Recently, we went on a long road trip with our kids to go to a family wedding and visit their grandparents in Massachusetts. All total, we ended up being in the car for 54 hours and traveled over 2800 miles! I consulted with a friend of mine who recently moved from Indiana to California with her family (4 kids and a dog!) for ideas, and thought I’d pass on some of the ideas that worked well for us. Even though we didn’t camp on this trip, I know that finding awesome campgrounds can often mean hours in the car.
Cooking pan as a tray
This was hands down the best thing we got. When I was researching ideas for our trip, I found a lot of different ideas. There are products that hook to the car seat itself, but it seemed they were soft and were difficult to color on. Some people enjoyed lap desks. We ended up with a lasagna pan that I bought at Walmart. It is slightly bigger than a 9×13, and was almost perfect. The tall sides kept the toys and crayons on her lap and really minimized the number of times we had to turn around and get something. She was pretty good about keeping it on her lap and not letting it fall just for the fun of it. The only downside is it was that coloring books didn’t fit very well.
Surprises along the way
One of the tips my friend gave me was to have little surprises that I handed out along the way. She did a surprise at every state line, and when she could tell her kids were getting antsy. I actually went to the dollar store to get most of our surprises, and they were a big hit. We often used them to motivate our daughter to get back into the car after a stop.
I can’t remember how many I got – I wandered the aisles of the dollar store, collecting a range of toys, coloring books, stickers, crafts, and other miscellaneous things I thought she’d like. Some of them she got bored of after 5 minutes, and others she played with for an hour. Since they were all a dollar, it didn’t bother me when she wasn’t interested or if she somehow destroyed it. I think as she gets a little older, it will be fun to do more crafts – as it was, there were very few that she could do without our help.
I also bought a basket to help keep everything together in the backseat. I kept a few surprises in a canvas bag in the front seat, and the rest in the trunk. Every time we stopped, I refilled the bag with a few more. I know some people will wrap them, but I honestly didn’t want to deal with either taking the time to wrap them before we left, or with having wrapping paper all over the car. There was only one time when she spotted something before we were planning to give it to her, and that was mostly our fault for not being careful. (The bag fell open.)
Glow sticks for both girls after it got dark were a HUGE hit!
The only thing I made before our trip was homemade gak. I got the recipe from this website. It’s a fairly easy to make, mess free that is pretty good in the car. It was a hit, though it didn’t come off fabric. In retrospect, we should have taken away the baby doll before giving her the gak. 😉 However, everything did wash clean out of her shirt and mine.
One note – this uses Borax. There is a misconception that Borax is extremely poisonous and shouldn’t be given to children. I think most people confuse Borax with boric acid, which is not the same thing. You definitely do not want your children eating something made with Borax, but it is fine to play with. From this website:
The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) on Borax lists it as “slightly” irritating to skin and eyes, and states that chronic exposure can produce eye irritation, cough, and skin rash. There is no evidence that the salt accumulates in the body, however. The MSDS rates it as a health hazard of only 1—the same as baking soda and salt.
If you are still concerned, I believe there are alternative recipes that use other ingredients to make gak.
Map showing our progress
Our map was a huge hit! Whenever she asked us if we were there yet, we would pull it out and show her the map. She then switched to, “Are we there yet? Maybe we should check the map!” (Which was really cute!) I took pictures of the map and uploaded them to Facebook to show our progress, and a lot of my friends told me they enjoyed that.
The map was very easy to make. I bought a clipboard at the dollar store to hold it. I took screen captures of our route from Google Maps and then printed them on card stock. I was pretty impressed with the print quality and resolution I was able to get from a screen capture. Since we went a different route on the way to Massachusetts than on the way home, I had two maps.
I found a picture of our car on the internet, and used that as our marker to show the progress. I bought a set of small round magnets at Walmart, printed the car pictures on cardstock, and attached them to the magnets. It worked really well. I made two cars: one facing one direction (“going”) and one facing the other (“coming back”). I used a magnet on each side of the paper to hold the car in place as we traveled.
