Camping with kids can strike fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned campers. For some children, the thought of spending a few nights under canvas can be somewhat daunting – or on the flip-side, meltdown-inducingly exciting – which in turn can the idea of camping with kids into a terrifying prospect for the adults in the picture.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Some key adjustments can ensure everyone stays calm, happy and comfortable, and ensure your clan’s next camping adventure is a resounding success. Start by picking up one of the best family tents (which are designed to make things easier), and then read on for our top tips.
It's worth the extra effort: these types of holidays are a fantastic way to learn about the great outdoors while enjoying some all-important family time. Read on for our top tips for camping with kids.
1. Start in the back garden
If your children are nervous about camping, start with a dry run in your back garden. “This enables parents to practise pitching the tent while the little ones can get used to the whole camping experience, including the night time noises of the local wildlife," explains camping expert Simon McGrath.
It might not be the full 'in the wild' experience, but it can still be enough to make that break from the daily routine. “Camping makes us slow down and tune back into the natural world – the sound of birdsong, the wind blowing through the trees... They’re all things that we seldom see or appreciate when we’re being busy at back at home," says Simon. "It can be as easy as simply having fun together or just chatting while you sit outside the tent in the evening, watching the stars come out."
2. Get some decent bedding
Sleeping outside is naturally going to be a bit of a step down from your bed at home, but it doesn't need to be uncomfortable. A leaking airbed or too-thin sleeping bag will make adults as well as kids miserable, so focus on comfort when you're packing for a trip or buying new gear.
"Think about warmth, comfort and light. Invest in good sleeping bags, and remember that you need to insulate yourselves from a cold and potentially bumpy floor, which is where equipment such as good self-inflating mats come in." We have plenty of options in our guide to the best camping mats. For extra comfort (and if weight isn't so much an issue), you might prefer one of the best camping beds.
Don’t forget the torches, either. “They’re not only essential for night-time trips to the toilet block, they provide reassurance to children." While adults will benefit from the hands-free ease of a head torch, kids might prefer the simplicity of a standard handheld torch.
3. Go for a tent with blackout bedrooms
Camping with kids in the summer poses its own issue: natural light. Wrangling a child into bed when it's very much still light can be just as tricky as convincing them it's actually still sleep-time at 5am when the first rays of morning light illuminate the tent. And those early morning shafts of light can be positively painful if you're sleeping in a tent with paper thin walls... especially for parents who may have indulged in one too many fireside sundowners the night before.
Thankfully, tent brands have got wise to the issue, and the best family tents now come complete with blackout fabric in the sleeping compartments. Not only does this block out light extremely effectively, it also regulates the temperature of the sleeping compartment, helping to stop it from getting too chilly or too hot. Choosing the right tent won't just extend your time in the land of nod, it will help your children sleep longer, meaning more snooze time for everyone.
"Take a compass to work out which direction is east," suggests Simon. "That’s where the sun will rise, so why not pitch the tent with the door facing that direction? That way, as the sun rises, your tent will warm through from the front. It’s also much nicer to poke your head out of the tent with the sun on your face first thing in the morning."
4. Set up your tent and camping area together
Another big reason why some of us fear camping with kids is mainly to do with getting the tent up and the car unloaded while trying to keep the kids entertained. Solve both problems by getting your kids involved in setting up the tent. This will also help take their mind off their new and unfamiliar surroundings.
“It’s one of those occasions when the whole family can pull together," says Simon. "Hammering tent pegs is always fun, although parents need to be careful when holding the peg, as I once found when my youngest missed the target!" Here, new tent innovations can help again – the latest big thing in camping tech is 'air poles'. Rather than faffing around with metal poles, these inflate using a pump, which makes putting up a tent quicker and simpler, and in some cases, mean a single adult can do it on their own (this is the case with the Coleman Weathermaster Air, our top-rated family tent right now).
If they're not being much help with the tent, there are still plenty of tasks they can get involved with, from rolling out the sleeping bags to untying the guy ropes. “Finding the drinking water tap and filling up the water container is another great task for kids," says Simon.
5. Create a home from home vibe
“If youngsters are feeling a little insecure, make their sleeping compartment a home from home,” continues Simon. “Bring along favourite teddies and toys, and place a torch next to their bed if they wake up in the night wondering where they are.”
When camping with kids, many parents opt for installing a small pop-up tent inside the main tent, to give the little ones their own space to sit and play in.
"Some tent manufacturers make special sleeping compartments with colourful designs geared towards children," adds Simon, "and there are plenty of fun, inflatable chairs on the market that kids can use to kit out their room in the tent."
6. Try some new outdoors activities
While you're camping with kids, Simon suggests encouraging your little ones to think of the countryside as a playground. "Woods and forests are great for den-building. Get the kids to visualise and plan their structure. They need to think about the types of materials best suited for strength, and what natural resources keep the warmth in and the rain out.
Pick up a pair of the best binoculars for wildlife-spotting. “Or maybe teach them wildlife tracking skills. It’s exciting for children to be able to identify animals from their tracks, and joining a ranger-led walk can be an excellent introduction to discovering more about the creatures living near your site."
Consider signing up for an activity-based taster course, too. “I’ve combined family camping trips with activities including sailing, canoeing and mountain biking.”
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7. Indulge in a spot of stargazing
“Campsites are usually far away from the neon glare of towns and cities, so it’s a great opportunity for some astronomy,” says Simon. Arm yourself with one of the best telescopes for stargazing (go for a portable option!) and get started.
“A roll mat or inflatable bed can be laid on the floor outside the tent and used to insulate yourself from the ground when you stare up at the night sky for a spot of stargazing. Camping gives children the chance to learn about the wonders of the galaxy. Perhaps try to identify the constellations, or spot a shooting star.”
Simon McGrath is the author of Camping with Kids, available to buy from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle format.