Summertime and the camping is easy

Getting back to nature can help you make the most of the summer break

By Philip Moscovitch
Photos by Lydia MacIntosh/A for Adventure

It was supposed to be a fun camping weekend, but the trouble started before we even left. Packing took longer than expected, and it was nearly dark by the time I was done.

But we headed out anyway, leaving Halifax after 8 p.m., hoping to make it to Canso. By the time we reached Antigonish, we were too tired to keep driving, but couldn’t find anywhere affordable to stay. So we slept in the car, alternating between having windows open (mosquitoes) and closed (stifling heat). Everyone was cranky and exhausted for days. The trip was capped by my smashing the rear window of our Subaru after backing it into a raccoon-proof garbage container.

Leaving late, insisting on sticking to a ridiculous and tiring schedule, not having a backup plan for accommodations, the trip was a case study in bad decisions.


Make a Plan
Family camping trips can be among the most memorable times parents and kids spend together. But making them work takes a bit of planning and some flexibility.

When our kids were little, we put together a camping list to remember key items. Keep your list updated though. No use having “fold-up playpen” on the list when “extra charger” would be more helpful.

“Preparation goes a long way. The more prepared you are, the more fun you’re going to have,” says Chad Lucas, whose family camps frequently. They plan meals in advance and get the kids (ages 8 to 13) to help decide on activities. “It’s helpful to get kids involved and engaged: Here’s where we’re going, and what do you want to do? Whether it’s playing certain card games, or activities they want to do when you’re there.” 

“Always make it fun for them in any way you can,” says Chris Surette, co-founder of A for Adventure, a marketing and consulting company that encourages people to connect with the outdoors. “Make it fun, keep it positive, and incorporate a lot of activities. One of the beauties of our provincial and national parks is there are so many activities throughout the summer.”

But Surette also cautions to not overdo the planning. 

“One of the things I love about camping with young kids is you really don’t need much. People over-complicate it sometimes. Kids are kids and they love to get dirty, play outside, and lift rocks. They are curious, and if you give them space to be curious they will embrace it.”

Alice Evans was born in Canada and grew up in the U.K. She took to camping after moving to Halifax more than a decade ago, and makes an annual trip to Kejimkujik National Park with her two boys. They enjoy some organized activities, but apart from that, “We go swimming in the lake. We watch the stars. We don’t do too much,” she says. “Having tired kids is fine. Having exhausted kids who are crying is not fun.”

“I’ve seen families try to overdo it and it just becomes a big blur,” says Deborah Green, who runs the Wayside campground just outside Halifax. “We’ve had people go, ‘We’re doing Nova Scotia today.’ The kids don’t get anything out of that.”


Camping as Ritual
We’ve been making family camping trips to P.E.I. National Park since our oldest, now 24, was six months old. Although they’re now adults, most summers our three kids still come, often joined by younger cousins. Part of the magic of camping is its ritual nature, returning to the same spots, sitting around the campfire, eating the same foods. As children grow, there’s a comfort in enjoying those rituals, and in experimenting with the growing freedom to explore in a safe environment where even mundane tasks like going to the bathroom (At night! Under the stars! With a flashlight!) can become an adventure.

Evans stays in the same spot every year, not far from a playground.

“It’s so easy. They know how to get to the playground and washroom, and they have some independence. With Alfie having Down Syndrome, I know he can be on his own, and I can sort of keep an eye from the campsite,” she says. “That’s what’s great about it. The independence and moving towards adulthood in a safe environment.”

My nephew Sasha Martin-Maher, 14, has been camping with his family since early childhood, and loves the freedom that comes with it. 

“It’s not like the city. When you’re camping you can go wherever you want, as long as it’s not too far away, because there are almost no cars.”

Bikes can help provide additional independence. Lucas says his family brought them for the first-time last year. 

“When you’re in a campground you can let them roam. Having one autistic child, we have to think about that, but her brothers can make sure she gets back to our tent. The campground is like their kingdom.”

“Every year you’re allowed to do a bit more,” Martin-Maher says. “I always like starting fires for cooking. That’s fun.”


Rain, Rain, Rain
What’s not fun is being stuck indoors when the weather is bad. We live in the Maritimes. It rains.

Rain can be kind of exciting, especially if you have a waterproof shelter. 

“It’s annoying, but it’s also kind of fun because everyone’s inside and it’s really cozy,” Martin-Maher says.

But too much time indoors can turn cozy into stir-crazy.

Evans advises parents to “take some money and know where you can go for meals. It’s good to have some knowledge about the place in case of rain.”

Sure, you can start looking up where to eat, or the directions to the closest multiplex on your smartphone, but when you’re crammed into a tent and the water is cutting a channel across your site, it’s helpful to have a plan. For those in RVs or trailers, rain may be less of a problem, but if it goes on long enough, you’ll be looking for other activities too.

Be flexible. You may not want to pay for a motel room, but if the rain is coming down too hard, or if your trailer is rocking in the wind, it may be time to pack it in for the night. 

“One year we went to Dollar Lake and it started pouring torrential rain. There was a literal river running through our campsite and we were like; do we go home?” Lucas says. His wife, Shawna, stayed with one of the kids. Lucas went home with the others.


Hard at Work
Paradoxically, one of the things kids enjoy about camping is the chores. 

