Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park

Last weekend we did something rare for our family - we went camping outside the mountain parks!  Instead of heading west from Calgary ,we traveled to Dinosaur Provincial Park located near the town of Brooks in Southern Alberta. 

Dinosaur Provincial Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site  because of the high concentration of dinosaur fossils found from 35 different species.  The park is located in the heart of Alberta's Badlands along with the town of  Drumheller, home to the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum.

If you're planning a trip to Alberta and you have dinosaur fans in your family, you'll definitely want to take a driving tour on the Dinosaur Trail starting with the museum and canyons of Drumheller.

Dinosaur Provincial Park (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

 We didn't visit Drumheller this time but headed straight south to Dinosaur for two nights of fabulous camping.  I'm going to go as far as to actually say that Dinosaur Provincial Park just might be the best family campground in Alberta.  Bold statement I know.  Here's why I think it's so wonderful though:

Highlights of Camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park 

Playing in the creek

It is a fantastic place for kids to play and ours spent hours down there digging in the sand, playing in mud puddles, and wading in the shallow creek. 

Getting in the creek involves getting muddy so make sure you bring lots of spare clothing for the kids. 

There were signs further down warning against actual swimming in the creek but I think playing along the edge of it or jumping in the mud would be fine. 

Our sites above our little beach

Squishy mud!


Dinosaur Themed playground

When the kids get tired of playing in the mud (or you run out of clothes for them after they've fallen in for the umpteenth time) you can head over to the nearby playground.  It was located across the creek from our campsites with access via a bridge.  It had a lot of fun features including a mini dinosaur climbing wall and slide.

Climbing the dinosaur

Awesome family hiking

We did two hikes while we were there on the Coulee Viewpoint Trail and the Badlands Trail.  They were very interesting trails and allowed us to get up close to hoodoos and other fascinating scenery typical of the Badlands. 

Each of the hikes was under 2km and I'm happy to report that we saw no snakes.  Before starting out on any hiking trail in the park it's a good idea to read the literature provided when you check in so that you can teach your kids safe hiking practices for a place that has rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, and scorpions. 

Small kids will also need close parental supervision on the Coulee Trail due to some very steep drop-offs.  My son near gave us a heart attack when he went running towards the edge of one such drop-off.  A good rule of thumb should always be that you are within an arm's reach of small kids when hiking in unfamiliar terrain. 

The Badlands Trail had no drop-offs and might make for a safer option if you are at all concerned.  It was also a lot easier with less height gain, no stairs, and no scrambling along the top of the coulee.  The only thing to watch out for on the Badlands Trail is the Cacti found everywhere off the main trail.

Hoodoos on the Badlands Trail
Scenery in the Badlands
Stairs on the Coulee Trail

Running towards a huge drop-off on the Coulee Trail (eek)

Additional family activities

While we didn't join any group tours or even look through the visitor centre, there were plenty of other activities for families with school aged children wanting to add an educational component to the trip. 

Check the website when you make your reservation if you want to sign up for a guided hike in the Nature Reserve, a bus tour, or a family program.  There was also an amphitheater located close to our campsites which I imagine would be used in the summer season for nightly programs.  Programming was at a minimum since we visited the park outside of tourist season.

Though we didn't go on an official dinosaur bone dig, we did hide a bunch of plastic dinosaurs in the bank below our campsites.  It took the kids over an hour to dig them all out - and I still think we left one or two.  

They felt like brave explorers digging for buried treasure. 

Digging for treasure
My favourite activity was trying to teach my son to jump in the creek.  Blowing bubbles was another weekend favourite and should you forget bubble mix, the store on site sells lots of it.  They also sell tons of dinosaur themed toys including the plastic ones we hid for the kids.



More information

To make a booking for Dinosaur Provincial Park, visit the Reserve Alberta Parks website.  Online bookings are permitted 90 days in advance of your day of travel. 

There is also a group campground in the park that you can book through the website.  Group campsites can be booked in advance outside the 90 day window so book early if you want one. 

The park also introduces comfort camping this season in luxurious camping cabins located along the Red Deer River. 

