Packing up your family, hooking up the van and hitting the road with the kids might not seem like a dream escape to every parent. But for those of us who love the outdoors, continuing to camp, travel and explore Australia’s incredible destinations once kids enter the picture not only feeds our souls, but does wonders for our kids and grandkids, too.
And, in reality, camping holidays with children can be one of the simplest escapes you can make. Small babies (under six months) are remarkably portable and make very easy campers. They take up little bed space, demand not much more than milk and cuddles and, in our case, the rougher the corrugations, the better our baby slept.
GET A BACKPACK OR SLING
The downside to camping with an infant is that, despite your best efforts to pack light, young babies need lots of stuff!
How you cart your baby around is another consideration. We set off with an offroad stroller, only to discover that our baby hated to lay down in it. Instead, she was happiest being carried in a baby sling that offered her a superior view of the world, so we ditched the stroller and, as Maya grew heavier, added a backpack baby carrier to the mix. To give me some freedom while tackling camp duties, we first tried an old-style baby bouncer (which Maya soon learned to tip over), and then upgraded to a plastic swing, which worked a treat when we hooked it up to the nearest tree.
If you enjoy bushwalking, your baby will probably love it too: snuggled up in a papoose or sling carrier as you sing, talk, and interpret the bush around you.
LIMIT CAR TIME
One of the big concerns parents have about travelling with small babies is the time you have to spend in the car. If your baby hasn’t developed an affinity with the car seat, you might need to restrict your travels to short stints, broken up with plenty of time out of the car. Tackle the big kilometres while your baby naps and, if you must, consider driving through the night to reach your camping destination. This can work okay as a one-off, but can be gruelling on the driver.
The distances covered each day were less ambitious when we travelled with our baby and we tried to drive during Maya’s daytime sleeps. As soon as she finally fell asleep, we drove like a bat outta hell and didn’t stop for anything until she resurfaced.
When there was no avoiding the really big travel distances, we would rise before dawn and drive for a couple of hours before stopping for breakfast and a play. The day would then be broken into short driving stints and longer breaks – preferably taken at a playground or swimming spot – before stopping early afternoon so that Maya could work off some energy before bedtime.
MAKE A SAFE CAMP
Unlike at home, it’s almost impossible to control the safety of a bush campsite, so kids need close and constant monitoring. When we set up camp, I would do a little walk around and pick up anything that Maya might chew or injure herself on. Campfires are another concern. We used to get ours going just before Maya went to bed and taught her that she had to enjoy it while sitting on my lap. We would always ensure it was totally out before we went to bed
It’s important to explain to kids how they should behave in the bush, especially around campfires, and how to deal with encounters with animals, snakes and spiders. Regardless of the age of your kids, pack a really good first-aid kit, keep it handy and know how to use it. If you are planning a big trip or going remote, getting some first-aid training before you hit the road is a good idea.
When it came to entertaining our toddler at camp, I started out by emptying a big pile of toys on a picnic rug beside the tent, but quickly discovered that just about everything beyond the rug was far more interesting. Instead of worrying about the dirt and grass stains I just gave into it, let her get happy and dirty, and packed plenty of changes of clothes and enough water to end each day with a warm bath.
Most pre-school and primary school-aged kids are easily coaxed into becoming great little campsite helpers and the more you involve them in camp tasks – choosing a site, pitching the tent, collecting firewood and getting the campfire going – the more they will get into the experience and lighten your workload, too.
It’s important to remember that all kids are different, so while you will definitely want to limit your luggage, remember to pack a little of whatever it is that makes your kid happy: books, DVDs and music, sports gear, a favourite outdoor toy and must-have comfort items (especially those related to sleep).
- Bushwalking burns energy and is an easy way to entertain kids of all ages. Choose a nature trail that identifies points of interest along the way or one that leads to a waterhole or scenic viewpoint. Pack a picnic breakfast and hit the trail early, or set out with some snacks and a new book that you can read to them while you relax in the forest.
- Set out on a campsite hunt for natural treasures: appealing leaves, stones, strips of bark, flowers, snake skins and feathers which can be turned into something creative.
- After dinner and too many toasted marshmallows, grab a few torches and take the kids for a moonlit walk, spotlighting for frogs, possums and other nocturnal critters. Learn a few of the most prominent star constellations and have children lie back on the ground and star gaze!
- If you are camping by the beach, explore the tidal rock pools at low tide to check out all the creatures left behind by the sea.
- Arm older kids with inexpensive digital cameras to record their take on the family adventure. You might just be amazed at the moments they manage to capture forever.
Caravans and campers accommodate children with the greatest of ease, but if you are tackling a remote, offroad destination in tents, your older kids might be keen on the idea of sleeping in their own tent, pitched close by. This not only grants you some privacy but also allows your kids to chatter away in their own little world. A separate tent works especially well if you’ve got two or more kids because an older sibling helps the younger kids feel more secure.
When it comes to bedding down on travels in colder climates, I find kid-sized sleeping bags easier and far more compact to pack than doonas, and they limit the amount of space a small body has to warm up.