Spending time outdoors is beneficial to children in numerous ways, including improving health and sensory skills, increasing attention span, and advancing cognitive, social, and emotional development.
Outdoor experience can also help kids understand the importance of following camping best practices. The good news is that as long as your kids are old enough to speak, you can establish ground rules and familiarize them with the safety basics — before heading out into the wilderness — by camping in your car or backyard. Here are a few important points you’ll want to be sure to cover.
Under normal circumstances, your kids should remain together with you and any other direct family members camping with you, including pets. But if an emergency occurs and an adult is hurt, you can instruct them to run to the nearest campsite and summon help.
Keep in mind that if you frequently camp in more remote locations, children should also understand how to use technology (e.g., satellite phones or the emergency signal on most smartphones) in the event of an emergency.
Even if your children know how to swim, outdoor environments present a greater risk than a controlled environment like a neighborhood pool. Dangers include:
- Slippery surfaces;
- Debris from trees and other plant matter;
- Swift currents that can sweep children off their feet.
To help prevent accidents, let your kids know that, when camping, they should never approach any bodies of water without an adult directly nearby. Another good idea is to wear a life jacket as a backup in case they fall or are swept into the water.
Exposure to UV radiation is the leading cause of the most common forms of skin cancer.
Professionals recommend applying sunscreen to your child’s skin at least 15 to 30 minutes before going outside and then every two hours afterward. Keep in mind that this number can decrease significantly if your kids are sweating or swimming.
KEEP A WHISTLE
In nature, it’s easy for a curious child to become lost, trapped, or otherwise find themselves in danger. To help protect in instances like these, it’s ideal for your kids to carry a whistle.
While just about any whistle and lanyard will do, some camping-specific models are available with features like extra loud designs, metal construction, compasses, and belt hooks to help ensure your kids never lose theirs.
KNOW HOW TO IDENTIFY POISONOUS PLANTS
Depending on where you live, poisonous plants you might encounter when camping with your kids include poison ivy, oak, sumac, stinging nettle, giant hogweed, and wild parsnip. While some of these might only cause itchiness, others, such as the giant hogweed, can cause permanent scarring.
Before heading out, make sure your children know which types of poisonous plants they might encounter and how they can identify and avoid them. You can accomplish this by showing them pictures, helping them learn related songs, and even drawing or making these plants out of construction paper.
DON'T WANDER DURING TWILIGHT OR NIGHTTIME
Twilight and nighttime are when many animals feed, including badgers, coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, raccoons, and skunks, none of which you want to encounter during an otherwise pleasant camping trip. Even if your children avoid these animals, it will be difficult for them to see during these times, making it easier to become lost.
Bottom line: to remain as safe as possible while camping, it’s essential that you emphasize to your children the importance of not wandering around during twilight or the nighttime.
A prepared camper brings all the right tools they need to set up camp, including a sharp ax for cutting firewood, equipment to start fires, multi-tools, hand saws, and hammers. If you’re hunting, you can add firearms to this list, as well as any vehicles you used to drive in.
While many of these items are necessities, they could also look like shiny playthings to your children. Let your kids know how dangerous these items can be, lock what you can away, and emphasize that they must ask for permission to handle any tools or other potential hazards.
Whether day or night, it’s likely that your kids will encounter some wildlife during their camping trip. After all, that’s one of the biggest reasons to sleep outside!
However, you need to advise your children that no matter how tempting, they should never approach wildlife, and the best way to appreciate whatever they encounter is from a distance. If possible, they could even carry a children’s camera that encourages them to capture the moment from afar.
DON'T EAT ANYTHING YOU FIND OUTSIDE
While there are many edible plants in nature, many of them don’t taste good to humans. Many of them can make children very ill or even cause death if help isn’t found within a short time.
For these reasons, children must understand they should never eat anything they find while camping — including seemingly safe options like berries or mushrooms.
Instead, if they find something they think is edible, they need to leave it where it is and find an adult.
Under normal circumstances, children should consume the same number of eight-ounce cups of water as their age, up to 64 ounces. So, if your child is five, they should drink a total of 40 ounces of water daily.
However, during camping trips where kids will likely play and explore, they might need extra water to remain adequately hydrated. An excellent way to accomplish this is with specialized mugs or cups including the IceFlow Flip Straw Mug and Legacy QuadVac Thermal Bottle, hydration bottles around the camp, or a water pack they can wear as they move around in nature.
DON'T LEAVE FOOD LYING AROUND
Animals of all types will find it hard to pass up a free meal, which is why it’s essential to avoid leaving food lying around. This applies not just to areas next to your tent but also places where you eat, such as picnic tables and around fire pits.
To ensure this doesn’t happen, it’s a good idea to keep food locked away where prying hands (whether human or animal) can’t get to it. When your little one eats, make sure they remain in one spot and clean up after themselves.
STAY ON MARKED TRAILS
Groups of volunteers usually handle trail maintenance and work hard to ensure everything is reasonably safe and well-marked. However, none of this applies once your children exit the trail, where it’s much easier to get lost or injured.
Instead, emphasize to your children the importance of remaining on the trail (including how to read markers), not just to avoid dangers, but also to help preserve the environment for the campers who follow.
DON'T PLAY WITH FIRE
Fire is a meaningful part of the camping experience since you’ll use it for light, heat, cooking, and simply enjoying the sound of crackling wood. Unlike a fire pit at home, though, campfires usually aren’t covered, making it easy for children to fall in and burn themselves.
This is why it’s a good idea to set fire-related ground rules at home, such as remaining a certain distance from the flames at all times and never playing with it (e.g., throwing items into the fire or burning sticks and pulling them out to watch them smoke). If possible, pack a screen cover with you.
WEAR APPROPRIATE FOOTWEAR
Whether you’re a child or adult, walking around barefoot and digging your toes into the dirt can be an incredible sensation.
However, outside of the essentials like tools and a place to sleep, proper footwear is perhaps the most important facet of camping, especially if you and your children plan to hike at all. Even if you don’t hike, wearing footwear in and around the campsite can help prevent injuries and even certain types of infections.
If you have a toddler, a great way to get them to wear their shoes is by wearing yours without making it a big deal. Children learn by mimicking adults, so they might keep their shoes on just to be one of the grown-ups.