Kids gear should be practical, bright and fun
Taking the kids camping? Just get out there as soon as you can. That’s the advice from Nick Harding – but you might like to get some good gear ideas first
When Camping awarded Outwell’s then-new Fantasy Explorer Tent with the Best Family Tent of the Year award in 2010 (and indeed Best Tent overall) it wasn’t just because we thought it was the best tent for the job. It was more in recognition of what the company has done generally to make camping as family-friendly – and indeed fun – as possible. But, they’re not the only ones. It seems more and more folk are coming camping, and bringing their children with them, from babies upwards.
Fortunately, if you are in such a position, there’s a massive choice of gear out there.
It’s a good decade since I bathed my son in a bucket. Or watched my daughter cutting a dash on site in a bright red, spotty sou’wester and matching coat, plus equally colourful wellies – all perfectly complementing her chickenpox markings.
She’s since gone on to much better things – celebrating entering teenagerdom last September with a birthday party that consisted of a night on our local campsite sharing a tent with ten friends (don’t worry, the parents were camping right next door).
Count those wellies as a camping essential for all small kids, but there’s plenty more to it than that. Indeed, there’s a long list of specialist kids’ outdoor clothing companies just waiting to take your pester-power-pound from you. Comfort, safety and, perhaps ultimately, making life easier for the parents: that’s what it’s all about. Let’s take a closer look – from tents and sleeping, to cooking and eating, to clothing and a whole lot more.
Tents – make sure you pick a winner
It’s a big area, but it makes sense to start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews would no doubt sing to kids going camping. Outwell is the undisputed champion of family tents, with initiatives like its award-winning Fantasy Collection in particular, plus Kids Room inners, Game Wall and other gear.
But there are (increasingly) more choices than ever, and do bear in mind you want a tent that’s best suited to the whole family. It’s not necessarily essential that any tent has fun features for kids – far more important are sheer practicalities, so do consider aspects like storage, location and accessibility of bedrooms and doors, main living space, ease of pitching and overall size, as well as pack size; when are where you intend to use it; indeed, all the usual things you’d consider when buying any tent.
Even if you can budget for the tent of your choice, the one thing none of us has any control over is the weather. But, overcoming – or at least, negating – any bad weather conditions is the opportunity. Keeping dry is the critical thing – choose your tent on its wet-weather abilities (look for main fabric with a hydrostatic head of at least 3,000mm, for example).
As Carolyn Budding of specialist kids gear retailer Little Terra puts it: “Even if you’re away for the weekend and it blows a hoolie, you need to know that you’re going to be safe and dry in your tent, And the kids need to know that they’re safe, too.” And she should know – Little Terra’s sister company is the UK’s top technical tent manufacturer, Terra Nova.
· New to camping? Choosing the right tent layout is key. Think about borrowing a tent from friends or family before you take the plunge and make a purchase. Or consider hiring – check out the services of contentedcamping.co.uk
· Pick a tent with a fully sewn-in groundsheet for added protection from the elements and bugs – and to prevent kids from crawling out the back.
· Ensure your tent is pitched correctly – you don’t need a crisis on your hands if the weather turns foul.
Sleeping soundly – and keeping cosy
No doubt about it, your kids will be ready for bed after a good day’s camping – and a good night’s sleep is as important for your kids as it is for you. What they sleep in is as important as what they sleep on. There’s a massive choice if children’s sleeping bags out there, and almost as many variations of sleeping mat and airbeds, even camp beds themselves.
But, it’s all about keeping warm – or rather, maintaining temperature the right side of cosy through the night. Getting cold in the night is possibly one of the biggest things that can put kids (and adults) off camping. And again, rather than real cheapie stuff, you might be better off bringing the duvets from home.
What’s a decent sleeping bag? Mummy shaped may be better for a cosier fit. Check the season ratings of bags, too, and get your specialist retailer to talk you through what’s most suitable for your needs. Machine-washability is another minimum expectation – as are zips that work properly and won’t snag. And, of course, there will be certain safety features expected in bags designed for tots – such as the lack of drawcords.
When I checked, there were kids’ sleeping bags starting as low as £9.99 for a two-season Hi Gear Junior from Go Outdoors (if you have a Discount Card), and similar offerings from major retailer including Millets, Halfords and the like. Indeed, the get-what-you-pay-for mantra goes right up to products like Ajungilak (Mammut) at some £85 via great choices from the likes of Outwell, Coleman, Vango, Gelert, SunnCamp, Sprayway and simply loads more.
Typical pricing? Something like Sprayway’s Junior is for up to five-year-olds at around £30. Jack Wolfskin’s Grow up is around the £50 mark, but it does indeed have an expanding foot section with extra insulation. My kids’ experiences with Coleman bags are nothing short of positive. We went for mummy-shaped versions – today’s equivalent would be the Atlantic Juniors, typically selling for less than £20.
Features do vary. For example, some of Vango’s smaller models add to their versatility with attachments for buggies.
It’s pretty much the same you-get-what-you-pay-for theme with sleeping mats or airbeds. As well as being less bulky, and less prone to punctures, the former seem to be better at keeping off the cold than full airbeds. Consider a more technical version (better baffling, superior quality valve), or a foam mat underneath for better protection from cold ground. You can get kids’ sizes and three-quarter length mats from any number of mainstream brands.
