Camping with Autism: Tips for a Positive Experience
To ensure that things go smoothly on a vacation in the great outdoors for those with spectrum challenges, here is an autism guide to camping.
You will find important sensory considerations as well as advice on campsites and equipment that will help you make the best decisions when planning your trips.
Passing on a love of camping…with some “growing pains”
I loved camping as a small child. My first family vacations were at state parks and lakes in a pop-up camper. We hiked, cooked over a campfire, and went swimming, canoeing and fishing.
I have a deep nostalgia for what camping means: family bonding, respite from home activities, and a chance to rejuvenate in the relaxing outdoors.
Wanting to pass that love onto my own children, we decided to begin with tent camping. We chose a park about 30 minutes away. Our site was right on the edge small lake, so we could fish right off the bank.
Things went fairly well that first night…until about 5 a.m. the next morning. My daughter woke up screaming at the top of her lungs and could not be consoled. This caused my son to panic as well. We decided to just pack up and leave right at sunrise, fearing the wrath of our campground neighbors (hopefully) still asleep.
Extremely disappointed, we sort of…gave up for a while.
If only we were simply more realistic about camping to begin with we could have given it another go while they were young.
Now that my teenagers have successfully experienced tent-camping with the Scouts, we decided to invest in a pop-up camper. We love it! We cook over a fire and read books in hammocks; when it rains we play games inside the camper.
Hopefully our own camping experiences over the years will serve as a guide to help you decide how you should approach camping having autism in your own family.
Practical Advice for a Positive Camping Experience
1. Consider the “5-senses” of camping.
The smell of a campfire. The sight of a fire lighting up the night. Unless you are camping by yourselves in the middle of nowhere, then be prepared to encounter lots of other campers, too.
The level of these sensory experiences depends on the location of the campground and your individual campsite as well as the people around you.
Assess how your child’s sensory needs can be accommodated on a camp-out considering the five senses:
- Sounds: range from quietly muted to loud, such as nearby site conversations; kids yelling to one another on their bikes; loud diesel trucks going by; sounds of birds and other animals; dogs barking; etc.
- Sights: range from minimal stimulation to moderately high, such as a private tree lined site to wide open spaces with lots of games and other social activity between people of different campsites. Some campgrounds form little communities of people of who come back year-after-year.
- Tactile: Some camping pads are gravel rocks with some dirt or grass while others are a smooth concrete pad. Handling wood or sitting on a rough picnic table may irritate some. If your autistic child likes deep pressure, then swing hammocks are a perfect way to relax.
- Smell: most smells are muted, but others can be strong like smoky campfires and fuels from cars driving by while others are very pungent (think “outhouse”).
- Taste: if your child is sensitive to different waters, then bring your own water. Most full-hookup sites have water available, but you may want to use it only for external purposes (i.e. washing).
2. Choose the right location.
So much of your experience depends on the location of the campground and your site within it. Find out the level of accessibility for personal needs, safety, and recreational amenities.
Some campgrounds have websites or videos of their sites to show what it’s like. Or, call the campground for more info. (Poor Farmer’s RV campground in Ohio is one that serves both short- and long-term campers.)
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is the campground and/or some sites completely in a wooded area or in full sun? This can be a critical element if someone in the family is sensitive to sun and heat.
- Does it have natural privacy barriers and plenty of space between sites, or is there very little privacy?
- What is the terrain like? Rough, steep, or flat?
- Does it have access to water and electricity or will you be totally roughing it?
- Does the campground and site fully accommodate someone who needs a wheelchair or other medical equipment?
- Is there WiFi available in case of emergency (or can you easily reach someone at the campground office)? Many state and national parks have limited or no internet access while private campgrounds may have WiFi available for guests.
- Is your site accessible to other activities and restaurants or is it pretty remote?
- Are pets allowed? What rules are in place if dogs are allowed?
- If your child is a runner, would you be able to get help right away?
- Is the location near water if your child is not yet a swimmer?
- Would you feel comfortable giving your child some room to explore the campground on his or her own?
3. Assess your accommodation needs.
Your camp experience can range from living like a pioneer in a makeshift tent to “glamping” like a rock star in a mini-apartment on wheels. Consider your family’s needs and previous experience staying in places away from home.
Could they actually “rough it” or would they need a more familiar setting like your own home? Here are some pros and cons of each type of camping accommodation:
- Pros—cheap; relatively easy to set up; can be brought on a plane; set up anywhere; ideal for getting into remote places with fewer people.
