Kids + Camping Do Not Always Equal Crazy
By Rebecca Petersen
Child photography by Trisha Staley
At some point you’ve wondered if, and when, you’ll ever get back to the days of throwing a sleeping bag and bike in the car for a quickie camping trip to Moab, go hiking up the canyons without sending a four-day advance team, or dare less than three weeks of planning for anything more complex than a trip to the grocery store. While you may not have longer than two consecutive minutes of privacy while showering behind a locked and barricaded door, you can get back into the great outdoors with a bit of planning and a few choice pieces of kiddie gear.
If your kids are like mine, it’s an absurd cat-herding feat of epic proportions to take them anywhere. So I contacted a few camping veterans for secrets that don’t break the bank, and ensure the kids don’t break you. I also searched through this season’s hottest gear for cash-worthy favorites, new items you’ll use over and over that are worth your money, and free/cheap camp-worthy items that make your trip so much easier.
Establish a dirt free Zone
When tent camping with kids, they are filthy the moment you unbuckle their car seat. And you haven’t even set them loose on the dirt yet.
Create a semi-dirt-free 6’x9’ zone for about thirty bucks. While it won’t repel dirt or atomize filth on contact, it does establish a sweepable, hose-able, reversible section of the outdoors for games, crawl-stage humans, and someplace non-dirt for the savages to sit while you hand out snacks.
Try Costco’s bazillion pack of baby wipes. They’re indestructible, relatively cheap, and frequently on sale. If you’re backpacking (hat’s off to you), try a few baby washcloths in a baggie with biodegradable soap squirted in. Add water. Instant wipes.
Bugs can ruin a trip. Worst vacation I ever had was on a 30-something-foot sailboat cruising the Baja peninsula for a week. The kid brother of my then-boyfriend used the only can of bug spray on his sleeping bag day one. It was the area’s worst bug season in decades. We were covered in bites and broke up when we came home. Bug bites are nasty and much worse when decorating unhappy, itchy kids.
Bug Shield Clothing
Columbia has an awesome Insect Blocker shirt made for kids. It’s a great under layer with UPF 50 for sun protection and antimicrobial fabric to keep it fresh after days of wear. It keeps its bug repellent properties for 70 washings and will set you back just $48.
Something. Anything. But have it with you.
Sorry for the Captain Obvious comment. (Maybe hide an extra can.) For DEET-free protection of your campsite, try BugBand® Insect Repellent Bead Bags (bugband.net) which have a large concentration of Geraniol, an ingredient in Geranium oil that forms a vapor barrier in a given area, like your tent, to repel bugs. The best part? Each bag is just $3.95 and you simply hang it for protection.
Maybe you have an awesome popup tent with bug screens and zippers and misters and stuff. Or, if you are willing to spend some cash, try Kelty’s Shadehouse for $230. Use it as a camping sun shelter, or add on the attachable walls to keep bugs at bay while eating or hanging out. For an almost-free solution, just throw a King-sized mosquito bed canopy (meant to create a romantic boudoir) over the food table. The best kind has four corners and attaches to the ceiling (or tree) as the case may be. Hang over your Dirt Free Zone and protect your kids from the swarming masses while outdoors.
A child’s natural state is perpetually in want of a bath. You can bring 40 changes of clothes or just a few multi-use, easy clean items. Your choice.
A great local resource is AxlsCloset.com if any of the below appeal to you. Axls Closet is my new obsession. Think of it as the online love child of Nordstrom and REI. That delivers to your doorstep. I may never leave my house again and certainly not to go shopping for kid’s clothes.
Quick dry. Patagonia’s Summit Shorts are adorable on my 7-year-old, and he can wear them for 3 days without looking somewhat indigent. If they get filthy, do a quick rinse and hang, they’ll be dry in no time.
