My 16-year-old daughter takes pride in pitching her tent in the dark faster than her dad and I can get ours set up (Hey, ours is much larger!), but she didn’t come by that skill overnight. It took time and practice, which she’s gained over years of camping trips. While her outdoors abilities seem second nature, her father and I learned how to camp as adults, through trial and error. As parents, we’ve learned how camping with kids can be both challenging and rewarding. As city dwellers, we’ve also learned how few of our daughter’s friends and their families camp. With fewer kids getting outdoors or involved in traditional programs like scouting, there are fewer opportunities to learn traditional campcraft. Here are a few ways to engage kids.
Begin close to home, with easy goals. If you have a yard, you can practice setting up camp there, or if you have space, you can even pitch a tent inside your house. You want kids to get familiar with all the gear involved before you head out into the great outdoors. “Involvement is key,” says Nate Schumacher, outdoor adventure and partnership coordinator for AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program “Have them at your side, explain what you’re doing and why. Actively show them things and have them replicate them.”
GETTING BASIC SKILLS
Once you’ve moved out of the backyard, learning where to pitch a tent, how to build a fire safely, and how to cook a meal are key skills for your kids to learn. Have kids scout out potential sites for your inspection. If they feel some ownership of the process, it will empower them and build confidence. If your kids are really young, they can help carry stakes, gather sticks for kindling, and plan the camp dinner. Schumacher suggests taking your child to the grocery store with you and think about meals that are easy to prepare. Mac-and-cheese, a kid favorite anyway, is simple enough for many kids to make on their own. Fruit snacks, often a lunch box staple, are perfect for a boost of energy.
As for campfires—synonymous with camping for many kids—it’s important to make sure kids know basic fire safety, such as having water available to extinguish them properly, never leaving one unattended, and to only build fires in fire rings, stoves, or fireplaces. Schumacher uses what he calls the “rule of five challenge,” in which you give your kid (depending on age and maturity) five matches. They get five minutes to gather wood and build a fire with their matches, and try to keep it lit for five minutes. It’s an active learning experience. For example, big logs won’t easily catch fire; you need to start with small sticks, a lesson learned once which they won’t forget.
Many organizations and businesses offer workshops and classes for families to learn good camping techniques; AMC is offering in 2015 a series of family camping workshops at its Cardigan Lodge The National Wildlife Federation, which works to protect wildlife and reconnect people with nature, holds an annual event called the Great American Backyard Campout in June. It’s an excellent opportunity to introduce kids to camping. As you get ready to take your kids camping, remember that if you want them to love camping, it should be an adventure you tackle together. Too much pressure can take the fun out of it.