If you’re prone to losing small pieces and have extra magnets, I would recommend making multiple cars. 😉 I also wish I’d outlined the state boundaries with a dark pen before we left. I started to on the way, but didn’t get a chance to finish.
Make it an adventure
Because we had so many long days on the road (15.5 hours the first day, then 14 hours, then 13, then 12), we didn’t really have time to do a lot of fun stuff. We started off by stopping at all the visitor centers and taking a picture. That was good in theory, but we quickly realized that it wasn’t always convenient to stop at that moment, and also not all of them had convenient signs for pictures. Also, once it got dark, it made pictures impossible. Too bad, because we visited 12 states on our trip!
We did try to be energetic and enthusiastic about the trip, and I think our girls picked up on the positive attitudes. We chose a few fun places to stop, like Scranton, PA where we got a picture by the sign featured in the intro of one of our favorite TV shows, The Office. When we were excited, our girls were excited.
It’s getting toward the end of summer vacation here, and my thoughts have turned to school. I am so disappointed we did not get to camp at all this summer – it has been SO wet and rainy, and difficult to find a weekend when we’ve been both available and the weather has been nice. We hope to find some opportunities this fall as the weather gets a little cooler!
Sometimes you’re just in that season of life – for whatever reason, camping has become difficult. During those times, it can be nice to keep the idea of camping alive in your kids by talking about it. I already listed 12 great camping themed books that you can add to your bookshelf. Here’s another way for when you want something a little more hands-on – camping-themed worksheets and activities.
There are a bunch of resources online, but here are four free ones that I found that I hope are useful! Some of them are geared for homeschoolers, but you definitely don’t have to be one to enjoy. Nothing beats actually getting out into nature, but during the times when you can’t do that, this could be the next best thing.
2 Teaching Mommies
Free Camping Preschool Unit
PDF printables to practice concepts like patterns, number order, beginning writing/cutting practice, spelling, and more. Also, links to some other related resources.
I will never forget Memorial Day weekend 5 years ago. We were camping next to a family on their first camping trip. They made several major mistakes, but the one that bothered me the most was the generator they brought. We were in tent-only sites without electricity, which I love because of the distance from the RVs (which tend to be a little noisier). The first evening, our neighbors cranked up their generator, and I thought for sure they would turn it off when quiet hours started. Nope, they ran that thing all night. I woke up frequently during the night (fortunately this was pre-children!), and each time I tried to think of some scenarios that made taking a generator tent camping an absolute necessity. The next day while they weren’t around, I peeked over at their tent while we were walking by. (That’s a no-no, by the way! Don’t do that.) The generator was hooked up to a big box fan. I was definitely annoyed – yes, it was end of May in Georgia, it was hot… but not worth running a noisy generator all night! We complained to the ranger, who said he would come by that evening and remind them of quiet hours, but we needn’t have worried. In the later afternoon, they packed up and left.
Perhaps they didn’t realize the unspoken etiquette shared between campers. I thought I’d share them here, so you know to leave your generator at home the next time you head out for a camping trip.
Be conscious of noise levels and respect quiet hours
Tents are great for sheltering you from the elements, but they do almost nothing for noise control. Keep that in mind when you’re in your campsite, even during the day. Avoid unnecessary noises, like running a generator or playing a radio. If you must have electricity, look for a campground that offers electrical at their campsites. (Sometimes that means you’ll be near the RVs, but some have tent-only sites with electrical outlets available.) Keep voices to a normal tone, and encourage your kids to do the same – happy screams and shouts should be reserved for the playground! Most campgrounds have quiet hours, so be especially conscious of those. At night, sound travels even further – just remember that when you start baring your deepest darkest secrets around the campfire at night.
