Monday, October 22, 2018

Camping with Children - without Losing Your Mind

Any mom who has vacationed with several small children knows that moms don't get a vacation on vacation. In fact, with a lack of routine (i.e. naps), a mom's life can be crazier on vacation than at home.

Early in our marriage, Ed and I did a lot of tent camping. We canoed down a quiet river, set up a tent in a pine-carpeted woods, and watched the campfire flicker. Ahhh...camping memories.

When children joined our family, we tried to keep camping. Our oldest slept in a tent by the creek when she was one-month old. We spent another memorable night by the creek with a three-year-old, not-quite-two-year-old, and one-month-old. Maybe that was the night we decided to put the tent in retirement and turn to cabin camping. We spent the next few years enjoying the rustic cabins at various state parks. Three years ago we tried setting up the tents on the Fourth of July at a state park, but a torrential rain flooded the tents and sent us home early.

This summer we thought we'd like to try tenting again. Our youngest is now two and out of the crib. Our older children can set up tents and other camp chores. Ed gets tired quickly and can't bike or hike, but camping is an activity that he can still enjoy.

But this summer, every time we'd have a free weekend, I'd look at the weather predictions and decide that tenting was not a good plan. Our area has been deluged with rain for months. When finally we decided to head to Chincoteague Island in October, I wasn't sure I even remembered how to pack for camping anymore.

That is when I had a pleasant surprise.

I pulled out our camping box from the basement. Back when we regularly went camping, we had stocked this box with some extra kitchen tools. I didn't remember what it contained but found that on the lid was two lists. One listed the items in the box. The other listed the supplies that needed added.

I'm good at making lists - but not keeping lists. I knew I had made camping lists in the past but had no idea where I may have put them. I felt like I had been given a huge gift with these two lists taped to the box. In a few minutes I was able to add the needed items (such as dish towels, charcoal, frying pan, and hot dog sticks). Over the years we had bought some items to keep with our camping gear, such as some cheap plastic bowls and plates and a small dustpan and brush, which made packing even easier.

We used to have a large tent, but the tent poles have broken over the years. We've picked up three smaller tents at yard sales and thrift stores - one for the girls, boys, and Ed and I. We found that several small tents are more convenient than one large one.

We stayed at Pine Grove Campground on Chincoteague Island. This is an small, older, family-owned campground. There are other campgrounds that have more amenities, but they charge more for larger families. One would have made us rent two campsites for our family of eight. At Pine Grove we found a quiet corner by a pond near the bathhouse and were able to spread out over several tent sites. The bathhouse was old, but the freshly-scrubbed toilets help me ignore the cracked cement. We would definitely go back to Pine Grove Campground.

I learned to always bring twice as many trash bags as you think you can possibly ever need  - especially if you'll be near water. There is always something sandy, wet, or muddy that needs contained. I had thrown in a small bucket which we found endlessly useful. At the beach the children's feet were sandy just walking from the restroom to the van. We filled the bucket with water so the children could wash their feet before climbing into the van. 

Food is a highlight of camping, but I kept our meals super simple. Each meal contained a simple protein (hamburgers, hotdogs, or chicken). I added a big bag of fresh veggies to the table as well as some sliced apples. Cookies or toasted marshmallows were dessert. With this menu, Ed could keep on his keto diet without any problem. He just added some mayo to his protein, used a low-carb roll, and enjoyed low-carb veggies with dip. I also picked up a bunch of snacks. Since I almost never buy processed snack foods like potato chips, they were a treat for my children and fun camp munching.

For clothing packing I tried a technique I learned from a mom with many children. My children are not convinced it made a big difference, but I think it tamed the chaos of everyone hauling their duffle bags full of clothing into the bathhouse. 

When we packed up our clothes at home, I had everyone carry their stack of clothes to my bed. I then made a stack containing a set of clothing for each person and placed them in a small duffle bag and marked the duffle with a date. For example, one bag was marked Girls - Saturday and contained a set of clothing for myself and each of my girls. I did the same for Ed and the boys. I had a bag for each day plus and bag with an extra set of clothes. I also had a tent bag which contained pjs, flashlights, and stuffed animals for the little ones. Another bag contained all the beach clothes and towels. 

The result was a LOT of bags with labels. But I could (usually) find what I needed. At camp we placed the tent bags in each tent. At night when we went to the shower house, we brought the one bag of clothing for the next day. The children changed into their clean set of clothes after their shower.

Another time-saver I found in our camping gear in the basement was our towel bag. Several years ago I pulled out some of our towels that were getting ragged. My daughter stitched initials for each family member onto a wash cloth and a bath towel. I keep these folded in a large bag. Anytime we go anywhere that requires us to bring our own towels, I grab the bag and we are packed. We keep a clothes line in our camping gear and strung a line between some trees.  After showers, each person hung up their towel to dry for use the next day. No confusion on using the wrong towel.

I think that this may have been the most stress-free camping trip we've ever had. I think this may have more to do with having older children to help and no babies than any other aspect. Or maybe it is the fact that our normal life is so stressful that it can't get worse when camping. Or maybe over the years we've learned a few things to help camping go smoother. 

But at the end of the weekend, we piled everything in the van  and closed the door quickly before something fell out. The stinky mess of wet clothes, the crusty remains in the bottom of the ice chest, the sand embedded into every fiber of clothing and van carpet - it all reminded me that camping with children (at the beach!) will never be a neat and tidy production. 

But it will be worthwhile.


  1. I love to hear about your family trips. So much fun! God bless you all!

  2. Gina, what an adventure for you and your family :-) Well, perhaps adventure is the wrong word but you seem to have worked out a routine that works for you. We never camped with children but I imagine the older they are the easier it would be to set up tents etc. I love hearing that you and Ed are still able to do so much despite the illness.

  3. Excellent tips! When our kids went to church camp I would pack each set of clothing in a large zip lock bag, they could return the dirty clothes to the empty bag which kept things more tidy. Laundry after camping is not my idea of fun :) Looks like you had a great trip!

  4. I havent been camping in ages! Thank you for the memories. 😀 A tip that I have learned working with children is that if you play in/near sand, keep a bottle of powder or cornstarch nearby. It absorbs the moisture and the sand rubs right off.😏

  5. I read this post with so much interest - I have a love/hate relationship with camping. With or without children :)
    But I've been doing it enough years now and at the same campground, too, that I have a fairly good system worked out. It's still SO MUCH work, but the joy of the children at camping does make it feel almost worth it.
    Fascinated by your clothing packing system you tried, and totally agree with you on simple meals with vacation treat food.

  6. I am in awe of your organization! I have great memories of camping as a girl but as the mom, it's been a different story. :) This post gave me some ideas to make it easier.

  7. You guys are fantastic! Makes me tired just reading your post. Blessings to you.

  8. Enjoyed your camping hints. We camped often when the children were younger but not so much as a getaway from it all but as a cheaper alternative to getting a motel room and meals while on cross country vacations. Our 5 range over 9 years. We often took an older cousin along to help keep an extra eye out and keep them occupied when one of us was busy. They always liked that.

    We traveled in an old VW bus and pulled a small trailer with the tent, etc. We had food boxes, dish boxes, cooking boxes...whatever we needed could easily be pulled out and set on picnic table. 5 child size lawn chairs were always good too because if they were told to sit there that is what they were to do. We liked several tents too rather than one large one. Each person had their own duffle bag with clothes in sets, rolled up, per day.

    Since we were traveling we often camped only one night or two in each place, usually eating dinner, then breakfast there. Lunch was made in other places when we were out for the day.

    Your children will remember these trips forever.


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