We spent the greater part of 1999 in a tent in outback Australia travelling around. Grey nomads, without the grey. I don't think I feel more alive than when I am in the bush. And, I think my husband and I are never more connected than when the rustle of the trees and the scrunch of our hiking boots on rock can be heard above all else. Bliss!
It is little wonder then that we still camp. Even with four kids. Easter is probably the most popular weekend for camping in the year. When you are out there it feels as though the whole of Australia is lining up in a tent next to you. It is a crazy phenomenon as most Easters it rains. A lot. We rarely brave the Easter crowds (read Easter weather), but this year we decided last minute that we would. I was excited to be getting into the bush (we hadn't been camping since last October when the twins were 9 months old) but a little apprehensive (Dew Drop and the Minx are both still crawling). It would also be our first camping trip where it was just our immediate family. Two adults, 4 little children. It could have been a disaster, but we survived, and enjoyed, the experience. Children LOVE camping. They really do.
I thought I would pass on some of my knowledge gained from all this camping, for those of you who haven't yet taken your kids. It really is do-able. So here I go, my top five tips for surviving camping with little kids:
1. It is a good idea to go with a group (especially the first time). If you are not into groups (I am mindful that many people are not), just go with one other family who has kids of a similar vintage. The kids occupy each other which allows for some down time for the parents. We didn't get a lot of that on this trip (which was a shame) but there were other kids in the campground at Kanangra Boyd National Park and our older boys managed to entertain themselves with them some of the time. Another reason to go with others is that you will also learn a lot from other campers. They know about what food works, how to set up the campsite, what gear to bring and how to manage your day out there in the bush. Take a seasoned camper with you the first time you go. Covert their knowledge and their gear.
2. There are only a few windows within the first year of a child's life that you can happily camp. I have camped with a newborn and it was awful. Frequent breast feeding in the cold is not a lot of fun. So I say, wait until they are at least 4 months old before you go. From then you have a window until they are on the move. In our case, because our children's gross motor development has been slow, we had a window from 4 months until 10 months. Once they are crawling, I suggest you wait until they are walking before going again. Crawling children + camping = VERY dirty knees, hands, faces etc. Add a bit of rain into the mix and you have wet, muddy babies which is nothing shy of delightful.
3. Successful camping takes planning. Start with the menu. Try to think of food that all the family eat, that you can make in one pan plus or minus a pot and you can eat out of a bowl. We had an Italian sausage and tomato sauce pasta one night and a chicken casserole with rice the next. Minimal dishes = less washing up and less stuff to pack. Freeze everything you can before you go (including bread). It will keep the Esky cold and the food fresh for longer. Make your Day 1 sandwiches at home before you go and stick them in the freezer. That way you will have lunch for the car trip (if you have a long journey) or a ready-made lunch when you get there so you can get straight into activities (bushwalking, exploring) when you arrive.
4. You need to have the right gear. By this I do NOT mean the latest and greatest. Beg, borrow or steal the first time you go so you can make sure you like it before you commit, but once you DO get your own kit, make sure it:
a) Fits into your car! Compact is the key. You can only take what you your car can hold so think it through before you make any purchases. We had to take a trailer the first time our family of six went camping because our gear was too big for our circumstances.
b) Gives you a comfy night's sleep. By this you need to think about warmth and softness. Nowadays you do not have to give up comfort for packability, but you need to do some research so that you get the best gear to suit your needs. Let me just say that a $30 kid's sleeping bag made for a sleepover at a friend's house will NOT suffice in the bush. Your kids need to be warm, so get them a decent sleeping bag. Ours just have a bag and a self-inflatable mattress and this seems to work well for them (they are 3 and 5). I have never really found the winning recipe for babies sleeping arrangements, but as I am happy to have them sleep with me at night, and they are happy to sleep in portacots in the day, this works for us. A word of warning, we have spent literally years working out the right mattresses for us and lights/lanterns for our campsite and tent. God only knows how many we have tried. Our current combination worked a treat at the weekend. Finally success!
c) Is well maintained. Often you have to pack up in a hurry because the children are going nuts and want to get moving. If you don't have the time to dry everything meticulously at the campground, make sure you get it out when you get home and give it the attention it deserves. Camping gear is expensive and you need to treat it with some respect so that you get the longevity out of it that you should.
5) Camp near(ish) to home. A long car journey at the beginning and end of a camping trip can be torture! On the way there, the kids are so excited that they ask every five seconds if they are there yet. On the way home, they are so tired that they are grumpy and difficult to motivate to get in the door. We use a DVD player in the car for longer trips (Kanangra Boyd is about 3.5hours from our place so was a big trip), and you can play all the car games (eys-spy, spotto etc), but at the end of the day, camping within an hour's drive (if you can) is the best option. It makes the whole thing do-able for an overnight camp which means you can go more often during the year and it becomes less of a big deal. The more you camp, the easier it becomes. Truly.