View above the visitor centre (Photo:  Cam Schaus)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spring adventures in Jasper

We took our annual May long weekend trip to Jasper  in the Northern Rocky Mountains and rather than stay at an expensive hotel, we chose to check out the Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel.  What an awesome surprise it was!

Arriving at the hostel Friday night

The hostel has shared sleeping cabins and one private cabin that is divided like a duplex into two bedrooms.  Each of the private rooms has a double bed and bunk beds to sleep six people.  We stayed in the private cabin which was warm, clean, and had linen provided.  If we had stayed at any of the other commercial cabins or bungalows in Jasper we would have been paying upwards of $200/night.  Hostelling International by comparison only charges $60/night for a private room.  The down side of choosing a hostel instead of a commercial hotel? - hmnnn, can't think of one really.  In addition to the sleeping cabins, there was a large communal cabin with a kitchen big enough for multiple groups.  We only had breakfast there each morning but it was cozy with a fireplace and living room area perfect for sharing a cup of coffee with fellow travelers.  In the evenings, our son played outside so we didn't really interact with the other guests much at all but they were very pleasant from the brief conversations we had.

The communal cabin at the Athabasca Hostel

We love camping and each time we stay at a hostel, we tell our son that we are sleeping in a camping house.  Indeed, the Athabasca Falls Hostel was very much like a camping experience.  The water was pumped from a well and brought in for filtering.  There was no indoor plumbing and bathrooms were located outside in the form of wooden outhouses.  There was however electricity and heat which made for a nice glamping experience.  In the evenings after our son had gone to bed we sat outside our cabin on the porch and played cards, shared a bottle of wine and enjoyed the fresh mountain air.  That was the part that felt most like camping and that I think I most enjoyed of the whole experience.  If you'd like to actually enjoy the communal cabin and sit around the fireplace in the evening, I'd recommend bringing baby monitors with you so that you can keep an ear on your sleeping tykes.  We hadn't thought of this so we stayed within close proximity to our cabin.

Our half of the private cabin

While you're in Jasper, you'll want to do some exploring and we've spent enough time there to have our favourite hiking trails, places to visit and restaurants that we wouldn't skip visiting.  Here are some of our favourite things to do with kids near the town of Jasper:

Hot Spring Soaking

Miette Hotsprings is the hottest hotsprings in the Canadian Rockies and in our opinion is the best of the commercial pools hands down over Banff and Radium.  We didn't visit this time because it takes approximately 45 minutes to reach the hotsprings which are located 60km east of town. 


The Centennial Park Playground might just be the best playground in Alberta.  It's centrally located in the town of Jasper with giant slides, many opportunities for climbing, a sand box, a bouldering area, and a unique area featuring slides and a tunnel built into a hillside.  There are picnic tables and bathrooms on site so you can bring your lunch and have a picnic.

View of the playground with sand box to the left
How awesome is this place?


The largest lake and possibly most scenic near Jasper is Maligne Lake but it takes about an hour to drive there from the town so we skipped the trip this year. We took our son out there last year and he had a great time hiking the shoreline trail as well as throwing rocks in the lake. For something closer to town this year, we chose Patricia and Pyramid Lake.  Both lakes have easy access to the shore - perfect for throwing rocks and there are canoe rentals nearby.  Pyramid Lake also has an island that we enjoy with a large bridge leading to it.  We got to watch a loon swim under the bridge on this visit and that was one of the coolest things I've seen in the mountains.

Orchids near Patricia Lake

Patricia Lake

Pyramid Lake


Our favourite hike is the Old Fort Point trail.  We don't do the full loop but just take the stairs and steep hill straight up to the viewpoint.  It's the best view you'll find looking down over the town and surrounding lakes without having to fork out the $31 per adult to take the sky tram up Whistler's Mountain.  The trail up is steep with 130m of height gain but the good news is that since it goes straight up, you'll be on top in half an hour.  Smaller children might find it too tiring to hike on their own but most kids 5 and up would have no problems.  Read my last story:  The PiggyBack Rider saves the day, to see how we got our three year old up the trail. 

