaks. When starting out try to limit travel to 3-4 hours’ drive between campsites; be prepared for longer travel days with car singalongs, ‘I Spy’ and geography games or DVDs and tablets if need be.

What to pack

Try to be prepared – ‘Google’ camping essentials if need be – but also cut yourself some slack, particularly if you’re new to camping. Let’s face it, some parents and families are highly organized while others have their own system. Do what works for you and your family, though most seasoned campers admit that keeping organized is useful in tight accommodations. It will also make future trips easier. 

Involve the kids in packing if you can; double check if necessary. Duffel bags rather than suitcases seem to be a popular choice, this way kids can open their bag to see what’s inside, and they’re space efficient. Tie a coloured ribbon around the handle to differentiate the bags if they’re the same. If you have an RV designate an area or cabinet for each child to put their items away.

Make a list with your kids of what to bring and keep the Canadian weather in mind – clothing layers, rain gear, rubber boots, and extra sandals or flip-flops are must-haves. It may seem obvious but pack a first aid kit. Campers’ suggestions include: waterproof adhesive bandages, an antihistamine, anti-itch ointment, a tick remover tool, bug spray and, of course, sunscreen.

Bird books, nature guides, binoculars, compasses and walkie-talkies are fabulous daytime items. For fun (and safety) in the dark pack a few glow sticks, headlamps or star charts. Bring along outdoor and indoor games and crafts (plastic bins are great for this), perhaps pack a ring toss and print out or make up – according to the campsite – scavenger hunts (diversify the hunt with descriptions such as ‘something prickly’ or ‘something fuzzy’). Also, if you have the room, why not hang up a hammock?

What’s for lunch?

Compile a list of food ideas or requests with your kids and shop before your departure. Prepare some snacks or meals ahead of time, it will save you energy when you get to your destination. Bags of cut veggies or baby carrots are healthy and handy, as are granola bars and trail mix or dehydrated fruits. Campfire popcorn in an aluminum tin is amusing to try. 

As one seasoned camper noted: “You can never have too many marshmallows!” All kids love S’mores it seems, so pack a kit or graham crackers and chocolate. (Just don’t be like my husband and try to make S’mores for the kids on your first night of camping while a thunderstorm rolls in over Lake Superior!)

Pitching in 

Set a cleaning schedule with the kids, perhaps one child can help to prepare a salad or dry the dishes while the other sweeps outside. When everyone pitches in there will be more time to relax or play and it will give the kids a sense of involvement and ownership. Don’t allow them to view helping out as a ‘chore’ but rather part of the camping experience. Teach them to respect nature and tidy as you go.

Stop and smell nature and embrace the dirt

Let yourself slow down and take it in – dirty kids and all – and appreciate how special it is to spend time together as a family. We are very fortunate in Canada to have access to nature, wildlife and big spaces. Remind your kids, and yourself, of this!

Take advantage of teachable moments and try to keep a positive attitude. You may not have the experience you envisioned but you will inevitably learn lessons for the next time. Most of all have fun and enjoy your family time, that’s why you wanted to try camping, right?

Ashley Oriet, RVs for Canada’s Frontline founder
(Windsor, ON)

I grew up camping with my huge, extended family. When we would camp, we had about seven trailers! It was important to me that my kids grow up with fun experiences like I did. My oldest was tent camping with me from the time he was two months old. I now have three kids, and we own a trailer, and I’m still learning more tricks every trip! 

My top suggestions are:

Prep and plan meals ahead of time. Depending on our trip duration I like to cook some meals before we go, like quick and easy tacos or Sloppy Joes or a slow cooker meal for the first day. Also, keep lots of activities at-hand. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate and you’re suddenly faced with kids in a small space. Having games, colouring activities, Playdoh etc. around keeps the bickering down with my three! 

Don’t have high expectations of a dream vacation. Our first family camping outing I pictured a rainbows and butterflies’ trip where nothing would go wrong…well, it all went wrong and I was devastated! I realized I needed to be more realistic and go with the flow, it keeps me calmer and the kids certainly appreciate less-stressed parents. 

Invest in room darkening curtains if you can. When you’re in a compact space with kids, if one is awake, often everyone is awake. My daughter is up the moment she sees the sun, which in a camper is way too early for the other two. Adding darker curtains was a game changer for us! 

Accept that camping is messy. Your livable space will absolutely get dirty. For my own sanity I’ve learned to ‘let go of the mess’, but I also switched up some fabric to a washable fabric, and I keep a hand-vac in the trailer and a shoe bin outside. Every night it comes in and any dirt is kept within. Also, have lots of old rags for mucky kids and muddy dogs.

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