Columbia’s Convertible Pants go from pant to shorts to pants again with a hidden zipper around each leg. They protect my almost-albino little guy from sunburns and are light enough that yours won’t complain about wearing them during the day. The sun-protective fabric dries fast after impromptu river outings.
Patagonia’s Capilene Midweight Set is great for both nighttime wear for toddlers, and for their intended use as an underlayer for extra warmth when it turns colder than what you packed for.
Patagonia’s Down Sweater is a sweater masquerading as a superlight, windproof down jacket. The compressible 600-fill goose down makes it easy to stuff in the bottom of a camping bag even though, “It’s soooo not going to be cold, Mom.” Great for Utah’s ever-changing weather.
Columbia’s Silver Ridge Skort is a cute combination of adventure-worthy shorts under a school-worthy skirt. Stylishly cut and available in an array of muted colors that don’t show dirt, even when rain turns everything to mud. Pair a thick pair of tights and this extends into the fall/winter school season without a hitch.
Shoes can make or break your trip. And kids are notoriously picky about their kicks.
Think Tevas with a graduate degree. Somebody at KEEN decided sandals that don’t protect toes are dumb. So they fixed it. And I am hooked. My 15-month-old hates shoes, but he loves the Newport H2 sandal. Waterproof, easy on, easy off, comfortable, and he doesn’t pull them off and drop them somewhere in the mall. But they’re not just for boys, girlie styles are available too.
My elementary school-aged son is anti-anything that doesn’t resemble a flip-flop, despite inclement (read: snowfall), weather. But KEEN’s athletic, waterproof Alamosa WP passed with my summer shoe aficionado. He can hike and tromp through water without issue, and they double for day-to-day use.
Sleeping bags for toddlers are pricey. And they grow out of the things in 5 minutes. Enter the DIY portion. A nice puffy coat circa 1973 will do for this make-your-own bag project.
- Sew the sleeves shut at the armpit to shoulder.
- Sew the bottom of the coat closed.
- Insert baby/toddler.
- Zip or button the coat-turned-sleeping-bag.
Once your little one graduates from sippy cups and diapers, they continue to grow at an alarming rate. You can buy a new sleeping bag every other season or try the Kelty® Big Dipper Youth Sleeping Bag. Kelty’s ingenious design includes an expandable foot box, giving you up to 12” to work with and fit your youth up to 5’4”. This mummy-style bag is warm down to 30 degrees and is insulated with exclusive CloudLoft synthetic insulation.
Cash-worthy Gear Award
The Osprey® Poco Series Premium Child Carrier
This is the ultimate child carrier. While the $299 price tag sounds like a lot, this pack truly does it all. First, it adjusts from fitting my 6’6” husband to my 5’7” frame with the simple slide of a lever. My hell-on-wheels toddler is comfortably chill riding in it on a hike and when the hubs packs him around while mowing the lawn. The pop-up sunshade deploys with Green Beret stealth. There’s even a diaper changing pad secreted away in this marvel of design.
If older kids want to help, let them carry the zip-off backpack on your day hikes. An uber-comfortable backpack-esque frame rounds out the design. After arriving at camp, use the kickstand contraption to turn the carrier into a convenient camping highchair. Upscale amenities like a cell-phone carrier for you and foot stirrups for your little one are just a few of the amazing extras packed into this bag. If we ever have twins, I’m buying another one. And getting a nanny.
Kids don’t have to spell the end to your outdoor life. It’s possible to camp in places other than a Comfort Inn® or a camper-rich KOA®. Who knows? Your kids might have the same fabulous memories of being snowed, rained, or winded out of a camping trip that you had with your parents. A little bit of planning, a few DIYs, and some amazing gear choices will make all the difference and will send you on your way to family memories and a taste of your life prior to diapers, cartoons, and pink milk.
In her third employment reincarnation in as many decades, Becca has transitioned from ballerina to paralegal to part-time writer. Becca is primarily a fair-weather athlete with a goal to recreate a high school sub-6:00 minute mile.