- Cons—may not be fully weather proof (rain, wind, cold, heat); little room to move, sit, stand; may not sleep comfortably; tight quarters for a large family or older kids; may need to bring a lot of loose items to camp.
- Pros—compact and lighter to tow (most cars); cheaper than most campers; queen or king-size beds; can sleep a whole family; often includes sink, stove and possibly a shower/toilet area.
- Cons—smaller space than a travel trailer; takes at some time and effort to set up; canvas can tear and have holes; may not have access to some campgrounds (especially those out West if bears are a concern); not suitable to keep pets inside if you leave; may not have a toilet.
- Pros—not much to set up; can store items inside; fits most campsites (depending on size); can take your vehicle to go places; full bathrooms and decent size kitchen areas; great for longer vacations (week or more).
- Cons—need a larger truck or SUV to pull; new campers can be expensive; some beds actually smaller than they appear in photos; may require a lot of gas to tow.
- Pros—very little to set up; “home-on-wheels” style comfort with nicer kitchens, beds and bathrooms (maybe even washer/dryer); large space (especially bump-outs); ideal for long-term camping (weeks to months).
- Cons—very expensive; may not fit in some campgrounds; must tow a separate vehicle if you want to go other places; expensive to repair/can break down while traveling; various states have different restraining laws when traveling in an RV (children must still be in a car seat facing forward which can be a problem in an RV—best if they ride in a separate vehicle).
4. Be prepared.
Plan and budget well. Get to know the campground and local area well before setting off. Pack what you need and find out if you can purchase items you missed at a nearby store.
- Find out about all the amenities of the campground. Do they have electric/water hookups? Pool? Bike rentals? Horseback riding? Boating? Hiking trails? Playgrounds? Campground sponsored games and activities? Seasonal events? A nice view? A campground store?
- What is your total budget? What is the cost of gas, food, campsite, rentals? Be sure to check out all the “extras” you’d like to do, not only at the campground but also the local area (i.e. museums, restaurants, shopping, etc.).
- If your child wants to swim but needs assistance, take swim lessons. Learn to ride a bike before camping. Buy the necessary equipment to make sure everyone is safe.
- Be sure to pack comforting sensory items if camping is new and strange for your autistic child.
5. Be realistic about what your family can handle.
If you are completely new to camping (i.e. never even been inside a tent or camper), then consider renting a camper. Some campgrounds will even have their own campers available for you to rent. Others, like Fort Wilderness at Walt Disney World, will allow you to rent a camper that is brought in and set up by a local company. You get the benefits of camping without all of the work.
- Buying camp gear is a big investment! Consider how many days out of the year you’d like to camp and how much time, effort and work you want to put into setting up camp. Do you want the old-fashioned camping experience of sleeping on the ground and cooking outside or do you want to be more comfortable in a nature setting? Are you in this for the long haul or just want to experiment with camping? Ask yourself these questions to figure out the type of camping equipment you need.
- Assess the skills, interests and patience of everyone in the family. What safety skills does your autistic child have? Do they need supervision while swimming, biking, walking, etc.? If you plan for certain activities but someone suddenly doesn’t want to participate, have a back-up plan. Ease into the experience if this is new for most members of the family (especially children with autism). Camping requires learning different skills, so be gentle with yourself and others.
- If your family is miserable despite efforts to make it enjoyable, don’t be afraid to “throw in the towel”. It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to camp again—make adjustments for the next time (i.e. location, number of days, type of sleeping arrangements, etc.). Maybe staying in a cabin instead of a camper would be best.
Successful camping experiences actually take a bit of practice.
It took our family three times of setting up and tearing down the pop-up camper to feel comfortable with the process (and not get upset with one another). We wanted a step-up from tent sleeping without losing the more traditional camping experience. My kids appreciate the large king-size beds. I love the heat and air conditioning.
We still tent-camp with the Scouts. But having a comfortable camper allows us to relax and sleep a little better. When we retire, I’d love to get a travel trailer for longer excursions to places on my bucket-list.
Camping is a wonderful way for families to reconnect by “unplugging” and interact with one another more. You can relax for a little while without the burden of each person’s different daily routines and other home obligations.
Even if it’s only for a weekend, short trips are often what is needed to feel rejuvenated from everyday life.
With the right planning and attitude, camping can be a joyful, memorable experience!