|Camping - when it's all worth it|
Exhaustion and stress aside from traveling so much, there is not a single member of my family who would prefer to spend the whole weekend in the city. We are the classic "weekend warrior" family, fleeing the city at the first chance we get Friday afternoon. We bought a trailer to make camping easier (MUCH easier,) and we've managed to spend over 150 nights camping as a family over the past five years. Through it all, we've learned a few things about how to make it easier and more enjoyable.
|"Hammock City" on a recent camping trip in Banff|
Ten Tips for Stress-Free Family Camping
One - Spend More Time at Camp
Friday is often a write-off where we arrive at camp in time to unpack and go to bed. Camping is much more enjoyable though if you take the afternoon off work Friday and arrive at camp early enough to make an easy dinner over the fire, unpack in time to go for an evening bike ride or hike, and actually enjoy the site you've paid for.
Plan to spend a minimum of two nights at your campsite. You'll pack the same amount of stuff for one, two, or three nights anyway (with just a little more food) so why go through all the work of getting out to camp and setting up for one night only? It's a LOT of work to go camping for a short one-night outing. Make it more enjoyable by staying long enough to actually have fun.
|Now that you're here, stay long enough to enjoy your campsite|
Along with actually enjoying the site your paid for on Friday, consider paying for an extra night on Sunday so that you can spend the whole day at camp and check out after having an early dinner. We did this last weekend and it was glorious! It was 25+ degrees outside and we had no desire to pack up and head home. Instead, we spent the day biking and hanging out at a beach, had a late afternoon dinner at camp (hot dogs over the fire,) packed up, and then headed home in time to get ready for school and work the next day. It was the most relaxing Sunday we've ever spent at camp and we thoroughly enjoyed packing up late afternoon rather than rushing around in the morning to do it.
If you choose to check out Sunday morning you'll be forced to check out mid-morning (slightly later if camping in an Alberta provincial park,) and then just have to drive home. Some families manage to still find activities to enjoy Sunday after packing up but we find everything to be so buried in the trailer/truck, it's just a pain to do anything after packing. Families with trailers will also find it challenging to find somewhere to park the trailer after leaving camp.
|You could spend Sunday morning packing..... or you can go play and leave Sunday night|
Finally, instead of taking a giant two-week vacation, consider turning your summer into a series of long weekend camping trips. It'll be easier to convince your boss at work to let you spread your vacation time out over the whole summer and you won't be playing catch up after two weeks out of office. You'll also get to go camping a whole lot more if you plan several three or four-night trips rather than one big trip.
|Plan several long weekend trips instead of one long vacation|
Two - Camp Close to Home
Choose campgrounds that are less than two hours away for short weekend trips. Driving for 8 hours for a two-night trip is just crazy. You'll spend as much time driving as you will camping. Short drives make for relaxing camping weekends. The kids are happier, the driver is smoother, and you'll arrive at camp much earlier Friday night. You'll also be able to stay around later on Sunday. Last weekend we didn't leave Banff until 5pm Sunday. We were still home in Calgary by 7:00 (after dropping off our trailer, washing the truck, and getting groceries for the week ahead.)
For suggestions close to Calgary check out this story, Our 5 Favourite Campgrounds (within a 3 hour drive of Calgary.)
|Our Campsite in Bow Valley Provincial Park, less than an hour from my house|
Three - Always Have a Reservation
I know! You want to be spontaneous, you don't like planning, you don't want to be locked in if you decide you don't like the campground you booked, it's not fair that you should have to make a reservation 3 months in advance, you want to see what the weather is doing before you commit to camping, your work schedule doesn't allow for long range planning, organization isn't your "thing," you're outraged that people make reservations and then fail to show up, you don't know where you'll end up each night on our road trip...
