Bugs, heat, mud, poison ivy, and the sound of a coyote howling in the not-so-distant distance: these are all reasons I used to drive my stance on NEVER EVER camping.
And now, we own a tent.
And sleeping bags.
And an actual camp stove.
A hotel without wi-fi used to be my idea of camping, and then I married a former Boy Scout and had three sons who all have big dreams of being Boy Scouts like their daddy. So now for every trip to Dallas to shop at IKEA and dine in air-conditioned restaurants, my boys ask for a second trip to Lake Arcadia for a camp-out.
And since I am vastly outnumbered, I find myself complying. I haven’t made it to the stage where I actually sleep in a tent. So far I’m using the fact that we have a toddler “who isn’t ready to sleep outside” as my excuse to head home to a real bed once it gets dark.
So here is what I have learned about camping with small kids:
1. Start small.
Set your tent up in the backyard the first time. There is a learning curve as you figure out what your kids actually NEED to be able to sleep outside. We learned quickly that warmer sleeping bags and some type of cot to keep them off of the ground were going to be necessary, even on warmer nights. We also learned that if you don’t want your preschooler wandering around the backyard at night, you have to zip the zippers out of his reach.
Once you get that figured out…
2. Find a campsite close to home.
We love Lake Arcadia. You can pick a spot with a lake view or, if that terrifies you, you can pick a spot far enough away that your child doesn’t even realize you’re near a body of water. They have added a paved hiking trail to get in your nature walk without getting dirty. And if the sound of the coyotes howling from what sounds like 30 feet away becomes overwhelming, it’s easy to get back home.
You don’t have to do a lot to make it special for kids. They love looking for leaves, telling stories around the fire, and zipping up in a sleeping bag instead of climbing in bed, so there is no reason to stress yourself out planning activities. My four-year-old’s favorite part of camping is making S’mores, and my six-year-old likes to look for animal poop.
3. Send them in clothes you don’t care about and in more layers than you think they need.
Something about having no real structures makes them feel like they are freezing and they will be DISGUSTING by the end. They also eat like an entire football team when they are outside all day, so I send a week’s worth of snacks.
4. Take the opportunity to teach them about respecting nature.
My husband is full of expressions like “leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures.” I like to tease him about how corny they are, but it does feel good to watch my boys internalize that and pick up their trash without being asked and put that extra-special pine cone back where they found it.
Now we just need to find a way to carry that over at home.
I know my night spent on the ground with only a layer of canvas separating me from actual nature is coming…unless I can talk my husband into an RV by then. But when the day comes and my boys ask me if I’m sleeping in the tent with them, I will do it for them. I will pretend not to hear the vultures and the bears and the mountain lions and I will snuggle next to their sweaty and grimy little sleeping bodies ON THE ACTUAL GROUND and think about all of the sweet family memories we are making.