If you are setting up or tearing down your campsite during hours when your neighbors are still asleep, try to be as quiet as possible. One of the loudest things is car doors opening and closing, so try to avoid that repetitive noise. If you plan to tear down in the wee hours of the morning, pack up as much as possible the night before.
Respect the boundaries of the campsites
While you are camping, the campsite you are staying in is your home. Respect the boundaries of your neighbors. Do not walk through occupied campsites, even if it does shave 3 minutes off the trip to the bathroom. Do not peek into other tents or walk into the campsite uninvited, even if the campers are not there. (I broke this rule in my story in the first paragraph. Don’t do that, though I secretly am glad I solved the mystery of “Why the heck were they running a generator?”)
Make sure your kids understand this as well. Keep to the posted roads and trails when walking around the campground, and especially if your kids are riding bikes.
I have found most campers are pretty friendly. Greet your neighbors as you pass by them, and don’t be shy to engage in friendly conversation if they reciprocate. There are many interesting people out there, and part of the fun of camping can be listening to their stories. My older daughter loves to make new friends on the playground, so she often helps me break the ice.
As always, though, some people prefer solitude. Respect their wishes if they would rather not talk. It probably isn’t personal, so don’t take it that way.
Leave no trace
Leave No Trace is a movement for enjoying the outdoors responsibly. You are a guest of Nature, so treat your space as such. Your other campers will appreciate your consideration! Keep your campsite clean and tidy while you are there. Make sure all trash is in the appropriate receptacle. Keep to designated areas for pitching tents and building fires. Follow campground rules for collecting wood – usually they don’t allow you to collect wood from the area around the campsite. Be VERY cautious with your food – don’t leave open packages lying around, keep your food close to you while being cooked and packed away when not. (I usually keep all food in the trunk of my car, though you may want to call the campground and ask their recommendation as I believe it changes from region to region.) I think this rule is easier to break when you have kids dropping their crackers as they run around the campsite. It’s important, though, because you don’t want to do anything to attract unwanted wildlife – especially bears and raccoons.
When you pack out, leave the campsite cleaner than you found it. Stack any extra wood near the fire pit for future campers to use. The next camper to use the site will appreciate your efforts!
Respect public areas
The campgrounds I frequent are the ones with bathrooms available to all the campers. Keep that in mind when you are using the facilities, especially the showers. Be aware of people who may be waiting on you, and hurry along if possible. Clean up the area when you are done. Don’t use the bathroom sink to rinse out your dirty dishes. Think twice about where you are lighting up the cigarette – I know many campgrounds have designated areas for smoking, and please do not toss the cigarette butt on the ground. If your dog is along for the trip, be sure to clean up after him or her.
It all boils down to one rule: Respect your fellow campers. Everyone doing their part will make it a more enjoyable experience.
I’ve had several requests to do a post on camping food. For many people, this is their favorite part of camping. For me, it is not. I would rather spend our time out hiking or relaxing, and I strive to minimize the amount of time preparing meals. I am also happy to grab pre-packaged convenience foods to make that happen.
If this sounds like you, then please read ahead! If it does not, then please take my methods and advice with a grain of salt.
When I plan for our camping trips, I generally rotate through the same recipes. I strive for easy, filling, and minimal prep time. I try to do as much prep work as possible at home, but I do usually pack a sharp knife and cutting board. My husband and I share the cooking responsibilities. When we camp with friends, we find that generally it’s easier just to let each family handle their own food, especially if there are picky children or food allergies/specific diets involved. One exception is when my best friend and I go camping with our children – we prefer to cook every meal together. We cook our meals using a double-burner camp stove as well as hot coals from our campfire, and these recipes will reflect that. You might also consider grilling, for another option.
We used to do big breakfasts, but I have abandoned that in favor of something simple. For one, I found raw eggs difficult to pack (though there are solutions). For two, I am not a morning person so by the time I got up and moving it was almost lunchtime before we ate breakfast. You might want a hearty breakfast if you’re going to do some intense hiking, but for our needs it wasn’t necessary.
