Sure, taking the kids camping in our national parks sounds like a great, affordable way to bond with the family. But the reality of preparing such a trip can be daunting, especially for first-timers. Guest blogger Dana Rebmann of family travel resource CiaoBambino.com shares her top tips on camping with kids in a national park.
Summer is in full swing and that means it’s prime camping season. The United States has 58 national parks. Some are incredibly well-known (and often crowded) like Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Others like the Florida Everglades and South Dakota’s Wind Cave are often overlooked.
With so many choices, it’s not a question of if your family should go, it’s a question of when. But know that a vacation in a national park will most likely change the way you and children judge and rate future vacations.
A vacation at a national park is magical. It’s an adventure really, which means it also takes a lot of hard work. It’s important that you understand that from the day you make your reservation. Getting ready to go camping is a full-time job, but the payoff is incredible.
I recommend you get them. Many parks have campsites available on a first come, first serve basis, but you’re taking a risk. When I was younger and didn’t have kids, I didn’t think twice about going on a whim, but now with two kids in tow, knowing where everyone is going to sleep is a must in my book.
You need to plan ahead. Many campgrounds in the national parks sell out within minutes of becoming available. A great resource is Recreation.gov for making reservations throughout the country.
Food is important, but don’t let it get out of hand. You don’t want to have to lug every pan from your kitchen. It’s not worth the effort and even if you’ve got room in the car, you may not have room at the campsite. Some sites require you to store all your food and cooking supplies in bear lockers. The lockers are not what I would call huge, so packing light is not only practical, it is essential. Simple and tasty is good. Don’t be surprised if the family eats a little more than usual. There’s something about camping that just seems to make you hungry. When camping with kids, don’t do all the work by yourself; share the wealth. Our daughters play a large role in planning our camp menu.
In fact, a good rule of thumb is to involve the kids whenever you can, even when it comes to packing. I’m a firm believer in having the kids pack for themselves (click here to see my packing tips). Obviously, parents should give some guidance and double-check what winds up in their bags before you go to avoid any unwelcome surprises. Along with giving the kids some responsibility, this also gets you off the hook. No one can blame mom for forgetting to pack socks, when she didn’t shoulder all of the responsibility herself.
They add a lot to the load but bikes are a must when camping with kids. After walking and hiking all day, kids can still find the energy to bike for hours. They’re faster and more fun than walking, and let’s be honest, they keep us out of our cars.
Bikes also tend to be a friend magnet for kids. Five minutes cruising around the campground and they’ll have buddies to entertain them for the rest of your trip.
Have the whole family help unload all the gear so that everyone has a general sense of where everything is. Get the chores done before you get involved in any activities. The fun stuff isn’t going to disappear at sunset, so don’t go crazy the first day. A 6-mile hike on the first day will inevitably burn the kids out for the next three.
Have a game plan, but be flexible. If Saturday is full of things on mom and dad’s list, then make sure Sunday caters to the kids. If you’ve done your research, you’ll most likely have a list of things you want to do. That’s great, but be open to new ideas.
The national park system has endless options for young families. I guarantee you’ll find something at the park you weren’t expecting. Don’t be so structured that you can’t take advantage of these finds. My daughters and I have taken Sharpie art classes, learned about Ahwahneechee Indians and competed in scavenger hunts. Ranger walks are a great way to learn about wildlife in the park and discover a trail you may not have known existed. Most parks also offer junior ranger programs. Ask about it at the visitor center. Typically, you pick up an activity book, and then kids complete requirements based on their age. Don’t be surprised by how much you and the kids learn. At the end, kids earn a pin or patch and a nice congratulations from the ranger on duty.
Rise and Shine
Don’t plan on sleeping in. Your neighbors will be up early and so will you. And quite honestly, it’s a good thing. I’ve found getting started early works best for my family. After a good breakfast, energy is high and moods are usually good. Getting an early start also allows you to take advantage of cooler morning weather. Hiking in the heat isn’t any fun, it doesn’t matter if you’re 4 or 40.
Parents inevitably become sherpas, so pack a good backpack, but also have your kids carry a fanny pack that can hold a water bottle. I like to have my kids carry a whistle and a small flashlight too. I hope they never need the whistle, but it makes me feel better knowing they’ve got it. Whether it’s hiking to the top of a waterfall or riding bikes on dirt trail, take time to stop and enjoy the little things that are really big things to the kids. For example, chipmunks fascinate my daughters. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve stopped on hikes to watch chipmunks do their thing.
Lunch offers the perfect opportunity to take a break and assess how everyone is faring. After everyone’s eaten, check the energy levels. Be realistic. If everyone’s fading it might be time to head back to camp and take a break. Ending the day on a high note will make starting the next so much easier.
Sometimes a nap or just an hour with a good book or game can be the boost the family needs. Chances are, this is the hottest point of the day as well. Don’t think of a shady campsite as boring. It’s a great place to rest and plan for tomorrow.
Write down what works and what doesn’t. Things you wished you had and things you wished you’d left home. You think you’ll remember, but trust me you won’t. Notes will help immensely when you start planning for next year’s trip.
Laundry Can Be Done … Later
It seems really obvious, but it needs to be said. When you go camping, you get dirty. The tent, the sleeping bags, the car, but mostly the kids. Let it go. You’ll be happier and they’ll be happier. Dirt washes off, but memories stick.
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- National Parks section
- Family Travel section
- Outdoor, Sports & Adventure Travel
- Hiking & Biking section
Text and photos by Dana Rebmann for PeterGreenberg.com. Dana writes for CiaoBambino.com, a family travel resource offering tips and advice about traveling with kids, as well as reviews of the best family-friendly hotels.