How to: Camping with kids

By Dean Mellor April 27, 2020
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Going camping with the little’uns in tow might seem daunting for some, but with the right attitude, the right gear and the right planning it can be memorable fun for everyone.

Chances are, if you’re reading Australian Geographic Adventure, you get pretty excited by the thought of a camping trip, so just imagine how exciting such a prospect would be for a little tacker who’s never before slept outdoors! ‘Fun’ and ‘exhilarating’ are words that come to mind… along with ‘wary’ and ‘scary’.

When you know nothing beyond the safe confines of your bed in your own bedroom, the thought of sleeping under a thin textile layer in the great outdoors must seem like a huge step. And then there’s the other fun stuff that goes on when camping, such as sitting by a campfire and telling tall tales, cooking and eating outside, looking up at a sky filled with billions of stars, spotting satellites and meteors, spotlighting for wildlife and, of course, roasting marshmallows.

Sitting at camp in the Red Centre, wondering how all their school mates are going back in the Big Smoke. Getting kids out into Australia’s wild regions offers a different type of education. (Image credit: Justin Walker/AG)

But it’s not all beer, skittles and hot chocolate. There are drawbacks to camping, such as toileting without a toilet, cleanliness and hygiene, dealing with creepy-crawlies, keeping warm and dry, making sure there is easy access to food and drinks, potential for accidents and, of course, ‘device withdrawal’.

The key to any successful camping trip is proper preparation, and this is even more important when you plan to drag the children along to share in your outdoor adventures. No matter what potential challenges you manage to dream up when planning a camping trip with kids, remember, there’s always a solution if you look for it, and there are always many more positives than negatives when it comes to experiencing life in the great outdoors.

A caravan park nearby for your first camping trip means you will have access to some ‘home comforts’ (think: toilets/showers) to ease your kids into the whole experience. (Image credit: Justin Walker/AG)

Where to go

Before you blaze a trail into the great unknown, start your kids off with a nearby camping experience. In fact, my daughter’s first night beneath the stars was in our backyard, and she loved it.

If you treat a camping trip near to home as a recce, you’ll be able to figure out what you need to take with you when you head further afield, and be able to suss out any potential issues that might need to be overcome.

Make sure you teach your kids how to set up their own tent or swag, and pack it away again in the morning. And get them to pack their bags and ensure they think about what they’ll need when you go camping away from home. 

If you’re happy to ease into it, make the next family camping trip close to home – maybe an overnighter or, at most, a couple of nights. Camping where there are facilities such as toilets and showers will make life easier for the whole family. Campgrounds where there are playgrounds or a swimming hole, and caravan parks that have pools and other child-focused entertainment, can take a lot of pressure off parents when it comes to keeping the young’uns occupied and happy.

When you’re ready to head off on longer trips, further from home, research what you can expect to find at your destination and figure out what you’ll need to bring to keep your kids occupied. Also check out expected weather conditions. If appropriate, throw some bicycles on the back of the car, some kayaks or a canoe up on the roof. As with all camping trips, the more research you do beforehand, the better the chances are of having a fun and relaxing time.

You’ll be surprised (or not) how much your kids will look forward to packing up your vehicle and heading off on that next camping adventure once they’ve experienced a few. (Image credit: Justin Walker/AG)

On longer trips, check what you need to book before you leave home, such as campgrounds, caravan parks, national park permits and the like. If you think you and your kids are now ready for a remote area expedition, there are some extra precautions that need to be taken, such as ensuring you have plenty of fuel, food and water, an appropriate first aid kit, communications gear (a satellite phone or satellite communicator) and spare parts and tools for vehicle repairs.

Remember, good planning and the right equipment will minimise the advent of problems that may cause stress for you and your family, and will ensure you have can have a fun, stress-free getaway.

Once you’ve tackled a few overnight (or longer) camping adventures close to home, you can look toward exploring more of Australia on longer journeys. (Image credit: Justin Walker/AG)

What you will need

The key to successful camping is to stay warm and dry, so make sure your kids have quality clothing and camping gear. Clothing them in layers is the best way to deal with changing weather conditions, and good quality waterproof and breathable outer layers are the best way to keep them comfortable when it’s wet

Make sure all kids have plenty of sun protection – the last thing you want is red and peeling skin – so make sure everyone has a hat (preferably a broad-brimmed one; caps do not offer much sun protection, especially of the ears) and they apply plenty of sunscreen. 

Don’t be tempted to put small children in old adult-size sleeping bags. Sleeping bags need to be of a size to suit your child’s body in order to keep them warm and comfortable, and with plenty of reasonably priced kid-size sleeping bags on the market there is no excuse to take them camping without the right kit. Plus, if they wriggle down into the bottom of the large sleeping bag, they can get ‘stuck’ and panic (plus there’s potential to suffocate). And don’t forget to pack a decent pillow… plus a favourite teddy.

If your kids are young, you’ll probably want them sleeping with you in a family tent when you go camping, but if they’re a little older they’ll probably want their own tent or swag. As with sleeping bags, there are plenty of small kid-size tents and swags on the market, some brightly coloured for more appeal. 

Buy a good quality family tent first-up, such as this OzTent, and you and your family will have many years of comfortable and reliable bush accommodation for any destination. (Image credit: Justin Walker/AG)

Don’t skimp on camping equipment. Spending a bit more on quality/renowned brands will save you money – and stress – in the long run.

