Survival tips for parents, before you take your children into the wilderness
By Craig J. Heimbuch
After my kids came, my outdoor life all but died. For a while, I was using our SUV only for lugging portable beds, warming bottles and changing diapers. But now that the kids are bigger, I’ve been using it to get back to nature—and to get them enthused about it, too.
We started with fishing: little trips to the local pond, where we cast a cartoon character-themed mini-rod to panfish. Then it was short hikes along a river trail. Finally, last summer, all three kids were old enough to camp. I was nervous at first, afraid they wouldn’t like it. I was pleasantly surprised when they not only liked the overnight adventure, but begged to go again. And so we did.
After several camping trips through the summer and fall, I’ve devised a few simple rules for the dad looking to establish himself as the family’s Chief Adventure Officer.
Rule #1: No Screens
While technology is cool and an inevitable part of our kids’ future lives, I believe wholeheartedly that electronics have no place at a campsite. I want my children to enjoy the outdoors, not simply sit outside and play Angry Birds. If your kids are anything like mine, they may grumble a bit, but once they get involved in pitching the tent it’s unlikely they’ll miss them.
Rule #2: Put Them to Work
Give the kids something to do. I grew up in a camping family that worked first and played later. When you arrive at the site, set up camp before you do anything else.
Don’t have the kids twiddle their thumbs while you play mountain man. I have my oldest son carry sleeping bags and mattresses and the younger one scout the tent site. Then while I work on the tent, I tell them to find sticks and branches for kindling; if there’s no fire ring, I tell them to look for rocks to put around the fire.
Don’t dwell on campsite housekeeping, though. Get set up as soon as you can and head out for a hike before they start thinking of camping as nothing but work.
When it comes to dinner, I give the kids little chores to do, such as peeling or stirring. We all wash up together when we’re done. And the same goes for packing up to leave. I’ve found that if I give the kids opportunities to contribute, they feel gratified by the participation and even a little proud.
Rule #3: Have an Agenda and Share It Early
I like to get the kids excited before we go, so we plan the trip together. We list the things we’re going to do and gather the necessary gear; that way the kids have something to look forward to before we leave, and they learn the value of planning ahead.
I plan what to do in the evening as well. I like bringing along board and card games—ones they know and ones for us to learn together—and other kid-friendly activities (coloring books, maps of the area and stories to share around the campfire). I found a website that allows you to print a star map, which I will take on our next trip to see if the family can pick out constellations together. I also keep a Geocaching app on my phone to turn hikes into scavenger hunts.
I tell the kids about the meal plan and bring along a surprise dessert for fun. I have a rough idea in mind of what we’ll do when and where: swimming in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, etc.
Camping used to be a lot more spontaneous. But camping with kids means playing equal parts adventurer and cruise director.
Rule #4: Gear Them Up
Half the appeal of camping for me, early on, was the cool equipment. Tents, flashlights, packs, sleeping bags, all the cool stuff you get to break out of storage and put to work. I sensed that my kids are the same way, so I started adding a (relatively small) piece to their camping gear collection every time we go. We empty their school backpacks and put together their individual camping kits, including headlamps, first aid kits, water bottles, utensils and fun extras such as a camp ice cream maker.
A lot of kid-friendly camping gear is cheap and flimsy. I try to buy things that are age-appropriate but with high-enough quality that I won’t often replace them before the kids are old enough to invest in their own equipment. Sometimes it takes extra effort to find the balancing act between the things they can share of mine—binoculars—and things they can carry, which they want and need to have.
Rule #5: The Golden Rule of Family Adventures
One of my friends knew how long I’d spent planning and saving for our family’s first Disney World vacation and, just before we left, told me to remember one simple thing: It’s not about you. Taking the kids to Disney is about making memories for them, making their dreams come true. Don’t skimp to save a buck if it means breaking their hearts, and don’t spend the entire time trying to please yourself. Relax and focus on the kids’ happiness.
This has become my mantra: Make it fun for the kids and everyone has a good time. Those memories of camping with your dad or grandfather when you were a kid? Well, now you’re the dad or grandfather and it’s time to make memories for a new generation. For high adventure and rugged outdoorsmanship, plan a weekend with your buddies. With family camping, your job is to keep everyone warm, dry, safe, healthy and occupied.
The realization that the Disney trip was not about me made all the difference. Carrying it forward to the campsite helped me expand on that quality family time with the people I care about, and I hope it continues to do so for many summers to come.
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Craig J. Heimbuch is a seasoned fly fisherman and the author of two books: Chasing Oliver Hazard Perry (about exploring his childhood backyard of Lake Erie) and the recently published And Now We Shall Do Manly Things (about understanding the hunting culture of his large Midwestern family).