Here are some ideas of things I will bring for our breakfasts – adjust as needed for your tastes!
hard boiled eggs
muffins (make at home before the trip)
instant oatmeal packets (you’ll need to boil water for this, but it’s especially good for chilly mornings)
hot chocolate or coffee (I don’t drink coffee so I have no idea what making that entails)
Our lunch menu will change depending on our plans for the day. Sometimes we plan to be out exploring or hiking, so we’ll pack an easy lunch like sandwiches. Sometimes we’ll plan to be at our campsite, so we’ll take the time to cook. We also pack extra of the lunch sides to use as snacks during the afternoons.
sandwiches (we like peanut butter and jelly, but for variety you could also do pre-made tuna salad or chicken salad)
chips or pretzels
fruits and raw vegetables
trail mix (or nuts and raisins separately)
baked beans (quick and easy if you bring a can)
hot dogs (can cook in a pan or on a roasting stick over the fire)
tacos in a bag(either need to cook taco meat or warm up pre-cooked meat)
soup (great for chilly days – I warm up canned soup, but you could also reheat homemade soup)
We generally treat dinner as our main meal, but it would be easy to switch dinner and lunch if that works better for you. We don’t usually use the fire to cook for lunch, so any tin foil packet meals are planned for dinner. Some of these meals (especially the packets) take a long time to cook, so we try to be conscious of our time when planning our meals.
When planning for our camping trip, I use an Excel spreadsheet to organize our food. Generally, we have 2 of each meal for a normal weekend trip. I make a list of all the food ingredients, then all the staples (like salt and pepper), and then all the utensils needed. Sometimes when you’re used to cooking in your kitchen you can forget the little things you need (like an extra plate or a can opener – can you tell I speak from experience?), so this step is important.
When I make my food list, I divide it between dry goods and foods that need to go into the cooler. I also repackage things as much as possible to only bring what we plan to consume. (The exception for this would be snack foods, like a bag of chips.) I try to prepare as much food ahead of time as possible.
It sounds complicated but it really isn’t. We’ve found as we’ve gotten in the groove of camping, we keep it simple and don’t stress too much about the meals.
When building your camping supplies list and camping checklist, it might be a little overwhelming the first time, especially if you don’t know what to expect. I’m going to break it down for you to hopefully help you formulate your list. Some of the items may appear in multiple categories, which is actually good because getting multiple uses for your items will help cut down on the amount you need to pack.
Somewhere to sleep
We’ll start with the most obvious: your shelter and the items you’ll need for sleeping at night. For shelter, you will probably want a tent. (Unless of course you’re planning to use an RV or pop-up, in which case many items in this blog post will probably not be relevant!) You’ll need to make sure the tent is big enough for everyone in your party, and that it is weather appropriate. (Most tents will be fine, unless you’re camping in extreme weather.) You will need to look at what you’ll need to set up your tent: a tarp or footprint, a mallet, etc. (I highly recommend a test run of setting up your tent before you go camping – just to make sure all your bases are covered.) I would recommend always bringing a tarp and a rope even if you don’t have specific plans to use them.
You’ll also need something to sleep on or in. You have several options for comfort: sleeping pads, air mattresses, or cots. For warmth, you’ll want a sleeping bag or sheets and blankets. Don’t forget a pillow if you want a soft place to rest your head.
Something to wear
You’ll need to think through clothes and personal items for your camping trip. Be sure to check the weather if possible. Layers are best, as it can be chilly in the morning and evening, but hot during the day. Think through your planned activities and make sure you have appropriate clothing. Don’t forget toiletries, as well as things like bug spray or sun screen. I also recommend having a basic first aid kit.
Something to eat
How will you take your meals while camping? You could go very simple and get prepackaged items that don’t need to be cooked. (If you’re close enough to a town, for example, you could get lunches and dinners at a restaurant, and just have fruit for breakfasts.) You can use the fire to cook – there are a lot of recipes on the internet for foil packs. (You’ll need aluminum foil, firewood, and/or toasting sticks for this method.) Another options is a camp stove. (Don’t forget fuel for the stove.)
