Summer Camping with Kids Gets Really Messy — This Is My Survival Strategy

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When we first bought a camper, as I was nursing one baby and chasing a toddler around years back, I swore we’d never actually use the miniature shower inside. Was I ever wrong. Camping with (now) four boys under age 7 is quite the mud, sand, and muck-filled experience, but one that is immensely enriching their childhood. Every other weekend from April through October, they are sloshing, splashing, exploring, stomping, and adventuring through campgrounds, coating their clothes in mud and coming back with various plants stuck to their hair. Here’s how we are surviving summer camping masses.

Remember the “dustbuster”? Those tiny handheld vacuums that people used to keep on a wall hook in the ’90s have come a long way, and they’re small enough to empower kids to clean up their own masses now. So if some sandy boots get tracked into the camper, or someone’s cereal goes flying, it’s not a crisis. Instead, they have learned to grab the dustbuster, handle the mess, and get on with playing. Ours is located right near the camper’s tiny “drop zone” where kids can leave sunglasses, shoes, hats, and coats, for convenience.

“Peppa Pig” might have taught my kids how to jump in very muddy puddles, but she did little for teaching them how to get it off after. I accidentally discovered the solution when their boots, after a rainstorm, sat drying in the sun one camping day, and I picked them up only to discover all of the dried mud falling off by itself. Magic. So now, instead of making more mud by fighting with the muddy boots, shoes, or other objects, I set them in the sun to dry, then bang them together or in the grass and the mud falls away.

I was among the concerned parents when baby powder became a no-no, for the potential carcinogenic properties in Talc. But what I couldn’t shake was how instantly and efficiently it could get a sandy baby or toddler clean in an instant — and I mean even the wettest, nastiest lake sand around. So, I searched for alternatives and landed on some Talc-free options I keep in the camper like Burt’s Bees Talc-Free Baby Dusting Powder, and this USDA-approved Era Organics option. When we’re in a situation where we can’t bathe a kid instantly, such as hopping into the car after a beachy afternoon, this is a lifesaver.

Bring trash bags, towels, and extra outfits.

There’s extensive preparation in packing four kids for a camping weekend, but most of it involved tripling the number of socks, shoes, pants, towels, and underwear I thought I needed. I stash two towels per child in the car, which inevitably get wet, dirty, or muddy every trip, and also leave large trash bags in strategic places. For example, between campfire chairs is a two-drawer Sterilite that holds all the must-haves, from those extra trash bags, to paper towels and bug spray. Preparation and overpacking is key when you need to throw four towels over four different car seats after a creek walk.

Change your expectations.

Much of camping with kids isn’t about the actual hacks for mud and grime itself, but about a mindset shift. Is mud harmful? No. Is sand injuring my baby while he rubs it all over his head at the lakeside beach? Definitely not. So, rethinking our norms about dirt, all of which can be washed off later, is key to helping my kids, and ultimately myself enjoy their childhoods and our camping trips. Instead of fighting dirty shoes in the camper, I bought a few doormats. I trained them on the broom from age 3. And then, I stopped caring about flecks of dirt, and spent my time and energy watching for bugs instead.

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