Camping with the Kids in the Kootenays
About six years ago when my daughter was two and a half and I was six months pregnant, we drove down to Bryce Canyon in Utah to camp with friends.
My husband and I had gone years earlier, and I remembered how surprisingly close it was, only a day and a half to Salt Lake City. But that was before we had kids.
This time, we had a toddler and a toddler can only handle the car for so long. On this particular fateful trip, we visited a lot of playgrounds in forgettable towns. It took half of our holiday to get there and half to get back, with only two nights in beautiful Bryce itself. We drove through either wilting heat or rainstorms. We wore out two tires on the hot asphalt interstates. It poured in Bryce (in the desert!).
On the journey home, we camped in Yellowstone surrounded by snow and mosquitoes (how is that possible?). Our daughter, road weary by this point, vomited throughout the night. Flooding meant that the campsite’s water pumps didn’t work.
After Yellowstone, we drove through the night and arrived at the Creston border crossing in the wee hours of the morning. Let’s just say it was a memorable trip.
I remember Bear Lake, which straddles the border of Utah and Idaho. As we drove down into the valley, it had all the appearance of an Okanagan-style holiday destination. The lake glittered in the sunlight, fruit stands lined the highway, rolling sage-coloured mountains rose up from the valley floor. Beautiful!
The campsite was expensive, but we felt lucky to get one of the last spots. Our site was in a thick stand of cottonwoods, carpeted by two inches of cottonwood fluff (which got into everything). Wearily, we set up the tent then headed to the lake shore. Instead of a beach, a wide stretch of lake reeds and thick swampy silt lay between us and clear water. The rank-smelling sludge was too much even for our water-loving toddler, who wanted nothing to do with Bear Lake. But obviously boating was the only thing to do there. Our neighbour loved the place, had already been there for two weeks. The poor guy didn’t know any better.
I think that’s when I knew there was no point in travelling further than three hours from home, especially while our kids were little. Nothing compares to camping in the Kootenays.
Camping Then, Camping Now
As a child, camping meant canoeing on either Kootenay or Slocan lakes, finding an empty beach for the night, not seeing another soul for days. These days, we car camp, mostly in campgrounds or rec sites. And it’s a very social experience.
I don’t want to give you a long list of dos and don’ts, or a lesson on how to camp with kids, because you know your camping style and your kids a lot better than I do. But I can share with you what we’ve done and what works for us.
OK, I’ll give you one piece of advice: playmates make all the difference. For our kids, camping combines the freedom of uninterrupted free play with the ultimate dream of the never-ending playdate. What more could you want?
If you’re looking to escape it all, days of peace and solitude, or endless hours of hiking/rafting/climbing, then sorry, I can’t help you. And I won’t lie to you – camping with kids will take some effort. But oh, it’s worth it.
…most kids I know love camping. (Happy kids, happy parents.)
…it’s an affordable way to holiday as a family
…have you’ve ever heard of nature deficit disorder? Camping is the perfect cure.
…once your kids are old enough, you’ll find that downtime you crave.
The Nuts and Bolts of It
Let's run down some of the basics of effective family camping.
For me, the biggest stress about camping is the food prep. (Is it just me?) Somehow, planning meals and packing the cooler takes more time than all the other packing. Over the years, we’ve come up with a method for simplifying our meals.
Our plan is very basic. Instead of filling the cooler with ice (wasting space!), I cook and freeze meals ahead of time. These are often leftovers or I make an extra-large batch of dinner. These frozen meals keep everything else in the cooler cold over a two- or three-night trip. My food planning goes something like this:
Day 1: dinner made with fresh food that wouldn’t last long.
Day 2: frozen, pre-made dinner
Day 3: non-perishable dinner, i.e. from a can or a box
If we’re camping for longer than three days, then we just bring extra frozen meals. If I’m organized, I’ll wash and prep snacking veggies in advance, for less fuss and less compost to cart around. My friend goes one step further and takes two coolers. Only she is allowed to open the “good” cooler, which is chockablock with frozen food. The other cooler is filled with snacking food and perishables and anyone can open it.
Our camping breakfasts are mostly simple granola and fruit, but I do bring pancake fixings for one morning. I freeze portions of milk, too.
As for our home away from home, we opted to upgrade our tent rather than buy a tent trailer or camper. We now have a roomy six-person tent that’s big enough to stand in and has a second room for storage or rainy day play.
Then, once I realized that my main resistance to camping was that I was always sleep-deprived, we invested in thick, good-quality mattresses. They are so worth it!
If we have room in the car, we also bring along our old, small tent as a “play tent.” That way, the kids can have an extra space and can leave their toys in a heap if they want to.
What to bring
Though honestly, our kids don’t play with most of their usual home toys. Bikes, water toys, balls, or frisbees are worth packing and get used more often. Sidewalk chalk can be fun if your campsite has paved roads. A few books are a must. If your kids are older, then a board game or two will help if the kids need downtime or to get out of the weather. But for us, dolls or cars or toys with small parts are most often lost, dirty, or completely forgotten. Water, rocks, sticks, moss and the whole of the great outdoors provide hours of entertainment. And their friends, of course.
I also pack extra clothes and shoes. It’s amazing how quickly my kids get dirty or wet. Rainwear and warm clothes are necessary, if only as a good luck charm. For myself, I always bring earplugs (for noisy neighbours or noisy creek, etc.) and a book (because I’m ever hopeful).
If your kids are big enough to help with paddling or if you are a super paddler yourself, then you will still find quiet beaches along both Kootenay and Slocan lakes. One year, we rented one of Hellman’s biggest canoes. They are easy to handle and affordable to rent. Though please respect the lake! Our oldest daughter had a hair-raising paddle during a sudden squall between Pebble Beach and Dutch Harbour.
Where to Go, What to Do
Almost every campground or rec site that we’ve visited in the Kootenays offers a reward of one kind or another. Though to warn you, campsites can popular with the party crowd too. Here are a few we’ve enjoyed:
Warm showers! Flush toilets! Need I say more? A small but lovely campsite on gorgeous Slocan Lake, within walking distance of town. But during grad weekend, the long weekend, or during the Valhalla Arts Festival, it is likely to be completely booked or full of rowdies.
Simple but quiet and relaxing (though busy on Toadfest weekend). Good for exploring with a canoe or boat.
The north shore gets the afternoon sun so the water will be warmer. The North campsite has a steep pebbly beach and a few wooden platforms for tents.
Further down the road, the South campsite has a flatter beach, boat launch and boulders that are good for climbing. I’d recommend camping by the creek if you think the neighbours might be loud. The white noise will drown out most partying!
This site (featured in the first image of this post) is worth the extra drive and the long dirt road. It has a few walk-in sites, and the camp host will lend you a wheelbarrow to cart your gear. You can explore a hunter’s cabin a short canoe ride or walk away. Bring your own water. This site is very popular, especially in August.
A large campsite with three small lakes, two beaches, trails and a playground, but best visited after black fly and mosquito season. (I say this from experience.)
On Lower Arrow Lake, this is another large site with warm water, a huge beach and a playground. Kid central!
North of Kaslo, small but beautiful and the breeze off the lake means fewer mosquitoes.
Just past Lost Ledge, this site has been expanded recently. You will see beautiful sunsets from the point. Driftwood covers the beach, which makes for good fort-making.
Where's your favourite place to camp in the Koots?
These are just a few — there are so many more. If you have a favourite, please let us know in the comments!
My kids are now almost old enough for a longer road trip. We might even consider another visit to our friends in Utah. What does my daughter remember from her first trip to Bryce? “I remember the car,” she said.