Kids and Wild Camping

We blew up to Donard Forest last weekend for a bit of a summer camp slash night around the fire and although we’ve been there many, many times and a trip report might not be the most exciting writing I’ve ever done, I thought it was worth mentioning as encouragement to other parents considering taking kids wild camping.

Campsites are fine and have many pros when it comes to getting the kids under canvas. There’s always a toilet close by, you can take plenty of gear to ensure comfort and most importantly, there are other kids around to kick a football with. However, campsites aren’t always friendly places and they have somewhat of a reputation for being noisy and at times scary. In addition, when you’re taking a huge tent with numerous rooms, a big gas cooker, comfy camp chairs and inflatable beds with duets, is it even really camping? Once you spot the generator and satellite dish your neighbours have you realise it’s maybe just more like a decent way to dodge a hotel room charge. Wildcamping is different. Shunning your usual 9-5 servitude, strapping all your gear onto your back and striding off for parts unknown is a remarkably emancipating experience but the problem for us less fit types is it’s bloody hard work lugging your own nonsense around never mind all the gubbins a child might need.

I’m one of the lucky ones, I have an early teen boy who can happily carry 5kg so my additional list of needs isn’t that long but what if your spawn is younger? When we were in Donard Forest whoRya and Flipmeb both had two kids each at circa 3 and 6 and whilst it was undoubtedly hard graft for the elders, the kids had an absolute ball. Obviously all kids (and parents) are different but the key is always being prepared and knowing your own limits. Here’s a quick list of things to consider:

The Basics:
1. Know where you’re going and what to expect when you get there.
You need to be sure the terrain is suitable for your child and that when you get to your prospective campsite it is as you expect. Usually it’s best to have been there before for a reckkie.

2. Weather watch.
Keep an eye on the forecast and don’t go if the weather is to be anything but clement. Make sure it is going to be warm and dry and don’t be afraid to postpone.

3. Be aware of the minimums.
You might be able to suffer being a bit colder than normal but that doesn’t mean your kids can. Northern Ireland can be pretty cool at night even in deep summer so always make sure you have enough warm clothing for the evening.

4. Spares.
Kids are going to get wet. You could be holidaying in the Sahara and one of your minors will find a knee deep puddle. Always take spares and avoid cotton and denim wherever possible. Man made fibres like polyester will dry exceptionally quickly whereas cotton and denim act like a big sponge.

5. Tent.
You’ll need a tent big enough for your family but small enough that you’ll be able to carry it yourself. Consider wisely!

6. Sleeping.
Humans huddled together generate a remarkable amount of heat so you can usually get away with reasonably light sleeping bags. It’s best to have at least one proper hiking bag incase someone gets cold but if you open the bags out and all sleep together under them if anything it can get too hot. Sleep mats are another consideration – kids generally don’t need them as badly as rickety old adults do but a few foam mats will provide lots of under-insulation as well as additional comfort.

7. Don’t forget the essentials.
If you leave teddy or a favourite blanket at home you will never be forgiven. Consider them part of your first aid kit.

8. Waterproofs.
Always have waterproof clothes, even if the it is to be dry. Weather is unpredictable.

9. Offloading some of the weight
Kids can safely carry 10% of their body weight and you can buy a decent childrens rucksack quite cheaply. Some kids take to it well, others find them uncomfortable. It’s probably best to have a tester walk first to make sure that instead of offloading some of the weight you don’t just end up carrying two bags.

The walk:
1. Footwear
Make sure the kids have suitable footwear. In dry weather for a walk with a decent path trainers are fine but if you’re expecting rough terrain or mud then proper kids hiking boots will help immensely. You can pick up a decent pair for £20 and they will be more likely to result in dry feet and fare better in spots where a bit of clambering is required. Speaking as someone who has had to fish around in a bog to retrieve a trainer that was sucked off, I can’t recommend tightly laced boots enough!

2. The pace.
Kids walk quite slowly. It’s best to assume that the hike there will be a slow experience and resign yourself to walking at a pace the children find comfortable. They’ll have much more stamina than you think but pushing them to go more quickly will only lead to grumpy tantrums.

3. Breaks.
Break plenty. Stop and enjoy the sights and sounds of the things you see as you walk and if possible, plan ahead for places to stop at that have interesting things to see or play on. Let the kids have choccy treats, after all, they’re getting plenty of exercise and treats they don’t see so often at home will make them keen to hit the outdoors in the future.

4. Don’t be afraid to be the Sargeant Major.
With older kids if they get disheartened you might need to just tell them to get on with it. When they get bored or tired and you’re past the point of no return sometimes all the encouragement has been spent and all that will work is your inner drill instructor. Some people find it difficult but it will actually make your child stronger in the long run and if you can’t decide to turn back then forwards is the only way. This isn’t a sensible attitude with younger kids (under 7 or so), you might find yourself carrying them in extreme circumstances but usually plenty of breaks will keep you all trucking. Kids have an awesome ability to repeatedly find a second wind. Once minute they look like they can’t walk another step, the next they’re running in circles for a solid 40 minutes.

