Tips for Family Camping with Young Children

Bear-proof food lockers have entertained my young son, August, during more than one family camping trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. Once, at age three, he kept himself occupied for a full half-hour by banging on a locker and chanting, Ice, Ice Baby. (Fortunately, no other campers were in earshot).

We have camped every summer since my boy was eight months old, but it took me a while to learn this universal truth: children don’t need heaps of toys to be happy. At home, or at a campsite, wee ones are fully capable of using imagination to create their own fun. No longer do I cram my Subaru full of plastic playthings.

Subaru being packed for family camping trip
When packing for your camping trip, remember that nature will provide plenty of entertainment. Photo © Erin English.

I’ve grown wiser about other aspects of camping, too.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned while family camping is to have easy meals and snacks at the ready, or suffer the consequences. My child melts down faster than a marshmallow dropped on hot coals when food isn’t instantly available. And, unfortunately, many of our dinner plans have gone awry in Rocky due to wimpy fires, a busted camp stove, rain storms, and contaminated cooler food (always keep raw meats in a dedicated cooler!). Sandwich fixings, I’ve found, are a reliable plan B, as are leftovers (think cold mac ‘n cheese or noodles).

August has, in the past, gathered natural objects at Rocky’s campgrounds to bring home. I nipped the collecting habit in the bud with a straightforward explanation (“If every kid who camped in Rocky took home a pine cone, there would be fewer for other campers to enjoy…”), and my guy hasn’t fought it. We make stick houses at the campsite, and disassemble them before leaving. “Leave No Trace” (LNT) didn’t enter my lexicon until I was 30-ish. However, I believe it’s never too early to set the foundation for a lifetime of good camping habits.

child and mother roasting marshmellows
Camping offers a great opportunity for teaching kids self-reliance. Photo © Erin English.

Preschool-age is also a good time to teach self-reliance. August has unfurled a giant green nylon Coleman tent from its bag and snapped tent poles in place. He’s placed logs in teepee formation in the fire pit. Once, he helped sling up a tarp at Longs Peak Campground when rain was imminent. I’m no expert in early childhood education, but I’m pretty certain giving him these tasks has boosted his confidence and fostered independence. At age 5, there’s little he can’t do around a campsite, other than things he shouldn’t—like striking matches.

While writing Moon Rocky Mountain National Park, the hardest part of getting my son on hikes was prying him out of his sleeping bag “fort” at daybreak. The park’s shuttle system, I found, provided a surprising incentive. If you’re camping at Rocky’s Glacier Basin or Moraine Park Campgrounds during the summer season, consider taking shuttles for the fun factor. My kid gets moving at the mention of any form of interesting transportation (particularly airplanes, but also snowmobiles and shuttle buses), and maybe yours will, too.

child and adult board the shuttle in Rocky Mountain National Park
Shuttles can be fun for kids. Photo © Erin English.

Lastly, I wish I’d prepared myself better for the ‘pit toilet’ conversation. These basic toilets are found at every RMNP campground, and they are admittedly scary. August had more than a few questions. If you are new to pit toilets, it’s best to go over the basics before #1 or #2 strikes. Specifically: there’s a deep dark hole where waste goes, they smell stinky, and sometimes a rush of cold wind will tickle your bum. And no, you won’t fall in—as long as you pay attention to what you’re doing.

With that being said, get in and out of there with your kiddo as fast as possible so you can get back to your Rocky Mountain National Park adventure!

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