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Colorado Livin' / Family Travel

Family travel: Colorado camping expert offers tips for taking the kids

Family travel: Colorado camping expert offers tips for taking the kids

The title of expert on camping with kids should probably go to Boulder mom Helen Olsson, who authored the aptly titled “Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids” (Roost Books) in 2012.

Olsson, an adventurous outdoor enthusiast, spent her childhood camping in upstate New York, and she now spends her summers hitting campsites around Colorado with her brood, ages 8, 10 and 13.

The subtitle of Olsson’s book is “How to plan memorable family adventures and connect kids to nature.” It’s also an apt description of this guide that is one part camping primer — filled with tips, packing lists, arts-and-crafts activities, outdoor games and recipes — and one part encouragement and motivation.

Here, to inspire your next camping trip is some insight from Olsson, who blogs about her family’s fun (and funny) adventures at

At what age can you start camping with kids?

As soon as parents feel that their babies are sturdy and healthy enough. In fact, I think camping with infants is easier than camping with toddlers. Babies aren’t mobile, so you can be assured a level of containment. Toddlers are constantly on the move, and they love to put rocks in their mouths. You have to watch them every minute, especially around hazards like fast-moving water.

What mistakes do you think most parents make when they camp with their children?

You need to manage your expectations, especially when it comes to hiking — an activity that tends to go hand-in-hand with camping. You may not hike 10 miles a day, but that’s OK. The point is to immerse kids in nature, get them unplugged from all those vexing digital games, and connect instead with the family. It’s a cliché, I admit, but camping really is an ideal way for parents to bond with the kids. You just have to try to take the day at the kids’ pace, not yours.

What’s your go-to camping food item that everyone likes to eat (besides the ever-popular makings for s’mores)?

We love to make Hobo Packs when we camp. Essentially these are individual serving sizes of ground meat, onions, peppers, carrots, fresh corn cut off the cob, small red potatoes, a little oil, garlic, fresh herbs, and salt and pepper all folded into foil packets. Roast the packets over the coals of your campfire for 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the heat of the fire.

Photo courtesy of Helen Olsson

Photo courtesy of Helen Olsson

What games or activities do you bring along in case of crummy weather?

Portable games like chess and checkers are great, but it’s easy to lose the pieces in the sleeping bags. We always bring playing cards, and everyone brings a book in case we need to cuddle in the tent and wait out a storm.

What’s your favorite place to camp in Colorado?

We love Molas Lake in southwestern Colorado ( It is absolutely gorgeous; the campsites are private and right on the lake. You can fish, hike and bike. It’s a hump from the Front Range, but it’s worth it. There are so many amazing places to camp in the state, especially if you’re willing to drive a little bit.

What’s the most important piece of camping gear you absolutely should not forget to pack?

With kids, never leave home without a good pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass. Kids are always getting little splinters in their fingers and prickly pear cactus spines in their toes. And duct tape. Always bring duct tape.

Any other smart items you always pack?

Bring a battery-operated nightlight for kids who are afraid of the dark. It’s dark in the woods! Another fun way to add a little glow to the tent at night is to bring glow sticks. Kids can crack them and play with them just before bed, then you tuck them into the tent’s mesh pockets as kids drift off.

What’s your all-time favorite camping memory, when you were a kid or with your own children?

That’s easy! When I was a kid, my family and I camped at the Delaware Water Gap. We were sitting around the campfire roasting marshmallows and a family of skunks came wandering out of the woods, right in our direction. We were sitting in those metal fold-up chairs and — I am not kidding — they walked right under our feet, circumnavigated the fire and disappeared back into the woods. No one took a breath for 20 minutes. I’ll never forget it.

-Kara Williams

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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