“The thing is, you spend a lot more time with your family because there’s more work to do and the kids can do it. Like chopping wood, getting water. At home if you set the table, the faster you do it the more time you have to play. But when you’re camping it doesn’t matter,” Martin-Maher says. 

Lucas agrees it’s important to give kids responsibilities, like packing their own clothes, if you make sure to “double-check what they packed, because half the time it will be one bathing suit and no underwear.” 

Check your list before leaving too. Lucas’s daughter wears cochlear implants. On one trip, the family nearly left without her batteries. 

“That would be great, if my daughter suddenly got into the woods and couldn’t hear,” he says.

Evans says “it’s amazing” how keen her boys are on doing chores during camping trips. 

“They wash up and cook and get involved in all those sorts of things. They love doing the dishes; it’s something they can do on their own, and they quite like that.”


What Kind of Campground?
Nova Scotia has two national parks, Kejimkujik and Cape Breton Highlands, along with dozens of provincial parks and private campgrounds. Add in the easily accessible parks in the rest of the Maritimes and there’s plenty of choice on where to camp.

When it comes to choosing campgrounds, take the needs of children into account. Remember, a successful group activity is one in which the person with the least skill or stamina is comfortable. Don’t pick a campground for its great hiking trails if your children are too young to enjoy them. And check the noise regulations. Most campgrounds have evening quiet times, but some may have a reputation for partying.

Wayside, which was founded by Green’s dad (she grew up there), doesn’t have a pool or a recreation hall. For families on road trips, she suggests alternating types of campground. And she advises, “If you want to avoid the party scene, Monday to Thursday you’re going to get a good night’s sleep in pretty much any park. Some parks have dance halls and local people coming out for the weekend. That can get a bit noisier. Ask to be put in a quieter area.”

Additional tips and tricks for camping this summer

Camping Close By
You don’t have to go far from the city to enjoy a quick camping weekend, especially if you have gear that can be ready to go at almost any time. 

In fact, you don’t have to leave the municipality at all. There’s a trio of provincial camping parks within HRM. Dollar Lake, Porters Lake, and Laurie provincial parks are all a short drive from downtown Halifax. 

Even better, you can get that out-in-the-woods feeling by staying at a hike-in site or a canoe-in site at Porter’s Lake. 

Chris Surette particularly likes Laurie Provincial Park. 

“It has some walk-in sites that are lovely and not too far. It feels like back-country, but it’s close to the city.”

The Question of Devices
Camping used to be an opportunity to get offline and step away from social and other media. No more. Most places have cell coverage, and many have free Wi-Fi. Do you let your kids use their devices all they want? Set limits? Or ban them altogether? 

Chris Surette thinks arguing with kids over devices is counterproductive. While he agrees “there’s a time when you should put your phones down and be immersed in the environment,” he also says families can use phones to enhance their camping experience. 

“You certainly don’t want your kids playing on their iPads or whatever the whole time, but you can embrace it a bit. Geo-caching is awesome, and there are apps you can use to identify different species of plants, birds, or trees… that can be fun too.”

Alice Evans, who camps with her two boys, says she takes a portable DVD player for movies when it’s raining. She says her boys “might say they miss their devices, but I don’t think they do. I think they get used to it pretty quickly.”

When all else fails (and if your children are young enough), campground owner Deborah Green says you can always try fibbing: “It’s the country. The Internet’s down, or the password doesn’t work.”

No Gear? No Problem
Chris Surette says a key impediment to camping is the cost of gear. But there are options if you’d like to camp without a big investment. Surette’s company helps run a program called Learn to Camp, in partnership with the national parks. It provides all the gear you need, except for a sleeping bag, and “gives families the opportunity to learn how to have fun in the outdoors in a safe environment.”

Many parks also have ready-to-go accommodations like yurts and oTENTiks (a cross between a tent and a cabin). The oTENTiks at Keji provide some gear, while the yurts at Fundy National Park come more fully equipped.

Alice Evans says the oTENTiks are ideal, not only for people who may not have gear, but for those who don’t have a large vehicle. 

“We’ve only got a tiny car. We can’t fit three or four of us in there with a tent and sleeping bags,” she says. “And if it’s just me and the kids, we don’t have to put up a tent. We can just drive in and then make supper.”

Essentials (and Near-Essentials)
Every family seems to have its own must-have camping items, but talk to enough people and there are a few that come up over and over. Here is a list of items that can help keep kids happy.

Bicycles: Bikes give kids independence, and there’s no traffic to worry about if they’re racing around the campground. Some places, like P.E.I. National Park, have extensive safe and easy cycling trails. 

Hammock: Lying around is fun. Lying around in a hammock is even better. A camping hammock can scrunch up small and provide hours of quiet time.

Frisbee/ball: What could be simpler? Toss it back and forth.

Lots of warm clothes: Being cold when you’re camping is miserable. As Chris Sutter says, “The temperature can really drop at night, especially near the ocean.”

Deck of cards: Smaller than board games, and endless possibilities for all ages and skill levels, from go fish to cribbage.

Water toys: Noodles, floaties, and inflatables can elevate a simple swim. Alice Evans always brings inner tubes. “You can spend all day at the lake just in those things,” she says. Be careful with flotation devices in the Atlantic, though. They can be dangerous and aren’t allowed at some beaches.