|It is possible to plan a road trip - with campsite reservations!|
Whether planning in advance is your "style" or not, you only have a few options if you want to drive out and actually GET an official campsite that's not "off the grid" in the wilderness. If you like "freedom camping" where you just drive out onto crown land looking for a spot to camp, by all means, enjoy spontaneous camping all you want. If however, you want an official campsite in a campground that has bathrooms and at least a few amenities, here are your options:
- Make a reservation and know that you'll drive straight to your site without spending hours looping around trying to find a campground with room for your family
- Go to a First come first serve (FCFS) campground mid-week, grab and pay for a site, set up your tent or trailer, and go back home. Come back Friday afternoon. And I know, it's slightly "dishonest" perhaps, but how many new campgrounds have been built in the last ten years near Calgary? (None that I know of!) On the other hand, how much bigger has Calgary grown over the past ten years? See where I'm going? You do what you gotta do to get a site! There just aren't enough sites for everybody who wants one and so you're going to have to get creative if you want to go camping without a reservation.
- Arrive at FCFS campgrounds Friday morning!! (Make sure you are there before people start checking out - if anybody does on a Friday morning) You can also limit FCFS camping to early/late season for better success rates (May/June,September/October)
- Find a more "obscure" campground that is less popular. And when you find your hidden gem, don't tell anybody. ;)
- Check reservation websites a few days before you want to go camping and choose a campground that still has availability. You'll get to make a reservation knowing what the weather will be like and what your short term plans are. On the down side though, long driving may be required and you likely won't get your first pick of campground.
- Look for walk-in tent campsites (often less popular) or backcountry campgrounds that have a short approach. Information on walk-in or backcountry camping within Alberta Provincial Parks can be found on the Alberta Parks website.
Visit the Alberta Parks website for a complete list of Alberta Parks campgrounds with FCFS sites.
|Consider Walk-In Tenting to get Prime Lakeside Sites|
Four - Organization, organization, organization
Aside from buying a trailer (which seriously helps a lot) check out these other suggestions for making camping easier.
- Make a good packing list. You'll only have to make it once and then edit it from time to time when you think of something else you should add. Need inspiration to get started? Check out my Pinterest Camping board and be prepared to spend an hour or two reading some great articles.
- Organize your gear into bins for easy storage and packing. Think "camp kitchen," "recreation and toys," etc. For inspiration, Pinterest has it all! (Camp organization on Pinterest.)
- Make a food packing list with normal items you'd usually take camping. Contact me if you want mine as a template.I go through my list on Thursday, highlight the items I'll need for this upcoming trip, add anything new or different, and make my shopping list.
- Try to do your grocery shopping the day before so that you have one less thing to do the day you're leaving
- Buy perishable items, meat, or last minute items in a town near where you'll camp (also useful if you're camping for more than a few days and are using a cooler)
- Spread your packing and planning out over the week and don't leave it all for Thursday night
- Recruit help while you're packing. Perhaps a grandparent wants to take the kids for an afternoon while you get ready to go
|The hammock is often the single-most important thing we remember to pack|
Five- Go Camping with Friends and Family
Go camping with friends or family members and watch how much simpler camping becomes! Make communal meals where you only have to contribute one item towards a bigger feast, take turns cooking, and buddy up to watch the kids. We love group camping because the kids play and run around together, entertaining themselves for hours, while we adults sit back and chill. We still get out for big bike rides and hikes, but the time at camp is much more relaxing when there is a group of children to play with each other.
Work as a team and have each family pick a couple things that they will do to entertain the troops over the course of the weekend. This could involve taking a group of kids to the playground, taking a few kids on a bike ride or on a short hike, riding around the campground with the children, or leading a craft, sport, or game. Team work also comes in handy when you're packing up Sunday if you assign some adults to packing and others to entertaining the kids.
|Group Camping allows adults to take turns entertaining the troops|
Not every adult needs to be "on duty" at the same time when camping with a group. While the men watch the kids, the women can go for a bike ride or a hike. Switch it up later and send the men off for some free time.