Noah and I on top of the Old Fort Point Trail

Daddy and Noah hiking down the trail using the PiggyBack Rider

The other hike we enjoy is Maligne Canyon.  Lots of bridges, waterfalls, rock slabs to climb on, and the loop around the first four bridges is under 2km.  I don't know any child who wouldn't find it an interesting place to explore.  Parks Canada has done a good job as well of ensuring your children won't fall into the canyon.  Fencing is plentiful!

One of the bridges over Maligne Canyon


A visit to Jasper isn't complete without a visit to Athabasca  Falls, conveniently located across the road from the Hostel.  These falls are magnificent and it's a short walk to the different viewing areas - perfect for small legs.  Again, Parks Canada has done a great job at protecting children from falling in as long as you don't let them climb up on the railings.


Our favourite place to eat  is the Jasper Brewing Company.  What parent doesn't like a family friendly brewery?  They make all their own beer on site and the facility is divided into a restaurant and bar.  Kids of course are welcome in the restaurant only.  We go here every time we visit Jasper.  The service is fabulous and this time our waiter went above and beyond in an effort to find me something I'd like as I usually prefer wine to beer. 

If you want something above pub food, the L&W Restaurant is a family favourite.  Arrive early in summer because every family seems to know of the place.  Though it is a Greek restaurant, their pizza and pasta are to die for.  I highly recommend the baked lasagna.  Many a backpacking trip has ended here purely for the lasagna.

I want to thank Hostelling International, Canada for the complimentary stay at the Athabasca Falls Hostel while we were in Jasper.  Hosteling International has been very supportive of our family's adventures and I can honestly recommend stays at any of their facilities with your family.

Other great hostels to check out with your family:

  • Mosquito Creek, Banff National Park (private cabin with two bedrooms)
  • Kananaskis, Located at Ribbon Creek (three private rooms)
  • Hilda Creek, Banff National Park (you'll have to book the whole hostel but it only sleeps 6 so that's not hard to do)
  • Shunda Creek, Nordegg (private room)


What would you recommend families visit or do while in Jasper?

Have you had a great hostelling experience with your family?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Backcountry adventures

This is the final story in my Family Camping Made Easy Series and I thought I'd tackle something a little different - backcountry camping.  It seemed intimidating when we set off on our first family backcountry trip when our son was just one year old, but we quickly discovered that it was a lot of fun. 

It doesn't have to be a crazy epic adventure and there are ways for the most novice of families to get out into the wild with very little gear necessary.  I'm going to outline the various styles of backcountry camping below with some practical suggestions for those traveling with small children.  I'll also list our favourite places in the Canadian Rockies to get into the wild with your kids. 

Backcountry Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

Backpacking Trips

Backpacking Trips are hard with children under three because you need to carry the child and your gear.  If you have only one small child and a very strong partner, you can do it with one person carrying the child and one person carrying everything else.  We haven't attempted this as it just seems difficult.  If you have a baby that fits in a front carrier you could technically carry your child and a backpack at the same time.  Again, we didn't try this.  We chose backcountry trips we could do with a Chariot when our son was too young to hike in by himself.  (see the section below on biking and Chariot trips)

This year marks the first year that we will be able to do a normal backpacking trip with all three of us walking.  The key is to choose a destination that is within your child's walking ability.  We've chosen a campground for this summer's backpacking adventure that is a 3km hike.  With our son walking, it will allow both my husband and I to carry a backpack. 

Local suggestions:

Our Campsite at Laughing Falls (and nobody fell in the river, yay)
Backpacking with friends in the Yoho Valley

Walk-in Tent Campgrounds

For families a little less ambitious, there are many walk-in campgrounds where you only have to walk 500 metres to reach the campground.  You can make multiple trips to haul in your gear and some places even provide wagons.  Lake O'Hara is accessed by a bus that drops you right at the campground with your bags.  This is family camping for those wanting more solitude than your average campground provides.  You won't be listening to car stereos or partiers all night long at walk-in sites.

Local Suggestions:
  • Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park (bus and campground reservations must be made three months in advance and don't delay on that booking or you won't get a spot!)

  • Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park (wagons provided for the short hike in.  Have a back-up plan in mind if trying to get a spot here on a weekend because it's first come first serve camping)

  • Mount Sarrail, Kananaskis (walk-in tenting in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, no reservations required)
Takakkaw Falls
Lake O'Hara

Canoe trips

This is a super easy way to get into the backcountry without having to carry anything.  If you are at all worried about your paddling abilities, choose a calm lake and paddle close to shore.  It's strongly suggested if you have small children that you get out at least a couple times before the big trip so the concept of sitting still in a canoe isn't a foreign concept.  You don't want Junior to try and jump overboard in the middle of a lake or fast moving river.  Going with another family is a good idea for novice paddlers as well.  There's always strength in numbers.

Riverside camping doesn't get better than this!

Something we are thinking about doing this summer is a canoe/hike combo trip. If you go with another family, you can have two adults canoe in with all the gear while the other adults hike in with the kids.  Switch it up on the way out so everybody has a chance to hike and canoe.  We like this idea because then we'll have a canoe at camp for the rest day and we can take short trips out on the lake with the kids who might not have a long attention span for riding in the boat.

Local Suggestions:

  • The Point Campground, Kananaskis (you can either hike or paddle to your campground and since it's on a point, it's pretty easy to find your campground.  It's also a short paddle and easy for beginners.)

  • Jewel Bay Campground, Kananskis (another paddle or hike destination with a short paddle across Barrier Dam)

  • Lake Minnewanka, LM 8 Campground, Banff (Hike, bike, or paddle to this campground, 8km from the trailhead)
Life jackets for everybody and mini-lawn chairs to keep the kids in place (Photo:  M. Mcdonald)

Edits for 2017:

We've done a lot of overnight paddling trips since I originally wrote this story. Check out the stories below for more suggestions on where to camp overnight with kids by boat.

How to fit 7 people in a Canoe - Backcountry Adventures in Kananaskis 

The Annual Family Backcountry Trip - Worth Fighting For

Easy Overnight Paddling Trips for the Whole Family 

Paddling and Camping on the Columbia River with Kids   

Paddling the Alberta Badlands 

Easy paddling on the Red Deer River


Don't have a tent, sleeping bags, a backcountry stove or anything for camping but still want to feel like you're camping?  This is the option for you!  We started hostelling with our son when he was one because it gave us a dry roof over our heads, a cozy place to stay, and yet felt like we were close to nature. 

Hostelling International has wilderness hostels spread out all over the Rockies and many of them are very family friendly.  I've written stories on many of our stays so far. You don't need anything when you go to a hostel other than your personal items and food.  The kitchens are fully stocked and linen is provided for the beds.  The parking lot is also conveniently located within 500 metres of all wilderness hostels.

HI Hilda Creek Hostel

Family Friendly Wilderness Hostels:

  • Mosquito Creek, Banff National Park (private cabin with two bedrooms)

  • Kananaskis, Located at Ribbon Creek (four private rooms)

  • Hilda Creek, Banff National Park (you'll have to book the whole hostel but it only sleeps 6 so that's not hard to do. Bring your own bedding or sleeping bags)

  • Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park (there are two private rooms for families)

 And here are a couple of stories to read:

Autumn Camping at Mosquito Creek, HI Mosquito Creek Hostel 

Moving on to Big Adventures - and the kids get to come! (HI Hilda Creek Hostel)

HI Mosquito Creek

Backcountry cabins

Another easy solution for families with limited backcountry knowledge - the Alpine Club of Canada has backcountry huts and cabins scattered all over the Rockies and several of them are family-friendly.  You'll need a sleeping bag but other than that, the kitchens are stocked and sleeping mattresses are provided. 

The Elizabeth Parker Hut at Lake O'Hara is even accessed by a bus that takes you within half a kilometre of the hut.  The crux of the whole trip is usually getting a spot in the popular huts for summer.  Members of the Alpine Club that have paid for an upgraded membership can make bookings up to a year in advance.  Otherwise, they can book 60 days in advance.  Non members can only book 30 days in advance -  hence why it's hard to get a reservation.   If you want to stay at Lake O'Hara you actually have to enter a lottery to earn the privilege of booking a spot.  It's that popular in summer!  You can still stay there without an advance booking but you'll likely have to stay mid-week or in the off-season (June or September).

