So much of parenting is about remembering to bring the right stuff. Whether driving kids across town or departing for a long road trip, knowing just what to pack can be a challenge. Many of us lean toward overpacking — bringing more than necessary because "what if?" is a question often answered in wet clothes, forgotten snacks and scraped knees far, far from home.
Traveling with kids, particularly for outdoor adventures, requires a delicate balancing act of packing not just enough stuff, but also the right stuff. As Alaska families prepare for another summer season of camping, hiking and road trips, this is the perfect time to organize. A place for everything, my mother always said. And it turns out she's right. Especially when it comes to healthy, safe and happy kids.
Make the ‘A’ list
I'm a list-maker, be it for groceries or gear, so it wasn't too tough to create a camping list specific to our needs. I categorize any camping and outdoor adventure checklist with the help of my family, taking an evening to sit down and ask my son about his must-have items and then solicit his help with packing.
Over the years, we have developed categories for kitchen, sleep, fun and weather, all of which are described in greater detail below.
For an added investment, ask one of your kids to type it up and either slide the list into a protective sleeve that lives wherever you store your gear, or spend a few bucks and laminate it and use a dry-erase marker to check off items as you pack the car or RV.
Feeding the family — kitchen
Camping offers the chance to nibble on favorites — hot dogs, marshmallows, graham crackers, chips and other not-so-healthy options. While we indulge ourselves at the campsite, I try to remember that multiple days noshing on junk food can lead to a very cranky kid. Our favorite element of camping has been discovering new and fun ways to cook familiar meals with a twist, making breakfast, lunch or dinner a lot more fun — and, in many cases, interactive.
Start with assembling kitchen tools. Our portable camp kitchen is kept in a sturdy plastic tub with a lid, and inside is a stash of melamine plates, cups and bowls (one for each person, plus a few extra). Melamine is affordable and reusable, a nod to the environment, and can withstand a fall from the picnic table or RV counter. We use plastic, reusable cutlery as well but add a collection of knives found at a thrift store for cutting produce and meats. Don't forget serving spoons, forks and tongs for grilling. Involve kids in cutting, mixing and grilling if they are old enough. It adds to the experience of shared responsibility, too.
Our cast-iron Dutch oven and frying pan are favored items. Yes, they are heavy. But, oh, the fun meals we cook in them. Everything from brownies to a hearty stew can be created over a bed of coals or in an RV oven, filling bellies and creating happy memories. A favorite recipe involves a one-pot chicken stew of sweet potatoes, carrots, chicken thighs and chick peas smothered in a pre-made peanut sauce I found at a local grocery store mixed with a bit of chicken broth to thin it out as the meal cooked for a few hours over the coals. Have an RV? Consider your crock pot for a set-and-forget lunch or dinner.
Snacks are important, too, and I try to pack protein-rich foods combined with a healthier carbohydrate than graham crackers or marshmallows. Nuts, dried fruits, cheese sticks, whole wheat crackers and salami are our favorites, and I buy in bulk, knowing my tween-age son eats twice as much when we're camping.
Storage tip: Organize your food list by storage needs. Dry goods in one place, canned goods that last a long time in a second, refrigerated foods in another (don't forget a hard-sided cooler and chemical ice blocks that last longer than ice in a bag). Use other storage bins to keep items from getting crushed as you pack.
Staying warm and dry
Nothing says misery for everyone like cold, wet kids, especially if you're only on the first day of a four-day trip. If we've learned anything in our years living in Alaska, it's that the weather is fickle and in some cases unforgiving.
Beyond comfort, keeping kids toasty and dry is also about preventing such dangerous scenarios as hypothermia. The key is layering for warmth underneath with a waterproof fabric on top. I'm not only talking about clothing, either. Camping in Alaska can mean warm, sunny days and cold, clear nights, so start by ensuring your family is cozy.
Sleeping bags come in a variety of fills and fabrics, but we're still fans of those rated for 20 degrees or lower (I could be cold in a tent in the middle of the desert). We layer the floor inside the tent with an old wool blanket, then our sleeping pads, then the bags. Speaking of tents, those huge ones you find at big box stores offer lots of space, but they also take away the warmth generated by sleeping bodies. If you can, go cozy and stay warmer.
If the forecast calls for rain, don't forget an overhead shelter or canopy. There are a variety of styles and fabrics available ranging from a quick pop-up type to one that stretches over a campsite with ropes. Either way, look for a sizable shelter that covers a picnic table and allows for dry dining and activities. Bring old blankets for wrapping up in camp chairs by the fire (another thrift store find).
Storage tip: Keep sleeping bags out of their stuff sacks when not in use to preserve the fluffy fill, and store in a large duffel bag for car-camping. Blankets and pillows go in here, too. Tents and canopies have their own storage sacks, so take the time at the end of a trip to carefully dry, fold and put away for the next time.
Just for fun
There's no doubt the main reason we go camping in the first place is to have fun, but sometimes families new to the idea of spending a night or two with kids in the woods need some guidance.
Think outside and inside the traditional box. Activities your kids enjoy at home may not attract them the same way once they hit the campground, and that's OK. Conversely, things they aren't interested in at home, like board games, may become fun when played at a picnic table near a roaring campfire.
Need ideas? Below are a few winners we've found successful with a variety of age groups.
Other things to remember include first aid for mishaps and medical supplies for upset stomachs, colds and fevers; extra clothing for everyone; and maps and books about nature, Alaska or wildlife.
Here's to happy campers, one and all.
Erin Kirkland is author of the "Alaska On the Go" family guidebook series, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a family travel and outdoor recreation website. She spent the holiday weekend camping in the Chugach National Forest with her family.