Camping Guide for Families

By Dr. Mike Dockery OrthoCarolina June 4, 2017

We've given you the best tips for hiking with kids in Charlotte and 5 Charlotte area hikes.  Now that you have some great tips for camping with your kids as well as some ideas of places to camp with kids in Charlotte. We spoke with Dr. Mike Dockery at OrthoCarolina who has been camping with his 3 kids since they were toddlers. 

  How do you prep kids for a first camping trip?

-          Talk about the upcoming trip, and what they can expect, so there is reassurance on the child’s part.  Often our kids enjoyed sleeping in sleeping bags at home or a friend’s house, so this is going to be similar but in a tent!  Make it out to be an adventure, and plan together what activities you want to do and meals to have.

-          Talk about time together --  Parents need to set ground rules and expectations for electronics/phones.  One of the reasons we enjoyed camping was those items were left at home, and we just enjoyed the time together as a family.

-          Talk about the need for kids not to wander off.  Parents should always know where their children are going and go with them when they are young. As they get older, they can go off with a buddy (sibling or friend)

-          Talk about fire safety

-          Tell them what they need to bring (clothing, gear, and toys, etc.) and they can help pack


 What are some tips for packing food?

-          Pre-cook whatever you can and put it in the smallest container

-          Don’t be extravagant in meal plan – Keep it simple.

-          For “car camping” (when you can drive up to the campsite), it is easy to keep perishable items cold in an ice chest/cooler.

-          Have each person bring a water bottle that can be refilled throughout the weekend.  It is fine to simply use a throwaway water bottle  with each child’s initials on the lid

-          Consider having some snacks readily available, but set rules about who can get into them, and when!

-          Decide how you are going to cook (propane stove, or electric skillet/griddle)

-     Don't underestimate traditional favorites of grilling hamburgers, or roasting hot dogs on a stick over a fire.  

-     Kids still love 'smores

-     use paper plates, and plastic utensils


      How can kids help get ready for the trip?

-          Have them pack their own duffle bag and activities

-          Give them some input on the menu (age appropriate)

-          Have them help come up with what games & activities should be brought along, and they can collect those items too

 What are some tips for choosing a campground?

-          Bigger camp sites are nice (where you are not right on top of other campers)

-          Trees/Wooded areas are nice (as opposed to an open field)

-          Our kids really liked camping near a creek

-     A bathhouse is nice (not primitive toilets for the first camping trip!)

-     May want to have a campsite with electrical hook-up if you want to bring a fan, use a pump to blow up air mattresses, and use an electric coffee pot or electric skillet/griddle

 What is a suggested length of time for a  first camping trip?

- 2 nights  (It is a lot of trouble for only 1 night, and 2 nights is only a little more food)

 What is the best age to take kids camping for the first time?

- It's all about what the parents want to do. Personally, I feel the earlier the better. I remember going camping with our 3 kids when they were 1/½, 3& 5. Our youngest was still in a porta crib, and we put her to bed (porta crib in the tent) right after dinner. We all turned in by 9 pm and slept great. When they are young, you have to do the same drill as at home with the potty, etc. I only remember one of our kids having a single bed-wetting incident while camping

 What are your top picks for equipment to bring?

- tent (when they are small, we went with the big "family" sized tent that sleeps 6-8.  We could spread out, and had room for a porta crib and gear)

- sleeping bags (no need to spend a lot of money on this while they are young - Just me mindful if the temperatures will drop below 40)

- folding chairs

- wire coat hangers for roasting hot dogs or 'smores over the fire

- dry firewood

- propane stove vs electric skillet/griddle (we invested in a 2 burner Coleman propane stove, that takes the disposable fuel cylinders)

- pocket knife ( age appropriate)  - our kids loved to sit by the fire and whittle sticks down to nubs (my daughter too!)

- air mattress/ground pad for under sleeping bag (a blanket or second sleeping bag does great for smaller kids)

- flashlight (I like having a headlamp -- about $15 at Walmart.  It keeps your hands free)

- First Aid kit


 Tell us some games and activities that your kids enjoy when camping. 

- sports equipment (football, baseball/gloves, Frisbee, etc)

- squirt guns (great fun in the afternoon when weather permits and kids get hot)

- cornhole (more for adults)

- sparklers, bubbles, cards

- riding bikes/scooters (it's up to you how mobile you want them to be, and how much stuff you want to bring with you)

- swimming/fishing gear (facilities are available at some campgrounds)

- don't underestimate the value of sitting around the campfire telling stories from your families and childhood, etc.

 What are some camping hacks you have learned that are good for families?

           - If you & your family don’t really have camping experience/expertise, consider teaming up with a family who does.  In this way, you can work together and learn from them.