The Elizabeth Parker Hut, Lake O'Hara

Note that in ACC huts there are no private bedrooms so you'll have to share a common room with other hut users.  We've often found this challenging and my husband swears he isn't doing it again each time we go.  Consider going to a smaller hut and renting the whole facility.  The Elk Lakes Cabin is a good choice for this.

The best huts for families:
  • The Elizabeth Parker Hut, Yoho National Park (500 metres from where the bus drops you off at Lake O'Hara)

  • The Wheeler Hut, Glacier National Park (One of the only huts that you can drive up to in summer)

  • Stanley Mitchell Hut, Yoho National Park (10km hike on a good trail from Takakkaw Falls)

  • Elk Lakes Cabin, Elk Lakes Provincial Park (You can either drive to the cabin in summer, a very very long drive, or you can hike in from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis.  It's a 9km hike on a good trail that's chariot friendly)
Elk Lakes Cabin, BC
Edits for 2017:

Below are a few stories on our recent summer trips into ACC cabins:

 Backcountry Cabin Camping with Kids - Elk Lakes Cabin, BC  

Summer Backpacking Trip to the Asulkan Cabin, Rogers Pass  

Backpacking in the Bugaboos (and our first family glacier traverse) - Conrad Kain Hut 

Summer at the Asulkan Cabin, Rogers Pass


Backpacking with a bike or Chariot

This has got to be one of our favourite ways to access the backcountry.  We've taken two backpacking trips now with the Chariot and what a fabulous way of transporting a child and gear!  Many trails are bike and Chariot friendly which allows you to carry gear instead of tired toddlers.  You can also strap gear to both the bike or Chariot. 

We took the Chariot into Laughing Falls last summer in Yoho National Park and while I can't exactly promote it as a stroller-friendly trail, we managed.  We did however, have to repair the broken Chariot before heading out with a tent peg so probably best leave the Chariot at home.  Always check park guidelines before bringing your bike on a trail.  Some trails are designated as multi-use trails whereas others strictly prohibit the use of bikes.  Chariots and strollers usually fall outside any rules and regulations - yay for us!

Loading the Chariots for the trip to Laughing Falls

Local Bike and Chariot friendly Trails:
  • Elbow Lake, Kananaskis (1.3 km from Elbow Pass day use area)

  • Mt. Romulus or Big Elbow Campground, Kananaskis (These campgrounds are on the 43km Elbow Loop that starts from the Little Elbow day use area.  I wouldn't do the full loop pulling kids or pushing a Chariot but you could do an overnight trip into either of these campgrounds.  Romulus is 12km in and Big Elbow is 8km in. )

  • Mt. Rundle Campground, Sp6, Banff (6km from the Bow Falls Trailhead on the Spray River Loop)

  • Cascade Bridge, Cr6, Banff (6km from the trailhead at Lake Minnewanka on the Cascade Fire road)
Creek crossing on the Big Elbow Trail

I didn't go into a lot of detail on specific campgrounds so if you are planning a backcountry trip and need detailed trail information, please send me a message.  I'd love to help you plan out your family vacation. 

If you are just joining us in the series on Family Camping Made Easy, you can click on the links below to see the other topics already covered:  Warm sleepers are happy sleepers, Baby adventuresPreschool adventuresBathing in the woods,  and Siestas for the junior camper.

Have a favourite backcountry destinations?  I'd love to hear about it.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Siestas for the junior camper

If you are just joining us in the series on Family Camping Made Easy, you can click on the links below to see the other topics already covered:  Warm sleepers are happy sleepers, Baby adventuresPreschool adventures, and Bathing in the woods.

Today I want to discuss another topic related to babies, toddlers, and preschoolers - the mid day siesta.
How do you work around your child's daily routine if he or she still desperately needs a nap?  Do you just abandon the idea of napping while camping and give the kid a grace day?  What if your child goes crazy without a nap and is unbearable to be around?