Kids don’t seem to mind mats. But pillows can be a different matter… The importance of pillows shouldn’t be under-estimated. Some companies, like SunnCamp with its Junior range, include pillow sections in their sleeping bags. But, you might just find, space permitting, your kids prefer the comfort and security of pillows from home.
Finally, for young kids, make space to bring along their favourite cuddly toy. It might just be a reassuring saviour at sleep time.
· Don’t pitch too near the toilet block. It’s often the noisiest spot on site, especially after dark. If getting to the loo in time really is an issue, consider your own toilet (and/or tent), or a product like BoginaBag
· Don’t need/have mittens for keeping hands warm at night? Use a spare pair of socks.
· Remember, it’s not just about the concern of getting too cold; think about the possibility of getting too hot, too.
· Unless you buy a convertible, kids do grow out of sleeping bags, but you can always pass them down/on.
· There’s nothing worse than waking up in the dark and not knowing where you are – especially if you’re young. Torches and lanterns are a must, especially something they can find easily in the night.
Cooking and eating
While choice of cooker is very much up to you, additional equipment likes tables and chairs deserve a bit of thought. You can also get some really fancy kitchen arrangements now, but how fancy do you want to be? It’s more likely to be down to reality of budget and how much space you have in your car.
One highly sensible bit of advice is to keep meals as simple as possible (well, you’re on holiday too). But do consider the where, when and how of how you’re going to take your meals.
We’ve always made use of those folding table-and-chairs units that take up relatively little space when packed but can seat four at mealtimes. You’ll get them at any camping retailers and to a degree the brand name on them doesn’t matter – they’ve never lasted long – unless you fancy the real wood finish from SunnCamp or bamboo from Outwell. And don’t forget Coleman’s 6 in 1 table comes highly commended in our 2011 Camping Magazine Awards.
Small roll-up aluminium tables certainly take up less space, and there’s almost limitless choice. From past experience, the structure lasts and lasts, but it’s the elastic that rots.
· In its own words, “washable and squashable”, the Totseat is a fabric support cover that hooks over any seat (indoor or out) to turn it into a baby’s high chair, and packs away into its own travel pouch when not needed.
· You’ll need a water carrier, but if your kids are at the age of fetching and carrying, don’t get one that’s potentially too big and heavy.
· Crockery and cutlery? All up to you, but there are loads of offerings. Typical camping cutlery tends not to be particularly heavy-duty, but you’ll appreciate the unbreakable qualities of melamine crockery.
· A washing-up bowl or bucket can prove extremely versatile. Even if you intend to make the most of the sites facilities for washing-up etc, you still have the logistics of transporting stuff to and from the washblocks!
Clothing – kit ‘em out
They’re gonna get mucky. They’re gonna get wet. But equally, you may be in a position of needing to protect them from the sun.
Bushbaby founder, Caroline Croft, says: “Historically, our Splashsuits have always been top sellers, but Ripstop jackets and Dungarees are just below now.”
She explains it’s about practicality rather than fashion; hence designs and colours that won’t show the dirt are a key consideration. Also: “The ability to get your child in and out of a garment quickly and easily is paramount as toddlers often don't want to get dressed! Hence, full length zips…
Ideally, any rainwear should be both highly waterproof and breathable. And no doubt about it, all-in-one waterproofs are best for the tiniest of tots, even better if they’re double-zipped.
Here’s some good advice from Linda Torstensson, of Kozi Kidz: “When buying outdoor clothes it is often best to err on the generous side just in case an extra layer is needed and importantly to give air chance to circulate and keep the body warm.”
Sprayway and Gelert are relative newcomers here, but their ranges look to give the likes of Regatta as well as the stores’ own-label ranges a good run in the value-for-money stakes.
When it comes to coats, do consider 3-in-1s, ie jackets with removable fleeces, or those with the zips and other fittings to take a fleece. Quality of the fleece is the key thing to watch for here. Target Dry’s children’s versions of their popular Mac in a Sacs certainly punch above their sub-£20 price point.
If you’re thinking of waterproof dungarees or trousers, reinforced knees are almost a must, check out the zips, and note fleece-linings are getting increasingly popular.
· Big, bold primary colours have most appeal to youngsters, but there’s a practical side too: you want to be able to spot yours from a distance!
· Check washing instructions. Repeated washing will, over time, reduce water-repelling properties. Avoid using fabric softeners.
· Specialist camping towels are less bulky, but a bit expensive, than domestic variants. They dry quicker than normal towels, too. Look for those with anti-bacterial properties.
· Sleeping bag stuffsacks can be used for things like dirty washing etc.
· Wellies are indeed wonderful. Generally, the thicker the sole the better, and again fleece linings are the preferred choice. Consider also flip-flops or the near-ubiquitous (and, of course, two-times Camping Magazine Award-winning) Crocs.
· Anything else? Wet wipes, hand sanitisers, plastic carrier bags, washing line and pegs (or something a bit more deluxe, like a free-standing airer), a toilet roll or two – make space for these, they’re all classed as essentials.
