I have a neighbor who has two little girls.  The oldest is about 2 ½ and the younger of them is just a day apart from my little girl at 17 months.  Last week, as I was preparing for our first overnight camping trip with our toddler, we were talking about camping and he said, “Yeah, I’ve been begging my wife to go camping for a while now.  She just doesn’t think we can do it with two little kids.”  This immediately made me sad.  Every man should be able to take his family camping!

I have to admit, I didn’t think that our first camping trip would come until my daughter was a little older either, but last Wednesday, my wife called from work and said, “Hey, I need to get out of town.  Do you want to go camping Friday night?”  Stunned, I quickly said “YES!” before she could change her mind.  Then it set in… I began to think of all of the ways my child could injure, impale, maim and otherwise wreck herself in Mother Nature’s great outdoors.  I had to focus… on the fun things we would do… not so much on the maiming.

I furiously wrote down a list of everything we would need – band-aids, cotton swabs, rubbing alcohol, tourniquet – and began to look for places to camp in the area that didn’t have a two night minimum.  Here is some advice when looking for the perfect spot to go camping – check out your local state parks.  We live in a very “touristy” town (Gettysburg, PA) and we have plenty of campgrounds in the area.  The typical problems, that I’ve found, with campgrounds are that the sites are usually closer together, it is usually a lot louder due to the many children, pets and RVs, and there are usually more drunk people.  State parks in our area have much more private sites, fewer sources of noise, and there is no alcohol permitted (I know I just lost some of you on this point, but if you keep your beer in your cooler until it’s dark, nobody really bothers you and you can drink a beer or six).

So, the wife and I got the car packed up on Friday and set out to our local state park for our first overnight camping trip with our toddler.  We had a great time, and we really got to relax.  Instead of giving you a play by play of our trip – one man tent setup, finely skilled fire building, mass consumption of s’mores and beer, etc.  – I wanted to give you some tips to help you plan effectively should you choose to heed the call of the wild and take your family on a camping adventure.

PLAN AHEAD – I’m not usually a big planner, especially since my wife is an obsessive planner.  But now that she’s working, and I am the one at home, it falls upon me to assure the safety and fun of our family trips by at least planning a little bit.  When it comes to camping with kids, the general rule of thumb is “if you think you might need it, pack it, as long as it’s not too big.”  You should run down a mental list of things you use with your toddler on a daily basis – cups, bibs, diapers, wipes, toys,  etc. – and pack more than what you need.  Also, think about where you are camping.  Do they have a pool? Do they have trails?  Try to plan one “main” activity per day and be happy if you accomplish it!  The rest of the time can be spent relaxing or doing spontaneous things like walking through the campgrounds, hiking around, or visiting the nature center or playground.  You can find a lot of information on the websites of the park or campground to help you plan your activities.  Plan your meals as well!

GET THE RIGHT GEAR – I’m kind of a camping junkie from my younger days, and I like to do things bare bones when I camp; however, now that I am camping with a family, their comfort is more important than my desire to pretend I’m Les Stroud or Bear Grylls.  If your tent requires an entire troop of boy scouts to get it set up, it’s time to get some new gear.  There are affordable tents, even at Target, that can be set up by one person.  I have a Coleman tent that fits ten people (that’s like 6 actual American human beings, which is a pretty big tent) and I can set it up completely by myself.  Also, you should have a cooler big enough for a few days worth of food.   You should take a hatchet (which can double as a hammer to pound in tent stakes) because some state parks do not supply firewood and won’t let you bring your own wood in due to the extensive damage that has been done by the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle.  They usually let you chop up any downed trees, but you should check their website for firewood information.  Also, you want to consider bringing the right sleeping bag.  Check the temperature rating on your bag.  If you are currently holding a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bag from your childhood sleepovers and you cannot find a temperature rating, you should go talk to someone at Bass Pro, REI or Cabela’s immediately.  It gets cold at night when you are in the woods.  Bring extra blankets that you don’t mind getting dirty.

PREPARE FOR THE UNEXPECTED – Bring the things you don’t think you will need – trash bags, tweezers, extra blankets & pillows, rain gear, etc.  Weather is never perfect and kids don’t tend to do what is expected of them all the time, so you have to prepare.  Did you know your belt can help you easily carry a stack of firewood?  Trash bags make great ponchos.  If your kid decides he doesn’t want to eat the hotdogs that you planned on eating all weekend, do you have a backup food?  You sure you want to leave that stroller in the garage?  I guess you like to carry your kid on your five mile hikes.  Plus it doubles as a high chair and general restraining device.  I know this sounds obvious, but you would be amazed at what some people call preparation.  Clean out the clutter in your vehicle before you pack it up, and use every nook and cranny of space in your vehicle to get the gear you will need.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO ALL OUT – If it is your first time camping with your toddler, you don’t have to make a week of it.  Do one night first.  Then try doing a whole weekend.  You can try cabin camping  at a lot of places before taking the plunge into the tent.  Your child (and wife) value your time spent with them, so if it isn’t perfect, don’t worry.  It can still be time well spent, even if you only learn that camping is not for you.

TAKE A SITTER – If you have a sitter that you trust, or even a niece or nephew that is good with your kids, consider taking them on your camping trip.  After all, we all know your kids can be a handful.  Just make sure you have a tent big enough for everyone, or bring an extra tent if necessary.  Or you can just go camping with another family and take turns watching each others kids.

LEARN & TEACH – Learn something new while you are camping.  Most state parks have nature centers or informational brochures and programs.  Take time to learn so that you can teach.  Teach your child how to look for animals, how to identify prints or bird sounds, or even just how to tell which plant is poison ivy.  Take the time to learn and teach.

Dads, it is your right to take your family camping (as long as mom agrees), so don’t let anything keep you from trying.  Go out into nature and don’t be afraid to fail!  Your kids will still have a great time, or at least have a good story to tell about how dad lost a finger in a hatchet accident.  Either way, you’re awesome.