My son was relatively easy to deal with when it came to napping.  When he was young, he'd nap anywhere and everywhere.  We could go sit in a park and he would nap curled up between my legs.  As he got older, he'd nap in the car, in the child carrier or in the Chariot. 

The key was to go for a walk or a drive and there was his nap.  We took a vacation to Hawaii and never once returned to the condo in 10 days for a mid-day nap.  My son would just nap en route to the next beach or destination.  He was extremely easy to travel with.  Even today, Noah doesn't nap in his bed.  He will play, scream, cry, or quietly read until you finally open the bedroom door.  However, he will fall asleep on a 5 minute drive to the grocery store - something that brings its own problems!

This child could sleep anywhere!

If your child is like mine, napping isn't an issue for you.  Go for a walk, take a drive to a nearby lake, go for ice-cream or hunt down a local coffee shop and your child will be in lullaby land.  Note, that it's a good idea to bring books along in the car to read while you wait for Sleeping Beauty to wake up.

Passed out on one of our hikes

If you child has to be in his own bed to nap however, camping and traveling are going to be a little trickier for you.  Below are a few suggestions for the child that must physically lie down to sleep:

One - If your tent isn't too hot or you have a trailer, just put your child down for their nap as you would at home.  Give them a few books to read while they fall asleep or let them watch one of their favourite shows on a portable DVD player.  You can also try napping with them (what parent doesn't wish they could take more naps?).  If you plan to have your child nap in your tent, choose a shady spot so that your tent won't catch that full mid-day sun.

Two - Invest in a PeaPod by Kidco.  This small portable tent folds up in a small bag so you can easily take it with you to the lake, allowing your youngest child to nap while older children play.  Everybody in the family will appreciate this instead of being stuck at the campsite while your baby sleeps.  You can buy PeaPods in different sizes so that even toddlers can use them.  Don't have a PeaPod? - use a Pack&Play.  Refer to my story, Baby Adventures for more information on the PeaPod and Pack&Play while camping.

Napping in a PeaPod (Photo:  G. Duncan)

If napping isn't going to work because your child has to be in his or her own bed try to at least give them some quiet time.  Last summer when we'd start to suspect our son was about to lose it, we'd put him in the tent with a video for half an hour.  Bonus - sometimes they will actually fall asleep.  If not, at least they rested and had some down time.  The other thing that worked well for us was reading books.  For more suggestions on the topic of down time, read  one of my earlier stories in this Camping Series, Preschool Adventures.  

In a pinch, naps can happen anywhere.  How creative are you?  That's the question.

They're in the shade and looking pretty comfortable to me.

For more reading on napping, check out Lindsey's story, The Dreaded Nap:  how to have an outside life and a well-rested child.  Her advice pretty much follows mine with suggestions such as drive while drowsy (the child - not you), nap around, and practice sleep walking (you walk, your child sleeps).

Erica with Crag Mama also has a great story on napping, Creating a Cragbaby - Sleepy time solutions, that reminds us to know when to call it a day (especially important on day hikes or days at the crag climbing).  I especially like the photo of Crag Daddy in the story showing us how important it is for parents to take naps too.  :)


Other suggestions from the community:

Mine have always just napped on mom or dad's back (though my 3 yr old doesn't nap anymore). Actually, that's both my at-home and in-wilderness strategy. My 1 year old gets 80% of her naps in the wrap as we're wandering around outside (and the other 20% in the bike trailer). So camping isn't really a change in that regard. (Erin)

Bring a baby monitor so you can monitor them while you are out reading or knitting. (Lia)

For downtime, we like to journal. Even before they could write actual words, we would purposefully scribble, color etc in our write in the rain books. Also, naps are so important--so don't push toddlers too far without one. You'll be sorry. (Jennifer)

I'm was always up for lying down beside them to "keep them company"  (Jen)


What's the most creative napping solution you've found in the outdoors?  How important are naps in your family?


Next in the series on Family Camping Made Easy:  Backcountry Adventures

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Bathing in the woods

If you are just joining us in the series on Family Camping Made Easy, you can click on the links below to see the other topics already covered:  Warm sleepers are happy sleepers, Baby adventures, and Preschool adventures.  Otherwise, moving right along - on to bathing, hygiene, and getting the sand out of your child's hair.

