Growing up in South Carolina, my family and I spent many weekends in our old camper. We’d toss everything into my dad’s truck, scramble to see who would get the best seat with the extra leg room, and take off. Usually, it rained. And usually, at least two of us would fall into whatever body of water was nearby in our search for crawdads. And we would always be very dirty. It was wonderful.
My memories of camping and hiking with my parents and sisters have influenced how my husband and I spend our weekends with our 3 kids, ages 7, 4 and 15 months. We’ve managed to spend a few weekends in the woods every year, and our challenges have turned each trip into a family adventure. Below are some tips to have your own family adventure.
- Start easy. The first time we went camping with our oldest daughter, she was 6 months old and I was still nursing. We tossed her diapers in the car, a few changes of clothes, and drove 5 hours to a campground near a family wedding that July weekend. In hindsight, we should have stayed closer to home (within an hour or so), spent only one night, and had nothing else planned besides enjoying the campfire and some local hikes. If things go badly on a camping trip with little ones, you can always come home as long as home is close by. Check out the Springfield Moms state parks and camping sites here for some local camping spots that are close enough to Springfield to get home if you need to.
- Invest in some basic gear. To go camping, all you really need is the outdoors. To enjoy doing it again, you will need some more equipment. A tent is a good start – the size is up to you. We have two smaller backpacking tents for our family – my husband likes to backpack, and so investing in smaller tents keeps that as an option for him. Other families we camp with have larger tents with rooms inside. Don’t worry about spending a lot of money on a tent at first – it is more important to buy one that you will use, and that is easy to put up. Ours is a Kelty, and we’ve used it many times over the years. We bought a cheap tarp for a ground cover (it goes under the tent to make sure it stays dry) and saved a bit of money. With our savings from the tarp, we decided to buy slightly nicer sleeping bags. I do not enjoy being cold, and since we camp in the fall and early spring, a decent sleeping bag was necessary. I recommend buying a sleeping bag that has the coldest temperature rating for your trips. I’ve also found that a sleeping pad helps with the comfort – and since we’re car camping, I do throw in a comforter to put under the sleeping bag and bring my pillow. If I don’t, then I tend to realize I’m old every morning, and I try to avoid that daily reminder.
- Pack intentionally. While it is tempting to throw everything in your car for the weekend away (why not? You have room, right?), try to resist. Instead, make a list of items to bring and stick to the list. There are many camping checklists online. We like www.lovetheoutdoors.com/camping/checklists.htm. Review several and use them as a guide to create one for your family. We always include a pack-n-play, but I’ve never seen that on a generic camping checklist. For fun, we bring some cards, checkers, fishing poles and little else – the kids find the rocks, sticks and leaves more interesting than their toys from home. The book “S’more Campfire Fun” offers fun kid activities, campfire recipes and star charts if you want more ideas for your trip.
- Go with friends. The beauty of the outdoors can be difficult to appreciate if you are chasing tiny kids around all weekend alone. Between cooking meals and supervising bathroom trips, you won’t get a chance to sit by the fire and relax. So bring another family that you like and divide up the meals and take turns with the kids. You can also divide up the gear you’ll need and have other adults to laugh along with you when dinner falls in the fire.
- Use the trip to teach the kids about nature. One of the best things our kids have received from our frequent trips into the woods is an appreciation about the ecosystems around us. Many of the state and national parks have free nature programs, and our kids have enjoyed learning about nesting sea turtles at the beach, salamanders in the mountains, and deer in the woods. They get angry when they see litter on a trail, and they ask questions about animal tracks and trees. No one asks to watch a movie, and if they get hot, they just ask to get in the creek. They also like to get very dirty. It is wonderful for them, and for me – and we get to do it together.
Submitted by Springfield Moms contributor Erin Predmore. Erin and her family have recently relocated to Springfield from Virginia. She and her husband have three children and look forward to exploring Illinois state parks and natural areas after they get settled in.