Credit: Kevin Callan
The best moment of the season was at the end of our 10-day family canoe trip in Algonquin.
We were finishing off a two-kilometre portage and ran into a couple of macho-style guys dressed in full fatigues and bright white Tilley hats. Full of bluster, they were just starting out their weekend outing and were proud as punch at themselves for taking on such a lengthy carry. That’s maybe why they were so surprised to see my nine-year-old daughter dancing across the trail, carrying a full load. Their bravado was somewhat deflated, especially when they discovered we’d been out for 10 days. “Ten days?” one of them blurted out. “That’s a long time to survive out in the woods.” My daughter promptly replied “You don’t get out much, do ya?”
I’ve never been so proud of her.
My daughter was six-weeks-old when she went on her first overnight. My wife and I weren't doing it because we were extreme campers who had a deep philosophical view of introducing children to nature at an early age (even though that's not a bad idea). It was because we simply couldn't deal with being stuck inside with a crying baby anymore and thought being outdoors with a crying baby might be better.
Kyla had her third birthday during a 12-day canoe trip. That was her first real camping trip. All the others before that were weekenders at a not-so-remote lake or a busy campground. Our daughter was ready to take on the longer interior trip before that, but we weren't; especially me. I'm the most paranoid father in the world.
My wife and I learned a lot on that trip. Practical things like where to camp, distances travelled per day, what to pack and more importantly, what not to pack. We also made sure Kyla's time out there was enjoyable (so we could selfishly go out again without her rebelling).
But before I list all these tips, there's one learning experience we had while camping with Kyla that was a surprise. The biggest pleasure we gained by taking our daughter camping was in what she taught us. Kyla slowed our pace down dramatically by spending time looking at things like bugs and plants with the outmost curiosity. It's not that my wife and I didn't do that as well, but we didn't do it as often. Through our more adventurous trips in the past we got caught up in that game of "travelling far so we can see more." Tripping with a child brought us back to reality. I've never been so immersed in wilderness, so aware of my surroundings then when I’m tripping with Kyla.
Thinking back to times when Kyla was born, I had a lot of friends tell me that my life of travelling in the outdoors was over. They were wrong. I think they’re just beginning.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned about camping with kids:
Know your child's limits. When Kyla was three she had a good hour-and-a-half in the canoe before she got fidgety and bored; and that's good in comparison. Now, at nine, we can get a good half-day of tripping in, as long as there’s a few portages to spice things up. The average time kids under five can spend in a canoe or hiking a trail is only 30 to 40 minutes. Take note that my wife and I got Kyla to that point slowly by going on a half-day outing, then a full-day, then a weekend, and so on. If you don't move up the ladder of progress slowly, your child will definitely come crashing down.
When to Go?
The biggest question asked about taking kids camping, especially in the interior, is: "how old should they be before taking them?" My experience has taught me the earlier the better. A child is easier to handle at the campsite when they are not walking. Once they're walking the campsite becomes a constant danger zone. Many parents decide to wait until they are a pre-teen. That's a huge mistake. No pre-teen wants to spend time with their parents.
Be a Parent & a Leader
Your child needs direction out there. Explain everything to them, communicate with them, involve them in the trip and never treat them like baggage tagging along on "your" trip. Act more like a guide. Travel as fast as the slowest member, have an escape route planned and depend heavily on repeat business.
Wear a PFD
If you wear your PFD then they will wear their PFD. Period. Parents that force their children to wear a lifejacket all the time but don't wear theirs will definitely create an issue. And make sure the PFD fits and is comfortable to wear.
Be as Creative as a Camp Councilor...
Have games, songs and activities prepared in advance and know how to make them fun. Kids don't care about how many bird calls you hear or how nice the weather is. They want to play on a beach, go swimming, be told silly stories before bed, burn marshmallows on a stick, feel comfortable and at home. Make a birthday cake for no apparent reason, hand out dollar-store gifts every morning, read them a book at the end of every portage, hand out wacky types of candy for each camp chore they do, bring musical instruments like spoons or an harmonica.
Laugh & Don't Show Fear
Things will definitely go wrong while on a trip. Count on that. And your phobias (mine are bad weather and nuisance bears) are on high alert when you're with your family. But if you won't laugh at the misfortunes, the moderate ones at least, or reveal the fears you have of things out there, then they will do the same. You are their role model, and they are little sponges soaking up everything you do and say out there. If you giggle at a tumble on the portage or sing a silly song during a downpour, they will too.
No one child is the same All children have different limitations and all parents have various degrees of skill level, and stress level. So don't just take the expert's advice on what your child can accomplish out there too seriously; this time you're the expert.