Honestly, until we had a child, the issue of getting clean after a day of camping was the furthest thing from my mind.  We'd go hiking and get all sweaty, dirty, and dusty - didn't matter.  It was nothing a wet-wipe couldn't fix.  I've been known to wipe my face, legs and arms down with wet-wipes in the car before going into restaurants post hiking and it always made me clean enough that at least people didn't stare or move their table further away.  I know that most modern campgrounds have showers but every time I walk in to a public shower I recoil in horror at the hair on the floor (that isn't mine), the dirt everywhere, and the general filth.  Better to just stay dusty until I get back to the city and can use my own dirty shower (at least it's my own hair filling the drain).

Having a child changes things though.  Last summer we took a two week vacation down to Washington and camped most of the time.  Part of the time was spent camping on the Olympic Peninsula where there are gorgeous beaches to be explored.  There's also sand to be played with, eaten, rubbed all over your nose that just happens to be covered in snot, rubbed on your face that's still sticky from lunch - you get the picture.  In case you need a visual, look at the photo below.

Why we had to figure out a bathing system

We hadn't really thought much about bathing and hygiene until this moment.  Wet-wipes weren't going to cut it and we didn't have a bath tub with us.  The campground didn't even have showers (at least not that we discovered).  Enter our washing basin for dishes to save the day.

We're going to need a larger dish basin this summer

This summer I think we're going to have to find something a little bigger.  I love the large basin our friends used last summer when they were camping at a beach for a week.

Isn't this precious! (Photo:  G. Duncan)

I think I honestly wrote this whole post just because I wanted to get this photo above on my blog.  The first time I saw it I laughed my head off for probably ten minutes.  These are the kinds of memories you are going to build if you take your kids camping.  This is why you don't wait until they're older and it's "easier."

As in all the other parts of this series, I've done my research so that I can present suggestions and ideas from the larger outdoor world.

Lindsey from Outside wrote a fabulous story called Camping and the Art of Cleanliness on her blog that you need to check out.  She even has a link to a collapsible bucket.  It looks a little small to me but I understand you can custom order the size.

Do you have any other suggestions for putting clean kids to bed when camping?

Next in this Family Camping series:  Napping and quiet time when camping with small children

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Preschool Adventures

Continuing with my series on Family Camping Made easy, I now bring you - camping with toddlers and preschoolers.
To read the first two stories in the series, click on the following links for Warm sleepers are happy sleepers and Baby Adventures.

We are in full on preschooler mode right now with a three year old who loves the outdoors.  Most of the suggestions below come from our own adventures camping with our son.  Friends have also been generous with additional advice that I'll share.  If you have older children, many of the following suggestions will be practical for you as well. 

The best toys to bring camping


Sand toys

Bring a sand pail, shovel, and toy cars/dump trucks/diggers, etc.  - no more toys needed.  Seriously, toddlers can play with these toys in the sand, dirt, water, mud, rocks, with leaves, pine needles, or wood chips.  It's the simplest solution for entertainment when camping.  We went on a two week camping trip last summer with nothing else other than a pail, shovel and toy truck.  We also brought a few books and the portable DVD player for down time but that was it.  Never did we wish we had brought more toys.

This dump truck was my son's favourite camping toy last summer

A balance bike, tricycle, scooter or other ride-on toy for touring around the campground

Most children 3+ will enjoy being able to explore the campground with their friends and family on some kind of bike or ride-on object.  We just got our son a Strider bike and are very excited to watch him learn to ride it this summer. 

My son's orange Strider bike

Sporting equipment

  • Plastic golf clubs (with larger balls for toddlers)
  • Soccer balls
  • Beach balls
  • Little balls, big balls - any kind of ball!
  • Hockey sticks with balls
  • T-ball set
  • Frisbees

Those are just some suggestions.  Go down to your local toy store or department store and look around - there's tons of fun stuff for kids.

