Camping in a backyard, rather than out in the wilderness, may not seem like camping at all to the backcountry set, but it’s a great place to start when you’re trying to work a kid up to bigger adventures. A night in the backyard can foster a sense of adventure and a positive relationship with nature even if the whole thing is a decidedly low stakes, tent-centric affair. Backyard camping offers a way to step outside of the ordinary without the ordeal or the packing. Again, it’s not a replacement for the real thing, but it is a great step on the way to the next step on the way to a distant wilderness.
There’s also this: It’s fun. For kids, backyard camping offers relief from overstimulation (all that screen time) and an opportunity to experience night, which is a distant country for those with bedtimes, in a brand new way. That said, for backyard camping to work, it’s important to set some ground rules. So Fatherly asked Cody Lundin, founder of the Aboriginal Living Skills School, and Todd Christopher, an environmentalist, writer, and educator who runs the Green Hour campaign which aims to get kids outside regularly, to do just that.
The following seven rules recommend their guidelines for a successful backyard camping “trip.”
1. Let the kids set up the campsite.
Todd Christopher says that it’s the most important to make sure that these early, backyard camping experiences are as positive, stress-free, and loose as possible. “You always want to plan so that basic safety is accounted for, but your kids have to feel part of it. If you are setting up the tent, let it take twice as long, because you’re letting your kids put the tent poles together and drive the stakes and lay out the bedrolls. Let them lead the way as much as possible.” The more opportunities a child is allowed to take charge of, the more they will enjoy the outdoors.
And the more they will learn from it. “We have to remember that adults operate in the world at a certain pace, and for a child it’s, it’s a different pace. We should adjust our expectations to that pace.”
2. Make sure the tent feels safe.
Cody Lundin thinks that no matter how small-scale the backyard camping trip is, establishing the real rules of how kids and parents should exist in the wilderness will do young kids an enormous amount of good. And the place to start is by properly explaining that the tent is not only where they will sleep at night, but also what will keep them safe from potential dangers like inclement weather or bugs.
“Your child can immediately understand what shelter does. If the kid can see the tent is a home, camping becomes less threatening to kids.”
3. Stress practical skills.
Depending on how outdoorsy a parent is, camping outside is an opportunity to get down to the nitty gritty when it comes to survivalist skills. If a parent should want to, this could be a time to show a kid how to treat water, use the bathroom outside and properly dispose of the waste and how to forage for food. But even if those skills seem beyond a parent’s interest — after all, the toilet is literally right inside — there is an opportunity to at least model the basics, like not leaving a trace after cleaning up the campsite.
“The kid should be trained like it’s real, because if you train sloppy, you perform sloppy,” says Lundin, who suggests asking young campers a series of questions. “How do we properly extinguish this fire? How do we deal with the leftover refuse that the fire made? How do we properly take down this tent and put it away?”
4. Start ASAP, but don’t force it.
Although paradoxical, but parents should recognize that the time to foster a love of the outdoors is limited and that taking it slow is the best way to get kids comfortable with out there.
“Not to be all maudlin, but just recognize the fact that there’s a finite amount of time for parents before their child’s friends and peer groups become a greater day to day influence than you aren’t,” says Christopher. “It’s different when a kid has already had the experience of getting outside, getting their hands dirty, or getting grass stains on their knees.” In the same way that kids develop language on a certain timeline, Christopher believes that a comfort and love of nature is most ingrained when built at a time when kids are at their most receptive. “You can’t catch up.”
5. Know the fire code. Cook accordingly.
It’s important to understand the fire restrictions and codes in the neighborhood. While some neighborhoods are very fire-pit friendly, others aren’t, and long prolonged drought has intensified fire restrictions in arid regions. Should the backyard campsite be in an active fire restriction zone, though, there are alternatives.
Once, on a fire restricted camping trip, Lundin and his buddies brought a small hibachi grill along for the ride. “You can get it at a thrift store for like, two bucks. They sit a foot off the ground, and you can sit around it and grill. The danger is contained, it’s not on the ground, the clean-up is not a hassle. And you can still break out the goodies.” And bringing out the coal or gas-fired grill isn’t the end of the world, either. It’s all about getting the marshmallows cooking, after all.
6. Remember there are real backyard dangers.
Given the skyrocketing population of ticks in the Northeast and the increasing dangers associated with mosquitos like West Nile and Zika, it’s important to remember that kids don’t need to be in the absolute wilderness to come across bodily harm.
“Safety first,” says Christopher. “It’s an unfortunate reality that you have to be prepared for. Climate change, and habitat loss is this perfect storm happening on the East Coast where the prevalence of ticks is just going through the roof. You need to be prepared for that.” In other words, bring the bug repellant, dress appropriately for the outdoors, and check all over at the end of each day to make sure that no ticks have latched on.
7. Let the indoors stay indoors.
“The thing that solidifies a camping trip, for better or worse, is darkness. When the sun goes down, and you’re around your little campfire, all you should see, regardless of the fact that you’re in a backyard in Baltimore, is your dad, mom, and little brother,” says Lundin. Making sure that the activities follow the sun’s rays is a great way to make kids feel like they’re really in the wilderness, but it’s also a good way to connect with family and kids over a shared experience.
“Kids constantly have light in their faces,” says Lundin. He recommends that in order to minimize the amount of unnatural light around the campsite and increase the sense of wonder, parents should turn all the lights off in the house as the sun goes down, turn off the flashlights, sit around the campfire, and start telling stories.