You enjoyed the rugged Northwest outdoor lifestyle as a couple. Nothing is ever the same after the kids arrive, but now you and your spouse have a whole new way to enjoy outdoor adventures.
Most kids get a thrill out of camping, and their excitement is contagious. Sleeping in a tent, toasting a marshmallow on an open fire, walking around in the dark with a flashlight, seeing a raccoon’s eyes glowing in that flashlight beam – all of those things that had become routine for you are unforgettable life experiences you get to share with your youngsters.
Ashleigh Bobovski, a Spanish teacher at Sehome High School, has a 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Her husband John Bobovski is a river-rafting guide. The couple had a lot of outdoor adventures as a couple, and now the kids are part of the action.
If you haven’t tried camping with your kids yet, Bobovski suggests easing them into it.
“Keep it simple,” she said. “Try camping in the back yard. That can be a great adventure in itself.”
Even if you and the kids don’t actually spend the night in the yard, familiarizing yourself with your tent’s setup is a must before you get to the actual campground. If you’re shopping for a tent, get recommendations on tents with the easiest setup and take down from veteran campers or knowledgeable sales staff at an outdoor store. If you ever find yourself having to set up or break camp in the wind and rain – and you eventually will – this will matter.
Keep it simple. Try camping in the back yard. That can be a great adventure in itself.
If your backyard adventure goes well, try a one-nighter at a campground close to home – close enough that you can pack up your gear and retreat home before midnight if the weather turns against you or other issues develop that turn fun into frustration.
For your kids’ first overnight at a campground, Bobovski suggests organizing a group outing with another family. The kids can entertain one another, taking some of the pressure off the parents.
Food is another key ingredient to camping success. Make sure everyone – not just the kids – has food to enjoy.
“It’s essentially an extended picnic,” Bobovski said.
While she doesn’t believe in abandoning healthy dining guidelines on a camping trip, Bobovski does believe in toasted marshmallows on the campfire when the kids are part of the evening.
Another essential ingredient to a successful trip: your gear.
“Having the right gear to stay dry and warm is important,” Bobovski said. “I think we’re kind of over-packers.”
On a backpacking trip, the limits to what you can carry always require you to make hard decisions about what to take and what to leave behind. But if you’re car-camping and you’re wondering if you and the kids will really need extra socks, sweaters, rain ponchos or whatnot, go ahead and stuff them in the car. They won’t do any harm in there, and they won’t do you any good at home.
Ashleigh Bobovski suggests getting the kids involved in the packing process, for both food and gear.
This gives the kids a sense of responsibility, and besides, the little guys can be awfully observant and smart. They will likely remember something you forgot, such as ketchup.
Having the right gear to stay dry and warm is important. I think we’re kind of over-packers.
John Bobovski, who is working on launching a blog on family camping, said a positive attitude is more important than camping “doodads.”
But he also recommends two “doodads” as essential for kids: strap-on headlamps and glow sticks. Both are amusing and useful.
The bottom line: Make sure everyone is having fun, and that means easing the kids into the joys of roughing it.
“Find a park with shower and restroom facilities and a nice playground to make the experience fun,” John Bobovski said.
Many parents discover that pit or vault toilets – the kind you are likely to find in the more remote National Forest campgrounds – can terrify children. Horrible smells. Lots of flies. And then your mom expects you to perch on the edge of a deep, dark well of horror and – well, you might want to check online when you plan that next trip, and find campgrounds with flush toilets just like at home. You may be able to get the kids used to those primitive facilities on a day trip.
The Bobovskis and their kids have adjusted to the primitive at this point; Ashleigh says they look forward to their annual trip to the remote Eightmile Campground along Icicle Creek in the Leavenworth area – about three hours from Bellingham in the Wenatchee National Forest. They have been doing it since the kids were in diapers.
During the daytime activities that accompany your nights in a tent, John Bobovski warns parents against expecting kids to share parents’ enthusiasm for invigorating cross-country treks.
So instead of going on a death march to the top of Oyster Dome, spend an hour flipping over rocks on one of our local beaches.
