Want to take a kid camping, but nervous? If you want to know how to take a kid camping, I’ve put together a great program below, based on a recent trip with my own daughter, Tessa, who had just turned 7. Whether you’re local to us, or elsewhere, I hope this trip inspires you to throw together some fun, and make the most of your time with kids this Spring Break. Note: We live in Texas where spaces are big. Long trips are part of living here and getting remote – you can shorten your adventure to suit your drive tolerances, but we went big).
In August of last year, I took my daughter Tessa (7), on a very Pak’d, fun trip through Texas and New Mexico. I laid out the scheduling to make the shuffle between each location tolerable, and it ended up being the perfect nap period for Tessa to reboot before our next. You can plan a similar trip in your area by looking at a map, finding some cool spots to visit, and tying them together. Do some local research on points in-between for highlights, and to find out more about areas you’ve not previously visited.
Rig: We took our 2022 Toyota 4Runner TRD ORD. It was bought and built specifically for small / light trips just like this. We had recently outfitted it with a 3” lift, using Fox Performance 2.0 Coilovers up front, and shocks in the rear controlling ICON 3” medium duty springs. The front end is protected with an ARB Summit Bumper, which hosts a Warn EVO 10K Winch for recovery + Rigid Lights, and everything rolls on Toyo Open Country MT’s. Our friends at Comal Truck Gear put the whole thing together, and it’s an incredible rig for traveling on highways, mountains roads, trails and everything in between
Gear: For Sleeping, we utilized a LUNO mattress in the back of the 4Runner, to make camp setup easy and fast. Out back, we had the PAKMULE loaded with a Yeti 45qt with cold foods and beverages. 2 Yeti Go Boxes: one loaded with kitchen gear, and the other with chairs/towels/toiletry. And our Large Yeti Panga for clothes. We also had a Rod Holder mounted, and had our Magna grill for cooking food, which lived on the PAKMULE. All the gear was out back, so the interior was free for sleeping.
Food: Coffee. Small Milk. 4 gallons of water. Small OJ. Yogurt. Granola bars. Muffins. Bread and sandwich meat. Chips or pretzels. Hot dogs and buns. Condiments. Smore’s stuff. Hard Fruit, like apples and oranges. Hard boiled eggs. Beef jerky. If you can find a couple pre-made salads to balance it all out, those are pretty nice. But some lettuce and turkey is great too. Or just put some mustard on the lettuce to get your greens in to get your digestion system working.
Planning: In planning for this trip, I knew I wanted to go West. It was August, and Texas was HOT! Cloudcroft, NM, elevation 9,000 feet, was our final destination, but there were so many unique places we wanted to see on the way. I linked together as many as possible, focusing on staying in higher elevations for the cooler night air. After several days of research, here’s what I came up with, and it’s the summary of our trip:
Wed: Depart New Braunfels after school for Davis Mountains State Park. Arrive at 10pm (421 miles)
Thurs: Hike. Depart at 9am for Balmorhea State Park. Make Sandwiches. Eat lunch and swim a lot. (33 miles)
Depart for Carlsbad Caverns. Arrive at 5pm. Cook hotdogs. Drive trail. Watch Bats Fly Into the night. Camp outside of park, on some public land. (140 miles)
Fri: Morning hike caverns in park. Depart for Cloudcroft, NM. Arrive, find campsite in forest. Cook hotdogs, smores, and play in the forest. (153 miles)
Sat: Walk early to Elk outside car. Breakfast and drive to White Sands National Park. Sled dunes. Get sandy. Rinse off. Drive to Ruidoso and ride horses. Depart and drive back to Lincoln Forest Camp site. Tessa cooked. Big campfire. Re-arrange all gear and pack / prepare for early departure back to New Braunfels (147 miles)
Sun: Wake early. Eat breakfast at Dave’s café in town. Hit the road home (597 miles)
Tips: Keep the trip Fun! Be present with your kid. Make meals simple, and easy. Sometimes going too “foodie” can take away from the adventure, at least at first. Entertain your child. Answer the 100 questions they have. Their enthusiasm will be high, because they’re seeing and doing new things. Don’t squelch that energy. Feed off of it instead. Play music. Let them choose songs. We play “DJ” sometimes where she picks 3 songs, and then you pick 3 songs. Have books, both for reading and coloring. Bring card games, like Go Fish. When you stop for gas, buy them a candy treat or fun snack that y’all can share. Say yes, especially if you might normally say no. Make it fun and make them feel special. Remember, you’re making memories. Be sure they’re good ones! Smile a lot, and tell them repeatedly how much you love them.
