Let me preface this by saying: I don’t have kids. Nor did I have any experience hiking or camping with little ones, until my four year old niece recently made the world’s cutest request: she asked to explore the Great Outdoors with her tree-hugging Aunt Jenn.
Of course I responded with an enthusiastic yes – and then the panic set in. I didn’t know the first thing about bringing children with me on my (often harebrained) adventures, and there was a lot to consider. How could I ensure that this excursion would be age appropriate, super safe, and – maybe most importantly – not boring for a tiny human with the boundless energy of Sonic the Hedgehog?
After gathering a wealth of advice from seasoned parents and scouring the internet for pointers, I realized that introducing kids to the glory of nature is much less daunting than I thought. A bit of careful preparation goes a long way to ensuring a good time for everyone involved. Whether you’re a troop leader, older sibling, or the token adventurous aunt like me, you can use this list of tips to plan a successful outing with the kiddos in your life – one that might just ignite a lifelong passion for the natural world.
- Keep it short and sweet. A child’s first venture into the wild should be considered a test run, so start small. While you might think of a two mile jaunt to be super quick, that much hiking can easily overwhelm a tiny tot unaccustomed to walking on a trail. Start with half a mile for smaller children and see how it goes. You can incrementally up the distance on future outings. When you’re ready to take the little tree-hugger camping, one night is enough – you might even want to do a backyard test-run!
Forest Springs Campground, Shasta National Forest, CA
- Choose the right amount of challenge. Every kid is unique, and each will have a different level of ability and stamina when it comes to hiking and other outdoor activities. Small children might do better with a paved, interpretive nature path, while an athletic eight year old could probably hold their own on a trail with a bit of elevation gain. Make sure to carefully read trail descriptions ahead of time so you don’t end up biting off more than you (and the youngster you have in tow) can chew.
- Bring extra everything. Heard of the Ten Essentials? Get ready to multiply everything on your usual list by three, as kids fluctuate in their needs far more frequently than adults do. Bring more layers of clothing for them than you think are necessary, grab a wide variety of snacks to accommodate fickle appetites, and pop extra hygienic items like baby wipes and kid-friendly sunscreen in your backpack. You might find the extra weight to be a hassle, but having a slightly heavier load is absolutely worth avoiding the possibility of a hungry, cold, or otherwise uncomfortable little one.
Sky Camp, Joshua Tree CA
- Brush up on your first aid. It’s always a good idea to keep your first aid knowledge fresh and ready to use, but it’s even more crucial when adventuring with kids. In the event of an injury, you’ll need to provide a calm presence and an immediate solution. Bring a well-stocked first aid kit, and consider signing up for a wilderness first aid course. Even if you’re a seasoned pro, minimize risk and practice common sense. Tell someone your itinerary, have a fully charged cell phone with you, and stay on the trail. The likelihood of an emergency is slim, but it’s important to be confident in your skills just in case.
Songdog Campsites, Cuyama Badlands CA
- Plan activities. LOTS of activities. While the peace and stillness of the wilderness is a big draw for most adult explorers, the meditative elements of nature don’t exactly resonate with children the same way. Like it or not, kids get bored, and you’ll need to have an arsenal of activities planned to keep their constantly shifting attention occupied. Tell stories about wildlife, have them count different varieties of plants on the trail, bring coloring materials for the campsite where they can recreate favorite moments from the day. Best of all, have them assist you in camp duties when possible – learning how to set up a tent or build a fire are super engaging, and engrain skills they will use forever.
Oz Farm, Point Arena CA
- Camp with comfort in mind. Even the most daring of children can be prone to nervousness when spending a night away. And with the added foreign element of sleeping under the stars, homesickness becomes even more likely. To maintain an anxiety-free atmosphere, provide as many comforts from home as possible. Bring their favorite pillow, well-worn security blanket, or stuffed animal. Maintain familiar nighttime rituals, like reading books at bedtime or singing a song while they brush their teeth. Choose a campground with clean, well-lit bathrooms and proximity to a general store so you can easily pick up anything they might want or need. If all else fails, have a few surprise treats up your sleeve to bring out in unsure moments – s’mores are always a hit!
The Pond House, Mendocino CA
- Have fun! Real talk: kids are easy to please. Whichever trail or campground you choose will inevitably hold countless opportunities to inspire wonder and excitement. Don’t worry too much about doing it the “right way” – your enthusiasm and leadership are the most important factors in setting a positive tone. As long as you put in a bit of thoughtful preparation, it will likely turn out to be a fun and safe experience. So go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back for passing down your appreciation for wild spaces, and have fun creating memories with the little ones who look up to you.
Jennifer Kotlewski is a Los Angeles based writer, humanitarian, and wildflower junkie. You can see what kind of trouble she’s currently getting into via instagram @jenkotlewski.