Summer is here, school is out, and it is finally time for some camping trips in the great outdoors. The campgrounds fill up quickly this time of year as many adults finally get the chance for some real downtime to recharge and relax from the rigors of work. For kids who are full of more energy, sometimes the whole concept of camping proves to be a little slow. And one of the bigger challenges for many parents may be simply finding ways to keep children entertained and engaged during their trips. There are a few options here, endure the constant "I'm bored," complaints, or find something new and fun for the kids to do.
That's why camping is an ideal time to teach kids some handy wilderness and survival skills. These are the types of things they're likely never going to learn in school but can still be incredibly useful skills for them to have as they grow older. In fact, if done properly, teaching one or more of these skills can help foster a love of the outdoors that follows a child throughout their lives. Here are just a few ideas of things to try on your summer trips with your children or grandchildren.
We know both schools and parents spend a lot of time teaching kids the importance of fire safety. There's no reason that learning to build a campfire cannot be an extension of that. The great thing about teaching this skill is you can make it as hands-on as you want. Want them to learn the dangers of matches? Teach them how to use them properly. Maybe you don't want the kids lighting the flame, but they can help with the gathering of the firewood, the preparation of the timber, and the actual setup of the logs for an optimal flame. If you want to take things a step further, teach them how to start a fire using something like a magnesium fire starter or other more primitive techniques. Once you've helped engrain a skill like this in a child, it's not likely to be one they'll easily forget. And who knows? It could possibly help save his or her life one day if they unexpectedly find themselves in a survival situation. Kids will love it since campfires are such a communal thing in the evening, it will make them feel more involved in stuff that's traditionally done by the "grown-ups."
How to Clean a Fish
If you are planning to do some angling on your camping trip, why not have the kids involved in the preparation of dinner? If you are planning to introduce the child to hunting later, this can be an easier introduction to the whole concept of field dressing than having them gut a deer their first time out. The other benefit is there's not much a kid can mess up on a fish if they don't get it exactly right the first time. Contrast that with dressing a deer where a stomach puncture could soil the meat. We also like fish cleaning as an introduction to safe knife handling skills in a controlled environment. Focus on things like cutting away from the hands and body. You could even throw in a bonus lesson on knife sharpening into the equation. Either way, once they get over the gross nature of it, kids will feel a sense of pride and joy in having helped contribute to a family meal in such a big way.
Construct a Survival Shelter
Even for adults, practicing the construction of a survival shelter can help you learn what not to do should you ever find yourself lost in the wilderness and needing a place to sleep for the night. For kids, this is like making a fort, but a fort that could one day save their life if they ever get lost or separated from the rest of the family. We recommend starting with a basic lean-to type of shelter that can be made using little or no tools. You could also add some basic items like tarps or survival blanket into the construction if you want. If the kids get a kick out of it, you can advance towards making a more sophisticated shelter, perhaps something with an elevated bed or fire pit out front. This provides additional educational opportunities on tool usage, and the importance of staying protected from the elements and warm when lost in the wild.
If you are going to be camping in an area with non-potable water, there are lots of opportunities here for teaching a bevy of water purification skills. If you want to get super advanced, you could build a complete water purification system from scratch with a child using charcoal, cotton, and other basic materials. Another possibility is to build a solar still, or to use any of the hundreds of water purification products on the market today. If you choose to boil water, you can combine water purification with fire building for a double lesson. Teaching water purification is a great chance to educate about the dangers of drinking water unfiltered in the wild. Humans can last a while without food, but only a few days without water. Teaching water safety and purification skills could save a child's life if they ever find themselves in a survival scenario.
Animal Scat and Track Identification
For kids, it's easy to get scared by strange sounds in the woods while they are camping, especially if you live in the city. Their imaginations can quickly run wild, imagining all sorts of monster out there in the dark. You can help take away some of the fear and mystery of the outdoors by helping them to identify the different types of droppings and tracks you find in the woods nearby. These are good skills to have from a safety standpoint too. The child will know when to be wary when they spot a bear or mountain lion track as opposed to that of a rabbit or a deer. There's even a safety aspect to spotting animal droppings. For instance, raccoon droppings can carry a plethora of parasites and diseases that can do nasty things if absorbed into the human body. Once they know how to spot these things, they will be better prepared to avoid them when you're not around to supervise them. We suggest incorporating a lesson on how to react during a bear encounter into the lesson too.
First Aid Skills
This is something that's going to be helpful to kids in almost every aspect of their lives, not just in camping and wilderness survival. Odds are, someone is going to get a cut or a bruise somewhere along the way while you're camping. This is a great time to teach kids how to properly clean and dress a wound. Familiarize the child with all the different items in a kit and the proper use of them. Learning how to stop bleeding, or how to mitigate pain and swelling after an insect sting are incredibly useful skills to have for anyone. The more skills you can teach them the better. It usually only takes a few minutes of time to do this, but the lessons can last a lifetime.
Basic Navigation Skills
Every year, children get lost in the wilderness, creating a parent's ultimate nightmare. Usually, the best thing to do is to stay put, that's how a lot of rescuers find lost hikers ever year. However, there are some scenarios that call for a person needing to find his or her own way out. Basic navigation skills are a huge help in this regard. Most kids today are probably quick to rely on GPS or cell phone to find their way around. Give them a leg up by teaching them map and compass skills. Even if you only teach them the basics on how to tell directions from the stars, or how the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, that's better than them having no navigational skills at all. You just never know when it might come in handy someday.
Last, but not least we'd suggest knot tying as a great wilderness skill to teach children while camping. It's a simple way to keep kids occupied for a while in camp practicing clove hitches or bowline knots. The more they learn, the better. A good knowledge of knot tying helps not just with setting up tents in camp. It can also help them hang the food at a bear safe level, or to help construct a quick survival shelter in a pinch. Knot tying is one of those skills that's hard to forget, even years down the line. Someday your child may thank you for helping them learn how to tie a bowline or a sheet bend when it comes in handy in some other aspect of their lives. And you can easily incorporate learning them into some of the other skills we've noted here. Teaching these skills to kids can help set them up for a lifetime of outdoor fun and adventure they can eventually pass on to their peers and their own kids one day.
For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram For original videos, check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels.