Camping is a wonderful activity for the whole family to enjoy and in my opinion, the more the merrier! I LOVE camping but camping with a large group can present problems if ideas, rules and yes even agendas aren’t discussed prior to leaving. Dissatisfaction happens when someone’s expectation wasn’t met. The same thing can happen during a camping trip. It could have gone perfectly well in one person’s view, but another person felt let down. This happens when an expectation or wish was not fulfilled. Therefore, the biggest piece of advice I can give you when camping with a large group, is to communicate and do it often.
Prior to leaving, have a meeting of the minds. Share what your hopes are for the trip and include the kids! This is a great opportunity to dispel any myths the kids might have of what they will be doing on the trip. A great example is when my son told us, prior to leaving for the Keys, he couldn’t wait to go out deep sea fishing. Uhhhh…. Nope, sorry we’re not doing that. He had visions in his head of chartering a boat and getting some BIG TUNA! Lol. I love him for his sense of adventure, but we had to let him down and explain, no buddy, not this trip. That activity is quite expensive and one day we would love to do that, but it’s not gonna happen on this trip. He handled it like a champ, but all I thought was, holy cow, what if we hadn’t asked him what he was most looking forward to?! He had this grandiose idea in his head and would have inevitably been let down and quite possibly could have ruined his whole trip! So ask the kids, what are you most looking forward to? Talk about what possible activities everyone can enjoy: lawn darts, hillbilly golf, bean bag toss, riding bikes, hiking, scavenger hunt, roasting marshmallows, etc.
Once everyone has shared their wishes and expectations of the trip, it’s time to establish rules. Camping with your family is one thing, you know your kids, the kids know the rules and so forth. But throw in another family or several other families and suddenly the lines are blurred. What you allow your child to do, may be off limits for another child. Similarly, rules at home are different than rules while camping. Establishing common rules and expectations for the kids lets them ALL know where the line is drawn.
During one memorable camping trip, a rule the whole group all agreed on was that no child was allowed to go anywhere (not even the bathroom which was just a short walk away) without telling an adult where they were going. No kid, no matter how old, was allowed to walk off by themselves without telling an adult. We also had a rule that the little kids had to go to the bathroom with a buddy. Having the same rules isn’t just about safety, although that is paramount in traveling with a large group where the kids outnumber the adults, but this can also help set some expectations for the trip. For example, if one family allows their kids to play electronics but yours doesn’t, then there needs to be a discussion prior to leaving. Aligning your values of what the camping trip should entail, allows for a more cohesive experience for everyone. If there are multiple campsites being utilized by multiple families, one expectation could be that there is one central meeting space. When we camped with a church group, we learned that they purposely reserved an additional campsite that was just for the chairs and the campfire. This central location became meeting point number one, and no matter where the kids were at, if we called out to them to come in for lunch, that was where we all met.
Next, plan out your menu and meals ahead of time. Find out if there are any allergies and/or major food dislikes before you go so that no one is left eating chips for dinner because they are allergic to the main dish. Then plan your meals to do double (or triple) duty. For example, the same sliced cheese used on the hamburgers for dinner can be used for the sandwiches for lunch as well as for the egg burritos for breakfast. Likewise, the tortillas used for the egg burritos can be used for tacos the next night at dinner.
Divide and conquer with food. In one memorable camping trip in which there were over 30 people, including 7 families, we actually divided the meals up amongst families. For example, on Saturday morning the breakfast was provided by the Smith family. Saturday lunch was provided by the Johnson family and Saturday night dinner was provided by the Peterson family and so forth. Another family provided all the cooking gear including a huge grill we all used, the pots, pans, sink, paper plates and utensils. This worked out very well with our large group of church friends because each family was only responsible for one meal yet everybody contributed to the whole of the group.
For a smaller group such as two or three families going camping, you could divide the food out by type instead. One family is in charge of all the drinks and cutlery and plates while another person is in charge of all snacks and fruit, and possibly another is in charge of the cold items like meat or milk or eggs and cheese. This not only divides the cost of food and essentials, but helps with packing, and helps avoid any duplication or missed items.
On our most recent camping trip with only one other family, I was entrusted with creating the menu. This was to be the longest camping trip any of us had ever taken, so naturally my friend said, you do the menu! To start, I simply made a menu for the five days that we would be camping, factoring in that day one, we would be driving quite a distance and would only eat dinner at the campsite. Then based off that menu, I made one large shopping list. Next I took that shopping list and divided it out between the two families. My family was in charge of all of the cold items (since we have numerous coolers). I had to get the eggs, lunch meat, cheese, hamburgers, creamer and milk. Our friends were responsible for all the cutlery, the plates, the utensils, paper towels, snacks, hamburger buns, hot dog buns, basically all dry goods. We both brought drinks; water, beer, Gatorade, and more water. We also both packed our own first aid kits (just in case). *A note about some commonly overlooked food items: don’t forget about the condiments! Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salt and pepper and any other seasonings for your cooking. Think ahead, who is responsible for those items? I can tell you from personal experience, nobody is happy with a bland cheeseburger.
Once the menu is planned, then you can begin to focus on common interests or common goals for the trip. This helps you plan out what to bring and what to do. For example, on one trip, both families all enjoy the water and like to snorkel, so we all brought our snorkel gear and aqua socks with the understanding we would use them as much as possible. On another trip, the entire group understood that biking and hiking would be a part of our daily activities, therefore we all brought our bikes and sneakers. Have this conversation with your group before you leave so that the whole group can plan group activities to enjoy together.
Once an agenda of sorts is worked out, plan for the unexpected. What if it rains? What if they don’t like the activity? What if, god forbid, someone gets injured? What if, they just want some down time? Bring plenty of games and outdoor toys! Bring a plethora of outdoor and tabletop games so that there are choices amongst the kids. We regularly pack lawn darts, hillbilly golf and horse shoes. But also think of games! A regular deck of playing cards, an UNO deck, checkers, tic tac toe, etc. can allow kids to decompress as well as bond. Other suggestions include bingo, giant tumbling blocks, an outdoor scavenger hunt game, baseball and gloves, soccer ball, bikes, skateboards, and Frisbee. These toys allow kids to interact meaningfully and enjoy the outdoors as well without it having to be a planned “activity.”
Finally, utilize the resources within your group. If someone in your group loves bird watching, then ask them if they would be willing to do a bird watching expedition with the kids and help them identify certain species. Or is someone in your group an experienced fisherman? Could they handle taking a few kids at a time to teach them how to fish? On one trip a parent volunteered to teach the kids geocaching with the one request that we all provide compasses to the kids. So we combined two activities in one: we all went for a hike and along the way this parent pulled the kids aside and show them how to do the geocache and use their compasses. It was a simple activity but taught a real-world skill too! Ask the adults in your group who is willing to do an activity with the kids? It might be slightly more responsibility but it’s only for a short period of time. Trust me, the kids love it when they have learned something new and got a firsthand tutorial.
Camping with a large groups takes a bit more planning and a lot more communication, but the rewards are exponential. If you are contemplating a large group camping trip, or are already planning one, go with like minded people, even if everyone doesn’t know each other all that well (that’s part of the point!). Start out small, with just a weekend and stay closer to home. Then as you find those you love to camp with, and as you get more experience in planning the trips, venture further out and grow your group. Some of my favorite memories camping were when we were with a large group and my kids still talk about it.