Toddling into the bush: Take kids camping and enjoy it

Camping with a toddler can seem daunting to young parents. Here are some tips to help keep the trip simple, safe and fun.

Simple planning, safety rules can make camping with toddlers fun for all

CBC's Cameron MacLean's son Wilder in Clearwater, Man., in September 2016. (Submitted)

Growing up, camping formed a core part of my relationship with my dad. So when my son was born two years ago, I wanted to give him the same kinds of experiences I had.

Our son Wilder was four months old the first time my wife and I took him camping. Taking care of an infant in the bush was relatively simple — we just strapped him into a carrier and off we went.

Now that he's older and able to walk, it's a little more challenging.

However, camping with a toddler doesn't have to be daunting. With some careful planning, camping with young children can be a fun way to teach them skills that will stay with them the rest of their lives.

"When you're out with toddlers, your camping experience is pretty low-key, and it becomes a lot about them, but it's pretty awesome," said Rick Shone, owner of the Wilderness Supply in Winnipeg.

Before his two children were born, Shone said he would often see customers come in once their kids were older, "saying, 'Oh, my kids are getting older, now I can start doing stuff again.'"

Shone and his wife decided they would rather take their kids out into the wilderness at a young age. Their son was nine months old the first time they took him on an overnight canoe trip.

Change in scope

For the first few times going camping with kids, Shone advises parents to keep the trip short. "Don't bite off more than you can chew," he said.

Whereas he and his wife were used to going on canoe trips of up to 60 kilometres, they kept it closer to six kilometres.

"I was always so destination-oriented," Shone said. "A lot of our trips were always just focused on the end goal. It was kind of epic, all the time. One of the things my kids taught me was to slow down and kind of enjoy the journey a little bit."

For our first camping trip with our son, my wife and I went to Birds Hill Provincial Park, just a short drive from Winnipeg. On longer drives, we try to time it so that he naps for part of the trip.

Car camping, where you drive right up to your campsite, can simplify the trip significantly, but Shone isn't afraid of trekking into the bush with his little ones.

Break the trip down into small chunks, he advises: Hike or paddle out to a base camp, spend a couple days exploring there, then head back on the third or fourth day.

Nature supplies its own toys

Parents often feel like they need to take a lot of stuff to keep their kids entertained, Shone said, but his kids kept themselves busy playing with sticks, and stones.

"We didn't overthink it too much. We really didn't bring much for toys or anything like that," he said.

For their kids' supplies, Shone and his wife mostly packed the same things they would take for themselves, such as food, clothing and outdoor gear.

Although we don't take much in the way of toys, my wife and I always pack a supply of books to read at bedtime, something Shone recommends as well.

Appropriately sized sleeping bags and good rain gear are also important.

"We were out one weekend, and it rained the entire weekend," Shone said. "It wasn't warm, it was cold, but the kids were outside all weekend. And at most points, soaking through, because they're playing in the puddles."

Keep it simple

Like Shone's kids, my little guy can amuse himself for a long time with things found on the ground, but having some simple activities can help keep things from getting boring.

It is the best experience that I have ever had with my kids. And they've absolutely loved it.- Rick Shone, owner of Wilderness Supply

Many campgrounds have playgrounds, or beaches, which can provide built-in entertainment.

Helping out with campsite chores also gets kids involved in the trip and teaches them valuable skills.

Let them help prepare meals or set up the tents. Things might take a little longer, but "those kinds of skills they learn out there, I think it just translates to what they do here," Shone said.

Teach your children, safely

Spending time in the wilderness teaches kids self-reliance and confidence, but it's vital they learn proper safety.

Shone says he started teaching his kids how to light a fire from a young age. Now, his son and daughter are eight and six, respectively, and although they still need supervision around fire or knives, "they're much more competent, I think, at this age than they would have been if we didn't give those experiences," he said.

By keeping the trip simple and following some basic safety rules — including keeping campsites clean and putting food away to avoid attracting animals and insects — camping with kids can create memories that last.

"It is the best experience that I have ever had with my kids. And they've absolutely loved it."