Day 1: After departing New Braunfels, our small town between Austin and San Antonio, we headed West out to the Davis Mountains State Park (yes, Texas has Mountains!). It was a trek out, be we kept it fun by talking about the sunset, listening to a book on tape, and talking about what she was most excited about doing. I work really hard to keep my kids off screens. So they do have skills that keep them from screaming when not on a device. It takes work though. You have to engage your kids, and have activities for them. We have a lap table for the car, and fill it with coloring books, paper mazes and crayons. Books are great too. Tessa was learning to read, so having a couple books she was confident in, and one that was a stretch read helped too. Yes, let her read those easy books to you 20 times each, and applaud her for the great read each time. It might seem mind numbing at the time, but you’ll never get that time back. This is your only time, especially at a young age, to really shape their personalities, and teach them lessons. It’s you and her. Or you and him. Make the most of it, and make memories.
We arrived late, like 10pm, and we were both wiped out. When we got out of the car, the stars that night, were big and bright (Deep in the Heart of Texas). We ate some leftovers we brought, to make dinner fast, while staring at the stars. In under 20 minutes, Tessa was able to see her first shooting star! I also pointed out to her satellites crossing the sky. (if you’ve never seen them, look for stars that are moving – Pro Tip: If you lay flat and stare at the sky for about an hour, you’ll see the same satellite cross in the same orbital path again). Then we turned in about 10:45, absolutely bushed.
Day 2: After a great nights sleep, we got up, had some yogurt, OJ, blueberries and a small muffin. No cooking, quick and easy. Then it was off for our hike on the Indian Lodge Loop Trail, 2.5 miles of desert mountain rocky hiking. We brought a couple Nalgene’s of water, and a couple granola bars and set off. We loved see the roadrunners while challenging ourselves up the mountain. When we got into the cliffs, we were amazed to see aoudad sheep climbing on the rocky outcroppings. They are a North African animal that was imported into the mountainous area of West Texas in the 1950’s, and are a problem for food and rangelands of the native big horn sheep. After the hike, we drove to Balmorhea State Park, but in route stopped for fuel and fun candy snacks (gotta keep it fun!).
We arrived at Balmorhea, and made some sandwiches before going into the park to cool off. Balmorhea State Park is built around the San Solomon Springs, which pump out more than 15 millions gallons of water per day (in the desert). In the 1930’s the CCC enclosed the spring, making it a natural pool that outflows to the local farms. The pool is 1.3 acres, 25ft deep and holds a year round temp between 72+76 degrees, and is complete with fish and turtles swimming freely beneath locals and travelers alike who have made the pilgrimage to cool off in its waters.
Refreshed, we departed for Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. I had visited here once as a kid, with my mom and sister. But I didn’t have any real memories of it. What I remember most from that trip is U2’s Joshua Tree Album playing constantly, and my sister sleeping in the rear window above the seat of mom’s 1985 Honda Accord. When we arrived, we were early to see the bats, so we found a backroads trail, pulled off and cooked some hotdogs on the Magna grill (on the PAKMULE). From our perch above the cavernous desert, Tessa watched intently as I taught her about the grill, how to determine when the dogs were done, and then we compared the flavors and preferences of our condiments. She’s a ketchup only kinda gal. I’m (sorry, not sorry) a full ketchup, mustard and mayo guy. Love the mayo. After wiping the ketchup from our mouths (with our hands, and then onto our clothes) we put away our kitchen and drove the 9 miles while enjoying local flora and fauna. Ocotillo, more aoudad and winding trails that were fun to explore while awaiting the sun to set low enough for the bats to exit the cave.