Your main aim is for everyone to have a good time. It’s wildly important, especially for the first few outings, that the kids have a positive experience or else they wont want to come again. This is more of a case specific issue as different kids will be happy in different circumstances but here’s what I would suggest.

1. Teaching
One of the best things you can possibly do while wildcamping is teaching the kids how to live outdoors. Don’t feel the need to do everything for them, let them try themselves and the skills they learn will be useful for a lifetime.

1a. Fires
Everyone loves a fire, kids are fascinated with them. If you’re experienced enough, can light a fire safely and are in an area that allows open flame then teaching the kids how to light and maintain a fire is a great experience and toasting marshmallows is top fun.

1b. Cooking
Cooking at home is boring but cooking outdoors can be exciting. Stick to foods that the kids enjoy and try and pick things they can help with. Bannock or sausages cooked over the open fire will keep everyone occupied as well as provide a tasty meal with no washing up required!

1c. Tents and shelters
Let the kids help erect the tent, it can be a great laugh. Don’t be afraid to let the kids go and sit in it either – obviously you want them to have fun outside but playing in a tent is simply irresistible. If there is sufficient material around let them build a shelter. It’s not hard to do, a quick Google will net you loads of ideas.

2. Games
Everyone has different names for them but any game that can be played in a wide open space is a welcome change for any child who usually spends their time in an urban environment. Again, there are loads of ideas on the internet, just have a search.

3. Geocaching
Geocaching is becoming very popular and kids are drawn to it as it’s basically a treasure hunt. Check before you leave on and make a note of any caches in the area you are heading for.

1. Give each child a glowstick (when it’s dark) and a whistle (attached so they can’t drop it) and make sure they understand what to do if they need you. Just bear in mind that a whistle will likely bring anyone in the immediate area running to help so be sure they understand that it isn’t a toy.

2. Fires and stoves
Anything with a flame is incredibly dangerous. Monitor carefully and don’t let the kids run around with sticks that have been lit at one end in the fire – this is something they will be desperate to do but is unbelievably dangerous.

3. First aid
Have a full first aid kit and most importantly, know what to do with it. Help might be a matter of hours away and it’s essential that you can take care of yourself and your kids.

4. Mobile phones
It’s best to know what sort of reception you have and how far you might need to walk if you need to contact someone in a hurry. It’s also wise to know how to contact Mountain Rescue / Lowland Rescue etc if you need to.

5. Make sure someone at home knows when you’re leaving, where you’re going, when you’re going to be back and at what time they should start worrying. If the person with the info isn’t experienced then leave them actual maps and written instructions on what they should do in the event you don’t appear back on time.

6. Water
Give some serious thought to how much water you might need and whether there is a water source where you’re travelling to. It’s important that everyone stays hydrated and at a kilo per litre water is very heavy. Also remember that drinking from fast flowing streams might be acceptable for some adults but it’s a big decision with kids used to purified urban tap water. Consider either bringing tap water from home or a solid water purification system. Alternatively, look into dehydrated water.

1. It’s important that the kids have fun. Try to not be grumpy and do expect that the kids will likely be a bit more excitable than usual.

2. Don’t worry about other people. Any parent out in a group will get embarrassed when their kids do something unexpected and potentially embarrassing. Everyone knows what kids are like and if you’re a half decent parent they wont be doing anything that others will mind. Expect to see them asking uncomfortable questions, demanding food from adults and generally complaining about how horrible other peoples kids are – it’s all just part of the game!

3. Build up to it
Don’t just waken up one morning and drag the kids into the wilderness. Take a Saturday and hit a potential site for a walk, make some lunch and while you’re there and ask if mini-you might like to come back and camp. That way you already know the campsite and are aware of how hard the kids found the walk. Also, if you’re unsure about your kids ability to have a comfy night in a tent, have a tester in an organised campsite where you can head for home if things don’t pan out.

4. Most importantly and therefore, reserved for last – don’t try and carry more than you are capable of. If you can’t lug all the gear you might need then either enlist the help of a friend or wait until the kids are older. If you can’t make it then the kids are in real trouble – remember they’re relying on you to look after them, not the other way about…

Bottom line:
The bottom line is that from 3(ish) most kids are old enough to enjoy a wild camp. Obviously it’s very child specific and don’t be dragging your little’un into the hills on my say-so but in my experience, I’ve yet to see a child wasn’t capable and didn’t enjoy a wild camp. If your kids are older consider a summit camp, it’s a breathtaking experience but maybe a topic for another day.

Please make suggestions in the comments.


This entry was posted in Outdoors Advice.

3 Responses to Kids and Wild Camping

  1. Denver Stinson says:

    Great advice. Took my 5 y o son along the Moyle Way. 6.4 km with an overnight camp. Lots of breaks are essential along with patience. Great experience

  2. Rob says:

    That’s a great read, thank you. I am planning to start wild camping this spring with my 7yr old boy. We are both really looking forward to it but I am trying to gain all the knowledge I can to make it wonderful for him so he can do the same with his boy when he is my age.

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