My husband and I have been camping since the very beginning of our relationship. In fact, camping was how our relationship started. Our first tent was set up about a football field away from the ocean. We were just outside the lazy beach town of La Manzanilla located along the Costa Alegre, Mexico for a college mini-session class via UNR. Later in our relationship, we would load everything needed for the weekend onto our backs and head into Desolation Wilderness. One of our favorite camping trips ever was an adventure where we packed up my little Toyota and camped all along the California coast, driving south from Reno to San Francisco down to Santa Cruz and Big Sur, with the final stop in San Luis Obispo to visit family.
Fast forward a few years and I was pregnant with our first. During the summer, I obliged to a few trips, but had to put my swollen foot down at about 7-1/2 months pregnant. No matter how many s’mores you dangle in front of the face of an expecting mother, there comes a certain point when a big belly on the hard ground just doesn’t make sense. We knew camping was going to shift once the new addition arrived, but we wanted to make sure we continued to camp. Sharing our love and enjoyment of the outdoors was and is something we plan to pass down to O. and Fifi, like some families pass down fancy china and old quilts.
After a dozen years of being together, my husband and I still love to camp. That part hasn’t changed. How we camp has. The evolution of how we camp wasn’t overnight. Until two months ago, all of that camping had been in a tent, not the trailer. We went from loading up our packs to loading up the pop-up tent trailer. I am pretty sure that once the kids can wear and lug their own packs, we will be back on the trail.
We have been camping with my son since he was 7 months old and my daughter since she was 6 months old. I don’t lie when I tell you that one or both of the kids asks if we are going camping soon every.single.day. Whether it’s in a tent or in a souped up RV complete with a microwave and cable TV, every family should go camping at least once (a summer). Today, I want to share some ideas and tips for making things easier and fun with the kids.
Where do we like to go?
1. Plumas Eureka State Park
This is a great spot to go if you are new to camping. Even if you’re not up for an overnight stay, the park is worth a visit. It’s relatively close to Reno/Sparks and makes for an easy two or three day weekend trip. Located five miles outside of Graeagle/Blairsden, it’s an easy drive to and from home. There are great day hikes; for example, the Jamison Creek offers a fun place to explore and cool off at. The museum is small, but offers up a ton of historical information about the park and the region. The blacksmith will pound out a little something for you to take home and in the evenings, there is often story telling and camp fires songs led by the ranger. If you get tired of being out in the wild, you can always drive into Graeagle or Blairsden for a soft serve ice-cream, mini-golf, beer or wine tasting, horseback riding, golf, shopping or food and supplies.
2. New Brighton State Beach
This trip will take you over the river and through the woods, but its well worth the drive to the coast. This campground is located 77 miles south of San Francisco, and six miles south of Santa Cruz on Highway 1. In the town of Capitola, take the New Brighton/Park Avenue exit off Highway 1.
This is one of our favorite places to camp, ever. What could be bad? The ocean and a huge beach that is active, but never really crowded are just a quick walk down from the campground. It is a five minute drive into Capitola to the grocery store if you forgot something or need your Starbucks fix (ahem). There are great day trips such as heading south to Monterey Bay for a day of fun and learning at the aquarium. You can also head north to Santa Cruz to hang out at the Boardwalk or maybe driving up into the redwood trees for a ride on the Roaring Camp Railroad. If staying put is more your style, simply pack up the picnic blanket, sand toys and sun screen to hang out on the beach below the campground all day. If you are worried about not getting in a daily shower, don’t be. Just make sure to have quarters and some flip-flops for the onsite showers.
What should we bring for camping with kids?
1. Clothing & Gear
I absolutely love this packing list that Erin, of the blog House on Hill Road, made several years ago. It isn’t exactly camping specific, but it’s a great start and wonderful for those little ones who aren’t at reading level, but can help gather things (or are fiercely independent and has to “do myself”). I also like it for the very visual learner (me!). I made one similar to it for when I was packing for the hospital to have my first baby, but I digress…
I have added a packing list in a Google Docs format that you can download and save. I know each family will add or subtract items, so customize as you see fit. The idea is to give you a starting place and an easy check list for your outdoor adventures. The items are what we have found to be most helpful, needed and fun to have around when we camp.