- camping bin -- after our first or second campout, we decided that it didn't make sense to go around looking for the same stuff each time.  So, we had a big plastic box/footlocker that is still called the "camping bin."  Into this we put (and kept) the stove, dedicated pots (2) and a large skillet (with lids), pot holders, bug spray, flashlights, small bottle of dish soap and a sponge, folding saw, salt/pepper, matches and lighter, ponchos, aluminum foil, table cloth (my wife insisted), long-handled tongs, roasting skewers, roll of paper towels, paper plates, and plastic utensils etc.  We would replenish consumables as needed, and add to/take away things as we saw that they were needed.  It was nice to just grab the box and most everything we needed was in there.

- It probably makes sense to invest in a 10x10ft or 12x12ft pop-up canopy in case of rain.  It is big enough to cover the picnic table and can help with shade on hot days.  It can be used for beach trips and ballfields (when not camping)

- camp with other families, especially if kids were same ages and compatible -- Often meals could be eaten together, and families could divide and share monitoring the kids.  It also made great fun for the campfires with more people

           - don't try to be "survivor man" -- be mindful of the weather and conditions.  A little rain is no big deal, but a lot of rain can make it miserable.  While we don't want our children to grow up and not do hard things, it is not worth it to "stick it out" if it is too hot/cold, or really rainy.  We have canceled trips altogether or left early a couple times.  IT IS MUCH BETTER TO HAVE CAMPING EXPERIENCES BE FUN AND PLEASANT, ESPECIALLY EARLY ON, RATHER THAN MISERABLE AND THEN THE FAMILY DOESN'T WANT TO CAMP ANY MORE

           - where allowed by specific campgrounds, bring you own dry firewood.  It gets expensive to buy the $5 bundles, and they are not always available (or dry!).

 What are the benefits for families camping together?

- I asked our family about this.  They felt it was good to get away from work/home stresses and get away from technology.  It allowed us to have great conversations, adventures, shared memories, and in general brought our family much closer together.  ALL my children said that they looked forward to camping with their future spouses & kids.  


 What are some campgrounds in the Charlotte area that you love for first time camping?

- Dan Nicholas Park (Salisbury area) -- it is great because it is not too far away.  That means that you are not setting up in the dark, or if the weather just turns bad you can simply come home!  There is a lake for fishing, paddle boats.  It is good with small kids because there is a small zoo, carousel, and train to ride.  There are trails.  There are fields where you can play football/soccer/softball.  You can reserve a specific site in advance (they have camping cabins too if you don't want to do the tent thing the first time)

- Stone Mountain State Park -- beautiful area, good hike to the top of Stone Mountain;  fishing.  Good campsite and bath house facilities

- Davidson River Campground (near Brevard)– can reserve in advance online, can go tubing near the campsite.  There is a WalMart very close by if you forgot something!

Anything else we should know?

-          We have tried to find a regular time to get away into the outdoors.  It has definitely benefited our family, and our (now adult) children say they want to continue the tradition with their own future families.

-          Planning is key, and always have a backup plan in case the weather is bad.

-          Camping with other families made it more fun for the adults and the kids.

-          If you & your family don’t really have camping experience/expertise, consider teaming up with a family who does.  In this way, you can work together and learn from them.

-          If tent camping, April & May, as well as September & October, tend to be the best months temperature wise, (although I have been on some hot weekends in May and cold ones in October).  If possible, it is better to get to campground with at least an hour or two of daylight to set up, explore, and get bearings for the weekend.  If you are trying to camp over Memorial or Labor Day weekends, it gets very crowded – a reserved site is a must!  

-          Early on, you probably don’t want to invest lots of money in gear, and you may be able to borrow things such as tents and stoves from friends/neighbors.  If your family really likes camping, consider investing in some of the things mentioned (tent, stove, pop-up canopy)

About Dr. Mike Dockery 

I was born and raised in Florida, and began camping as a Boy Scout, earning my Eagle Scout rank.  The summer after I graduated from college at UNC-Chapel Hill, I traveled throughout the western US for 3 months, camping and hiking through most of the National Parks west of the Mississippi, and up into Canada as well.  After medical school and Orthopaedics residency at the University of Florida, I did a fellowship in Sports Medicine in Oklahoma.  Our family settled in Charlotte in 1996.  My wife grew up camping with her family around their home in Asheville.  We began camping with our 3 children (2 boys and a girl) when they were quite young, and tried to go several times a year, often with other families.  As our children hit middle school and high school years, we tried to do National Park themed vacations to take them hiking in some of our favorite parks, including the Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Maroon Bells, Mt. Ranier, Olympic, Banff, and Jasper.  (We didn’t camp on these trips – too hard to lug gear across the country!)  I have been the Scoutmaster of a local Boy Scout Troop for 10 years, and we go camping most months.  Both of my sons earned their Eagle Scout rank as well, and all three of our children (now adults at 19,21,23 years of age) continue to be active in the outdoors, with camping and hiking with friends and family.  My wife and I are making plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro this fall! 

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