Camping is a great way to spend quality time with your family and it is very affordable when your vacation budget is crunched. But camping with special needs children? That might seem impossible.
My husband and I are NOT outdoorsy people. We tease about writing our marriage vows to include asking one another to go camping would be grounds for divorce. Then… we had kids.
Then… we had kids. Kids who think sleeping on the trampoline overnight is a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy the summer. I think air conditioned rooms with king-sized beds are the best way to tolerate the bugs and heat and sudden showers that come with summer. It’s just a slight difference of opinion.
Regardless, our children – especially our child with high-functioning Autism – is certain that camping is in our future.
Camping with Special Needs Kids
If you have a child with special needs like Autism, going anywhere can be a stressful experience. Planning a vacation can cause even higher levels of anxiety, but there are ways you can help make your family camping trip fun and safe for your whole family.
Research different campsites.
Research is vital for any family trip, but looking for the right campsite when your family has a special needs child is very important. There are campsites that specifically cater to special needs children and their family, which may be an excellent choice for your family.
The National Park Service strives to be accessible to all and has a free download available to help you research specific amenities.
Also, Recreation.gov allows you to refine search results based on various topics including accessibility.
Practice in the backyard.
Most kids with special needs do not like changes in their routine. Preparing them before you leave will help everyone know what to expect.
When our children wanted to go camping, we pitched a tent in the backyard as a test. Everything we did was just like camping would be so they could be completely prepared for the actual adventure. But, we had the comforts of home when the situation became too difficult.
Plan boredom-busting activities.
You know your child better than anyone else, and planning activities to do ahead will give you peace of mind. Children naturally get bored so having a bag packed with coloring books and crayons, books or anything that your child enjoys will help keep them occupied.
If your child has a particular passion, find areas and activities that include these interests.
Have the rules clearly written.
Kids do better when they have structure and rules. If you print out the rules for camping the kids will be able to refer to it (if they can read).
You can have a family meeting to read and talk about the rules. This will help the kids to know what they can and cannot do.
Make safety a team effort.
Safety is most important on your trip. Make safety a part of the fun and get everyone involved. Give your kids different scenarios, and ask them what should they do if something happened.
Practice camping safety with printables or a unit study.
Also, invest in special bracelets to make identifying and contacting you easy if your child gets separated.
Assign different jobs to everyone.
Giving everyone different jobs will help everyone feel needed and important. This will help you divide the work and responsibilities. Be sure each person knows what they are in charge of.
Kids might grumble at the mention of chores but it you emphasize teamwork, they are more willing to assume responsibility.
Bring along extra help if needed.
Sometimes extra adult supervision is required to keep everyone safe. If needed, recruit other family members or family friends to come along for extra support.
And place everyone on the buddy system so no one gets lost, but rotate to keep everyone happy and balanced.
Make a list of essential items for packing.
Having a list really helps to pack everything needed without leaving anything at home. If you need a list of basic camping supplies, view this family camping checklist.
Be sure to include items that help soothe your children, like special stuffed animals or weighted blankets. Consider bringing a white noise/sleep machine and extra batteries to help with any campground distractions. And remember ear plugs for loud sounds.
Keep the list for returning home as well. That way you will be sure to bring everything back and not forget anything important.
Make plans but stay flexible.
Plans are important but staying flexible, especially with special needs kids, is a necessity. It is also helpful if everyone knows that the plans will change if it becomes required.
Having a fun, safe, and memorable camping experience is possible no matter what your family circumstances. New experiences and quality family time are important for all kids, including special needs kids. With planning, practice, and flexibility you can help your family have an amazing camping vacation.
Other camping helps for special needs kids
Camping with special needs children is made easier when you and your children are prepared. Check out these awesome products that will help make camping fun for everyone.
If you are a light sleeper like me, you assume that sleeping on the ground in a tent will leave you waking at the slightest noise. But, just in case you sleep like a log for the first time in your life, lock your tent to avoid having the children roam at night without supervision.
Headlamps make it easier for the children to see at night, but it also makes it easier for you to see them. It’s hard to hide from mom and dad when you have a huge beacon on your head.
The Kids Campfire Book: Official Book of Campfire Fun is packed with outdoor activities, games, stories, and songs as well as ways to stay safe around the campfire.
Give your special needs kids their own set of camping gear with these fun toys. Use them to role play situations so everyone knows what to expect from the trip.
Cooking hotdogs and marshmallows over a campfire can be difficult for children with sensitivities. These telescoping roasting sticks extend to keep children at a safe distance from the heat.
Whether the children are afraid of the dark or need to light a path, glowing lightsticks are an inexpensive solution that helps soothe anxious children.
For kids who are sensitive to sitting on the ground or need extra shade, a canopy chair can provide a simple and portable solution for camping, the beach, in the backyard, and more.
This LED light bulb is battery-powered and perfect for hanging in the tent. It is waterproof too so there are no worries about unexpected rain showers.
The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids: How to Plan Memorable Family Adventures and Connect Kids to Nature is more for parents than kids. Think of it as a handbook for surviving a campout with your kids.
More tips for camping with special needs children
- Check out how Debbie and Mark take their two special needs kids camping. One has high functioning Autism and reflux while the other child has a dairy allergy.
- Stock up on campfire cooking recipes that the entire family enjoys.
- Get more advice for camping with children who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder with these 11 camping tips.
- Learn from an experienced mom as she shares her best advice for planning a vacation (including camping) with a child who has Autism.