“We live in the beautiful northwest, and it is easy to get caught up in the idea of getting to the top of something to look at a panoramic view,” he wrote in an email message. “But from a kid’s perspective, everything is new and needs to be examined. So instead of going on a death march to the top of Oyster Dome, spend an hour flipping over rocks on one of our local beaches. Seeing the crabs, limpets and other sea life is just as powerful experience as seeing a grandiose vista ... my kids would rather spend half an hour playing with a slug on the side of the trail than seeing a mountaintop, because, well, you can touch a slug.”
Whatcom County residents have many good nearby options for car campers.
Two of the closest are Birch Bay or Larrabee state parks. Both have woodsy campsites and beach access, and there’s no better playground than a beach. Both parks offer an online campsite reservation option – a good idea almost any time, but probably a necessity on summer weekends, when these campgrounds are guaranteed to fill.
The Bobovskis recommend Rasar State Park on the Skagit River, about an hour’s drive from Bellingham on Highway 20, west of Concrete. It features wooded campsites and a nice stretch of recreational riverfront along the Skagit River.
Whatcom County’s Silver Lake Park is another obvious choice, about an hour’s drive via Mount Baker Highway. There are trout in the lake and rowboats for rent, to give you a better chance at finding them. The trout also attract ospreys, big fish-eating predator birds. If you’re lucky, you may see one plunge into the water and emerge with a fish.
For fun in the mountains, it’s hard to beat Silver Fir Campground, about an hour and 15 minutes up the Mount Baker Highway. This lovely spot is a great base camp for the wonderful high country trails in the Mount Baker area, once the kids get old enough to appreciate that sort of thing. It also makes for a short morning drive farther up the mountain to the splendors of Heather Meadows and Artist Point, where there are many short walks perfect for families.
Horseshoe Cove Campground, on the shore of Baker Lake, is another topnotch choice. It’s about an hour and 20 minutes from Bellingham, on the Baker Lake Road off Highway 20. There are some nice flat trails in this general area at a lower elevation that makes them snow-free most of the year. If you go, check out the Shadow of the Sentinels Trail in this area, with an awesome stand of ancient forest. It’s short, flat and kid-friendly.
Tips for novice campers
- Draw up a checklist. If that sounds hard, just Google “camper’s checklist” to find lots of options. REI offers a good one at rei.com/learn/expert-advice/family-camping-checklist.html.
- Use the checklist one more time, before you pull out of the driveway. Tent? Check. Stakes? Check. One sleeping bag for each human? Check. Nobody left the cooler on the front porch? Check. You get the idea.
- Make sure everyone has two good pair of shoes. If you are preoccupied with packing, you may reach your campground only to discover that the kids climbed into the car barefoot, or with flipflops.
- Get a good camp stove with at least two burners. A fire is fine for a few hotdogs on sticks, but cooking anything more than that on an open fire can be awkward. A stove makes mealtime easier for everyone. And don’t try to get by with that tiny mini-stove you used for backpacking in college.
- If you’re in Western Washington, assume rain. Prepare for it, enjoy it. When you set up your tent, survey your site and figure out where the water is going to flow and where it is going to puddle when the deluge hits at 2 a.m.
- In any campground, assume that a variety of birds and mammals are lurking, waiting for a chance to steal food. Mice. Raccoons. Squirrels. Seagulls. Crows. And if you’re in or near the back country and there are bear warning notices tacked to all the picnic tables, take those notices seriously. Never leave food on the picnic table while you go to the restroom. Don’t even turn your back on food. Personal experiences: Crows shredding a one-pound bag of Tony’s Coffee. Crows flying into an open car to plunder a bag of poppyseed muffins. A ground squirrel grabbing a Baker’s Breakfast Cookie I had set down on a rock right next to me.
- A related tip: No food of any kind in or around the tent or sleeping bags. Ever. Violators grounded for life. Even if you don’t leave the food in the tent, a mere crumb or two or a food odor could attract a mouse or something much larger. At 2 a.m.
- Get inflatable air mattresses. You can get by with a pad for backpacking, but why not go for a bit more comfort next to the car? If you sleep on the ground or on a thin pad, you’ll feel the cold in the ground well before dawn. You can blow up your mattress with lung power if you enjoy dizzy spells, or you can get a variety of air pumps. Best choice: an electric pump that plugs into the electrical socket, aka cigarette lighter, on your car. The thing is noisy, but it fills up those big air mattresses in a minute or two.