A family camping trip is supposed to be all about bonding and enjoying spending time together away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but all too easily it can become overwhelming when you're looking after kids in a strange environment without the easy comforts of home.
A little planning beforehand can mean the difference between an enjoyable experience and a stressful one, ensuring your camping trip with the family is the first of many.
FAMILY CAMPING CHECKLIST
Be prepared for where you plan to camp. How long does it take to get there? Are all the roads open? What facilities are provided? Do you need to book? If not, are you likely to find a vacant site when you arrive? What is there to do nearby? Is the environment appropriate for the age of your kids?
A short trip reasonably close to home is often a good first choice; if it goes pear-shaped, it is possible to retreat home before things become terminal. It may also be worth gradually easing into it: consider a campground with a few facilities for a first attempt — rather than the self-sufficient bush camp — if the family are hesitant to part with all their creature comforts.
2. Camping equipment
How much do you spend setting up for your first camping trip? It can be tricky to find the perfect balance between going easy to start so you’re not outlaying a lot of money for something that won't be used if you end up hating camping, while on the other hand making sure you have enough gear to make things comfortable.
Try before you buy is a great idea. If you can beg, borrow or hire some camping gear for your first trip it will give you a chance to work out what you do and don’t really need. For example, many see a porta pottie as a luxury, but having a couple of little ones that need to be escorted to the toilet repeatedly during the night may render it a necessity for a family.
Equipping the kids with their own head-lamps is a good idea — both so they can see where they are going hands-free and you can also spot them in the dark. If they are prone to wandering, a whistle and instructions on how and when to use it may be worth considering.
3. Check your equipment
Make sure everything you plan to take is in good nick and you know how to use it. Set up your camp at least once in your backyard. Work out how the stove operates. Try that new light. Replace batteries. Nothing is worse than getting to a campsite and finding out that, while it seemed like a basic piece of equipment, you actually need to be a Rhodes Scholar to operate it. (Or perhaps it was those couple of glasses of wine beforehand...?)
4. Stay organised
It's no fun getting to your campsite and finding out you forgot something important. Stay organised and make sure nothing is left behind by keeping a camping gear checklist and marking it off as you pack. There are lots of packing lists on the web to use as a guide initially, and then you can personalize, update and revise your list as your experience grows.
5. Quick and easy meals
The checklist idea also applies to your food. Figure out how many meals you'll be making and for how many people, and put together some menu ideas. Avoid cooking anything too elaborate, just choose simple, easy to prepare and tasty meals.
Take into account your food storage facilities (freezer, fridge, esky, crate) and cooking amenities. Write down every ingredient you’ll need and do your grocery shopping according to this list. It’s a waste lugging stacks of food that doesn’t work together and ends up coming home with you. Knowing in advance exactly what each meal will be and having all the necessary ingredients to hand takes much of the stress out of meal preparation.
That said, taking just enough food for the duration of your trip could leave you in a tight spot if something goes wrong. Pack an extra day’s worth of “long life” meals, made up of ingredients that live in the cupboard and don’t go off if not used, just in case.
Camp oven cooking is the quintessential camping experience, but be aware that it takes time to build the campfire coals up sufficiently to cook this way. If you don’t have the commitment or time to get the fire set well in advance of dinner, it may be safer to plan on using more conventional cooking methods.
6. Food storage
If you’re using an esky and ice, remember that eventually the ice will melt into a puddle at the bottom of the esky, so make sure your food is in watertight containers. And keep all food locked up away from marauding local wildlife — bacon and eggs minus the toast because the bread has fed the local bird population isn’t an ideal breakfast.
Similarly, make sure you secure your rubbish both at night and when you are out of camp for any length of time. Scab duty collecting rubbish strewn across your campsite is unlikely to make the top-10-camping-games list.
7. Arriving at campsite
Picture turning up late at a campsite, looking for an unoccupied space and then when you eventually find one, having to unhitch and set up camp. The kids have either run off into the dark, thrilled to be released from the confines of the car, or, better still, they are clingy, hungry and cranky. Or they need to go to the toilet — now! — except you have no idea where the toilets are, or if there even are any. And you still have to prepare a meal and feed everyone and get them into their PJs and settled into bed. And people call this a holiday?
Late arrivals at campsites are not conducive to a harmonious start to your trip, so plan to be there with plenty of daylight to spare. If you need to cover some distance to get to your desired campground, then plan an overnight stop along the way. You may even consider a night in a motel, with takeaway for dinner, if setting up twice is too much to contemplate. This can be a quite a fun novelty for kids, too.
8. Stay warm
One thing we Aussies are generally not good at is dressing for the cold, and being cold at night is a one-way ticket to sleep deprivation and a miserable trip. Even when the days are lovely, the nights can be bone-achingly cold. A good set of thermals, a beanie and bed socks can make the world of difference.
9. Safety first
A well-stocked first-aid kit could save your trip from ending miserably, worst case at the nearest emergency room. Check the contents of the kit before each trip. We carry two — one with bandaids, bandages, antiseptic, etc, and a second with medicines like Panadol, cough mix, Imodium and antihistamines, and on longer, more remote trips, even some basic antibiotics. Make sure you have your prescription medicines with you — an unplanned addition to the family may not be the ideal camping memento.
10. Coming home
Have a pre-made casserole sitting in your refrigerator/freezer, so when you get home dinner is sorted without the need to draw straws as to who has to forego that relaxing glass of wine after unpacking so they can drive to pick up takeaway. You’ll thank yourself, believe us.