The Happy Camper: Camping With Kids (A How-To Guide)

Kids are born to be outdoors—so make it easy for them. Kevin Callan tells us how.

Credit: Kevin Callan

It’s a miracle, really.

My pre-teen daughter still thinks it’s cool to go on a canoe trip with her dad. Our last trip together was a weeklong paddle on a route that borders Algonquin Provincial Park. It was her birthday gift—that’s what she asked for when turning 12. I pinch myself every day to make sure it’s not some hippie-induced dreamscape. 

Kyla has been canoe tripping since she was six months old. She’s adapted well to carrying a heavy pack on the portage and paddling against a headwind. She’s also built up a repertoire of camp songs, jokes and stories to keep things fun out there. The number-one thing I noticed on our  recent trip was how Kyla has become so comfortable in the wilderness. She swims at every campsite, picking off the odd leech without a squeal. She catches frogs at every put-in and take-out, black ooze squeezing through her toes. Before dusk, Kyla always finds high ground behind the campsite to write in her journal, with no worries of what lurks in the dark forest. To her, the pine and rock offer calm, not phobia. She sleeps through the night, only awakening to listen to loons, owls or wolves. Even when she heads into the woods for her morning pee, she no longer asks the dog to join her—even though the dog always does. A father couldn’t be so proud.

Before I list the tips that I believe will help make tripping with kids a positive experience, I’ll share what Kyla has taught me over the years. She always slowed my pace down dramatically by spending time inspecting things like pinecones and anthills. Before her, my expeditions were all about distance. Tripping with Kyla brought me back to reality. I’ve never been so immersed in wilderness, so aware of my surroundings than when I’m canoeing with her. Who cares how far you go? It’s what you experience along the way that is important. She taught me that. 

When Kyla was born, I had many friends tell me that my life of travelling in the outdoors was over. They were wrong. It was just beginning. Here are a few tips I’ve learned about camping with kids:

Be Realistic

The average duration young kids can spend travelling in the outdoors is a couple of hours, at most. They get better as they get older but don’t try to push them. Make every experience a positive one or they won’t want to go again. If you don’t move up the ladder of progress slowly, your child will come crashing down.

When to Go?

The most common question I hear about taking kids camping is: “How old should they be before I take them?” The earlier the better. A child is easier to handle before he or she is walking. Many parents decide to wait until their kids are teenagers. That’s a huge mistake. No teen wants to spend time with their parents.

Be Parent & Leader

Your child needs direction out there. Explain everything, communicate well, involve the child in the trip and never treat him or her like baggage, tagging along on “your” trip. Act more like a guide: travel as fast as the slowest member, have an escape route planned and depend heavily on repeat business.

Be as Creative as a Camp Counsellor

Have games, songs and activities prepared in advance—and know how to make them fun. Kids don’t care about how many birdcalls you hear or how nice the weather is. They want to play, hear silly stories before bed, burn marshmallows on a stick and feel comfortable and at-home. Make a birthday cake for no apparent reason, hand out small gifts every morning, dole out wacky types of candy for each camp chore they complete and bring musical instruments like spoons or a harmonica.

Laugh & Don’t Show Fear

Things will definitely go wrong while on a trip. Count on that. And your phobias are on high alert when you’re with your family. But if you laugh at the misfortunes—the moderate ones at least—they will do the same. You are their role model, and they are sponges soaking up everything you do and say out there. If you giggle at a tumble or sing a silly song during bad weather, they will too.

We’re All Different

No one child is the same. All children have different limitations and all parents have varying levels of skill and stress management. So don’t take this expert’s advice on what your child can accomplish too seriously—this time, you’re the expert.


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