In California, camping opportunities abound for a majority of the year. A weekend camping trip is a great way to spend time with your kids, foster their love for the outdoors, and create a connection you’ll share for the rest of your lives. It’s also a great way to teach a variety of life skills—planning, packing, cooking, hydration, and wilderness best practices—in a fun and healthy environment.
Camping with kids can be a daunting task with a trial-and-error learning curve attached. But kids of all ages, even babies, love to camp and spend time outdoors. These weekend camping tips, ideas, and activities will help you survive in the woods with your kids and make your first overnight outdoor adventure together an experience you’ll want to relive again and again.
1. Start with a quick and easy overnighter. Don’t push your limits the first time you take kids camping, especially if they’re under five years old. Reserve a campsite at a state park or national forest campground that offers running water, bathrooms, and activities in addition to camping. Plan to camp for one night only, and stay relatively close to home in case you need to leave earlier than planned.
2. Get going early. Setting up camp and cooking meals outdoors can be an all-day event. Have everything ready to go the night before and leave first thing in the morning, to make sure you have plenty of time to set up camp before it gets hot out. Eat breakfast at home, pre-pack some lunch sandwiches, and bring plenty of snacks, so you’ll have enough energy to set up camp and your cook station.
3. Plan to bring or make shade. In summer, your family will need a way to escape from the midday heat. A good water-based daytime activity can help beat the heat, but you’ll still need some shade back at camp to help everyone keep cool and protected from the sun. Reserve a campsite in a shady location whenever possible. If you’re going somewhere without shade, bring a shade tent or stakes, ropes, tarps, sheets, and other items that you can use to create shade or build a shelter.
4. Meal plan in advance. Don’t go grocery shopping on the way to your campsite. Meal plan and shop in advance to make sure that you have plenty of meals and snacks to eat throughout the day. Prepackaged and prepared foods can eliminate cooking and cleanup at the campsite, but for some families, cooking meals over the camp stove or fire is an important part of the camping experience. If you plan to cook, choose meals with limited ingredients that don’t take a long time to prepare, and bring snacks for younger kids to eat in the meantime.
5. Pack 4 outfits per day. Kids are dirt magnets in the woods, so make sure you have plenty of clothing, washcloths, wet wipes, and biodegradable soap. Camping can come with some significant temperature changes and adverse whether as well, so you’ll need different layers and types of clothing at different times of the day.
6. Build a dish station. Washing dishes while camping can be laborious, or it can be fairly easy with a little advance planning. Bring three plastic dish tubs or storage containers, a package of sponges, biodegradable dish soap, and plenty of drying towels. Fill one tub with soapy water, one with rinsing water, and leave one empty for the clean dishes to go in. Create an assembly line where each person has a job. This easy dish station works equally well for single-person clean up.
7. Bring a bathtub. A larger plastic storage container can be used to store and transport a variety of camping supplies, and once unpacked it can be used as a bathtub for smaller children—the ones who tend to get the dirtiest. On hot days, you can heat the bath water by filling the tub in the morning and leaving it in the sun. By the end of the day it should be the perfect temperature for bathing, and you can boil some extra water on the camp stove (or add cold water) if it’s not.
8. Hang a clothesline. A rope strung up between two trees becomes the perfect clothesline for hanging wet towels, dish rags, swimsuits, and clothing, and it can also be used for creating shade.
9. Create a familiar sleep environment. One of the biggest challenges of camping with younger children is getting them to sleep in a strange environment, but making it a little more like home can help a lot. Bring air mattresses and other comfortable bedding, or a pack and play for kids who are still sleeping in a crib. Bring their favorite blanket and stuffed animal. Download a white noise app on your phone if they use white noise at home, or sleep next to running water. Use a bedtime routine that’s similar to the one you have at home. For naps, set up a blanket under a shady tree and have some quiet time to give them the opportunity for extra sleep.
10. Remember the essentials: bug spray, sunscreen, first aid kit, matches, firewood and duct tape. There’s nothing like insect bites, sunburn, and injuries to ruin a good camping trip. These obstacles can be prevented or prepared for, but once you’re out there you may not have access to the supplies you need. Matches are essential for cooking and starting a fire. Firewood isn’t available for collection at many campgounds, but it can often be purchased at a nearby gas station or convenience store, or from a campground host. And duct tape is just a good, all-purpose emergency supply to keep in your car or camping bin.