The truth is, although I like to picture myself as an adventurous mom, I prefer to rely on basic amenities and a minimum standard of comfort. The last time I slept in a tent was 20 years ago when I was attending summer camp with the scouts. But when my daughter kept nagging us about going on a camp out, my husband and me got overwhelmed with romanticized memories of great camping adventures from our own childhoods and shortly after we found ourselves in the car driving to Walmart to buy some camping gear.
Whether you are an experienced camper from pre-kid days or first-time campers, it's wise to be prepared for this little adventure. So for those of you who are considering a family camp out, too and are as unexperienced as we are, I would like to highlight a couple of hacks to make your camping trip more enjoyable, even with little kids around, and even if you’re not sure where to start.
Where to go camping
Usually when people like me think about camping, they picture all the great parks like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains. While all these fantastic places are certainly awe-inspiring destinations, you have to keep in mind that your kids might most probably be just as happy in a local county or state park. Especially if this includes less time spent in the car and more time spent at the campsite. Check out your city's or county's campgrounds, you will probably be surprised how many of them exist close to your home. If you are looking for a place to camp around Nashville you can for example check out the official site of Tennessee State Parks or a site I personally like a lot: The Flying Ham (they offer very cute trailers for rent!).
We decided to stay at Piney Campground a great family camping destination in the Land between the Lakes national recreational area. Located in western Tennessee and Kentucky this is the largest inland peninsula in the US and offers many outdoor recreational attractions for families such as biking, hiking, picnicking, relaxing, kayaking, swimming, and watching wildlife. We stayed at the Chestnut Loop, which in our opinion is the most peaceful and scenic place on the campground (all the other loops tend to be overly crowded and noisy).
What to bring with you
First thing you need to do if you are new to camping is to decide whether or not you want to buy your own camping gear. If you do not have a lot of experience in camping, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what kind of gear will work best for you so it might be a better alternative to rent it from one of the many reputable outdoor gear stores. However as I mentioned at the beginning, we were overly excited and bought rather cheap but ok quality equipment at Walmart (if you're willed to invest more in high-end products, check out the impressive selection of camping gear at Bass Pro Shops). My list of must haves:
Campsite gear: Tent (inc. ALL poles and stakes, check before you leave), a hammer (I can tell you from experience that hammering down the stakes with a piece of wood does not really work!), sleeping pad (or an air mattress for your own comfort...), sleeping bags (or blankets depending on the temperature) and pillows (yes, I know this may sound girly but your neck will thank you for that). If you plan to roast marshmallows over the fire pit I also recommend foldable camp chairs (which we obviously forgot at home). Last but not least, some flashlights (with extra batteries). Kitchen: Swiss pocket knife (to justify the cliché), matches or lighter, frying pan which you can put directly onto the fire, a pot (or to kick off your day in a even more enjoyable way, a French press or portable coffee maker), cutting board, cooking spoon, tablecloth (you never know what has been on this table before), and in order to spare you from nerve-racking dish washing at the shared bathroom: disposable tableware! Furthermore you need a cooler, a food-storage container, bags (e.g. for trash, dirty and wet laundry), Tupperware, lots of paper towels, sponge, dishcloth, dishtowel and soap.
Personal items: I highly recommend a minimum (!) of clothes and toiletries because you are going to smell like a smoked sausage from day one no matter how many fresh shirts and conditioner you put on and your kids will insist in spending the whole day in their swimming suit anyway. The only thing not to forget is your flip flops (you do not want to enter these shared showers barefoot!).
I also recommend to check beforehand if there is a little shop on site where you can buy fresh food, ice (for the cooler) and firewood (normally you are not allowed to bring from outside).
How to cook on a fire ring
If you want to make your life much easier it is a smart idea to do some food prep before leaving home, such as chopping vegetables and sealing them in plastic bags, filling a small amount pancake batter in Tupperware and mixing marinades for meat.
When cooking on-site, anything on a long stick is fun, because kids can stand back from the fire while they help you roast the food: sausages, campfire breads and marshmallows.
Another great tool is the iron frying pan in which you are able to cook marinated meats, vegetables, risotto and scrambled eggs for breakfast. To speed up the cooing process you can even put the pan directly on the coals.
And of course, lotst of snacks, chips and for the parents some adult beverages are a must.
Which activities to plan
Depending on the campground you have chosen (and your kids age), there are a lot of fun family camping activities to enjoy: hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, and roasting marshmallows around the campfire.
Piney campground, where we stayed, had a nice little sandy beach where our kids loved to go for a swim and build sand castles. If you own a kayak or a stand up paddle you should definitely bring it (unfortunately there were no rentals available).
Elk and Bison Prairie.Furthermore the Land between the Lakes offers many opportunities for sightseeing, make sure to allow yourselves enough time to explore the peninsula. We for example visited the For a small fee, you can drive in your own car through 700-acres of native grassland and observe the wildlife that roamed Kentucky more than a century ago. Best times to view the animals are in the early morning (we went at noon and unfortunately did not see one single elk or bison).
Another enriching way to explore the Land between the Lakes is taking a ride on horseback through the backcountry roads and horse trails that wind through scenic woodlands of western Kentucky. You can board your horses at the Rocking U Riding Stables and take guided trail rides from there. Be aware that kids must be at least 6 years old (he made an exception with our daughter who just turned 5). They offer 45 and 90-minute guided horse trail rides (they leave on the hour, except at noon). For young children, six years old and younger, pony rides can be reserved.
To sum up, I really think you don’t need to prepare a lot of activities or bring many toys. Just let them get dirty and wild, let them explore the nature and make use of their imagination. Include them as much as possible in everything you do: let them choose where to set up the tent, slip the tent poles into the fabric, pull sleeping bags out of stuff sacks, blow up mattresses and gather firewood.
How much time to stay
Even if I have to admit that I was looking forward to sleeping in my own bed after two nights in the tent, the length of your stay may vary on many components such as the weather (camping in the rain can be fun too but certainly after the second day you might want to consider to literally pull up stakes and go home) or the amount of sleep you will get (and hence how cranky your kids are).
Camping with kids can be as much fun for kids, as it is for the parents. There are few things more satisfying than watching your children explore and experience nature. This is where memories are made; catching their first fish, seeing their first wild animals, learning to skip a rock across the water – the things they’ll brag to all their friends about, when they get back to school.
So go try it out and mostly, have fun!