5 (Unpopular) Tips for the Best Camping Trips With Kids

Camping with kids

Peak camping season has arrived in Canada and camping trips with kids are on the horizon.

We have already forgotten about last year’s camping mishaps—the lack of sleep, the soggy tent, the mosquitoes. We can’t wait to do it all over again! Camping with kids is rarely easy or relaxing—that’s not why we do it. We do it because we love the outdoors and the opportunities for learning, adventure and memory-making. As a parent who spent my 20s working as a wilderness trip leader and outdoor educator, I have plenty of hot takes on how to approach camping trips with kids. Some of this advice might be unpopular, but it will help you raise nature-literate children who are competent and confident outdoors. Here are my top five tips for camping trips with kids.

Avoid Playgrounds and Leave the Toys at Home

Camping with kids - kids play in the forest while camping

Kids don’t need toys or playgrounds to be entertained in nature, they can experience these things elsewhere. I like to have a few items on hand to assist with nature exploration and beach/water play. These are items like a bucket, shovel, magnifying glass or binoculars.

A rainy-day activity and a deck of cards are a nice addition but keep it simple. You don’t need to provide constant entertainment on camping trips with kids (and they will be more creative if you don’t). Try this instead: sit down, relax, let them explore and nature will do the work for you. Let them climb, jump, build and create their own adventures. Unless you want to spend your camping trip at the playground, do yourself a favour and steer clear!

Let Kids Get Wet and Dirty

Camping with kids

Kids need the freedom to explore outdoors—even when things get messy. So much learning happens here! Let them feel the mud between their toes, and the discomfort of a sopping wet sweatshirt and sticky marshmallow hands. It’s a great way for kids to learn about cause and effect, and dealing with discomfort builds resilience. Don’t spend a fortune on trendy outdoor clothing that you won’t want kids to get dirty—stick with quick dry items and cozy, washable layers. Bring extra clothes and give them permission to dive into sensory play outdoors. You’ll get to be the fun parent, and the clothes can be washed. Win-win!

Let Kids Take Risks

Camping trips with kids - a kid uses a knife to carve a stick

It’s important for kids to gain experience navigating risks in a controlled environment. Rather than telling kids “don’t touch the axe” or “don’t play with fire,” try giving them opportunities to learn and practice age appropriate outdoor skills under supervision. Do my kids get to play with knives when we go camping? Yes! But they also need to ask permission, be supervised and follow safety guidelines. It makes camping special, and kids build confidence when they feel trusted by adults.

Resist the urge to constantly remind them to “be careful” and instead ask questions like, “what is your plan here?” or “what things can you put in place to make sure you are staying safe?” Share some of the mental load with kids around managing risks–they are capable of more than you think!

Let Kids Take the Lead

Camping trips with kids - let kids take the lead

It can be tough for adults to let go of the idea that they are in charge–particularly outdoors where we may perceive elevated levels of risk. The irony is that when given the chance to lead, children who struggle with following instructions, paying attention and exercising good judgment often thrive and will blow you away with their leadership abilities.

Try tasking them with reading the map, leading a hike, directing the campsite setup or helping to plan meals. You know your child best, so choose age-appropriate tasks that interest them. Don’t hang them out to dry if they need help, but put them in the driver’s seat and offer your support if needed. It might take longer, and there will certainly be missteps, but this creates a sense of mutual trust that is critical for developing their leadership skills.

Let Kids Stay Up Late

Camping trips with kids - family stays up late around a fire while camping

I won’t sugar coat it–your kids are going to be tired when you go camping and so are you. Strict schedules should be left at home. Camping is different, and parents should embrace the magic of letting kids stay up late. Many kids in Canada go months in the summer without experiencing darkness, and it can be an incredible adventure for them to be in nature at night. Becoming familiar with sights and sounds is also helpful in managing fear of the dark. Night walks, stargazing and stories by the fire will quickly become core memories, and you will soon forget how tired you were, I promise!

While some of this advice might go against your instincts as a parent, I guarantee camping trips with kids will be more fun, and your kiddos will be on the right path to building their skills, confidence and love for the outdoors. They might be filthy and exhausted when they get home, but the best trips always end that way, and it will all be worth it in the end.

Camping trips with kids - two kids watch ducks swim by