Many campgrounds have mini-golf courses

Other toys that encourage creative outdoor play

We have a set of foam bath letters and numbers that we like to use for scavenger hunts.  Check out the story I wrote on our ABC Scavenger Hunt.  Another idea I got while surfing Pinterest one day was to take animal figurines outside.  Every family usually has a collection of plastic animals so why not take them outside to climb trees, logs, and play in the sand. 

Some other items you can bring to help your kids explore nature and have fun outside:

  • A butterfly net
  • A bug collector jar or case
  • A magnifying glass
  • Binoculars
  • Scavenger hunt maps
  • Bags for collecting treasures
  • Child-friendly cameras
  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Bubbles
  • Glow sticks for night time explorations

Butterfly nets are also good for collecting rocks

Craft supplies

We aren't a very crafty family so I can't offer many suggestions here but the simplest idea I see pop up on blogs all the time is to take the kids out on a nature hike with a bag for collecting interesting items they find.  When you return to camp, have the kids glue their items on a piece of construction or poster paper.  When they go home, they will have a souvenir from this camping trip. 

Everything is interesting to a toddler - even old leaves


Preschoolers and school aged children will love playing card games and board games while camping.  Bring a favourite game along or make it a family tradition to buy a new game each summer for the season's camping trips.

This game of snakes and ladders was very popular on a recent backcountry trip

Water Fun

  • Water guns
  • An inflatable wading pool for campgrounds that don't have a lake to swim in (also works for bathing small children)

Water fun at camp (Photo: G.Duncan)

Entertaining the troops

For many people, camping is all about sitting around the campfire with a beer in hand, reading a book maybe, or playing endless games of scrabble and crib.  Once you have kids though, the days of relaxing in your camp site are over.  Your kids want to be kept active.  They want to move.  Below are the best ways I can suggest to entertain the troops while camping, from the toddler to the teenager.

  • Fishing
  • Canoeing
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Climbing
  • Playing at a lake
  • Playing at a playground
  • Playing with friends (simple games of tag or hide and seek work well)

Family hike


 Other useful items to bring

  • A hammock

  • Child sized lawn chairs (my son used his to eat off the picnic table benches) - alternately, see photo below for how to use a booster seat when camping.

  • A portable potty for night time use or for kids who are afraid to use an outhouse
Lotsa fun in a hammock
Perfectly sized lawn chair to eat off the picnic bench
Very creative idea for camp dining (Photo: G. Duncan)

Down time

We always bring lots of books with us when we go camping.  We choose books our son can read by himself that have sound panels or some other interesting feature so that he can read in the tent before bed by himself or occupy himself quietly while we are busy with camp chores. 

We also bring our portable DVD player with us in case our son wakes up at some ungodly hour or needs to unwind before bed in the tent.  Last summer we'd put him in the tent watching his favourite shows for half an hour and we'd sit outside to read.  We'd check in on him and every time - fast asleep, his show still playing.  We even bring the player backpacking with us.  It isn't really all that heavy and it's indispensable for early mornings. (Editor's Note: jump ahead to 2017 and most people would bring a tablet or iPad of some kind instead!)

For other down time ideas, consider sticker books, colouring books, play set books (we have a Thomas the Tank Engine play set that comes with a fold-out map and little trains to play with), or crafts.

Down time with Daddy

The best secret

Go with friends!  A child who has a friend to play with will be content to run around with their friend all day long (especially if they are old enough to go to the playground or ride their bikes around on their own).  Meanwhile you can hang out at the campfire with the other adults and enjoy some quiet time.  If the kids aren't old enough to play on their own, parents can take turns doing playground duty, accompanying the kids on bike rides, and supervising scavenger hunts.

Another thing that we discovered on a backcountry trip is that pre-teens and teenagers make excellent buddies at camp! They might not be formally babysitting your younger children but they can certainly take a gang of tots to the playground or organize a game of tag.  Most toddlers love older children and will want to follow them around all day.

Everything's better with friends

Pairing tots and teens
Tag around the campfire

Do you have any other suggestions for camping with toddlers and preschoolers?  

Next in this series on Family Camping Made Easy:  camp hygiene and bathing.