Plan your meals and be sure to note all the utensils you’ll need to prepare, cook, and consume each meal. Think through dishes and silverware (disposable works great for easy cleanup, but washing and reusing will pack smaller and be lest wasteful). Don’t forget to bring a way to wash all your dishes/utensils, and storage bags are very useful for leftovers.
If you will have things that need to be kept cold, then you’ll need a cooler. Plan on buying a bag of ice each morning.
Something for lighting
You will need some sort of lighting once the sun goes down. Generally, you’ll probably want a combination of lanterns and flashlights or headlamps. A lantern to provide general light for the campsite is helpful, and we also like having a smaller lantern for inside the tent. We like everyone to have their own headlamp, even the children. You may prefer flashlights yourself.
Something to do
You will need to think through what you plan to do while at the campsite. You’ll probably want chairs and a bonfire (firewood, hatchet), even if you don’t use a fire for cooking. (Fire is good for keeping the bugs away at night, as well as providing warmth.) Do you need things to do while at the campsite, or are you comfortable just sitting and talking? Do your kids need activities? This will depend on the personalities of everyone in your party as well as the specific campground where you’ll be. We like to bring a small bag of toys for the tent. If it looks like rain, you’ll need to plan for some inside the tent activities.
Do you plan to go hiking during the day, or sightseeing? You’ll need the appropriate items for whatever you are planning to do. Footwear, water bottle, baby carrier, money for sites, etc.
Use these ideas to make your list
Hopefully that helps you make your list. There are lots of checklists online that you can model your list after. Our list changes with each trip, so try not to stress about it being all-inclusive for every possible scenario. If you’re new at camping, it can be hard to foresee all the things you *might* need, and if packing space is tight then it can be challenging to decide what extras are worth bringing. For your first time, I would stick close to home so the climate won’t be very different from what you’re used to, and you can run back home if you forget something vital.
One popular item that our friends love but we don’t have are pie irons. (Also known as camp cookers, as well as mountain pies, pudgie pies, hobo pies, pie sham or toasties.) These are nifty and versatile utensils that have a cooking compartment made of two pieces of metal hooked by a hinge, with wooden-handled metal rods to make maneuvering easy. You put the food in the compartment and close it, nestle it right in the coals for cooking. You could also use just one side as a small skillet.
Pie irons are generally made from aluminum or cast iron, but my friends prefer the cast iron ones. (And it seems from my research, it’s the general public consensus as well.) You can read more about the pros and cons here. The images above show the traditional square ones, but they also come in different sizes as well as shapes (round and rectangular). This page has a good list of types of pie irons offered by one company (Rome), though I’m sure you can find similar products by other companies.
What kinds of food can you make with a pie iron? Here are some ideas passed on to me by my friend, Jason. He says the trick is to not overfill the cookers.
pie (canned pie filling between slices of white bread)
pizza (pizza sauce, cheese, and pepperoni between slices of bread)
camp potatoes (potatoes, spices, and maybe a little cheese)
grilled cheese (two slices of bread with cheese)
biscuit or sweet roll (uncooked refrigerated biscuit or sweet roll)
Once you load the food, you put it into the fire until it’s done (golden brown on both sides). If you branch out into the other shapes and sizes of pie irons offered, that will expand even further the types of food you can cook. (Like waffles!)
Here are some other websites I found with recipes. (Note – I have not tried any of them!)
Pie Iron.com – several general recipes, with links to two cookbooks you can buy if you want to go more in depth
With a little creativity, you could use the pie iron for almost any individual sized meal while you’re camping. There is a bit of a learning curve, so be patient as you experiment for the exact placement in the coals and length of time needed to cook properly. These probably aren’t good tools for younger children as they can be very hot, but for older children it can be a fun way for them to cook their own meals.