Having spent years camping with my husband and three children these are my tips on getting the most out of the outdoor life. In many respects these tips apply to all families but I have included some points to consider if you have children on the autism spectrum. However, children are individuals and it’s not possible to consider every situation that an autism parent faces. Indeed for some families, camping may not be an option at all. Nevertheless here are some pointers to think about if you do decide to give it a go.
Camping equipment – undoubtedly the main item is the tent. There are loads of tents on the market so it’s worth while checking out reviews and looking at them. Questions to consider include: How many bedrooms do you want? Are the bedrooms big enough? How are they arranged? What’s the main compartment like? This is the area where you will cook, eat, play games etc and where you could spend quite a bit of time if the weather is bad. Is it spacious enough? Is there enough storage? Also consider the size and weight of the tent when packed and how transportable it is. For more information on choosing a tent, click here.
As for other equipment, this checklist is a good place to start. Use this as a basis and adapt it for your needs but remember to keep a copy and check against it when packing. There is nothing worse than getting to a site and realising you’ve forgotten something.
The site – it’s always worth thinking about what you want from a site and researching it in advance. Do you want a large site or a small site with minimal facilities? We used to go on sites that were neither too big or too small but had enough to entertain our children without having the stress of leaving the site. Having a swimming pool was also a must for us as water is hugely soothing for my children. Also consider whether the site is family friendly? What are the site rules? Think about site security as well - is it locked at night, is there CCTV? These things can be reassuring when you’re camping with children.
Pitches – the size of the space for your tent is really important. Too small a space and you can feel uncomfortably close to your neighbours. Some sites allow pre-booking which we found particularly helpful in choosing a pitch that was near to play areas and other amenities.
Electrical hook ups – these enable you to have power to your tent which means you can have a portable heater in your tent and lights for example but it could also mean you can run a laptop or small TV. There is usually an additional charge for this but having power is very useful if your children need their technology. Click here for further guidance on electrical hook ups.
Toilet/shower block – it’s worth finding out what these are like. Are there parent and child rooms? Are there disabled facilities? How clean are they, are there enough of them (nothing worse than being in a queue). For a few years we used the extra large parent and child facilities. You may also want to prepare your child for the toilet/shower block as my children found these communal facilities intimidating. Here is a social story I found on the internet that is aimed at the higher functioning child, but it gives you an idea of the sort of thing you can do – a social story about using public toilets.
With overnight toileting, you can buy camping toilets or you could use a wee bucket (sounds awful but very convenient if you have a disorientated child in the middle of the nigh). With regard to nighttime bed wetting, we sometimes found nighttime pull ups an effective way to avoid a soaked sleeping bag in the morning. If this doesn’t work (ie they don’t stay on), take a spare sleeping bag and look for a site with a laundry.
Food – another point to consider is whether the site offers a shop or whether there is a supermarket or shop nearby. Camping in the middle of nowhere sounds idyllic but it’s not so great when you’ve run out of supplies and you have a child who’s on the edge of a meltdown. I also recommend that you take some supplies with you for the first couple of days while you climatise to your new environment.
Weather - how will you cope with different weather conditions? Tents can become very warm during hot weather but a big door or canopy can provide a lot of ventilation – again see the tips on choosing a tent. Similarly for cold nights, a little fan heater and blankets can make a tent feel very cosy. Also think about what you will do if the weather is bad. A supply of games, books, toys, arty stuff, DVD player etc can help keep everybody occupied on a rainy day. Also consider whether you want any on-site facilities or nearby attractions to entertain your children on bad weather days.
Preparing your children – books, social stories and the internet are useful resources for this. Also think about borrowing a tent to see if camping is for you. Alternatively practice camping in the back garden or at a local campsite.
Routines - think about your child’s daily routines – morning, lunchtime, bedtime etc and how far you can maintain them whilst camping. Maintaining routines as closely as possible can help your child to stay relaxed and help them cope with the new experiences he or she will encounter whilst camping. Remember those visual timetables.
Sensory issues - try and accommodate sensory issues and take things with you that will ease anxieties. Ironically, for my son snugly sleeping bags and torches were as calming as some of the more typical sensory toys. I also found it really important that my son had his ‘own place’ in the tent where he could make it his own by bringing toys and comforters from home.
When you start out, camping can feel like a lot of hard work. However, if you find camping works for your family it does get easier in time as you become more experienced. Having autistic children adds another dimension of work but by maintaining routines as far as possible and managing our children’s sensory issues and anxieties we not only help them, we help ourselves. If our children are calm and settled then we have a greater chance of enjoying our holiday as well and boy don’t we deserve that!
You may be interested to read my other post – Camping with autistic children – yes we’ve done it and survived.