Outdoor parents share their tips and tricks for adventures with kids.
Before each backpacking trip, Nick Brooks would take out all of his gear for the weekend and lay it out in the hallway.
As a self-described “gear head to the core,” this was his way of making sure all of the equipment, from his sleeping bag to cook system, was working and accounted for. Brooks noticed his three-year-old son, Preston, taking an interest in what he was doing.
“My oldest would start taking my gear out and help me organize it,” he said. “You could tell he was watching me.”
For his fourth birthday, Brooks and his wife, Amanda, asked Preston what he wanted to do for his big day.
“He was like, I want to go backpacking like you,” Brooks said. “So, we went backpacking for his fourth birthday.”
Preston, now 11, was hooked. Around the same time, Asher, 8, joined the family and Brooks found it harder to go on as many backpacking trips with his friends.
“When I was younger, I used to say, you would never catch me car camping,” Brooks said. “I was like, I’m a backpacker. This is what I do. What changed that was still wanting to get into the outdoors. When I had a second child, that kind of limited my time to get out at the drop of a hat. As they got older, I wanted to expose them to it the way my father did when I was a child.”
The Brooks started packing all of their gear up in the family car and exploring various campsites around the Southeast on the weekends and school breaks.
“The big deal was for everyone to be potty trained,” Brooks said. “Once that was squared away, the world was ours.”
Now the Brooks get out as much as possible, exposing the kids to the world around them.
“During the school year, it’s go, go, go time,” Brooks said. “My boys both play soccer, they’re both in scouts. One is in band and then church activities. Just so much stuff going on. When you get away, you almost forget about all of that stuff because you’re in a new place, you’re away from everything. It’s really cool to unplug and be with your family.”
Car camping has allowed them to travel all over, including a trip out West to Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks last summer.
“Doing that trip, the camping made it so much more affordable,” Brooks said. “Instead of paying hundreds of dollars a night to stay at a hotel or resort, I’m paying $25 a night and driving into a National Park area.”
Brooks said they reserve their campsites as soon as possible to ensure they get the best spot, especially if they can be next to a river or creek.
“After every trip, we are already looking for the next place to go,” he said. “It’s the summer and I’m already looking for the fall and spring break, several months forward. I’m already trying to find the next place so I can make a good reservation and find the campsite that I want.”
The family regularly packs activities that help create togetherness such as board games, cornhole, and bocce ball. In recent years, they have started inviting friends to travel with them, building their relationship with other families through the outdoors.
For Brooks, that is what camping is all about, exploring a new place and sitting around a fire together. It is the little moments like watching his sons skip rocks on the lake that keeps him packing up that car over and over again.
“They’re just hanging out together, just being brothers,” Brooks said. “It’s a reminder to stop and enjoy the moment of being a family and being together.”
Top Tip: “The cook system is really the most fun and important thing. If you have gear and it doesn’t work well, it just kills the experience.” Brooks prefers his Camp Chef Everest 2-burner camp stove. He reviews gear and beer on his Instagram, @outdoorgearandbeer.
Favorite fireside food: Bacon, eggs, grits, hash browns, and pancakes for breakfast. “We go all in.”
Go-to campsite: Tugaloo State Park or Tallulah Gorge State Park in Georgia. On the border of Georgia and South Carolina, Tugaloo provides access to more than 100 campsites, volleyball and tennis courts, and boat rentals. Swim, kayak, or fish on the 55,600-acre Lake Hartwell. At Tallulah Gorge, visitors will find miles of hiking trails as well as places for biking, paddling, and rock climbing.
Julie and Kevin Smith were avid travelers as young adults, carrying all that they needed on their backs. But their three kids, Lily, 15, Loretta, 7, and Opal, 4, changed all of that.
“You can’t just take an all-day hike, you have to pack so much more,” Julie Smith said. “You have to have your sippy cups, your diapers and your diaper bag, your pack and play, and your Baby Bjorn. It changes the whole thing. But the greatest thing is you get them out there. They’re dirty and get to run around and be in nature. It’s a tremendous amount of work but once you’re there, it’s so rewarding.”
As the Smiths juggled having children with still wanting to get outdoors, they cut down on the number of backpacking trips and started driving to campsites for a weekend.
“When you car camp, you’re allowed to bring coolers and tablecloths, all of those type of things,” she said. “There’s no more long hikes but there’s a lot of s’mores and playing in the dirt and river.”
Preparation is key for these trips.
“We have these big Tupperware camping boxes,” Julie Smith said. “I kept those clean, packed, and stocked. I’d have one camping box of all the dishes, camp stove, and percolator. That box would get washed when we’d get home and put back so next time we went, we just grabbed it. Same things with the air mattresses.”