The visitor center at Carlsbad is quite spectacular, and recently completed. It sits atop a bluff, and looks out over the valley below for as far as can be seen. We walked down to the bat cave, and learned more about the Mexican freetail bats that were going to exit within the next 30 minutes or so. We learned that they visit to give birth, and then head back home. They are incredibly supportive of the local farmers crops, by helping to regulate the amount of insects (by eating them) that would otherwise decimate the crops. When they exited the cave, they came out in tornadic fashion, in order to ward off attack by owls or hawks that might be awaiting their exit. And then, after 20 minutes or so we wandered off quietly, while the bats continued to exit until all 400,000 or so were out and feeding on the night. (and not on humans or animals by the way, they do not drink blood, they just eat insects).
In Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you are unable to camp, unless you have a backcountry backpacking permit. There is no car camping. No RV camping. And there are no sites. Due to the nature of the caverns and the sensitivity of the site, it is largely untouched. That does create some issues for lodging after the bats depart at dark. Just outside the entrance there is White City, named after Jim White who discovered and surveyed much of the Caverns. But we ventured further until we found some BLM public land, where we pulled off and made camp for the night.
BLM land is public land, and it is one of the nation’s greatest treasures, though it exists largely in the West. I’ve used it countless times to pull off on road trips to sleep. But it’s more enjoyable when you have time to spend a night or 2 and explore. This night, however, was not ideal. It was warm. Very warm, and so we had all the windows open, including the rear hatch. But then the mosquitos found us, and all we could hope for was that a swarm of bats would come hang out with us and rid us of these tiny buzzing bloodsuckers. After a couple hours of fighting misery, I did the unthinkable. I rolled up the windows, turned on the car, and blasted the a/c. Now, there are untold dangers associated with this I’m sure, and so I do not recommend to ever do this. And I considered them. And then I considered my welted face and sweating body, and like most people that have regrets, I made an unwise decision and started the car. Now, the 4Runner turns off after running at idle after an hour (that is, if you have the push button start, which I do, and which I loathe). So, after an hour of sleep, and cooling the car off nicely, the car turned off, and we slept until sunrise 4 or 5 hours later.
Day 3: Arising that morning, we had our breakfast routine, complete with French press coffee from the Jet Boil. Then we went back to the caverns to hike in and tour all the underworld structures. It was dark. It was cool. And it was pretty incredible. Tessa would also comment several times that it was a little scary, and that she was getting tired of walking. The gift shop improved her attitude, and she left with a Stella Luna bat and the book by the same name.
From the lowlands and caves of SE New Mexico, we traveled NW to the Mountains and cool refreshing air of Cloudcroft, NM. When we arrived, it was damp, rainy and perfectly chilly. We layered up and explored the small town of Cloudcroft. We got our bearings, and then used OnX Hunt to ID the public lands and roads into the Lincoln National Forest, and made our way into the unknown, to find our home, and to find our adventure. Once we found a spot that was perfectly suited for us, we parked, and hopped out of the car to explore in the wet forest, with its muddy floor.
Back at the car, I opened a bottle of red wine, and poured a glass while getting dinner stuff out. Tessa played in the mud, building stick bridges over the ruts produced by cars that had passed earlier in the day I suppose. I sat in the camp chair, and just loved to see her so completely entertained with nothing but sticks, mud and puddles of rainwater. For at least an hour. And when it came time to begin cooking, Tessa asked to cook the hot dogs (yes, again… all 3 nights in fact.). She was a little short, so I placed one of the Yeti Go boxes under her feet, and she perfectly cooked our dinner. It began to rain, and we retreated to the foot of our Luno bed, sheltered from the 4Runner’s lift gate, and watched the rain fall. When it came time for smores, we turned the Magma grill to face the vehicle, and just roasted the mallows on the grill, and ate our smores with big smiles, proud of the smart idea we’d had. Soon after Tessa crashed, and when I looked at my watch, it was only a few minutes past 6pm. I laid down, and read my book for an hour or so, while the rain fell on the roof of the car, keeping rhythm like a Jazz drummer.
