Camping with Kids

Camping with Kids

July 1, 2014

By Kerrie Lindecker

My husband and I are campers. We always have been. We've camped at full-service campgrounds with hot showers and electric plug-ins for our tent trailer, and we've camped in remote places, with no running water or sewer lines.

But four years ago, we had our first child. Then two years later came our second little girl. And while we have kept camping as a key part of our lives, our trips have changed dramatically.

Instead of long games of backgammon with my husband, we chase the kids on their bikes. Instead of cozying in with a good book and a beer in front of the campfire, we're making deliciously messy s’mores with hot chocolate.

It took some time to get used to it, but camping with our kids has given our family some of our most favorite memories and taking unplugged time out has proven to be our best family time together.

During a recent camping trip at the Casini Ranch Family Campground, I was reminded how life-changing the whole experience can be for kids, and for us. Without a television to turn to or walls to keep them safe, the kids used their imaginations and got dirty, while as parents, we encouraged them to run, ride their bikes, eat with their fingers and warm up next to the campfire.

We counted rocks as our oldest daughter filled her rain boots with stones from the river, one by one. We watched as our toddler drew lines in the dirt with her fingers. And we've learned some invaluable lessons along the way. Here are our tips and tricks to an easy, enjoyable camping trip with your kids.

Where to go

Fortunately, Sonoma County has some incredible family campgrounds – and if you're new to the game, or just getting back into the outdoors with your kids, stay close to home.

Cloverdale KOA is a perfect weekend getaway. Nestled on Pine Mountain above Cloverdale, you feel like you're far away, but since you're not, you have the security of knowing that a trip gone terribly wrong can be quickly abandoned. The KOA is ideal for kids because it has countless fun activities to tire the kids out during the day, before a mellow campfire in the evening. The swimming pool, miniature golf course, pond and playsets will ease the family into the idea of camping. The general store is helpful as well, for forgotten hot dog buns or beach balls. And recently, we had a birthday party there for my daughter, Maya.

I also highly recommend Casini Ranch Family Campground. It's close to home, and close to the coast. Close enough to Guerneville if you need to run into town for a new fishing license, pair of sunglasses or ingredients for s’mores (all of which we have done). There's also an incredibly good coffee shop just minutes away in Duncans Mills, so if your kettle left you with coffee grounds in your morning cup, relief is close by.

Most importantly, of course, are the amenities for the kids. The Russian River runs past the campground and is the perfect place to safely play in the water. There are a few play structures for little kids with swings, slides and giant tires. There's a pond with ducks and geese and for a quarter, you can buy a bag of duck food and feed them yourselves. It's a perfectly flat campground for family bike rides and wiffle ball games — the things a true camping trip are made of. With hot showers and clean bathrooms, it's an ideal spot to get your camping feet wet.

Sonoma County Regional Parks has several perfect campgrounds for family trips. Doran Park and Gualala Point Park are two that we have camped in along the coast. In case you don't know, kids can literally spend an entire day building sand castles. Add in some barbecued hot dogs and roasted marshmallows, and what else do you really need?

There's also camping at Sonoma Coast State Parks — Bodega Dunes and Wrights Beach. Salt Point State Park is beautiful as well. These are a good second or third trip option though, as the amenities are more natural. You get breathtaking views and the fresh smell of the ocean, but you're not going to have a general store in the campground or swing set nearby.

What to bring

To have a successful camping trip with your kids, the most important things to bring are weather-appropriate clothes, easy food options, and a tent with sleeping bags (or trailer if you have access). But, to make it even easier, I've compiled a Top 10 list of things to bring on your first family camping trip.

Top 10 Tips

10. Baggies, garbage bags, paper towels. Everything is easier if you have plenty of these items. They're good to pack food in for picnics, easy clean-up, and laundry hauling.

9. Wet wipes. Need I say more?

8. Rain boots. It doesn't matter if you're camping in the middle of summer, we always bring rain boots for playing in the river, traipsing through trails with sticky weeds, or layering with several pairs of socks to keep your kids feet warm at night.

7. A backpack. We don't bring lots of toys from home, but each kid gets to fill their backpack with a few.

6. Plastic bin with cooking gear. You don't have to cook a lot while you're camping with kids, but it's good to have a pot, pan, plates, bowls, cups, utensils and water bottles.

5. Self-contained, easy food. Breakfasts like yogurt cups or cereal, granola bar and fruit for morning snacks, peanut butter and jelly for lunches. For dinner, it's fun to get a little more creative on the grill or campfire, but ease is key. We also typically make a few items at home before leaving and pack them in a cooler for quick bites — cooked pasta with a jar of sauce can be heated in a pot over the fire, banana bread can be frozen at home and thawed for breakfast at camp.

4. Flashlights. Bring enough for everyone. We prefer headlamps, because they are hands-free. We got kid-sized headlamps for the girls. Most will have an automatic turn-off switch that activates after a certain period of time, so there's still some battery power left when your kids leave it in their sleeping bag turned on all day.

3. Marshmallows for the campfire. Roasting sticks (or coat hangers work fine too). You have to learn about heat and fire sometime.

2. Bikes, scooters, stroller. For our toddler, we bring a tricycle that has a parent steering bar in the back. She wears a bicycle helmet and gets to feel like a big kid, even though she can't quite pedal it herself yet.

1. Grandparents (or other friends and relatives). The more, the merrier, is so true when you're camping with your kids. More campfire songs, more exploring, more fun.

My best advice, though: Just roll with it. Your kids are going to be dirty and probably smelly; things are going to get messy and wet. But when you're packing up to leave and they beg you for one more day of camping, you'll know they had an incredible experience — one that can't be duplicated by their Xbox.


Mexican S'mores - The perfect campfire treat

Imagine your traditional ooey gooey s'more, with a southwestern twist. This easy, kid-friendly recipe will leave you begging for more.



Chocolate bars



1. Roast the marshmallows. Yum.

2. Lay your tortilla flat and place a few pieces of chocolate down the center. (Think of it as a dessert burrito. Your ingredients are going to run down the center of the tortilla so it can be wrapped up burrito-style.)

3. Place the roasted marshmallows on top of the chocolate and smoosh the marshmallows a little so they are directly on top of the chocolate pieces.

4. Sprinkle a few shakes of cinnamon on top of the marshmallows.

5. Wrap the tortilla like a burrito. If you can fold both sides in, it helps to keep the gooey ingredients contained a bit.

6. Place the burrito in a cast iron pan and grill both sides for one minute to make sure the chocolate is a melty-mess. If you don't have a pan, you can place the burrito on a BBQ, or you can put foil on the campfire grill grate and put the Mexican s'more on top of that.

7. Enjoy.

(I have read that some people add peanut butter to the tortilla instead of the cinnamon. That sounds delicious, too.)

Places to Go

Cloverdale KOA

1166 Asti Ridge Road

Cloverdale, CA 95425

Reserve: 800-562-4042

Info: 707-894-3337

Open all year

Pool, spa, snack bar, fishing, bike rentals, mini golf, laundry, showers

RV hookups, tent camping and lodge rentals.

Casini Ranch Family Campground

22855 Moscow Road

Duncans Mills, CA 95430

Reserve: 800-451-8400

Info: 800-451-8400

Open all year

General store, laundry, showers, river play, watercraft rentals

RV hookups, tent camping.

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