Having the supplies ready to go made it easier to get out the door without scrambling to make sure everything was packed. This also comes in handy when making dinner for a hungry family.
“Do as much prepping you can do before you go,” Smith said. “Make your chili at home, cut your onions at home, wrap your potatoes in aluminum foil at home. Then you just have to throw them on the fire.”
Once they reach the campsite, everyone has a job to keep the kids engaged.
“We each get to take turns making the fire, we rotate washing dishes, and they take turns picking the actual camp spot,” Smith said.
After years of packing and unpacking the car for each trip, the Smiths upgraded to an RV and have not looked back.
“The RV is fully stocked,” Smith said. “We actually get out more now that we have it because I don’t have to pack the air mattresses, sheets, toothpaste and toothbrushes, the pack and play, the pillows, and the towels.”
While some families can make car camping work for a larger family, it made sense for the Smiths to invest in the RV with the number of weekends they spend camping.
“We car camped a couple of times with all three kids and we were just like this is too much for us,” Smith said. “We went to Hot Springs once and had to take two cars. We were like, this is ridiculous. We’re not even riding together.”
For the last 20 years, the Smiths have been going to the annual French Broad River Festival at the Hot Springs Campground the first weekend in May.
“Every year we gather college friends and college friends turn into other friends,” Smith said. “Now it’s a bunch of families and old married people. Some people we don’t see except for there. It’s like a huge reunion.”
The weekend kicks off with a river cleanup on the French Broad followed by a weekend of whitewater rafting, music, mountain biking, and more. A portion of the proceeds benefit American Whitewater and other local charities.
The Smiths, who have had the same campsite every year, turned the festival into a week-long camping trip with their kids and other families. They all look forward to the event every year in what has become a family tradition.
As with all of their camping trips, it’s a way to get away from the disruptions at home and be together.
“I think the pinnacle on any camping trip is when you’re hunkered down by the fire at night and laughing,” Smith said. “My husband plays the guitar so there’s lots of music and singing. The kids love it. They get to stay up late. We’re all just sitting there together, no electronics. The stars are out and you’re like this is it. This is the entire reason why we’re here.”
TOP TIP: “Do it, get out there. We live in probably the most beautiful place in the world and there are some amazing campgrounds. It’s one of those things where you’re like we’ll go another week, we’ll go another weekend. It’s transformational for the family to do it. It’s family time without any interruptions, which as much as we try, is almost impossible to do when you’re at home.”
FAVORITE FIRESIDE DISH: “We almost always do chili. That’s a winner all the way around.”
GO-TO CAMPSITE: Hot Springs Campground in North Carolina. Situated beside the French Broad River and a short drive from the Appalachian trail, Hot Springs is a great basecamp for adventure. Hike, whitewater raft, or zip-line only 40 minutes from Asheville.
Full Time Campers
Whether they were out with their scout troop or camping with family, Mary Leigh and Japhet Vallejo could often be found outside growing up.
“Once we hit our teenage years, we sort of fell out of that for a while,” Mary Leigh Vallejo said. “I think having a kid reminded us how much fun we had and enjoyed doing it. We started back and haven’t stopped since.”
Jonathan Vallejo, 7, could not have been more than three months old when his parents started taking him outside. What started off as family picnics and short day hikes evolved into overnight camping trips almost every weekend.
For Jonathan, the best part was always getting to the campsite at the end of a long hike and setting up his hammock. Unless the site was close to water in which case you could find him swimming.
“It requires a lot of patience,” Vallejo said. “They’re not going to enjoy every moment of it but knowing at the end it’s going to be worth it.”
They make sure to pack mini rewards for Jonathan on the trail, including Gatorade, mint chocolate chip Clif Bars, and a movie for in the tent at the end of the day. This, along with small tasks like helping collect firewood, helps motivate him and keeps his spirits up.
Although their car is often close by, allowing for easy access to all their supplies, the family recently spent five days thru-hiking the Foothills Trail in South Carolina.
“Our son said he liked it, but 77 miles is a lot to ask of a seven-year-old,” Vallejo said. “My son and I both had a little foot stepper. His steps were double my steps. To us, we think we have to get these six miles in before we can take a break. To him, this is a lot more. So, we just had to be patient and slow down.”
Seeing how much Jonathan enjoyed these trips, the Vallejos decided to sell their home in the summer of 2018 to travel the country, homeschooling Jonathan and visiting as many public lands as possible. They downsized from 1,500 square feet to a 30-foot RV.
“It seemed like every weekend we were going out,” Vallejo said. “We decided that we didn’t spend enough time at our house anymore and we were always traveling. We would get off work Friday afternoon and would not get back Sunday until we had to.”
