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Family Life Draining You? Take Your Kids Wild Camping

A guest post from Diane Vukovic about her experiences camping with her young daughter.

Growing up, my dad would take my sister and me backpacking in the Adirondack Mountains of NY State.  We slept in lean-tos, carried our own packs, and played with fire.

At the time, I didn’t realize how “strange” this was.  Many parents today don’t let their kids out of sight, and they certainly don’t get to play with matches!

Flash forward a couple decades.  I now live in Belgrade, Serbia (that’s Serbia, not Siberia or Syria!) and work online as a blogger.  I also have a quirky 6 year old girl Isabel who loves dresses, insects, and bones. 

Living in a big city, we don’t have access to many natural places. Rain means being stuck in the apartment, and even outdoors she can’t run freely because of the traffic.  Thus, I consider it my responsibility to make sure Isabel gets into nature frequently. That is why I take her wild camping and backpacking. 

There Is No Excuse for Not Getting into Nature

You probably know about the many reasons to take kids camping.  It is easy to make excuses as to why you can’t go.  But, if you really want something, you will find a way.

Camping on a Shoestring Budget

I’m lucky that I have very flexible work hours, so can go camping whenever I want.  However, that flexibility means my pay is quite low.

A lot of people assume you need to have very expensive gear to go camping.  This couldn’t be further from the truth!  Compared to traditional vacations, the cost of camping is very low.   The only major cost is gear, and you can even borrow gear at the start.

The great thing is that, once you buy camping gear, you don’t have to buy it again.  The cost of each successive trip becomes lower.

Adventuring When You Don’t Have a Car

The other big obstacle for me is that I don’t know how to drive.  I’m lucky that Serbia does have fairly good inter-city transportation.  Often, I just ask the bus driver to let us off on the side of a road in the “middle of nowhere.”  From there, we hike to our wild camping spot. 

If it is too far away to hike, I will hitchhike with my daughter.  Hitchhiking has taught her so much about trusting others, altruism, and that everyone has something valuable to teach.

Yes, it would be a lot easier to go camping if I drove.  I could carry a lot more gear, and we could get to more places with less walking.  But, since I don’t want to learn to drive, we manage with the resources we do have.

What about Fear?

You are scared of snakes, bears, and injuries?  These are valid points, but even this fear is not an excuse!

If you are genuinely scared about something, listen to your fear.  Most of the time, fear is caused by lack of knowledge or preparedness

For example:

I was terrified of taking Isabel camping in Albania because of the venomous snakes there.  So, I taught Isabel what to do if she sees a snake. I learned what to do if you get bit by a snake, learned how to say “snake” in Albanian, and found out where the closest clinic with anti-venom was.  Armed with this knowledge, I wasn’t scared anymore.

Yes, There Will Be Whining on the Trail

Isabel and I have been wild camping about 20 times now.  My favorite trip was backpacking up to a glacier lake at 6,300 feet in Kosovo.

The trail was very steep and it took us 2 ½ hours to hike the 1 ½ miles up.  Isabel was complaining the entire way!  But, once we got to the lake, she was ecstatic.  There were salamanders in the lake to catch and dragonflies zipping around everywhere.

The complaining was absolutely worth it.  Isabel now understands that if you want to get somewhere beautiful, the journey isn’t always easy. How’s that for a life lesson? 😉

That trip went beautifully.  But not all our wild camping trips go so smoothly.

  • There was the time that Isabel fell on a bunch of prickly bushes.  Of course the only thing I’d forgotten in my camping first aid kit was a safety pin to get them out!
  • Isabel sometimes hates hiking and I have to beg (i.e. try not to scream) to get her motivated.
  • Hiking anywhere takes 5x longer because Isabel wants to stop and look at every single puddle, rock, leaf…

The key to making a successful wild camping trip is to be flexible.  You won’t always make it to that scenic point – and that’s okay!  The point of wild camping is to get into nature together, not to make it to some specific geographical location.

Gradually Build Up to Bigger Adventures

A great paradox in learning is that you need to challenge yourself – but not too much.

If you start with a big camping adventure, it might be too tough for your kids (and you).  Instead of enjoying the experience, you all feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and probably hate it.

So start with an adventure that feels comfortable…

  • Go on a few hikes
  • Then go camping at a campground
  • Then go on an easy overnight wild camping trip
  • Gradually work your way up to longer and tougher backpacking trips

You Don’t Need Toys

Small kids need the same gear as adults for wild camping, such as headlamps, sleeping bags, and a mess kit.  The problem is that you’ll probably be carrying most of their gear.

Your pack will get heavy very quickly, which is why it is important to cut back on the non-essentials.  Toys are definitely NOT essential!

Many toys stifle creativity.  Once in nature, you’ll see this yourself.  An action figure is just an action figure, but a stick can be a doll, cabin, sword, and much more.

The only toys I bring for my daughter are

  1. A deck of cards (great for rainy days in the tent and long bus rides)
  2. A sketch pad (also good for pressing flowers)

Our toy rule is this: Anything else that Isabel wants to bring, she has to carry herself! She knows this and doesn’t try to shove a zillion toys into her bag anymore.

Still Not Convinced?

I know that most parents are probably annoyed with the zillions of blogs that say, “Just do it!” when you’ve got problems like long work hours and nagging fears.

Instead, I will leave you with this.

My best memories from childhood are backpacking with my dad.  I don’t remember the names of the mountains we hiked, but I do remember the time a beaver jumped out of a tree.  And that time mice ran across our sleeping bags at night.   And making bowls out of mud…

Isabel is almost 7 years old now.  You’d think she wouldn’t remember things from when she was 3.  But, often she’ll suddenly bring up memories from our past adventures.  Like, “Remember when we saw a spider with an egg on its butt!”

I see her smile and laugh at these memories.  I see that she’s growing into an open-minded child who understands that sometimes you need to take risks to get rewards, and that the journey to get where you want is sometimes tough.

Adventuring with kids isn’t always easy. It would certainly be easier to stay at home! But what sort of message is that sending to your kids?  Try a small adventure and you’ll see for yourself that it is worth the reward.

Diane Vukovic is an outdoor enthusiast, beetle-lover, Couchsurfer, and mother to a quirky 6-year old girl.  She blogs about wild camping with kids at her website Mom Goes Camping. Follow Diane on Facebook to stay in touch.

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