Some think of camping as character building, some as an endurance test, but I think it’s great. I have hazy childhood memories of setting up tents in monsoons of rain in France in the 1980’s (when equipment always seemed to let my folks down), and wine soaked memories from more recent long weekends with our own kids. So, a little late in the season admittedly, but as promised to a few hardy all-weather sorts, here’s my guide to camping with young children.
Be prepared: This doesn’t come as a shock to most parents, but being organised makes your camping trip way less stressful. If you packed up well from your last trip, your gear should be in good shape which really helps. Remember this, and if you pack up in rain, take the time to air and dry your gear when you get home. You’ll thank yourself the next time. Also, make up a list of the stuff you brought and stash it in your gear bag so you’ll have it for next time. It’d boring I know – but way easier than unpacking your gear in Kerry only to find out you never replaced those missing pegs or plugged that hole in the air-bed.
Another thing you can do in advance of a trip is do a practice run. Nothing tests a relationship more that putting up a tent with a hungry and tired audience, or even better, lashing rain to contend with. Practice makes perfect so try putting your tent up a few times before your family are reliant on it for shelter!! With a small garden, we chanced it and found a quiet spot in the Phoenix Park and put up our tent for all of about ten minutes ahead of our first proper trip. Bar one curious OPW ranger who possibly thought we were planning to stay for a week or two, no-one minded. If you’re not loaded enough to have a massive garden, find a nearby field or park and try it out. Also, consider a practice camping trip – even in your garden! It sounds mad but we’ve brought the kids to overnight in friend’s suburban gardens and it was a great way to make sure they got used to the whole experience before jumping in at the deep end and doing it for a few nights.
The campsite : To date smaller sites have suited us better than the bigger ‘family’ ones – mainly as the kids aren’t yet at the age where they need to be entertained, and also as it makes bedtime easier as larger sites tend to be noisy later into the night. That said, as our kids get older and want more activities, we’ll start using the bigger sites with extra facilities, suffer the kiddie discos and pack the ear plugs.
Pitching your tent: All the usual stuff applies to picking your pitch – nice and flat, away from large trees, etc. but with children in tow there are a few more things worth considering. You should mention when booking your spot that you have young kids and see what advice the owner / manager has for you. Have a good look around and ask about anything that might pose a safety hazard – like deep ditches or drains. Generally we pitch our tent a bit away from kitchen or bathroom blocks (as these can be noisy) and set back from roads and entranceways – so the kids can play as freely as possible. We’ve made the mistake of camping close to a site ‘street light’ so look out for lighting poles.
If camping with friends ask for adjacent pitches in advance. You might chose to put the front of your tents opposite each other – or maybe think about putting your sleeping areas beside each other. At least that way if you find yourself woken by a drunk chatterbox, of a nosey snorer, it’s someone you know and can kindly ask to shut-it.
When you’re putting up your tent, kids can frankly be a bit annoying. Two adults are generally needed for the trickier parts, so the we normally try and distract the kids with a smaller 2-man pop-up tent that we bring along and a stuff with a selection of toys. This comes in really handy if it’s wet when you’re setting up as at least they have somewhere other than the car to sit. When the novelty of the mini tent wears off, they enjoy ‘jobs’ like dashing around with the pegs and the mallet. Then they fight.
The tent: These days groundsheets are stitched in, central poles seem to be a thing of the past and the ‘tent will flood if you touch the walls’ thing is less of an an issue now that canvas has been replaced by waterproof polyester flysheets. Yay!
We bought a good 6-man a few years back and – though it set us back a few hundred euro, I’m hoping to break even over the next 20-years schlepping my family all around Europe! Given the reality of Irish weather, we bought a separate groundsheet which can be used depending on the ground conditions. We also have that 2-man tent which pops up in about 2 seconds and only needs 3 or 4 pegs to secure. This is a great decoy – and handy for storing wet gear or cooking gear, during the stay. We don’t have carpet tiles in our tent but know other friends with kids who swear by them to keep dust and dirt down and make the tent cosier. You can buy tiles to match your tent model or even use roll-up light-weight rugs or scraps of carpet just inside the doorways.
If you are buying a new family-size tent, be realistic about where you need the space and also what layout will work. You need a living space that will fit you on wet days and also in the mornings when the ground outside is wet. You want to keep everyone out of the sleeping area during the day (less flies and mucky feet) so that space is functional and can be smaller. Some family tents have two sleeping pods at opposite ends of the tent (see above), whereas others are simply ‘divided’ (by a two molecule thick hanging sheet) into living and sleeping areas with everyone sleeping at the same end. The advantage of the clustered sleeping models when you’ve young kids is obvious – they get comfort from having you nearby when a cow goes ‘moo’ in the night. The disadvantages are equally obvious!
In terms of buying your gear, I could wax lyrical about traipsing around Capel Street looking for stuff. It’s a long story but our attempts to buy on the high street were foiled by high prices and bad knowledge, and ultimately we found the internet was signficantly cheaper and much easier for comparing products.
Sleeping: In terms of sleeping, having spent my childhood with our heads towards the outside of the tent, I only discovered thirty something years on that you should always sleep with your heads inwards and feet towards the outside of the tent. Who knew? Everyone apparently.
