Dave and I kickstarted our ‘camping with kids’ foray in ambitious style, taking our four-week-old newborn on a five month-long assignment for Australian Geographic back in 2012. Blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead, it was a baptism by fire, parenting our little bundle 27,000km around Australia in a tiny off-road van. In all, we wrote one book, six journal articles, made six short films, captured 25 video blogs, and spent 165 nights on the road. The enormous workload of writing and filming was rivaled only by the rigours of enduring mind-addling sleeplessness.
While it was never easy, it was enormous fun and without a doubt, that journey shines as the most precious of more than two decades of adventures together. At the time, people thought we were mad. I remember being interviewed by a Sydney radio announcer who revealed that he broke out in a cold sweat every time he strapped his newborn into its car seat for the short drive to the supermarket. Travelling 27,000km? Forget it!
I understand why people stopped, stared and told me I was insane.
Lets be honest: travelling and camping with babies and kids is not every parent’s dream escape. But if you love being in the outdoors (and you probably wouldn’t be reading this unless you do), continuing to camp, travel and explore new and favourite wilderness destinations once kids enter the picture, not only feeds our souls, but does wonders for children too.
If it’s been a few years between road trips or you are new to camping holidays with a child in tow, you might well baulk at the thought of abandoning the comforts and well-oiled routines of home-life. But in reality, camping holidays with children can be one of the simplest escapes you can make.
Your version of a top camping trip is bound to depend on the ages of your children, how much time and money you have to play with, and your experience and confidence in packing up and hitting the road.
You might choose to book into a national park or holiday park campground close to home and set up a basecamp for the duration of your holiday, or, if your kids can handle the car time, hit the road, free to stop wherever and whenever you want and explore a whole string of destinations (a hugely popular choice in Australia).
The big bonus of camping adventures (apart from the lack of credit card debt) is the freedom they allow to travel at your own pace and make your own fun. If you love being outdoors and take the time to share it with your kids, chances are they’ll learn to appreciate wild places to.
Babes in Arms
You don’t see a lot of very small babies poking their heads out of campers and tents, but in all honesty, very small babies (0-6 months) are remarkably portable and make very easy campers. They take up little bed space, demand not much more than milk and cuddles to get them through the day, and in our case, the rougher the corrugations, the better our baby slept.
The downside to camping with an infant might well be that despite your best efforts to pack light, you soon find out that very young babies need lots of stuff! A baby bath is essential, as is some kind of portable bed (most caravan and camper beds are too narrow to allow you to co-sleep with your infant), then there are the nappies, clothes and a handful of toys that you hope will hold your baby’s interest.
How you cart your baby around is another consideration. We set off on our road trip around Australia with an off-road stroller on board, only to discover that our baby hated to lay down in it. Instead, she was happiest being carried in a baby sling that offered her a superior view of the world, so we ditched the stroller and as Maya grew heavier, added a backpack baby carrier to the mix.
To give us some freedom while tackling camp duties, we first tried an old-style baby bouncer (which Maya soon learnt to tip over), and then upgraded to a lightweight swing, which worked a treat when we hooked it up to the nearest tree.
As our first Big Lap with our baby on board continued, the kid gear just kept piling up on the bed. One saving grace with our infant was that we were still years away from having to strap down surfboards and kayaks on the roof, tow bikes or squeeze in “one last teddy”. With infants there’s no call for iPads, kindles and mobile phones that need to be kept permanently charged up.
Entertaining an infant can be very easy on the road. If you enjoy bushwalking, your baby will probably love it too: snuggled up in a papoose or sling carrier as you sing, talk, interpret the bush around you, and while you stretch your legs, you might just rock her to sleep at the same time.
By the time Maya was 4 months old, she loved to touch tree trunks and fern fronds as we walked, and carry in her hand whatever rock, gumnut, flower or seashell I picked up along the way, a habit she continues still at four years of age.
Another perk of getting outdoors with really young babies is that you can tackle much longer walks while they are light enough to be carried. When Maya was just 6 weeks old, she spent the better part of a day tucked sleepily in a papoose while David and I hiked around the Bungle Bungles, totally oblivious to the grandeur of the landscape, but content to be snuggled up for the day.
One of the big concerns parents have about travelling with small babies is the time you have to spend in the car. If your baby hasn’t developed an affinity with her car seat (starting early does help), you might need to restrict your travels to short stints broken up with plenty of time out of the car. Tackle the big kilometres while your baby naps and if you must, consider driving through the night to reach your camping destination. This works well as a one-off, but can be grueling on the driver.
When babies find their feet, camping trips become a totally different ballgame. Those halcyon days of your baby bouncing in her bassinette while you cooked up a meal or set up the campsite become a distant memory because now your curious toddler can get herself close to the campfire and wander off towards a waterhole.
On long trips car trips, toddlers squirm in their car seats and sometimes require continuous entertainment. I recall one trip from Cairns to Perth and back again when I clocked up three long months riding in the back seat next to my daughter, wiling away the hours building Lego planes and plasticine people, reading books and car-dancing to the Wiggles.
As the pace of your toddler speeds up, everything else in your day starts to slow down! By the time Maya hit the 10-month mark, our camping adventures factored in a lot more downtime, especially since we were now preparing (and cleaning up after) real meals instead of those easy milk feeds. The distances covered each day were less ambitious and we tried to drive during Maya’s daytime sleeps. I tell you, as soon as that kid finally fell asleep, we drove like a bat outta hell and didn’t stop for anything until she resurfaced!
When there was no avoiding the really big travel distances, we would rise before dawn and drive for a couple of hours before stopping for breakfast and a play. The day would then be broken into short driving stints and much longer breaks – preferably taken at a playground or swimming spot – before stopping early afternoon so that Maya could work off some energy before bedtime.