Saving space is often a huge plus; not wasting food is also a bonus. I like to pack things that can be used for more than one meal. Leftovers aren’t just for workdays! We usually have one meal that consists of the good old standby of burgers and dogs; we like to get a little fancier for other meals. That said, fancy doesn’t mean complicated. If we are camping near a place with fresh produce from the region, we will usually go for it and will stop at one of the stands for some picked- that-day goodness. Artichokes and strawberries from the Santa Cruz area are seriously the BOMB. Don’t pass them up if you are down there during the spring or early summer. The artichokes make a fabulous appetizer or side dish for any meal. I keep snacks on hand that are easy for the kids to access on their own (yogurt sticks, cheese sticks, grapes, carrot slices, hummus dip…) They burn a ton of calories throughout the day running, swimming, bike riding, tree climbing and exploring- and no one likes an unhappy camper so don’t let them get “hangry” on you!
CBelow is a list of foods we almost always take with us when we go camping – they’re all included on my camping food list, also available in a Google Docs format. I have included the recipes/how-to in the above-mentioned spreadsheet.
Fajitas are a great meal. Use London broil or chicken, onions, garlic, bell peppers, some avocado, sour cream and maybe beans and rice on the side, yum! Prep the veggies and meat before you leave (slice and marinate, keeping the meat separate from the veg) Leftovers make delicious omelets, breakfast burritos, or hash the next morning.
Pesto pasta and sausages and veg. Pesto is incredibly easy to make and is also a great spread for sandos or marinade for meat/veggies. Here is a link to my recipe.
- Bacon, eggs, pancake mix (don’t forget the syrup!)
- Yogurt sticks can be frozen and help keep the cooler cold
- Cheese sticks are always a win and are a quick snack
- Pre-cut veggies (carrots, bell peppers, jicama, broccoli, cauliflower, celery) + hummus or ranch dip = happiness
- Crackers, cheese and salami/cold cuts make for a quick and easy lunch when paired with the veggies and dip-dip.
- I hardly ever leave the house for a camp trip without a batch of my famous Triple Cs (Chocolate Chip Cookies)
And I think it would be camping blasphemy if I forgot to include the three most important and iconic camping food items: marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate. Mix it up with dark chocolate instead of milk, or add berries to the mix for a sophisticated twist.
3. Entertain me!
You are going to be so surprised at how well the kids stay busy. I think my best piece of advice is to let them explore, let them get dirty, let them be kids! I have incredible memories of camping with my best friend as a kid. These days, I love sitting back to watch my kids create their own games and adventures. I do keep a few tricks up my sleeve – like face paint! Kids don’t need anything elaborate; just getting a pair of whiskers and a pink nose or a star painted on their cheek will make the day fun. Let them paint your face too, I can’t tell you how much my two enjoy doing this to me.
Glow sticks are the best thing since sliced bread. Not only do the kids have fun with them, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to keep track of them at night, other campers can also see them more easily and it makes for fun photos! I have also seen them placed into small water bottles, refilled with water to make a colorful lantern or bowling pins! I also love having bubbles, bikes, scooters and helmets. A pack of cards, Uno, cribbage board, dominoes, travel Scrabble board or a favorite board game always come in handy for down time.
Books – I usually have the kids bring two favorites for us to read before bedtime and nap time. I like one for myself for those rare quiet moments while they rest. A journal and pencils/crayons are a great way for your children to keep track of what they are discovering either at the campsite or while out nature walking for the day.
Tricks & Tips
Keep all your camping gear in one or two large storage bins. This helps with loading and unloading as well as packing into the car.
Hello baby wipes, I love you and your waterless shower, sticky hand cleaner, face washer, and overall product of good. I promise to keep you around even when diapers are a distant memory.
This might sound silly and a little bit “give a hoot, don’t pollute,” but…leave no trace. When you are saying your goodbyes, make sure to leave the campground cleaner then when you got there and ALWAYS make sure to completely put out your campfire.
A Word About Bears
Bears are big. Bears have big claws. Bears have big teeth. They like nacho cheese flavored chips and chocolate as much as your 4 year old. And let’s talk about racoons, shall we? They are ruthless in many of the campgrounds, especially along the coast. One of my son’s favorite stories to tell is when the raccoon literally jumped on the tailgate of the truck and snatched the s’more out of his 2 year old hand. No joke. These little buggers can easily open a cooler or pop the lid off one of those large plastic storage containers with ease. Trust me when I say there is nothing much more annoying then having to get out of your warm sleeping bag and scare these pests away in the middle of the night. Make sure to tuck all food into the vehicle for the night, that the kids don’t stash any extra treats or goodies away in their sleeping bags for a midnight snack, and toss the garbage out in the campsite’s large bins.
Most importantly, have fun!
Do you have any places you love to camp? What tricks and tips have you discovered while camping with kids? Share with us in the comments.