— Text and Photos by John Pollmann
The bumper of the camper hadn’t more than passed the “come back again” sign of a favorite state park a few years ago when my then 4-year-old son said six words I’ll never forget.
“Dad, I miss my climbing tree.”
Camping with kids — especially the little ones — can be hard. Really hard. The challenges of keeping kids fed and safe and well-rested aren’t diminished when you are removed from the relative comfort (and confines) of home.
And on this particular trip, my wife and I felt especially exhausted after a few days of chasing after our two young sons, but those six words put the entire experience into perspective. Long days and short nights living out of a camper are a small price to pay now for helping our boys develop an appreciation of the outdoors that will last a lifetime.
Coming to this realization certainly provides motivation to get out and do it again, but it doesn’t make the experience any easier. After a few years of camping as a parent, I’ve come up with some ideas that can help make the weekends with the kids in the outdoors a little more bearable.
Maybe after reading through the list you’ll want to a take a camping trip with the young ones this year. Who knows … you might find a climbing tree of your own.
1. Be Realistic
Take a walk through any one of North or South Dakota’s beautiful state parks on a given weekend from April through November, and you’ll likely see folks lounging comfortably in a lawn chair or hammock, reading a book and sipping on a cold drink. Their camping spots are clean and orderly, and chances are they have a five-course meal cooking away in an assortment of Dutch ovens.
Please note: these people aren’t camping with children under 5 years old.
Camping with kids is not a leisurely activity, and knowing this before embarking for a weekend away helps keep things in perspective. Even with all of the opportunities afforded by being outside, a parent still has to parent, and with young children this means there is very little, if any, downtime. The day will come when camping will become a more relaxing experience, but until then it’s pretty much a contact sport.
I know that if I want a little quiet time, I need to get up early, quietly make a cup of coffee and grab a seat outside to watch the park wake up. As soon as I hear the camper stir to life I know that it’s time to hit the road running.
2. Keep a Routine
There are no rules when it comes to camping, but there is something to be said for maintaining a routine when it comes to the kids.
We plan our day to closely match what the kids do at home, but with an outside twist, of course. A sample day for my family includes breakfast together around the picnic table followed by a walk with our dog or a bike ride around the park or on the local trails. This simple bit of exercise usually turns into a full-blown adventure, complete with make-believe swords fashioned out of sticks found along the trail, scavenger hunts and maybe even a brief lesson on identifying birds on the wing.
After an hour or two of activity and a snack break, we use puzzles, books and craft projects back at the camper to help keep the boys occupied until lunch. As the boys have grown older, we have increasingly given them freedom to go off on their own to play and explore, too.
The afternoon and evening continue in the same manner, with several activities used to help break up the day. By the time the sun goes down, we’re all ready to call it a day. Just like home, books are read and stories are told before the boys curl up in bed, and after a little more campfire time, mom and dad aren’t too far behind.
3. Be a Kid Again
One of our favorite parks to visit as a family is Newton Hills State Park near Canton, S.D., which features walking and biking trails through a forest of hardwoods.
A few years ago, my wife took our oldest son on his first official hike along one of the paths at the park, and he handled the walk like a champ, tackling even the few steep sections of rough trail.
When we all connected again, he was proud to tell me of the hike and of the great walking stick he had found. My wife told me that it was really fun to walk one of the same trails that she had explored with her father when she was little — just another example of how life so often comes full-circle as a parent.
Helping our kids develop an active lifestyle in the outdoors is just one of the reasons why we choose to go camping, but this means being active ourselves by taking hikes, riding our bikes and even trying new activities such as kayaking or Frisbee golf. To make activities like these even more available, many state parks offer equipment — from kayaks or canoes in the summer to snow shoes in the winter — you can use or even rent for a small fee.
4. Take Five
My wife and I try to take a lot of pictures of the boys while we’re camping, and one of my favorites is of our boys curled up in their hammocks on a beautiful summer afternoon. wWhat the picture doesn’t show is the morning of hard play that we all had endured — the long bike ride, the exploring and so much more. They needed a break. On some days this may mean watching a movie in the camper. On this particular day, however, the hammocks were too much to resist. I couldn’t blame them for their choice.
I’m not afraid to throw up the white flag every once in a while and ask for a break, too, which usually means heading to the nearest town for an evening to allow someone else to cook for us. It’s a great way to support small businesses, all while taking in even more of the local scene.
For example, we love Charlie’s Pizza House in Yankton, S.D., when we’re camping at Lewis and Clark Recreation Area, and after pizza it’s hard not to turn into the Dairy Dock west of town for an ice cream on the way back to the campground.
Places like these dot the landscape, allowing folks to get away from getting away. The kids seem to like the change, too, and we all enjoy the break from the heat when the summer sun is in full effect.
5. Be Flexible and Prepared
If there is one sure thing about camping with kids, it’s that things rarely go as planned. I once drove around half of Brookings and Hamlin counties in order to put a 1-year-old to sleep after he woke up screaming in the middle of the night while camping at Oakwood Lakes State Park. I timed the drive just right, and at dawn I was parked on the east side of a beautiful marsh. The boy slept while I listened to hen mallards saying hello to the morning.
A few years back a weekend of steady rain turned two days of exploring Newton Hills State Park into a movie- and game-fest inside the camper. What could have been a disaster turned into a surprisingly fun weekend stuck in a small space with the family.
Having a back-up plan — movies, games, puzzles and more — has saved the day more than once while camping with the kids, but even more important is trying to keep an open mind about the entire experience. Some of the best moments of camping with the kids come when least expected, like encountering a large turtle lumbering through the campsite or, yes, finding a tree that’s just perfect for climbing.
These are just my ideas; you surely have your own. The most important thing is that we are out there getting dirty and sweaty and tired — and getting our kids outdoors.
About the Author: John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.