Finally, take family members along to help with simple child care duties from watching or holding babies to pushing strollers around camp, staying back at the campsite while younger children nap, or even just taking the children to the playground while you cook dinner.
|Kids will always have more fun camping with friends|
Six - Cut Down on Meal Stress
There are a lot of great resources out there for making camp cooking easier. Below are my best tips:
- Eat in the car on the way out to camp (we like stopping at Subway on the way out of town) and do dessert or second dinner over the campfire after setting up. (Alternately you find yourself rushing to set up your tent or trailer while starving - and just end up grumpy)
- If arriving at camp in time to cook dinner Friday night, consider bringing a pizza from the store to cook over your bbq. It's not only quick, it's delicious.
- Skip the early breakfast when mornings are cool (and you're still half asleep,) and plan a bigger brunch when it's warm and you're awake. Have a first breakfast of cereal and coffee and hold off on the pancakes and bacon for second breakfast.
- Eat out on the last morning at camp if checking out early. This avoids the mess and clean up from breakfast.
- Team-cook with friends, do communal meals, and plan fun camp feasts.
- Do a bunch of smaller meals or snacks rather than one big meal. I find that we are never hungry around dinner time but are always starving after a hike or bike ride mid-afternoon. Plan two smaller evening meals (mid-afternoon and later in the evening) and skip the massive prep/effort required to do a large dinner.
- Skip cooking dinner and eat out in a local town on shorter trips.
|Camp pizza to perfection|
Seven - Choose one Sport or Activity to Focus on for the Weekend
As tempting as it is to go away for the weekend with the boats, the bikes, hiking boots, climbing gear, etc., try to pick one main activity or sport and focus on that. You won't have time to do everything and it just adds to the amount of time it will take you to pack.
Last weekend we knew the weather was going to be gorgeous in Banff and we were tempted to bring our boats. Thinking about it though, we knew our focus was going to be mountain biking and we didn't want to go to all the effort of bringing out the large kayak, my board, and all of our paddling gear. We chose to focus on one sport and it was a lot easier. When we went to the beach afterwards to cool off, we just played in the water and tried not to think about our boats sitting at home in the garage. There will be time for boats and bikes when we do longer trips this summer.
|Why the heck did we bring boats for a weekend of mountain biking??|
Eight - Plan one Big Activity per Day
Plan a nice bike ride, a fun hike, a trip to a nearby beach, or some other fun outing, and plan your day around that activity. This is especially important if camping with friends when you'll want to come up with a rough departure time the night before for the next day's main activity. (Otherwise, there will always be somebody just walking out of their tent at 10am when you are ready to hit the trails.)
Plan one group or family activity and then aim to spend free time at camp playing. You might end up getting out for a second ride, paddle, hike, etc. but aim to be more flexible and spontaneous with all other plans and focus on the one main objective for the day.
|Plan one big activity each day (not 5 as per my style!!)|
Nine - Encourage Daily Periods of Quiet Time
Kids don't nap when camping or have long since stopped napping? They still need quiet time in the afternoon if they've been playing hard all day. We schedule in a good hour of "down time" every afternoon at camp before dinner. My son looks forward to some quiet time reading and I honestly don't even care if he plays a video game or watches a movie. In my opinion, you can do whatever you like for quiet time if you've just climbed a mountain or gone on a big mountain bike ride.
Make sure you, the adults, use this quiet period for some down time as well. Read a book in the hammock, catch up on work messages if you're expected to check in daily, or just chill with a beer in the shade.
|Down time in the afternoon at camp|
Ten - Allow for "Free Weekends"
I find for myself that I can only go hard for a few weekends in a row and then I need a weekend at home to rest. It doesn't mean we'll stay in the city all weekend, or that we'll really stay "home," but we will at least sleep in our own beds and stick to day trips that require a minimal amount of packing and planning. This allows us some free time to be spontaneous and flexible as well since we always have a huge list of things we want to do each summer.
|You don't need to go camping to plan an awesome day trip|
Got tips now for me? I'd love to hear your suggestions for making camping simpler as a family.