Depending on what state your back is in or what level of comfort you want, sleeping in a tent can vary from a simple sleeping bag to air beds with pillows, and quilts or sleeping bags. I’m an air bed kind of girl and we’ve invested in a double air mattress which we use on top of a double self-inflating (self-inflating, my arse!) mat, with a double sleeping bag. It all sounds wildly romantic until you discover the biggest attraction is that your whole family fits inside it.
For sanity’s sake invest in a handy pump that both deflates and inflates your air beds. The best pumps can be batter operated or work off the mains or in-car plug. They have a range of nozzles and can be used for paddling pools etc. so will quickly become invaluable.
For the kids we’ve bought kiddie sleeping bags. They may seem like a con but work out lovely and warm as the child’s smaller body can generate enough heat in the smaller bag, whereas they’d be cold in an adult sized one. We sleep the kids on air beds on top of yoga mats. – though they’ve happily gone without the mattresses too. For a baby or young toddler, travel cots are handy but bulky in the car. You may want to consider these ‘sunken’ bumper beds (see above) which work a treat for younger kids who are too big for a cot but might roll off a mattress.
If you’re camping in Ireland remember that the temperature does drop down at night – although the sleeping compartment does warm up nicely. Even in Summer we normally dress the kids with light jumpers over their jammies and wearing socks, as they spend most of the night outside of the covers. For younger kids a heavy tog sleeping bag over jammies / babygro, a vest and a light top would work. Always vary the layers depending on the temperature.
Because of the excitement of the whole thing, the brightness outside and the noises of the site , it can be hard to get young children to sleep in the evening. We’ve found exhausting them during the day helpful, filling them up with nice carby food (not sugary treats) and then keeping a bit of a routine works. Bedtime stories, and even some sleepy music work well. A snuggy movie on a laptop / tablet would also be handy. Favourite teddies are a must.
Food and Drink: Campsite cooking is either the best or worst part of the experience! Tabletop kerosene stoves have become widely available in the likes of Aldi and Lidl but keeping little hands away from them when you’re trying to cook up dinner, is a full-time job. Ditto for disposable BBQs. Many campsites have kitchen facilities but if you’re realistic about your menu a little tentside cook up should be a fairly realistic option. If you’re not bothered, fish and chips make a fabulous campsite dinner!
In terms of food, what works for us is to bring along a ready-made dinner for the first day with everything already made up in the one pot. We’ve found curry, ragu and pasta, stew, sausages and beans, to be the easiest. Now is not the time for cordon bleu cooking! Think easy food. A few minutes over a low heat, with an enamel cup of red wine in your hand and you’re sorted.
For breakfasts, we generally find ourselves up early but held hostage by dewy wet grass. Milk can be stashed outside the tent or in a portable cool box, so have cereal and bowls handy so you can keep everyone inside until the day warms up a little. If the thoughts of facing your beloved children without caffeine is too much, make up a flask of hot water the night before so you can have a cuppa without needing to stick your head outside the ‘door’.
There are endless bits and bobs that you can buy – from kettles to espresso pots and lightweight pots and pans. We have a portable fridge – which comes in handy for days out. If you are getting one, make sure you get an adapter included so you can keep it running in the car, as well as a plug for the mains. In addition to the normal stuff, the bits and pieces from we find handy are:
- wind breaker to shelter stove / BBQ
- folding table and chairs;
- Ikea plastic cups, plates and cutlery;
- a few enamel mugs and plates;
- a large plastic tub for washing up (and don’t forget the Fairy liquid);
- a bottle opener (I mean, why are we here if not to drink wine from mugs);
Bathrooms, loos and showers: Baby wipes are super handy for sticky hands and faces. I never bother showering ours in sites – either they can wait til they get home, or a quick dip in the sea will do them fine.
I remember announcing to my poor parents, sometime in the mid 80’s, that I had been up and over to the loo in the middle of the night on a campsite in France. Needless to say they had a heart-attack at the idea I’d been off on my own – and in fairness I can now understand why. Our kids are too young to go to the toilet blocks alone so it’s not an issue just yet but it’s a good idea to think ahead whether you want yours heading off on their own, or only with you. During the day we bring them with us, and at night we’re all about free-range weeing and bring them around the back of the tent rather than trekking down to the toilets
Odds and ends
The other handy things I’d not leave home without are:
- hot chocolate and marshmallows (simply because you have to);
- a few packs of baby wipes;
- spare bottles of water;
- anti-bacterial hand-gel;
- torches – including those handy ones you can wear on your head;
- spare black bags;
- dust pan and brush;
- some clothes pegs (handy to do some drying on the guy ropes);
- spare batteries;
- a few hats (it gets nippy when you’re outside late swigging wine);
- toilet and kitchen rolls;
- first aid kit;
- some handy toys including colouring stuff, ball, ball games, etc;
- beer, wine, crisps and chocolate – because everything tastes better when you’re outdoors!
Can you think of anything I’ve forgotten?
So now, if I’ve not completely doused any hopes of a spontaneous getaway, take the three hours it takes to pack the car, pull the fighting toddlers apart, and get in the car. Camp. It’s fabulous.