If you’re like me, no matter how much you plan, the Wing It factor always comes into play when you go camping with children. Somebody sprouts a new tooth; you forget the salt; nobody sleeps. That's why it's called adventure.
But now there's a book that can help you tame the chaos of smooshing your whole family and a ridiculous mountain of gear into a single tent. You won’t find a more comprehensive how-to on the subject than The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids. Author Helen Olsson leads you through practically every decision you need to make, from where and when to go to what to bring (less than you think) to what to cook (single best compendium of s’mores recipes ever) and how to keep the kids out of your hair (berry paints! photo safaris!).
At times Olsson, a former editor at Skiing magazine who now writes the Mad Dog Mom blog and is raising three outdoor kids of her own, is so thorough and practical with her advice she almost gives you a complex (I'm supposed to know arts and crafts?!). My husband and I take our two young daughters camping quite often, and our method basically entails writing out a list of menus on a piece of scrap paper, trying to remember to bring said list to the grocery story, laying in a lot of beer in cans (we second Olsson’s endorsement of Santa Fe Brewing Company’s Happy Camper as the perfect backcountry beer), throwing our camping gear into a big pile in the middle of the floor, shoving it into the car, and hoping we haven’t forgotten anything. You could say we have a system, but we’re not exactly systematic.
Because it’s so sensible, The Down and Dirty Guide is great for everyone from seasoned backcountry veterans who want to learn a few new shortcuts to families that have never once set up a tent or banged a stake into the ground. Olsson's tone is chipper yet informative, and never condescending. You can camp a lot and still botch the basics, like leaving too late on a Friday afternoon and arriving into camp after dark with hungry, cranky kids long past their expiration date or being too lazy to reserve a site for a summer holiday weekend. Will we never learn?
The book is crammed with handy packing checklists, simple but clever camp recipes, and lots of genuinely helpful advice, like always bring your bikes and orient your tent door to the best view. Just because you have a car to fit all of your stuff in doesn’t mean you need to bring it all—you’ll only have to schlep it to and from the car once you get there. Also, never leave home without duct tape, ear plugs, or powdered electrolyte drink mixes (easier to pack, more enticing than water). No brainers, but sometimes in the mayhem, easy to overlook.
But some of Olsson’s other suggestions are so basic to the point of being obvious (shake, don’t sweep, the tent out after each use) or so conservative they border on overprotective. She strongly urges against winter camping. Believe me, I’m not rushing out to dig a snow cave for the little ones, but I’d like to think that should the right conditions arise, someday we might be up for the task. And when that happens, I’ll definitely need a guidebook. She also explicitly warns against camping near water if you have babies or toddlers. That includes “rivers, reservoirs, lakes or ponds.” Also high on her list of no-nos: “cliffs, steep hills, or rocky outcrops. If there’s a boulder nearby, kids will climb up.” Well, that’s probably true, but having camped many times not just next to rivers, but on them, with babies on board—and rivers with big boulders—I can report with confidence you that it’s possible to do it safely and responsibly as long as you are willing to supervise closely and lay down some non-negotiable ground rules (namely: PFDs on at all times on boats and near the water). Also, what about teaching them to scramble safely around rocks? We did that with both our babies at a campsite on the San Juan River, holding them up while they climbed two feet off the ground. It lasted for about five minutes, and then they were on to other things. You just have to be hands-on, trust your instincts, and do what feels comfortable for you and your family.
Olsson’s at her best when she’s serving up menus and “campsite boredom busters.” Her Chocolate Bomb Shaggy Dog S’mores recipe made me want to rush out and buy marshmallows in bulk, and I'm going to try out her ground turkey "Hobo Packs" on our next river trip. I’m usually too busy just trying deal when camping with my daughters that I never have any energy left over for fun and games. Olsson has some great tricks up her sleeve, like dispatching kids on a photo safari (yup, she’s got a checklist for that), teaching them how to mix their own berry paints, and encouraging them to make Andy Goldsworthy-esque land art (hint: lots of pine needles, folks). Best of all, she reminds us that playing is a huge part of the family camping agenda, if not the entire point in the first place. Next trip, I’m definitely buying a pocket joke book ahead of time to distract tired kids on day hikes and building time into the schedule for a leaf boat regatta.
Down and Dirty is geared toward novice family campers, and they are probably the ones who will find it most helpful. You can pick up the book, photocopy her checklists, and walk away with a foolproof blueprint for your first camping trip, including all the gear you’ll need and none that you won’t. There are a slew of diagrams and snazzy illustrations (my stepfather, who used to be in the Navy, is currently obsessed with her primer on how to tie a bowline—“clearest description I’ve ever seen,” he said), and even seasoned dirt bags will pick up a few new strategies. I for one will be putting a Snow Peak titanium coffee press and milk foamer on my car camping wish list. A double macchiato in the backcountry sounds like the perfect antidote to a night in a tent with the rug rats.