Camping and stargazing with a child

May 13, 2011

This started out as a comment, in reply to a question from Saint Aardvark on what it’s like camping and stargazing with a 5-year-old along. It grew in the telling, so I’m making it a stand-alone post. If you have ideas, tips, or tricks for making time outdoors with children easier, please share them in the comments!

I started taking London with me to dark-sky sites last summer, when he was about five and a half. Between July and November we went to Owl Canyon, Joshua Tree Lake, Afton Canyon, and the All-Arizona Star Party, so we basically built out from nearby destinations to farther ones. The hardest part for him initially was the long drive. We always pack him a backpack full of books and magazines. I also have a couple of kid-friendly CDs in the car, and I keep a full-size pillow within his reach so he can lay his head down and take a nap while we’re driving.

Once we get to wherever we’re going, London is usually off exploring and looking for bones or cool rocks near our campsite. He is very good at staying withing line of sight and not wandering more than 100 feet or so from me. My first goals are always to get our camping area squared away first, whether we’re staying in a tent or just sleeping in the back of the vehicle, and then to get a fire going for dinner. It helps to arrive an hour or two before sunset; much earlier and we just end up getting sunburned and waiting for dark, and much later and it’s harder to set up in the fading light.

I can’t overstate how useful–nay, critical–it is that I can trust London to mind himself for 30-60 minutes while I get everything squared away. It really drives me nuts when people say how lucky we are that London is well-behaved. It’s true that he has a naturally gentle disposition, but dismissing his good behavior as luck devalues all of the work that we put into disciplining him, and more importantly, all the work that he puts into disciplining himself. It’s precisely because of the effort we all put into maintaining a civil household that we can enjoy ourselves so much when we’re out of the house; good behavior out in the wild is earned by practice at home. I don’t bring this up to be snooty or a tiger parent. I just can’t stand wimps who are too lazy or passive to discipline their kids. That’s a dereliction of parental responsibility and a huge disservice to the children, who will have to learn discipline later on, the hard way, at someone else’s expense. End of rant.

After dinner I make a comfy spot for London to watch for shooting stars and satellites. This might be the lounge chair, if I have it along, or maybe just a sleeping bag and pillow laid on top of a big piece of cardboard on the ground. Or my lap, in whatever seating is available. Usually he tells me when he is getting sleepy and I get him settled in his bed. If we’re sleeping in the back of the car, I make sure a window or door is open so I can hear him if he calls out. He never has yet, but I think the knowledge that he could call for me if he needed is a comfort. And I just don’t want the car sealed up with him inside, even in good weather. I always set up the telescope as close to the car or tent as I can, so I can keep an eye on him and he can know that I’m nearby.

I want London to enjoy these outings as much as I do. I grew up out in the country and the ready access to wide open, semi-wild spaces had a huge impact on me. It’s not really feasible for us to live in the country, so my substitute is to get London out into nature as often as possible, and to try to facilitate his enjoyment of it. Even on the hardcore stargazing trips, I try to make sure that his interests and desires get at least equal billing with my own. I don’t think that’s indulgent–I’d do the same for a camping companion of any age. In the early evening, he mainly wants to run off the cabin fever from the car ride, do a little solo exploring near camp, and look for interesting things on the ground. (I’ve taught him to recognize venomous spiders, scorpions, and snakes. He’s never found any out camping, but when he was four he correctly IDed a black widow spider that set up shop under one of our plant stands in the living room!) I usually grill hot dogs for dinner and then follow up with s’mores. That makes the fixing of dinner something he can help out with, which keeps him engaged and gives him a sense of accomplishment. After dinner, we look for shooting stars and satellites until he conks out. Then I get in a few hours of solo stargazing.

In the morning, we have breakfast and go for a hike. I’m usually running on 3-5 hours of sleep, so having some caffeine available is a must. For the hike, London gets to choose the route and duration (within reason); he’s on these trips to hike as much as I am to stargaze, and we’re both comfortable with the give-and-take involved. If your little one isn’t into hiking, you might see if there is another outdoor activity that they are interested in, that could be their recreational time the way that stargazing is yours. In talking about our hikes, London and I always call them “adventures” that we “brave explorers” go on, and I think putting things in those terms helped inspire him the first few times out. Now he’s so hooked on hiking I could call them “death crawls” and he’d still be eager to get out there.

One last enticement: on the way home, we stop at a restaurant for lunch, and London gets to choose where we stop. This almost always means McDonald’s, but I can live with it. We bring dinner and breakfast fixings with us, so lunch on the ride home is our only extraneous expense. And it gives London a little something to look forward to at the end of the trip, when everything is over but the ride home.