“I’m bored”

It seems many kids these days whittle away the hours with their eyes glued to the blue screen but when you take them camping it’s much better to get them to whittle away the time, well, whittling. In the absence of their iPad or other personal electronic devices, you’ll need to make sure they have plenty of activities to keep them entertained, so, depending on their age, buy them a penknife, or a bug catcher, or a pair of binoculars or a head-torch…

Although navigation these days is largely performed via satnav devices, there’s no substitute for paper maps when trip planning. Get the kids around the table and show them where you’re going to go and explain to them how to translate what’s on a map to the world around them. Once you’re out in the bush, show your kids how to use a compass, and how to use a topographic map. Once the sun’s gone down and the stars are out, show them how to use the Southern Cross and Pointers to find true south.

Having your young family members involved in the planning process (checking the map; reading about the destination, etc.) will have them super-keen to get out there. (Image credit: Justin Walker/AG)

If, like me, you struggle to tell the difference between a pink galah and a Major Mitchell, buy an Australian birdwatching guidebook and keep it handy while you’re walking through the bush with your kids. It’s amazing how competitive they can become when presented with a challenge such as ‘name that bird’.

Oh, and pack a deck of cards…

Call of nature

Even if you’re a hardcore camper who will settle for nothing less than remote bush camping, it’s always a good idea to ease into it when camping with young’uns, so consider starting out at a campsite or caravan park with facilities such as toilets and showers. Sure, some kids will be happy to dig a hole and go in the bush, but others can find this way of toileting intimidating, and the last thing you want is for the call of nature to spoil what would otherwise be a positive camping experience. If you simply must camp where there are no facilities, you should consider taking your own; if the first trip with the kids is a vehicle-based one, you could always carry a fold-up dunny that can be situated over a hole in the ground, and a small toilet tent that will afford a modicum of privacy.

If there are no facilities where you camp you need to teach kids proper bush-dunny etiquette, so make sure you dig deep, do your business and then burn the paper… unless of course there’s a total fire ban where you’re camping, in which case you should consider bagging toilet paper and disposing of it later.

It is paramount to maintain a high level of personal hygiene when camping. There’s nothing worse than you or you kids copping a crook stomach halfway through that ‘big adventure’. (Image credit: Justin Walker/AG)

Once done, it’s vitally important to make sure they wash their hands. While advice like this may seem like stating the bleeding obvious, it’s warranted; it’s one thing for the kids to get a crook tummy when you’re at home, but when you’re out in the bush it can become a far greater problem. Make sure everyone knows where to find water and soap, and if you’re running a portable fridge in your vehicle, keep hand sanitiser nearby.

Creepy-crawlies and flying pests

Kids love nothing more than exploring their environment, so a camping trip is a fantastic way to introduce them to new discoveries and experiences, but make sure they’re aware of the dangers too, especially those that come in the form of creepy-crawlies such as spiders and snakes. 

If you’re camping in the Aussie bush in the warmer months, you always need to be prepared for confrontations with snakes. They can be hard to spot so teach your kids to keep an eye out for them and tell them what to do in case of an encounter. The best thing to do if you see a snake is try not to panic – easier said than done for little’uns. But it’s important to teach them to slowly back away in a calm and controlled manner, and to never corner a snake. It’s also handy to inform them about what snakes they may encounter in the bush.

Make sure your children know to keep an eye out for snakes and educate them on what to do (stay calm; move away slowly) if they do encounter one. (Image credit: Justin Walker/AG)

As for spiders, teach kids not to poke their fingers into holes, and to be wary when picking up stones and rocks, or when collecting firewood. A pair of gloves when collecting wood can offer protection from spiders as well as splinters.

Flies, sand flies and mosquitoes might not be as dangerous as snakes and spiders, but they’re far more common and can be seriously annoying, so make sure you have personal insect repellent and an insect bite cream (such as Stingose, Stop Itch, etc.). 

If you’re camping in a tent or camper trailer, make sure the fly screens are in good condition and remind your kids to zip up when they enter or exit.

Essentially, you want your children to be aware of their surroundings when they’re out camping. This is not just to avoid problems with creepy-crawlies, but to also ensure they don’t trip over guy ropes and tent pegs, or step (or fall) into a hot fire pit.

Of course, you should always carry a comprehensive first aid kit when camping, and make sure you’re armed with the knowledge to use it.

Do you need a 4WD?

With Australian families heading off into the great outdoors more than ever before, it’s little wonder 4×4 wagons and utes have become so popular in recent years. After all, they not only allow you to camp in out of the way places such as on white sandy beaches, up in the Victorian High Country, or in the outback, they also allow you to carry more people (kids) and gear in relative comfort.

But you don’t need a four-wheel drive to go on a family camping trip. If a two-wheel drive passenger car better suits your day-to-day requirements and lifestyle, there’s plenty of equipment available to make it a more versatile family tourer. Roof racks and roof pods allow you to carry camping equipment such as tents and sleeping gear while leaving enough space in the boot for food and luggage, while bicycle mounts, kayak/canoe holders and the like allow you to load up with bikes and other gear.

The load capacity of a 4WD is handy for camping but is not essential; a people-mover/van (such as the above), or sedan can easily be fitted with gear-carrying accessories. (Image credit: Justin Walker/AG)

Bear in mind, however, that most passenger cars have a lower load capacity than a 4×4 wagon or ute, so you might need to invest in some lightweight camping gear depending on the size of your clan.

Now’s the time!

With a lot of Australia still in isolation (at the time of writing), now is the ideal time to look at trying camping for the first time, and doing some research and then, hopefully, some more extensive planning. It sounds like a little bit of work but, believe us, the payback when you see just how much fun your children – and, of course, us adults – have when they go camping for the first (or twenty-first) time will make it all worthwhile, and then some.