We just returned from our third annual camping trip. It was the best trip yet, and I thought I would share some of the things that have made these trips work well for our family. Camping is a wonderful experience, but not without quite a bit of planning, preparation, and a little bit of luck. When considering camping with a child with special needs there are some extra considerations to take into account...
Explore your options - Many state parks have campgrounds with ADA accessible sites and restrooms. Do some Internet searching to find out what is available, and what will best suit your family's needs. Aside from physical access, consider what activities are most appropriate - swimming, hiking, fishing, and educational programs may all be available. Where we live it is best to reserve your camp site far in advance, particularly if you need an ADA site. We made our reservations in March for camping in August.
Safety in numbers - We have not tried camping with just our family yet. We have made all of our camping trips with a group of families that all have children with special needs of various types. This year we had seven families with a total of 24 people, and children ranging from 2.5 years to late teens. The advantages to this arrangement include dividing up the work, and sharing gear (see below). It also helps to have extra adult eyes around to watch your children while you are setting up your tent, cooking, or cleaning up a meal. For us it helps that all of the other families are familiar with various special needs, but you could just as easily go with some good "normative" friends, as long as they get it when you have to accommodate and support your child in various ways.
Safety in mind - Find out the particular safety concerns for your selected site. We have camped in bear territory twice now, though we haven't seen any bears (thank goodness!) we have to be careful about storing food, gathering trash, and generally keeping a neat and tidy campsite. There are other concerns like snakes, rivers, lakes, poison oak/ivy, etc. that you should keep in mind, plus sharp and hot tools that may be easier to access than usual. Carefully arranging your campsite and straightforward, frequent, clear warnings to your children help contain these risks. Nothing beats vigilance and preparation.
Find out what you will need - I found this packing list website this year, which helped us have pretty much everything on hand that we needed. Their list has extra space in each category for you to fill in any extras that you might need for your family. Here again be aware of your campsite's environment and amenities. Some have modern restrooms, others not so much. Our camp has frequent afternoon thunderstorms (not this year!) so having rain gear and dry firewood are a must.
Gather your gear - So camping gear can get pretty expensive, but by working together with your camp mates (if you choose this route) you can often share common gear like cook stoves, pots and pans, canopies, eating utensils, chairs and tables. We have added a piece or two of new gear to our stash each trip - this year we bought another air mattress and sleeping bags for the twins. You can borrow or rent gear, too. So far we borrow our tent every year.
Expect it to be messy - Driving into our campground this year we saw some children hiking by the road who were filthy from head to toe. We laughed and said, "Give our kids five minutes and they'll look just like that." It was true. It is easy to get dirty when you're camping, and dirt doesn't hurt (except maybe in the case of children with compromised immune systems, in which case, well you know best how to handle this...) There will also be times that you have to be flexible and inventive if you forget to pack something (like your daughter's swimsuit...ahem) or when your kid wants a nap when everyone else is setting out for a hike. Although this can be challenging, I also view it as a great way to stretch our daughter's coping skills. I really did forget her swimsuit this year, and she very calmly accepted the alternative of wearing some shorts and a tank top into the pool...a year ago that would have been unacceptable to her.
Have you ever taken a camping trip with your family? What tricks did you learn to make it work well for you? Thanks for sharing!