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.
If it’s been a few years between road trips or you are a newcomer to camping holidays, you might well baulk at the thought of leaving behind the comforts and well-oiled routines of home-life. But, in reality, camping holidays with children can be one of the simplest escapes you can make.
The kinds of camping trips you decide to take may depend on the ages of your children and your experience and confidence in packing up and hitting the road. My first camping adventure as a parent began when I became a first-time mum to daughter Maya and tackled a five month-long ‘Big Lap’ as a reporter for Australian Geographic. It was, undoubtedly, a baptism by fire, hitting the road with my photographer partner David in an impossibly modest campervan, with a huge workload ahead of us, and our then four-week-old baby to nurture.
I look back at photos of those early days on the road and now understand why people stopped, stared and told me I was insane. Maya was a complete freshie, but so were we. Uninhibited by experience, we embraced the adventure with gusto and blissful ignorance and, even now, despite the recollections of sleepless nights, endless kilometres and a crazy amount of laundry, I would rate it as one of our most precious trips.
You don’t see a lot of very small babies poking their heads out of caravans and campers but, in all honesty, 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.
The downside to camping with an infant is that, despite your best efforts to pack light, young babies need lots of stuff! A baby bath is essential, as is some kind of portable cot (we used a tea tree bed on a handmade wooden base). Then there is the bedding, the nappies, clothes for all seasons and in a range of sizes if your trip is likely to last more than a few weeks, and a handful of toys that you hope will hold your baby’s interest.
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.
Entertaining an infant can be very easy on the road. 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. By the time Maya was four months old, she loved to touch tree trunks and fern fronds as we walked, and carry around whatever rock, gumnut, flower or seashell she picked up along the way.
Another perk of getting outdoors with really young babies is you can tackle much longer walks while they are light enough to be carried. When Maya was just six weeks old, she spent the better part of a day tucked sleepily in a papoose while we hiked around the Bungle Bungles.
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.
When babies find their feet, caravan life becomes a totally different ball game. Those halcyon days of your baby bouncing in the bassinet while you cooked up a meal or set up the caravan become a distant memory, because now your curious toddler can get close to the campfire or wander off towards a waterhole.
On long trips, toddlers squirm in their seats and sometimes require continuous entertainment. I recall one trip from Cairns, Qld, to Perth, WA, and back, when I clocked up three long months riding in the back seat next to my daughter, whiling away the hours building Lego planes and plasticine people, reading books and car-dancing to the Wiggles.
As the pace of your toddler speeds up, everything else in your day starts to slow down. By the time Maya hit the 10-month mark, our camping adventures factored in a lot more downtime, especially since we were now preparing (and cleaning up after) real meals. The distances covered each day were less ambitious 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.
The amount of equipment our toddler required for camping didn’t really increase but camp safety became a much bigger issue. 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.
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.
On long camping trips that took us to remote spots, far from laundromats, I used disposable nappies for the simple reason that I just didn’t have enough of the cloth nappies that I used at home and had no room in the 4WD for endless buckets of nappies on the soak. On caravan park stays, I’ve met some mums who happily launder their cloth nappies and feel great about it. Please yourself on this one and, if you use disposables, make sure you pack plenty if you are headed off the beaten track.
BIG KID CAMPERS
Beyond babyhood, camping adventures become a lot more interactive for children – until they become teenagers and withdraw from the world altogether! 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.
The camping gear you need definitely depends on the ages of your children, and where and how you are planning to travel. Off road 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. Arm each child with a torch and use solar garden lights or glowsticks to illuminate the path to the toilet.
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. You’ll need camp chairs for each child to pull up around the campfire and, if you have the room, a table so littlies have a place to draw and colour-in. Take as much spare clothing as you can manage, including rain gear, sun-smart beachwear, hats and sunglasses, plus drink bottles for bushwalks, day packs for older children to carry their own gear in, and plenty of sunscreen and insect repellent.
Your choice of destination will also determine whether you pack bodyboards and fishing gear, or hiking boots and stargazing charts. If you have the room, bikes give kids the freedom to explore, and sit-on kayaks or canoes are great for when you reach an outback river gorge or a crocodile-free lagoon.
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).
If you have adventurous friends with kids, coax them into taking a trip with you, which will not only give your kids some pals to play with, but you might just be able to enjoy some rare downtime to relax with a book, take a walk on your own, or go fishing.
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.
Top tips for camping with kids
- 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.