Camping with Kids

Kathy Lynn Gray
Matt and Leah Vest with their sons Lucas, 5, and Jude, 6

Sometimes when they camp with their kids, Leah and Matt Vest of Clintonville end up with soggy sleeping bags from rainy downpours. Sometimes, they end up in a mental fog because they forgot to bring coffee.

But they always end up with stories to tell, a sense of renewed peacefulness and the urge to head back into the woods at the earliest opportunity.

“We've done it all, made every mistake in the book, but camping makes you feel peaceful and brings you back to the simplicity of life,” Leah Vest said. “It takes you away from your job, your chores and all those things swirling in your head.”

The Vests grew up camping with their parents and have tent-camped with their children, Jude, 6, and Lucas, 5, since Jude was 6 months old. But they're convinced just about anyone will enjoy camping with their kids once they give it a try.

Jonathan Barth, owner of Clintonville Outfitters, suggests starting small. “If you can camp in your backyard, do that first,” he said. “Some kids freak out staying in a tent all night, so you need to know that.”

Next, try camping at a nearby site, such as Delaware or Alum Creek state parks. That way, you can easily pack up and go home if things go south, he said.

Barth recommends renting equipment for a first foray into camping. “Try it out to see what kind of tent you want,” he said. His store rents tents, sleeping bags and other necessities, then takes 50 percent off the rental fee for customers who purchase equipment.

“The big thing is to get a tent big enough for everybody,” advised Barth, who camps with his wife and two young children. He suggests a six-person tent for two adults and two children, so there's plenty of room for the kids to play if it rains or if you need to accommodate a portable crib. “Up until the kids are 8 or 9 years old, I'd keep them in the tent with you,” he said.

Other basic equipment includes a sleeping bag for each camper, sleeping pads or an air mattress for adults, pillows, a solar-powered lantern and a good camping book (Barth recommendsCamping & Survival, by Paul Tawrell).

“The whole idea of taking your own living space, packing it up and setting it up someplace else is a huge family bonding experience,” Barth said. “That's what people miss most when they're not camping.”

Novices also can try a Rent-A-Camp through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to get a taste of camping without some of the hassles, said Heidi Hetzel-Evans, communications manager for the department's Division of Parks and Recreation. Park staff will set up a tent and supply cots, sleeping pads, a cooler, a light and a stove. Rent-A-Camps, which also have a fire ring and picnic table, are offered at Barkcamp and Blue Rock parks in southeastern Ohio.

Another option is a yurt, available to rent at eight state parks including Delaware, Hetzel-Evans said. They're a step up in comfort, withfuton beds and bunks, a table and chairs, mini refrigerator or cooler and internal electrical outlets.

Experienced families might head in another direction: more primitive camping on more-remote sites, such as in a national forest or a backpacking trail, Barth said. “That's a huge step,” he said, since adventurers are unlikely to find established campsites, bathrooms, showers or fire rings. “You have to deal with everything.”

Or, Leah Vest suggested, try challenging your children with a hike. During a recent trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Vests hiked a 6-mile trail. The 3 miles up the trail were rough, but the boys ran most of the 3 miles down and had a blast playing in a creek at trail's end, she said. “A lot of what we do is child-guided, and we all have fun doing it,” she said. “It's mainly about your attitude and what you make of your experience.”

Hetzel-Evans, who grew up camping with her family, said the best thing about camping with kids is the memories you create. “It's really, really family time, just you and your family, outside and not connected to your devices,” she said. “Kids aren't used to that and might say they're bored, but give them some time and they'll soon find other things to do at the campsite. It's really an adventure, and you discover a new way of spending time together.”

Additional Resources:

Clintonville Outfitters

Ohio Department of Natural Resources


Reserve America