Camping in my 20s was 'pack-light' and 'move-quickly' adventure. I kept a backpack ready that could be grabbed at moment's notice if the opportunity to section hike the AT for a few days came up. I use to pride myself on how little "stuff" I could carry and still get by. I bordered on fanatical about keeping my backpack alarmingly light. At one point, I carried a homemade camp stove made of an empty seltzer can. It functioned on 91% isopropyl alcohol and boiled water like a champ. I was the pack-light queen.
That was all mid-2000's B.C. ( before children ), that is. If you have kids, you know. Camping can be a massive endeavor with a ton of STUFF. At least once, while prepping for every trip we’ve ever taken in the last few years, I have had to answer my husband's "why do we need all this stuff?!" question. The answer doesn’t change, bud. Because if kids aren't at least comfortable, everyone is going to have a miserable time.
So here are this mama's tried and true tips to making camping just a little easier if you have littles. They work great if you’re camping without kids too!
1.) Do All Of Your Food Prep Before The Trip.
This one is huge. Consider three meals a day, for three kids and two adults, for several days — in the Grayson Highlands. That is a lot of camp meal. If you don't want to spend your entire trip, chopping veggies, potatoes, and whatnot, plan your meals ahead of your trip. Do as much of your prep work before leaving home as possible. It's amazing how many veggies, potatoes, and even apple slices can be chopped ahead of time and kept fresh with a little soak in lemon juice. The citric acid works as a preservative. It keeps potatoes, apples, and even avocados from turning brown. It has no effect on their flavor either. These chopped items can be portioned into freezer bags and kept in your cooler. My kids (and the hubby) love campfire nachos. This includes tortilla chips with ground beef, queso, onion, and jalapeno peppers layered in a Dutch oven and warmed to melty-perfection. I chop all the veggies at home. I even cook and freezer-bag the ground beef ahead of the trip. This meal is on the fire and simmering in minutes. Is that campfire meal cheating? Maybe. But it beats the dog out of the freeze-dried veggie and grain concoctions I packed as a younger, solo hiker. All that cooking brings me too my next point...
2.) Aluminum Foil Is Your Friend.
Nothing expedites camp cooking and clean-up better than tin foil. I line our Dutch-oven style cooker with it. Foil makes clean up so much easier. Those campfire nachos are admittedly, a sticky (albeit delicious) mess. And if you don't want to spend a bunch of time cleaning your camp cookware 1) in the dark 2) at a campground spigot — line everything with foil. That way, you only have to take the foil out of the pan throw it away. Easy-peasy. And as an added bonus, you don’t have pans that smell like meat, cheese, and onions sitting around your camp if you’re in bear country.
3.) Dryer Lint + Hand Sanitizer For Campfire Tinder.
I've kept a tin of dryer lint in my camping stuff as long as I can remember. It's a great tinder that'll get your campfire going quickly. You can even soak the lint with hand-sanitizer containing a high alcohol content. You’ll have your fire going in minutes. You'll never run out of dryer lint. Cause laundry is forever.
4.) Bar Soap and A Cheese-Slicer; Clean Hands Quickly.
I have a hiking buddy who shaves off pieces of bar soap into thin curls using a cheese slicer. These little soap curls eliminate the question of what to do with a giant, wet bar of soap when it's time to pack it back in your bag. I usually fill a container with these soap "shreds" pre-trip. I can take my littles to wash their hands before meals with a few soap shreds a piece. This works great for shower kits too.
5.) Headlamps + Gallon Jug of Water = Handy Tent Light.
You can kill two birds with one stone here. It never fails. Everyone is in their sleeping bags, and we're all half asleep. That's about the time one kid announce that he's about to ‘die of thirst.’ I keep a gallon jug of water near the tent for such dire emergencies. And if you wrap your headlamp around the jug and face the light towards the water, it creates enough light to illuminate the entire tent.
6.) Wisps/Disposable Toothbrushes.
