Camping with Kids
I grew up sleeping under the stars. My sister and I made Thermarest pads for our dolls who accompanied the family on car camping trips to the mountains. These trips built my confidence, comfort, and connection both in the outdoors and within myself.
When I took my good friend Sommer and her kids Naia and Milo camping for the first time in a gorgeous green meadow resting along the New River in Virginia, I revisited cozy campfires, icy cold swims in mountain streams, a warm enamel cup of hot chocolate, the sticky marshmallows on hand whittled sticks, hikes asking,” Are we there yet?” As I taught Naia and Milo, 9 and 5 years old, how to set up a tent, inflate a sleeping pad, set up a camp kitchen and wash dishes in the spring, I saw their comfort zone creep ever further over the forested hills. All it takes is one good experience to cement a lifelong love of camping. And on the same token, a not so fun trip can turn anyone off of outdoor adventure.
Sommer and I took our time planning the trip. We chose a friend’s remote, undeveloped land but a place the kids had been and knew already. The rustic outhouse also gave the location first timer appeal. Just under 3 hours aways from Chapel Hill near Grayson Highlands, the land was the perfect distance for a 2 night campout.
Winding roads through rolling farmland brought us to a cell-service free patch of heaven, the sound of a breathtaking waterfall. Being able to drive right to the site is key and we parked the cars feet from where we set up our tents. With open skies, we tossed the flies aside. The kids helped gather twigs and dried leaves for the fire, the promise of s’mores motivating action.
I set up the two burner camp stove on a lichen covered picnic table that would become our kitchen. The smell of veggie burgers and hot dogs soon mixed with the camp fire smoke. Around the fire we feasted, a simple dinner tasting better than it ever would at home.
We taught the kids how to collect kindling and roasting sticks. With mellows loaded on to pointed ends, we rotated sticks above the flames, quickly blowing out the ones that erupted in flames. The only way to savor a s’more is under the stars, out of doors when it doesn’t matter how sticky everyone’s hands get.
A good book makes for cozy bedtime reading. Naia and Milo introduced me to one of their favorite stories illuminated by my headlamp. I zipped the kids into their sleeping bags, showing them how the top goes around your head to keep your neck warm all night long. They laughed, rolling on and off their sleeping pads.
“You’ll have to be quiet if you want to hear the hoot owls,” I told them as I hugged Sommer and the kids before heading to my tent. I snuggled deep into my sleeping bag grateful for my deluxe Neo Air Thermarest and let the flow of the river and wind in the trees lull me to sleep.
In the morning we awoke as the sun melted the morning dew. I could hear the kids asking about hot chocolate. Through the screen I called for them to meet me at the camp stove, taking Naia to collect fresh water from the river and Milo to get the red and blue enamel cups. Camping chores take on an adventurous spirit and the kids happily did their jobs, reminding me that we would need to get the marshmallows out too.
The Primus two burner stove heats water quickly enough for kids time standards and soon the kids had chocolate mustaches. Coffee came next while Sommer worked on starting the morning fire. We packed muffins for ease and also made a pot of Patagonia Provisions breakfast grains. Over breakfast, we painted watercolors using Naia’s travel paint set, perfect for art outdoors. The cool morning quickly warmed and soon we were ditching our jackets and pants for shorts and t-shirts. After teaching the kids how to do dishes in the stream, we got everyone’s hiking shoes laced up and motivated the kids with a scavenger hunt to find fairy home building materials.
A narrow trail meandered along the hillside into a gorgeous grassy meadow where we counted wild flowers and looked for quartz crystals for the ferries. We hiked for over an hour with the kids, stopping along the way to identify trees, plants and wild herbs. Timing is everything and just as the kids were losing steam, we rounded the bend to see our tents in view.
A simple lunch of left-over veggie burgers and hot dogs tasted even better than it had the night before, camping’s amazing ability to bring out the best flavor in whatever you eat. After lunch, we lazed on picnic blankets in the sun, reading books and listening to the river. The kids and I jumped in the river, squealing as the icy water washed over us. I swam against the current, feeling so alive as my arms fought the current. The kids cheered as I made way closer to the waterfall and beckoned me to ride the current back to them. We lost track of time as you do in nature, letting our life flow with the pace of the river. Sommer and I both noted how far away the responsibilities and stress of home life felt, the sun melting the anxiety that often nestles itself in the upper shoulders that relaxed into soft grass under the picnic blanket, tanning blissfully in the afternoon sun.
With only the tick of the sun to create a sense of schedule, we didn’t eat dinner until dark. The kids loved helping make the fire, collecting dried leaves to go under the kindling we gathered on our hike. We hung a big cast iron pot above the flames for pasta and heated up red sauce on the camp stove. Just as the last light of dusk turned dark, we sat down to eat around the glow of the flames, keeping us warm in the suddenly chilly air. The night grew cold and thankfully we packed many layers, bundling up as we put the fire out and went to bed.
We awoke to rain pitter pattering on the tent roofs and I was grateful I had remembered to put the flies back on before we went to bed. The kids didn’t mind the wet at all, gleefully running around in the rain as we tried to task out breaking down camp. It always amazes me how quickly breaking down camp takes in the rain versus on a sunny day. In record time, Sommer and I taught the kids how to stuff sleeping bags, roll sleeping pads up and break down the tents. We packed the cars up with wet, muddy gear, embracing the chaos and giving up on anything being dry. Lastly, we buckled in two very wet, muddy, happy campers in the backseat.
I smiled, looking at them reminded of my sister and I so many years ago, hoping that the trip roots for them as my first camping trip did for me, growing into a lifelong love of sleeping under the stars and telling stories around the fire and losing track of time in the woods. What we do as children shapes who we are and how we navigate in the world. Connecting with the outdoors at a young age built not just my confidence and expanded my comfort zone but cemented my love for the natural world. We protect the things we love and seeing Naia and Milo help Sommer and I check and double check for any piece of trash, teaching the kids the importance of leaving no trace, I was reminded of how taking kids camping is so much more than an adventure. Taking kids camping is an act of preservation and the most powerful thing we can do to protect the generations downstream.
Check out the rental program at TB&C to reserve everything you need. Sommer and her kids got all their camping equipment through the rental program.
Looking for a great first spot to camp with your kids? Check out my curated list below that are all within 3 hours of Chapel Hill and fantastic first time spots.
Don’t want to go alone? We totally understand! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about our having one of our guides accompany you on your first overnight outdoors with your family.