The 7 Lessons I Learned from Camping with Kids

I recently went on my first backpacking trip with my 3-year-old son. It was a combination of excitement and anxiety. There was a constant presence of “did I forget something?” or “what if that bear I saw on the road here makes it into our camp?” The bear was kind of worrisome but what worried me more was having my kid absolutely hate this experience and never want to do it again.

I depend on these outdoor excursions not only for his sake, but also for my sanity. Mentally, I need these adventures to keep me grounded. I learn something every time I head out on the trail. This time was no different.  If camping is on your summer bucket list, then here are some tips and tricks learned!

1. Other outdoorsy mamas are the best of friends

I’m not sure I would have followed through with this backpacking trip if it weren’t for the other mamas I went with. I knew having them around would be good for those campfire chats or in case I forgot a spare pair of socks (hint: I didn’t though). What I didn’t realize was that they were good for so much more.

Take the half-hour it took me to find an appropriate tree to hang our bear bag on. They entertained my kid so he didn’t have to rummage through the dense trees or watch his mom fail at slinging the rope on the branch for the 100th time. They gave my kid marshmallows after yet another underwear change (more to come on that later). And they laughed with my kid, and took pictures of me with my kid (something my husband NEVER does). More importantly, they remembered to bring the coffee the next morning.

Edited with Afterlight

2. You can never bring too many changes of underwear

When you think you’ve packed enough changes of clothes, pack more. Anyone who has ever backpacked has always weighed (both metaphorically and literally) their options on what exactly to bring. I thought I packed enough for a one-night adventure in my 65L backpack but also didn’t want to go overboard.  

That included two spare pairs of underwear for my son – he is, after all, potty trained (not to mention he loves peeing in the woods). But because of his excitement and distraction playing with the other kiddos, he peed through his underwear three times. I don’t say this to embarrass him but to show other mamas that this happens and it’s OK (although at the time, I didn’t handle it well). Just bring the extra underwear and don’t worry about the extra weight.

Edited with Afterlight

3. If water is near, it’s only a matter of time until your kid falls in

And yup, it definitely happened. Our campsite was epic. It was right on a lake and, although the mosquitos were terrible on the trail, the breeze off the water kept them at bay while at camp. We partly chose this campsite because of the lake (but also the short 1-mile hike to it too).

The lake was a great source of entertainment. But it was only a matter of time until one of the four kids fell in. Unfortunately, it was mine. We went the entire first day without falling in. I was constantly saying “hey bud, you staying away from the water’s edge right?” with him always replying “yes, moooom”.

It wasn’t until we were almost all packed up the next day to head back to the trailhead that I heard “MOM! Help Help!” and my heart sank. He completely fell in up to his waist and all his clothes were soaking wet (including his fleece jacket). Thankfully it wasn’t worse, but it made me realize: the minute you think you’re in the clear, you’re just not. You’re just not.

Edited with Afterlight

4. It’s OK to cry

And I did. So did my kid. Several times. I’ve never been one to shy away from crying – it’s my body’s way of releasing anxiety or tension or stress. After the third underwear incident, I broke down. I had no underwear left for my kid (only an overnight diaper) and because of the humidity, there was no way the underwear would dry on its own. I just felt like all the stress leading up to this trip fell out of me once I was told for the third time “mom, I had an accident”.

So I cried. And it was OK.

5. Small friends make all the difference

Having multiple adults care for four children was great but, ultimately, they did a lot on their own. Our campsite was truly an outdoor classroom. They found leeches which some brave boys held in their hands (my kid was not one of them though). Water snakes slithered their way up to the campsite to check out the commotion – there was a lot of commotion with four boys in the wild. Dragonfly nymph exoskeletons lined the trees around our tents.

There was no shortage of outdoor fun. One of the boys even had some wildlife guides to figure out what species they were observing. My kid was in awe the entire time. I can never replicate that experience.

Edited with Afterlight

6. Waking up at sunrise with your kid isn’t as miserable in the outdoors

I didn’t sleep a wink, truly. I hardly sleep well in the outdoors anyway even without my kid. But I breathed it all in as I turned in my sleeping bag to see his body deep in sleep. The loons sent out their haunting calls throughout the night and it was the perfect soundtrack to my view. As corny as it might sound, I was able to see the beauty in the chaos of the day.

Edited with Afterlight

7. Things will never go as planned

I’m a type-A, Leslie Knope personality when it comes to pretty much anything in my life. I make checklists and use color-coded post-it notes. It’s a bit much, I know. Even with all the planning, something is bound to go sideways. It always does, especially with small children. But being prepared is one way to make those things that go sideways a little more bearable. So even though people might think you’re a bit neurotic, there is a literal method to the madness. Preparation will always be your friend when adventuring with your kids outdoors.

“It’s wake up time”

When we finally got back to our car sitting at the trailhead, I had a root beer waiting for him in a cooler. It was his reward for being the champ that he is. I highly recommend a treat for your kids after completing a new adventure. My treat was a snickers bar. Truth be told, I really needed a whiskey, but I thought that wasn’t likely appropriate considering it was a two-hour drive home. Instead, we stopped in a small mountain town to break up the drive. I had a glorious second cup of coffee and my kid had a honey lollipop.

I sat there on the patio watching my kid try to best a sparrow eagerly awaiting someone to drop some food. He’s got such a sense of curiosity. He also has a short memory (it wasn’t two hours prior that he was half drenched standing in a lake). He asked me that morning as the sun started to warm up the dew on our tent, “it’s wake up time now, mom?” I simply replied “yeah, bud, it’s wake up time”.

About the Author:

Sarah is an ecologist-turned-freelance writer specializing in the outdoors, environmental education, and advocacy. If she’s not behind a computer, she’s out on the trail with her son in her beautiful home state of New Hampshire or romping around the mountains of New England.

Sarah Lamagna

Sarah Lamagna