Pictures me in my 20s; having just dropped my only toothbrush into a puddle of "bathhouse mystery goo" at a campground shower. There was no question. The brush stayed where it was. I had stanky breath the rest of the trip with no regrets. After that, I began packing Colgate wisps or disposable toothbrushes. If you've never seem them, wisps are little one-time use toothbrushes that come with their own portion of toothpaste. So you don't need to pack everyone's individual toothbrushes/pastes. And you aren't stuck using your kid’s strawberry Spiderman toothpaste the entire trip either. I hand out wisps like a Vegas blackjack dealer when we're camping with kids. It's a great way to eliminate your twentieth trip to the campground bathhouse too because you don’t even need water and a sink to make them work. Which brings me too...
7.) Warm Up Those Feet with Hot Water In A Nalgene.
I love, love, love camping in cooler weather. And nothing is more soothing in a sleeping bag than a Nalgene bottle of hot water at your feet. Warm your water and place the bottles into your sleeping bags at bedtime for an incredibly cozy experience. And if you don't want your drinking bottle to taste like your kid's feet the next day, use some warm water in a disposable water bottle.
8.) Fix Stuck Zippers with Candle Wax.
Nothing incites a panic faster than kid who sits up in the middle of the night to let you know that they "have to 'go' ... NOW!" And if you have sticky zippers on your tent, it could be catastrophic for the entire family. Rub a little candle wax on your zippers to get them moving properly. It doesn't even have to be melted. Just a cool candle rubbed on the teeth of the zipper. Or if you are out of candles you can try actual zipper lubricant. Who knew it could be that easy?
9.) The Kiddie Camp Potty.
As a toddler, one of my littles announced that he wouldn't be using the AT shelter privy because someone told him there were "black widder" spiders in there. (I suspect his grandfather — taking joy in scaring the bejesus out of him, but I digress). After that, the older two put their feet down as well. And honestly, the majority of the time, we wilderness camp and there just isn't a bathroom for miles. We added a five gallon bucket, a sturdy garbage bag for a liner, and a good ration of kitty litter to our camp supplies. You top all that with an inexpensive toilet seat from the hardware store and there you go (pun intentional, I assure you). We repurposed the toilet seat from our kid's old training potty for a nice solid seat. It's not the most appetizing set up, but it gets the job done. It's an easy-cleanup potty without the notorious "black widders." We place ours in a spare dome tent or we set it in the trees and string tarp around it for privacy.
10.) Setting Up A Handwash Station.
Let's just say it. Camping kids are nasty kids. They usually look like swap people by the end of day one — covered in creek mud, grime, and God knows what else. Sometimes I camp with several mothers and their littles. We almost immediately set up a handwash station. A jug of water and a stack of those little soap curls I mentioned are put into play. After that, this mama's foot is firmly set; “nobody is getting a SlimJim and a juice pouch for a snack until I see (at least) clean hands.”
11.) Bedtime K.O.
This is a shameless bedtime cheat. And some of ya'll might buck at the mention of technology on a no-device trip. That's ok though. You do you boo-boo. This is what I do. Load an e-reader or Kindle with a few kids’ books for bedtime before you hit the road. That way, you can lay in your comfy sleeping bags and read them a book. It helps the littles settle. It's a great transition to bedtime if you have kids who don't settle easily. (It’s reasonable that they wouldn’t settle easily after gorging on camp food and running through the woods all day — shrieking like pint-sized banshees). And bonus — they’ll pass out quickly and you can switch to that suspense thriller you’ve been trying to read for months. Winning.
12.) Portion Meds Into Small, Easy-To-Grab Containers.
I used color-coded snack containers or labeled plastic snack bags for easy dispensing at bedtime. This eliminates the need to carry an entire medicine cabinet on your trip. I pack a few other things too — like kid’s melatonin gummies. Don’t judge me Mr. Judgy eyes. On a somewhat related note, a great way to organize medicines and personal items for multiple littles (or grown ups) are BROG packing cubes. Each cube can hold several Army-rolled changes of clothes, medicines, dry shoes, a headlamp, and a small toy or two.
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