Want to do something for your kids that's fun, cheap and life-changing? Something that will make them smarter, happier and more connected to the universe?
Take them camping.
I know, I know. You think your child is too young. You're not the camping type. You don't know how to set up a tent or start a fire. You don't like bugs. Nature is dumb.
Well, I come bearing a joyful message, fellow parents: Camping is actually much easier than you think and infinitely worthwhile. Here are some tips I've compiled, targeted toward city and suburban families who may be intrigued but daunted by the idea.
These tips are geared toward warm-weather car camping with young children. We started taking our daughters camping when they were about 18 months old.
1. Gear up. You're going to need some basic items, the vast majority of which can be acquired at a Walmart or a Target. Think of it as a one-time investment that will last many years. I recommend these items at minimum: dome tent, cushy air mattress with battery powered pump, sleeping bags, head lamps, rain gear, water bottles, camp stove with propane, 5-gallon water jug, camp chairs, sunblock, bug spray and hand sanitizer. If you've never set up a tent before, practice at home before you leave. You'll be a pro in no time. Bonus tip: Pack extra socks and underwear for the kiddos, and long pants for cool nights and mornings, no matter how warm it is during the day.
2. Bring fun stuff. Let your kids pack a couple of favorite stuffed animals, books and games. Soccer ball? Check. Frisbee? You know it. My 6-year-old is really into checkers right now, so we brought that too and played by candlelight. Bring some surprises to bust out, too, like LED glow sticks or bubbles.
3. Timing is everything. Always, always, always set up your camp in daylight, especially if you're new to camping. That might mean taking a Friday off work. Do it. You want to set up your camp a couple of hours before dinner, at least, to keep stress levels at a minimum. Your kids will probably want to help, which should be encouraged, but let's be honest, mom and dad are doing the work, hopefully with a cold beer nearby. Set that tent up, have a celebratory drink of beer, get your kitchen area dialed in, and start working on the fire and prepping dinner.
4. Build the fire. Look, we're not rubbing sticks together here. We're using neither flint nor bow drill. You are not Bear Grylls. You're more like John Candy in "The Great Outdoors," and I mean that in the best way possible. This is car camping. We're using fire starter purchased at the store, yesterday's Chicago Tribune and firewood from camp headquarters. Get yourself one of those long lighters, so as to not burn your fingers. Stack your wood like a cabin or a teepee, if you like, but the structure doesn't matter all that much so long as air can circulate. A good fire needs air. Create a boundary, maybe just by drawing a circle in the dirt with a stick, and make sure your kids understand not to cross the line.
5. Treat yourself. By now, you're probably starting to grasp my core philosophy: Car camping is about indulgence. Bring some treats for your kids – cookies, candy, juice boxes. This is a special occasion! You can balance it out with lots of fruit to soothe your guilty parent conscience. Car camping is about eating and drinking well. Dinner tip: Make some pasta sauce the previous weekend and freeze it. All you have to do is thaw the sauce on your camp stove, boil water for the pasta and you have a delicious dinner for all. Pairs well with the finest boxed wine.
6. Bring the iPad. Look, I think we can all agree that you don't go camping to look at a screen. But the iPad can be a break-glass-in-case-of-sort-of-emergency solution. Maybe it rains hard for hours, and you're out of stuff to do. Maybe, just maybe, mom and dad just need a couple of hours of peace and relative quiet in the afternoon. Dial up "Zootopia" for those little ones, and kick your feet up, parental units. You deserve it.
7. Bring a sound machine too. Or a battery-powered AM radio. Anything that will create white noise for sleeping. If a raccoon forages in the woods and no one hears it, it basically doesn't exist.
8. Engage with nature. OK, now everyone's fed and dry and well-rested. Time to do the nature thing. We often go camping in Wisconsin state parks, which have an excellent program for kids called the Wisconsin Explorer Program. Parents and kids do self-guided, age-appropriate nature activities together, and the kids can earn patches. Fishing is also great fun for kids. What toddler doesn't want to touch worms? But connecting with the natural world can be as simple as taking a walk, swimming in a lake, looking at the stars.
9. Be cool. If your child is giving you serious attitude and you find yourself snapping at her like a prison guard, chances are you both need more water, some lunch, a nap or all of the above. Because camping inherently introduces some inconveniences, it's even more important to keep tabs on how everyone, including yourself, is doing. Dehydration can cause crankiness. Drink lots of water. Be gentle with one another. Apologize when necessary. Press the reset button.
10. Just go. Seriously, just go. The weather forecast may never be perfect. You will forget something you should have packed. You'll do something wrong. But you'll survive just fine. And you'll learn how to do it better the next time. Because what we're really doing when we camp with our children is instilling in them a love of adventure and nurturing a connection with the natural world. We're teaching them to be brave and try new things. Camping gets a little messy and challenging at times, but isn't everything that's truly worth doing?