The amount of equipment our toddler required for camping didn’t really increase but camp safety became a much bigger issue. Unlike at home, it’s almost impossible to control the safety of a bush campsite, so kids need close and constant monitoring. When we set up camp, I would do a little walk around and pick up anything that Maya might chew or injure herself on. Through patient instruction, she learnt from a remarkably early age what not to touch (kids are sooo smart).
Campfires are another concern. We used to get ours going just before Maya went to bed when she was a toddler, and taught her that she had to enjoy it while sitting on my lap. We would always ensure it was well put out before went to bed, and stone cold the next morning.
When it came to entertaining our toddler in camp, I started out by emptying a big pile of toys down on a picnic rug beside the tent, but I quickly discovered that just about everything beyond that mat was far more interesting. Instead of worrying about the red dirt and grass stains I just gave into it, let her get happy and dirty, and packed plenty of changes of clothes and enough water to end each day with a big, warm bath.
On long camping trips that took us to remote spots, far form laundromats, I resorted to using disposable nappies for the simple reason that I just didn’t have enough of the cloth nappies that I used at home and had no room in the 4WD for endless buckets of nappies on the soak. On caravan park stays I’ve met Mums who happily launder their cloth nappies and feel great about it, but that might not work on extended trips to really remote, laundry-free destinations.
Big Kid Campers
Beyond babyhood, camping adventures become a lot more interactive for children. Most preschool and primary school-aged kids are easily coaxed into becoming great campsite helpers. The more you involve them in camp tasks – choosing a site, pitching the tent, collecting firewood and getting the campfire going – the more they will get into the experience and lighten your workload too.
The great thing about taking older kids camping is that they are able to endure so much more: longer stretches in the car, more extreme temperatures and longer bushwalks and participate more in all the things you love to so, from snorkelling the reef to paddling a boat. If you have a child who has just outgrown his or her child carrier (ie. four years plus), you’ll have to match their pace on walking trails and be prepared to offer piggybacks if you want to enjoy summit views.
Despite what people say (and they do love to share those pearls of wisdom freely), children have remarkably strong little bodies and should be limited only by their performance and comfort in the outdoors, not by our expectations. On a good day, our four-year-old can easily tackle a 3-4 hour bushwalk with a little assistance, just as long as we take our time, stop to enjoy ourselves along the way and keep her engaged and having fun. She might need a piggyback on the return run, but that’s what keeps my calves in check.
Packing a Camp Kit
Choosing what gear you will need definitely depends on the ages of your children and where and how you are planning to travel. Caravans and camper trailers accommodate children with the greatest of ease, but if you are tackling a remote, off-road destination with only tents on board, your older kids might prefer the idea of sleeping in their own tent, pitched close by. This not only grants you some privacy but also allows your kids to chatter away in their own little world.
A separate tent works especially well if you’ve got two or more kids because an older sibling helps the younger kids feel more secure and can assist with toilet runs after dark. Arm each child with a torch and use solar garden lights or glow sticks to illuminate the path to the toilet.
When it comes to bedding down on travels into colder climates, I find kid-sized sleeping bags are easier to use, far more compact to pack than doonas, and limit the amount of space a small body has to warm up. You’ll also need camp chairs for each child to pull up around the campfire.
Take as much spare clothing as you can manage, including raingear, sun-smart beachwear, hats and sunglasses plus drink bottles for bushwalks, day packs for older children to carry their own gear in, and plenty of natural sunscreen and insect repellent.
Your choice of destination will determine whether you pack surfboards and fishing gear, or hiking boots and stargazing charts. If you have the room, bikes give kids the freedom to explore, and with a sit-on kayak or canoe on aboard, you’ll thrill your kids when you reach an outback river gorge or a crocodile-free lagoon.
It’s important to remember that all kids are different, so while you will definitely want to limit your load, it’s good to pack a little of whatever it is that keeps your kid happy: books, art and craft supplies, iPads, a musical instrument (I’m thinking a guitar, not a double bass), sports gear, a favourite outdoor toy and must-have comfort items (especially those related to sleep).
If you have adventurous friends-with-kids, coax them into taking a trip with you, which will not only give your kids some pals to play with, but you might just be able to enjoy some rare downtime to relax with a book, take a walk on your own, or go fishing.
It’s important to explain to kids how they should behave outdoors, especially around campfires, and how to deal with encounters with animals, snakes and spiders. Regardless of the age of your kids, pack a really good first aid kit, keep it handy and know how to use it. If you are planning a big trip somewhere lovely and remote, consider signing up for a first aid training course before you hit the road. Similarly, hiring a satellite phone will give you peace of mind if, as is the case in much of outback Australia, mobile phones are unlikely to function so far off the beaten track.
TOP KID CAMPING TIPS
- Bushwalking burns energy in active kids and is an easy way to entertain kids of all ages. Choose a nature trail that identifies points of interest along the way or one that leads to a great waterhole or a secret beach. Pack a picnic breakfast and hit the trail early, or set out with some snacks and a new book that you can read to them while you relax in the forest.
- Set out on a campsite hunt for natural treasures: appealing leaves, stones, strips of fallen bark, flowers, snake skins and feathers which can be turned into something creative back in camp.
- After dinner and too many toasted marshmallows, grab a few torches and take the kids for a moonlit walk, spotlighting for frogs, possums or whatever nocturnal critters are on the move. Learn a few of the most prominent star constellations and have children lie back on the ground and star gaze!
- If you are camping by the beach, explore the tidal rock pools at low tide to check out all the creatures left behind by the sea.
- Arm older kids with inexpensive digital video cameras (or mobile phones) to record their take on the family adventure. You will be amazed at the moments they manage to capture forever.