The family traveled across the country and back, visiting 19 national park units along the way.
“Our son is earning his Junior Ranger badge at these parks,” Vallejo said. “Even my husband and I didn’t know many of the things he has learned at such a young age.”
After spending a few months in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, and South Dakota, the Vallejos are back on the East Coast and planning to drive the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, visiting family and friends along the way.
Even though they have the RV now, Vallejo said they try to make an effort to camp outside at least once a week.
“Tent camping is definitely more enjoyable,” she said. “The RV is our house, so we have Netflix and a refrigerator. It’s nicer to be outside.”
Top Tip: Always carry a first aid kit, fire starters, and extra socks.
Favorite fireside dish: Tofu, vegetables, rice, and beans. “That’s pretty much staple for us.”
Go-to campsite: Somewhere in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, especially Big Bald, Huckleberry Knob, and Cheoah Bald. There are several campsites near each of these locations and the views from the peaks offer some of the best views in the area.
Learning Along the Way
Samuel and Oliver Poulton (age 7 and 5 respectively) have their special camping gear and routins when the family goes on trips. They each have their headlamp, sleeping bag, and spot in the tent. They get to roast marshmallows and stay up late.
Those little things, like seeing the stars on a recent trip to Jackrabbit Mountain, really bring the family together.
“The boys were up, certainly later than they would be at home, and you’re away from city lights and populations,” Tim Poulton said. “There were a gazillion stars and they were just amazed. They had seen stars, but that was their first time seeing some of the Milky Way and so many stars on such a clear night. I was thinking this would be a nice thing to help calm them down and they were so excited. So it wasn’t the best go-to-sleep strategy, but they definitely appreciated getting out there.”
Like most parents, Tim and Ginger Poulton discovered early on that camping with kids looked a lot different than what they were used to.
“For adults who have camped throughout their lives, we kind of have this picture of what camping is,” he said. “It may be a little more purist or rustic. I think it’s important to focus on what’s going to make this a good experience for the kids. What’s going to make the kids think camping is fun and something they want to do?”
They started taking their kids out before they were walking and talking.
“Honestly, they’re easier when they are yonger,” Poulton said. “When your kid’s a little baby, they’re not doing anything. They’re just there. They’re eating, pooping, and sleeping.”
Once the boys started getting older and could understand what was going on, the family would set up the tent and camp in their backyard.
“That was pretty nonthreatening for them,” Poulton said. “Their bathroom was available, and if we needed to bail on the experience, we were already at home.”
This helped prepare the kids for longer trips away from home.
“There’s a little bit of conditioning,” Poulton said. “It’s kind of like getting your kids to eat healthy food. If that’s the expectation you set, and you continue to do that, then that’s just sort of the norm for them. What we like is we’re giving them many opportunities to get outdoors and appreciate the outdoors and love different elements of the outdoors.”
To keep the kids entertained, no matter the weather, the Poultons have their special camping books that they only get to read on one of their trips. Their favorite is A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen. The family also enjoys card games, and they started keeping a camping journal where everyone takes a turn writing something when they go out.
The Poultons decided to buy a pop-up camper that they tow behind their car after a camping trip where temperatures dipped down to the 30s one night and the boys refused to wear anything except for their pajamas.
“We ended up kind of being like a family of foxes curled up in the tent,” Ginger Poulton said. “Then I was swayed to get a camper. Being more of a camping minimalist, it was hard for me to get into having a camper, and I occasionally have mixed feelings about it. But we’re going to be outside so much more that it kind of lessens the blow.”
Although they still tent camp occasionally, the pop-up helps prevents exhaustion and meltdowns after a weekend trip is over and the kids go back to school. Poulton said actually getting outside is more important than how they do it.
“We’re out there to enjoy being outdoors and to foster that love in our kids,” she said. “And also, just to create shared family experiences that everyone wants to keep having.”
Top Tip: “Pack for a little warmer than you think it’s going to be and colder than you think it’s going to be,” Tim Poulton said. “If adults are a little improperly dressed, we’ll tough it out and can rationalize it. Kids aren’t as willing to do that. So, we try to make sure we have layers for them so we can dress them appropriately.”
Favorite fireside dish: Add apple slices and cinnamon to a piece of tin foil and put over the fire. “It’s like apple pie for the kids,” Ginger Poulton said.
Go-to campsite: Jackrabbit Mountain Campground in the Nantahala National Forest of southwestern North Carolina. There are several mountain biking and hiking trails easily accessible from the campground. The site sits beside Lake Chatuge where families can swim, paddle, and fish.