In American culture it seems like it is a required right of passage. It is unwritten tribal law that a father must take his son camping at least once. Sadly many of us have been left scarred for life by our introduction to camping. We learn that dad can't do everything perfect, doesn't control the weather, and even a man as level headed as Bill Cosby can lose it when everything seems to go wrong. The old cliche that we grow up to be our parents seems to play out, despite our best efforts to do things differently as we pass the ancient skill of sleeping in a tent down from generation to generation.
Of course times have changed. Dad might be just as likely to take his daughter with him on that first camping trip, and mom is just as likely to be the one taking the family into the woods. When taking your children out on that first camping trip the top priority should be for them to have a good time. Rule number one, it is not about you.
The first step to success begins with a good plan that is flexible and won't require a lot of effort from your children. The lowest impact experience is camping in the backyard. Although it may not seem like camping to you at all, to your child they might as well be in the wildest corner of Yellowstone or the Olympic Mountains. All the comforts of home are close by, and if things get too cold or scary, their bedroom isn't that far away.
If you want to take them on a, "real camping trip," one of the best ways is to take them car camping. There are many benefits in car camping that will keep your blood pressure down and the gray out of your hair. It is down right easy to get camp setup and you don't have to carry a bunch of gear with you. Using your car as a moving storage area, you can drag things with you to keep your children entertained you wouldn't ever think of taking on a backpacking trip.
If the weather sours in the middle of the night you can always retreat to the car instead of spending a damp night in a rainstorm or a terrifying night in a thunderstorm. Finer issues of camping in the backcountry like going to the bathroom in a cat hole, not taking food into the tent because it can attract animals, and not being terrified of every noise at 2:00 AM, and others, can be taught later.
Try to pick a campground with family friendly features. Playgrounds, swimming areas, paved nature trails, fireside ranger programs, and canoe or kayak rentals on calm flat water are sure to please. If it is possible don't set up your campsite next to the blue haired couple from Arizona. They probably aren't going to appreciate your children waking up at dawn's early light and it will be hard to suppress their enthusiasm.
Let your children participate in the day-to-day operations of camping. On a cold morning a bucket of hot sudsy water for dishes is going to be mighty tempting for little hands. Helping clean up the site each day, cooking, or fetching water are all new and unique experiences. What may seem like the tactical drudgery of camping to a grown up, is a just like mom and dad paradise to your children.
Although you may want that first camping trip to be at a secret waterfall you know about, your children might not be up to it, and you might not be either. One of the things parents forget is that you will be carrying almost all of the gear wherever you go. If your child carries a pack don't expect them to carry more than their sleeping bag and pad, some clothes, and a little bit of water and food. Anything more than that is asking for trouble. An adult who backpacks with 25 to 35 pounds for a three-day trip might end up carrying 45 to 55 pounds when traveling with a child, ouch!
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