Ultimately, camping with London is so smooth and enjoyable that it’s often the first choice for both of us for passing a weekend with good weather. It’s cheap, too: hot dogs, s’mores fixings, lunch at a fast food joint and 2/3 of a tank of gas usually add up to less money than we’d have spent over the weekend anyway. And it gets us out of the house and at least into some contact with nature. I hope he grows to love wild places as much as I do; I think the best way to cultivate that love is to help him enjoy his time in nature right now. I hope your own family outings are successful, and even when they’re not, I hope that doesn’t stop you from going. It’s worth it.


  1. When we started camping with kids, we only had one, and we actually had a fold-up bassinette for him to sleep in. At one point, we were going out around once a month. So, I’ve had my experiences!

    So, from your post…

    First, get a couple of good tarps/ground cloths. They are much easier to port around than cardboard, and have multiple uses. Try not to get the stiff kind, but also get cloth ones, not plastic. You can lay one out for London to put his sleeping bag on, and if the weather, especially the wind, is cooperative, it’s often all you need.

    My kids were like London…well behaved, and trustworthy, and knew the dangers without being afraid of them. I think the only mishap we had was my son had a bee go into his drink can, and stung him on the lip. We went to either bottles or can covers that have a grid in them.

    I don’t know what you are using for chairs, but we have a set that we usually only use camping, that are the umbrella, fold up type. They make a lounge one that one can easily sleep in. Also, if you are sleeping on the ground much, get sleeping pads. I now use cots, but I don’t really like them in general. I finally found one that was long and wide enough that I didn’t feel like I was going to roll off of it.

    As the kids got bigger, instead of buying bigger tents, I bought them their own. In the end, my wife and I had a decent sized tent to ourselves. If we were camping with friends, the kids had enough room for guests.

    And, I think this is it…..flip top bins. Get the ones with the metal hinge, though. The plastic ones come apart. They stack and you don’t have to figure out what to do with the lids. Just don’t assume they are waterproof – use Rubbermaids if that’s an issue.

    I got to where I could pack the car up in less than an hour. The bins all stayed packed, and were configured so that I could take what was needed for any particular venue. This also meant there was gear I had that was duplicate, always packed and ready. Rarely did anything get left behind.

    Oh, and a fire….they are nice, but sooner or later you’ll either not be able to have one due to fire danger – most of the time around here – or you’ll just get tired of tending one, and making sure it’s out. My wife doesn’t camp much anymore, and when it became just me and a kid or two, we often had all of our meals cook free. No, if it’s cold out, that’s a different story. But in general, anything that needed cooking we did at home and ate everything cold. Meals became less of an event, and more of a nourishment stop so we could do other things.

    I’m sure there’s lots more that I know from my experience, but that’s a pretty good start.

    BTW, the family tent is retiring soon, once I find a replacement I like. We used it on the canoe trip last fall for my daughter and a few other girls. My daughter says it reeks. We’ve aired it out several times, to no avail. We’ve had the tent since before the kids were born, so it’s gotten very good use.


  2. Thanks for writing up your experience. We haven’t done very much camping with our kids at all — only two days last summer in the middle of a much longer road trip, and frankly it ended up going pretty badly.

    I hadn’t thought about it before, but the way you’re doing things (camp out all night) is different from what I’d assumed I’d be doing (staying out ’til midnight, say, then driving home). I think that must be considerably more relaxing than my original plan.

    Contact with nature…hm. I grew up in small towns and became a city boy by choice as soon as I could. But every now and then, there’s a tiny twinge of guilt that the boys can’t find toads to play with around here. 🙂

    Thanks again for the post!

  3. Lovely. Steve

  4. Hey Matt,

    Just came back from a night of Girl Scout camping with my 8 year old near Marlow Oklahoma. Wow what a dark Oklahoma sky…anyway since I was the featured speaker with telescopes and sky charts in hand, the 40 plus girls along with leaders enjoyed Saturn, M51, M13, and many satellites.

    No suggestion here except most did not know what the Milky Way was when it came up (well except my little girl…yes I am proud) but as you can imagine when my 50mW laser came out with the tracing of constellations and Native American folklore they were all in a trance.

    Don’t forget the laser and the stories.

    Your Oklahoman friend

  5. Hey, Christian, great to hear from you. Good story. I haven’t posted in far too long. My last outing was at the beginning of May, to Joshua Tree with some of my former university students. I took the 10″ dob, 15×70 binos, and a green laser, and we spent about 5 hours just touring the sky. Had a blast, easily more fun that stargazing alone, even though I didn’t see anything new. Going camping this weekend–hopefully the skies stay clear and we’ll see some good stuff.

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