Question: What could be more relaxing than visiting a National Park while camping with your kids?
Anything would be more relaxing than visiting a National Park with your kids AND the more than 305 million other people also visiting national parks. Just look around your house right now. You probably have beds with pillows located some distance from wild creatures who make odd midnight noises. Showers. A refrigerator with food you need not worry will be pillaged by bears. Showers. Light that you can access with a mere flip of a switch. And showers. Did I point out that you have showers? See? SOO easy & relaxing already, and we haven’t even started talking about the kid factor.
Does that mean I think you shouldn’t take your kids to see one of our 58 National Parks? No. I just think you should “be prepared,” to steal a phrase from the Scouts.
And since it’s the National Parks Centennial, I’ve created a list of 6 tips that should come in handy for your future park adventures with your kids.
TIP #1: Plan ahead.
A LOT of people like to visit National Parks. This means if you want to actually camp inside one of the parks, you’re going to have to make a reservation months ahead. The typical window for making your reservation is 6 months in advance through Recreation.gov, and, I’m not kidding, they recommend you “practice speed drills.” Turns out, people don’t fool around when making their National Park reservation. Also, “Lucky campers book over 75 percent of the sites within the first few minutes after they go on sale. And, “Seconds make the difference between getting your reservation or not.”
If you’re like me, statements like this are enough to make you stick with all the perfectly lovely state parks that are out there and tell your kids they can go visit National Parks on their own in the future. OR you can pick a less visited National Park, or a less popular time to go (we were able to get a midweek campsite in Maine’s Acadia this summer just two months in advance). We’re eyeing some parks out west for next summer and will probably try to get a reservation early in a Park, or we’ll scope out campgrounds near a Park. We’ve found that planning ahead works best for us when we’re also flexible as to when or where exactly we’d like to go.
When you get to the National Park, before you set up your tent even, go ahead and sign up for any programs you’d like to participate in that require registration.
Our nerd brains really like all the Ranger programs we’ve ever participated in and it’s worth it to us to work our schedule around these opportunities in order for our kids to actually learn something about the natural wonders that surround us from a trained professional.
To better make my case for the Ranger programs, consider the following actual answers I gave my daughters in response to their questions, followed by the answers a Park Ranger provided to the same questions.
LIBBY (at sunset): What’s that bird and why’s it making that noise?
ME: Hmmm… That’s a noisy bird. Maybe it’s in distress? Did you wash those dishes I told you to wash?
LIBBY (later at the evening’s Ranger program): What’s that bird?
RANGER: That is a nighthawk. Hear that sound? ‘Peent! Peent!’ They’re chasing insects at this hour. They like to nest on the ground in open areas. When they’re looking for a mate or marking their territory, you’ll also hear a kind of booming noise from their wings.
NELL: Why are the beaches so rocky instead of sandy?
ME: Because that’s how they come in Maine sometimes.
RANGER (later during the Ranger Program): Acadia is made up of glacial debris including the large, rounded boulders you see all around. Over a long, long time period massive geologic forces formed the landscape we see today. Slowly though, the forces of water, wind, and waves continue to work on Acadia’s coast. We can find a record of Acadia’s geologic past written in these rocks I have right here. Want to take a look?
(Side note: When my girls finished their Ranger activity books and took their little Junior Ranger oath with the Ranger, I actually got a weepy. Also, did you know your 10 year-old can get in free to a Park?)
TIP #2: Don’t bother planning.
You have kids. You’re going into the wild. Nothing will go according to plan. We had big dreams of hiking some great trails with our kids when we first hit Acadia this summer. Our kids wanted to hang out on the beach instead, even though the water temperature was 51 degrees. We recalibrated our plans and went for a 3.4 mile, easy hike around Jordan Pond the next day. Midway through, our kids opted instead for the shorter, but more intense scramble up the Bubbles trail to its spectacular views. Turns out, some days we could get some good hikes out of them, other days, all they wanted to do was pick on each other and spend their allowance money on candy or tchotchkes.
TIP #3: Pack carefully.
If you’re reading this, chances are good you already have a good sense of the kind of gear you need for camping. Before traveling to a National Park, you should test drive your camping gear with your kids closer to home. After an 8 hour drive, you don’t want to find out your pan doesn’t actually fit on your cook stove, or that your French press has an enormous crack in it ruining your chances of coffee for a week (trust me!). Gear failures that occur just a couple of hours from home on shorter camping trips are much easier to bounce back from. It’ll still stink, but the stakes are lower and more manageable when you’re only spending a couple of nights in a state park. Over three years of summer camping with the kids, we know what works for us and have gradually been able to replace our cheaper college camping gear and invest in the equipment we really need versus making a guess or buying gear we won’t use.
We’ve also learned through trial and error what food to bring and menus to plan that we can make work over a fire or cook stove and that make us all happy. Yes to: applesauce, carrot sticks, fish foil packages, veggie dogs, taco night, granola bars, fruit, salads, box wine, personalized trail mixes, and s’mores (duh). No to: pancake mixes, bananas, veggie burgers, eggs, corn, canned soup, freeze-dried anything.
TIP #4: Buy what you need.
One of the advantages of the popularity of National Parks is that there are typically a bunch of camp stores just outside the park that will have any of the necessities that you forgot. We managed to pick up dish soap and a new table cloth just 10 minutes away from our campsite on this trip. The one time we forgot a lighter on another trip, our campground host shared a box of matches with us. If you’re on the fence about packing something, just remember that chances are good you’ll be able to pick up anything you really need in or near the park. Also, sweatshirts and lobster claw pot holders will make great souvenirs of your travels in the future.
TIP #5: Say “yes.”
Without intending to, my husband and I adopted a strict policy of saying “yes” to all ice cream requests during our camping trip. These requests tended to come when the day was at its hottest or our kids at their crankiest, and ice cream, I think I’m not alone in believing this, can make anything better. These frequent breaks for a treat we only sometimes enjoy at home made us feel like we were actually on vacation despite the fact that camping really does require a lot of work.
We said “yes” to other requests too that we would likely have limited back home: 9 PM Ranger programs, a morning at a too-cold beach, running off to play with kids we didn’t know, unsupervised.
TIP #6: Say “no.”
We also said “no” to a lot of things. No to answering emails, despite the free wifi one of our campsites offered. We said no to seeing some of the most popular spots in the park because they just seemed too crowded to us. We said no to cooking every single meal. And we said no to the parents doing all of the chores. Camping, we told our kids, is a team sport and they better pitch in if they want to EVER go again.
As you can see, my tips are completely contradictory. I think this is the nature of camping with your kids though. It’s structure meets chaos. Civilization meets the wild. Order meets freedom. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.