More and more Australian families are choosing to take a few months, or even years, out of the rat-race in exchange for adventures travelling around the country. Instead of the daily grind, they choose to explore the great outdoors and wake up each morning to a new view.
The popularity of camper touring has soared in recent years, largely due to the increasing number of retirees or “grey nomads”, trading in a sedate life pottering around at home for an opportunity to explore the best the country has to offer. But, there is also a growing number of younger families deciding to make the same trip while their kids are still young, sometimes opting out of traditional schooling entirely and taking up home-schooling on the road.
Camping with kids can certainly be a rewarding experience – you’ll get to experience proper quality time together as a family, and your kids will benefit from being outside, learn to respect nature, and become more confident in new situations.
However, a family road trip is bound to come with some challenges and needs careful planning if you don’t want your dream trip to become a nightmare.
Tent or Campervan?
Your choice of accommodation will depend on how long you want to travel for and will also be influenced by the age of your kids, the climate and time of year. You will also need to take into consideration when and where in the country you’re travelling, and your personal preferences in terms of “home comforts”.
For short trips and older kids, nothing beats the authentic experience of camping in a tent under the stars at night. However, in colder weather, if you’re travelling with a baby or toddler, or you’re planning to be away for months, you might be more comfortable in a campervan with a proper roof over your heads and conveniences like a bathroom and kitchen.
If you do decide to take a tent, make sure you practice erecting it home at first so you’re not left staring blankly at tent pegs when you reach your campsite. If you’re travelling with older kids, helping to put up the tent can be a fun learning experience for them.
What to Take
Packing light may seem like an impossibility when there are kids involved and you’d be right! On the other hand, you can use your camping trip as an opportunity to downsize and avoid the usual commercial trappings of having a baby or young kids in Australia. You don’t need to go overboard and bring all the bells and whistles, but packing a little extra equipment for your kids can come in very handy.
Generally useful items:
- Lots of baby wipes (useful for so many things when you’re travelling) and a minimal selection of toiletries
- An electric fan if you’re camping in summer and staying at a powered site – tents and campervans can become unbearably hot. Hang a damp muslin wrap in front of it to create a makeshift aircon
- Plenty of sun cream and insect repellent
- Lots of snacks and food with a long shelf-life that doesn’t require refrigeration (tins of soup and beans, cereal, jam, vegemite, biscuits)
- First aid kit with antiseptic cream, Band-Aids, bandages, insect bite cream, and children’s Panadol.
- A baby carrier – choose one that balances weight well and is comfortable to wear for long periods. Leave the pram at home.
- A car seat – obviously essential for travelling in the car but can also double as a seat when around the campsite
- Plenty of clothes and nappies, a few hats, and plenty of blankets for wrapping up warm if the temperature drops
- Portacot – not essential, especially if you’re in a tent where it’s probably easier for baby to sleep with you, but they work well as a makeshift playpen. Portacots provide a safe place for babies and toddlers to play outside and when covered with a net, they’re an easy way to keep mosquitos off. You can also buy special mini sleeping tents for babies.
- A portable high chair or Bumbo seat can be useful for older babies for both meal times and keeping them safe while playing.
- Favourite toys and security blankets (avoid Lego and toys with small pieces)
- Outdoor toys – Frisbee, balls, etc.
- More clothes than you think you’ll need (kids get dirty quickly when they’re playing outside and your washing facilities may be limited)
- Books, including school books for older kids. It can be nice to take some nature guides and wildlife spotting books to provide a fun and educational activity when you’re out in the bush
- Rainy day activities like activity books and travel journals
- Their own torch or headlamp – kids love torches and they’re useful too
- Poncho or raincoat for wet weather
- Their own backpack – kids love having their own bag to pack their essentials in and it can be used to collect treasures when they’re out and about exploring the bush. There are also backpacks with leads available, which can be helpful to stop toddlers from wandering off when you’re out and about.
Keeping the Kids Occupied
Children find long car trips boring, so you’ll need to plan ahead to keep them occupied when travelling between locations. Try to keep trips as short as possible with lots of breaks to stretch their legs.
Taking plenty of snacks for the drive is one way to keep the kids happy. Avoid lollies and sugary snacks (although keep a few hidden away for emergencies) and opt for healthier snacks like fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, and muesli bars.
Travelling for long distances with kids has become a lot easier since the invention of the iPad. Mounting some kind of tablet in the car and playing a movie can easily while away an hour or two. If you load up the tablet with educational games, you can kill two birds with one stone by keeping them occupied and entertained and making sure they learn something at the same time.
If you’d rather keep screen time to a minimum, be prepared with lots of interactive games like “I Spy”. Road trip bingo can also be a fun game for kids, keeping them looking out of the window to spot different road signs or licence plates.
