In 2014 I spent five days in the White Mountains with a group of wilderness experts and educators, as part of an Outdoor Leadership Training with the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Youth Opportunities Program. The first night, our instructor Jamie flipped her headlamp down over the mouth of her Nalgene bottle, refracting the light through the water to create an impromptu lamp — and blowing my mind in the process.
The YOP was created in 1968, with the goal of getting more children outside, and has since introduced more than 250,000 kids — including many from lower-income and urban communities — to the outdoors. Since camping season’s almost here and taking kids into the wilderness can be stressful if you’re not used to it, I reached out to YOP members to find out their best hacks for camping with kids. Here’s what they had to offer:
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“I often use glow-in-the-dark bracelets for kids who may be frightened of the dark. Kids usually want their own flashlights, but then they keep themselves up too late playing with them. So, I give one flashlight per tent (which forces them to learn to share), and everyone gets a bracelet as their own little source of light.” —Kumi Wauthier, Adventure Club Leader, YOP member, and expert at packing 15-passenger vans
“No phones. I am very strict about phones. Kids can have them in the van on the way to or from camp. Once we park, the kids are not allowed out of the van until I have their phones. It prevents them from staying up too late, losing them, and constantly taking pics. They have too much screen time anyways! I will often bring a regular camera and assign one student to be the group photographer each day so that the students still have pics of their trip.” —Kumi Wauthier
“Go ‘almost backpacking’ by hiking to a hut like Cardigan High Cabin [in White Mountains, New Hampshire], so it feels like backpacking but without the need for a tent, stove, or pots.” —Karen O’Connell, YOP member since 2012; 67 trips led
“One of my favorites is sneaking pre-made mini pie crusts on the trip along with canned pie filling. You can heat up the filling and pour into the crusts. It is awesome on a cold night in the woods. I’ve done pumpkin pie, blueberry, apple, and cherry.” —Aaron Lawrence, YOP Trip Leader for 17 years
“Hide something silly along the trail to be ‘discovered’ by the group!” —Karen O’Connell
“Kids often don’t like the taste of water at campgrounds since it’s different. I bring Nuun tablets, Crystal Light, or Mio to flavor their water. Usually I make them do a chore (e.g. pack their lunch or set up a tent) and then ‘reward’ them with flavoring. This also encourages them to drink more water and prevents them from getting dehydrated.” —Kumi Wauthier
“Always have a tarp that can be set up with trekking poles so you have somewhere dry to eat if it rains.” —Karen O’Connell
“The single best hack I could recommend is keeping the kids’ (works for adults, too) blood sugar in check. A steady supply of treats works great. A little bit of junk food is okay when you’re active outdoors It also offers familiar tastes that offset the camp or backpacking food that they’re probably not accustomed to. My 12-year-old son broke his arm when he slipped and fell while we were backpacking. We had just bagged Mt. Isolation in the White Mountains and were still six miles in. After splinting his arm I gave him ibuprofen and a few M&M’s at a time as we made our way out of the woods. M&M’s are medicinal!” —Aaron Lawrence
“String lights are great for camp. ENO has an LED set that runs forever on a couple of AA batteries. Backcountry camps can be pretty dark and ominous places for little kids with big imaginations. String lights are festive and fun. We use them at dinner or in the tents.” —Aaron Lawrence
“Teach orienteering, especially in the dark. There is nothing more empowering for youth than being able to navigate with a map and compass, and doing it in the dark is even more fun.” —Karen O’Connell
“Who doesn’t love s’mores? But my students can’t seem to stop themselves from waving burning sticks with flaming marshmallows around precariously. So I make a s’mores sandwich the regular way, wrap it in foil, and place them in the outer park of the fire or over a grill grate. Everyone still gets s’mores and nobody is blinded.” —Kumi Wauthier
“I work with a lot of African American youth who have the most incredible hairstyles. This often means their braids, afros, flat-tops etc. don’t fit under more fitted kids’ hats. Buffs are an amazing alternative, and they can be used for a variety of other purposes as well.” —Kumi Wauthier
“Bring silicone cupcake molds so you can make steamed cupcakes on a backpacking stove using cake mix and sprite as a special surprise.” —Karen O’Connell
“Bring a good bag of tricks — the bigger the better. Trail games, riddles, and no-prop/low-prop activities help fill gaps of time when waiting around. Gold Nuggets is a classic book full of experiential activities. Cowtails and Cobras is pretty good too. Project Adventure has lots of great stuff, as well.” —Aaron Lawrence
“Bring extra gloves and mittens! I often lose one mitten or glove, and the kids are constantly losing them. Instead of throwing them away, I collect them and carry a bag of mismatched mittens in my own pack on trips. At the start of a trip, each youth gets their own pair of matched gloves, but when they inevitably lose them or drench them by playing in the snow, I have my mismatched bag to offer them as a backup.” —Kumi Wauthier “Triple-check shoe sizes. Kids can’t accurately tell you if their boots fit well. I’ve gotten to the top of Mizpah and had a seventh-grade girl have a meltdown because it turned out her boots were two sizes too small. She didn’t realize it until she tried to put them on for the hike down and started to cry. Now I am a boot fanatic. I personally ask parents for their kids’ shoe size, double-check the students’ street shoes, and give each student their boots. Then we play a game where students have to describe their boots to a partner and then hide/seek them around the room. This is to make sure they can identify their boots from their bunkmates. This way nobody ends up with boots that hurt.” —Kumi Wauthier “Flushable wipes! They work on so much more than just butts. I carry a pack for participants on our Outdoors Leadership Trainings. Toilet paper can only do so much.” —Aaron Lawrence Alex Tzelnic is a writer and teacher living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He frequently writes about the intersections of sports, education, mindfulness, and now, fatherhood. You can follow him on Twitter @atz840.