· The next big thing in kids clothing? Look towards what’s going on with adults. It’ll be softshell…
TOP 21 KIDS' CAMPING TIPS
Thanks to Little Terras, Go Outdoors and Yeomans for helping us with our Top 21 of kids’ camping tips. We’ll leave sorting the right campsite to you – but just remember, you may well need to book in advance.
- Camping with kids for the first time? Get them involved right from the start. Build their excitement and anticipation and plan things together. Get them to help out by looking for places to go on the Internet and then build their map reading skills by asking them to look them up on the map. Enlist their help by getting them to choose their own gear, eg sleeping bag, in colours and sizes to suit.
- Practice might make perfect. Try a practice run near home (or even in the back garden) before you take the plunge and make that first, full camping trip. It will help them get used to the tent – putting it up and taking it down – and gear generally, eg cooking outdoors.
- Outdoor actions. This might sound silly, but get your kids used to the outdoors. A walk in the local woods, visit to a nature reserve etc can help get them ready for what’s in store on holiday. The novelty of sleeping under canvas, eating outdoors and being able to run about on a campsite can be more than enough – so don’t feel you have to fill the days with expensive outings.
- Question time. Ask them what they want to do (or learn) when they are away. Depending on their ages get them to write a list and plan certain things you can all do each day of your trip. With a bit of parental guidance, even stately homes and museums can be more interesting as part of a camping venture.
- Empowerment through ownership. Give them some equipment they can call their own – even if it’s just a torch. A small daysack each is handy – you can also get them to tidy their gear into it when in the tent.
- Take your time. Give yourself plenty of time to arrive on site and get things set up. It’s all part of the adventure, after all, and the kids will want to explore their new surroundings. Preparing some or all of your first meal on site the night before you go away can be a really effective time-saver.
- Keep entertaining. But let ‘em get out there, too. If you’re very lucky, you’ll have provision to take your bikes with you. Your kids will soon hook-up with other kids, and chances are you’ll meet similar families to yourselves. As a rule, the smaller the campsite, the friendlier everyone is.
- Read all about it. Buy books on camping or borrow them from your library – you can get them for all ages. Even if they can’t read they will love looking at the pictures and imagining it’s them.
- List it. Make a full list of what you thing you’ll need. This can, of course, be revised – up or down – depending on things like available luggage space in the car, and indeed budget. But do consider: children’s clothing; insect repellent, sun cream, first aid kit etc; toys and games etc; essentials for hygiene; something familiar – eg your kids’ favourite bedding item(s) or teddy bears, dolls etc.
- Dress for success.Be prepared for any weather and bring more clothes than you think you'll need. From baby up, your kids will get dirty, but that's part of the fun. Don't forget a sunscreen and a good hat. Give some thought to using insect repellents on young children (see safettots.co.uk and lifesystems.co.uk). Equally, a large piece of mosquito netting can be draped over a stroller or crib for protection from bugs.
- Travel lightly. Remember, the longer the journey the more tedious it can get for your children. You don’t have to go long distances to get that away-from-home feeling. Whatever the journey, make sure you have a good selection of distractions – from snacks and sweets to games to play.
- Give everyone jobs. Again, it’s all about keeping everyone involved – from pitching to preparing meals and washing-up, to keeping the tent tidy. Even Official Tent Peg Holder is a very important job, you know!
- Make memories. Cameras and notebooks at the ready? Images, drawings and diaries all help towards remembering some special outings. It’s also great for the whole family to get together and chat about the day just gone as well as agreeing future adventures.
- Ah, the weather. Well, there’s no escaping from it, but being prepared is all-important. It’s not a sign of defeat if you head indoors to see off the worst of any weather. Cinema. Ten-pin bowling. Local leisure centre (you can get wet swimming instead, and grab a good shower afterwards!). Or others.
- Cleanliness. Next to godawfulness?Bring a large plastic tub for baby bath-time (you might even get away with a washing-up bowl, or bucket). Or use one of the waterproof containers you pack supplies in: empty it and fill with water for an instant bathtub! Hand sanitisers and wet wipes are a must.
- Safety firsts.A basic first aid kit is another must. If appropriate, make sure it has a baby thermometer, as well as a baby fever reducer and an antibacterial cream.
- Baby talk. If you're bottle-feeding, think about using bottle liners for the length of your trip and just boiling the nipples over your stove. Premixed formula can be easier than powdered (it’s worth keeping a carton for emergencies). If your baby is eating finger foods, think of bringing some that don't need to be refrigerated. Jars of commercial baby food are an easy and sterile way to provide quick meals.
- Lights fantastic. Any kind of hand-held torches your kids can call their own are going to be fun – the choice is limitless and, as ever, you get what you pay for. Headlamps make after-dark chores easier. If your baby uses a night light at home, think about having something similar in the tent.
- Still concerned?Bring some friends. Extra helping hands can be so useful – but not essential. There’s every chance you’ll make new friends on site, anyway.
- Plan B. Have at least one. Always.
- Stay positive. That’s the key to a great camping experience (and maybe even life) – for everyone!