Once you’ve reached your camping site, it probably won’t be too hard to keep the kids occupied. Most children can quickly find something to do when left to their own devices outside – let them play and use their imaginations to explore, build dens, and get nice and muddy! If they need a little encouragement, it’s easy to set up a treasure hunt or obstacle course, or you can set up some easy craft activities with scavenged natural materials.
Bushwalks are an obvious family activity for camping and are fun at any age, but younger kids can tire easily. Babies and younger toddlers can be put in a carrier but you’ll want to avoid carrying older kids. Start with shorter distances and build up to longer hikes to encourage them to walk; bring lots of snacks, and keep them busy by giving them a treasure hunt of plants and rocks to photograph or collect along the way.
Some organised campsites have outdoor play equipment, or you can always take a trip into the local town so that the kids can play at the local playground. This can be a nice change of pace from exploring the bush.
School on the Road
Don’t try to replicate the school day in your campervan – there’s no point in going away if you’re going to keep the kids inside, chained to their books all day – and the outdoors is the best classroom anyway.
Use the places you visit as valuable learning experiences to teach how to identify different trees and plants, how the water cycle works, how to track animals, and how to build a campfire.
If you’re away for only a few months, you can simply ask your children’s school for an extended leave of absence and provide some basic ad-hoc educational activities while you’re on the road.
However, if you’re planning to be travelling long-term, you’ll need to look into more organised home schooling. Home schooling is legal in all states across Australia, but you’ll need to register. Each state has its own set of requirements regarding monitoring and requirements – make sure you do your research.
If you’re planning to return to regular schooling after your trip, you’ll want to make sure your kids keep up. It’s worth asking your school for a copy of the curriculum they use and a book list so you can make sure they don’t fall behind.
There are now plenty of educational apps and home-schooling websites that can be very helpful, particularly for older kids if you’re bringing a tablet or laptop computer.
You should also take advantage of libraries in the towns you pass through, particularly on rainy days. They can provide hours of educational activity and entertainment for even the youngest children.
Falls and scrapes are inevitable and all part of the fun of being in the great outdoors, so make sure you bring along a well-stocked first aid kit with plenty of band-aids and antiseptic cream to deal with any mishaps and keep tears to a minimum.
Burns are a common camping injury so you should make sure your children are aware of basic fire safety and take precautions to keep young children well away from any open fires. Don’t let your kids run or play close to the fire and make sure campfires are completely out and doused with water when you leave them.
You should also be extra vigilant of your kids around any creeks, swimming holes, or other bodies of water. Keep a rule that even older children shouldn’t go in water unsupervised and try to make sure your campsite is at least 100m from water sources. Keep young kids in life jackets or flotation devices when you’re around water but don’t rely on them and never leave young children unattended even for a minute.
When out in the bush, don’t quash your kids’ natural curiosity but make sure they know to keep their distance from any snakes, spiders, or other potentially dangerous wildlife they come across. Scan the area for any immediate dangers when you’re setting up a new camp.
Finally, when sleeping in a tent, make sure there’s an adult sleeping across the entrance so that young children can’t leave the tent and wander off undetected if they wake up first.
Other Tips and Advice
Camping with kids is one of those things that you’ll work out as you go along, but if you keep a few tips in mind, it will help the whole experience go smoother.
Keep to a routine. Young children thrive on consistency and being out of the normal routine they were used to at home can lead to overtiredness and tantrums. Have set meal times, bedtimes, and nap times, and plan your day around them.
Get the kids involved. They’ll be happier when they’re involved in choosing where to go and what to do, and plotting out your trip on a map can be a fun pre-trip activity. Giving them some tasks when you’re setting up camp, such as collecting firewood or banging in tent pegs, keeps them occupied and gives them a sense of responsibility – even washing up can be fun when you’re camping!
Avoid busy holiday times and crowded campgrounds. This is particularly important with a baby who still wakes up crying in the night – try to be respectful of other campers.
When in doubt, offer snacks!
Above all, remember to have fun! Taking the kids camping is a great opportunity to shake off your normal responsibilities, enjoy some new experiences and grow together as a family. Don’t take it too seriously and remember it’s your experience – nobody is forcing you to attempt a full wilderness experience if all it will do is stress you out. Do your research and if you’re feeling intimidated by the idea of a longer trip, try out a few days first to see how the experience goes.
The beauty of camping is that it’s got no age limit – everyone from babies to teenagers, to grandparents can enjoy it and it’s a wonderful way for families to bond. Plan your trip but don’t spend so long on planning that you never make the leap – just go! You won’t regret it.