Day 4: The next morning we awoke to 2 bull elk less than 50 yards from the car. I pointed them out to Tessa, with the door opened, and they bugled loudly, their echoes resonating through the forest. After a quick breakfast, and a lot of coffee, we closed up camp and drove SW to White Sands National Park. There we bought sleds, waxed them up, and spent the morning driving from one sand dune to the next, sledding. In the desert. Far away from the beaches of 30A, but with sand that was brilliant. As we learned, the sand is actually a gypsum, and so it doesn’t get very hot. But it gets sandy, and by lunchtime Tessa had sand in every crack and crevasse. But the smiles and laughter made it worth it. But our next adventure was a horse ride, and the thought of sand and saddles sounded horrible. So we took the last of our jugged water, and rinsed Tessa completely so she could put on her jeans and boots, and we slowly drove out of the dunes, headed to Ruidoso for some trail riding, Tessa’s most anticipated activity.
We arrived at Grindstone Stables and were introduced to our horses: Tessa was riding Oreo. And I was on Ms. Kitty. Perfect. The trail was slow and muddy, and the air was damp and cool. It was like a scene out of The Man From Snowy River, except less intense. The views were spectacular, and the horses made plenty of body noises to entertain Tessa thoroughly, so we called it a success, thanked the cowboys and headed back to our campsite in Cloudcroft, an hour or so South.
Once we got back to the Lincoln National Forest, we decided that where we had parked previously was pretty ideal, and that we should make it home once again for the evening, albeit up the hill slightly, with hopes that we’d be able to peer into the adjacent openings for a better elk sighting the next morning.
Tessa took full charge of cooking our dogs and begged for a campfire. It was cold, and I wanted one, but it had been wet and raining up there for the past several days, so there was nothing dry to burn. But she persisted, and so we uncovered nearly every small twig and branch we could find that was somewhat dry, and got a warm fire going for smores and hot cocoa time. Once we were thoroughly full, sticky and tired, Tessa turned in for the night, but not before asking me to put some uneaten carrots out for the elk. Once Tessa fell asleep, I spent some tire by the fire, tending it and reflecting on our trip before sufficiently dousing the fire, and turning in myself.
Day 5: We awoke early our last day, and peered out into the forest, looking, hopeful, for some elk once again. But there was nothing but the stillness of the morning, and the damp cool of the mountain awakening from its own slumber. So we stretched, put our beds away, and drove into town for a big breakfast, our first restaurant meal of the entire trip. Eggs, biscuits, pancakes and sausage filled our table, as we talked about all the fun we’d had. Then we pulled out of Cloudcroft, pointed the 4Runner East, and descended the mountains, and spent the next 9.5 hours working our way home. Filled with smiles, laughter, and memories.
Reflections: Tessa gained confidence in herself on that trip. She learned skills like cooking, fire starting and the importance of dry wood (and how to find it). She played, became free in the forest, and laughed loudly at the little things that are often missed. She was attentive, she was present, and so was I. We were not distracted, and we slept, and awoke, side by side for 4 nights following full days of adventure. As we met others along the way, I helped her to remember “yes ma’am” and “no sir” and the importance of manners even when you’re living like a hobo. We grew closer on that trip, and we’ve not grown apart since. It was our trip, and we can’t wait to do it again.
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What a great adventure with Tessa! I know it’s one she will never forget! Education and bonding at its best, by doing and sharing! You’re a great father, treasured by four, I’m sure!
Great read. Thanks for sharing. We are taking our boys (9 & 7) camping for the first time over Memorial Day this year. Looking forward to creating some of these memories as well. Good to hear some of your tips and strategies.