In this article I outline the the five steps to take (in order, preferably) to easing your child into the camping experience for the first time.
Making camping with autism a positive experience
It’s one thing to stay in a hotel with comfy beds and the allure of a pool. It’s another to practically sleep on the ground with nothing but a thin nylon tent separating you and nature.
Many children on the spectrum are adamant about maintaining a nighttime routine. One little change may lead to a meltdown.
Let me state the obvious: camping disrupts that normal sleep pattern. New “bed,” new place to sleep, new routine, new sights and sounds. That means unpredictable behaviors.
It’s one thing to avoid camping if it’s just not appealing to everyone in the family. But if you’re avoiding camping adventures just because you want to avoid unwanted behaviors, I urge you to seriously reconsider!
Don’t miss out on the potential to bond with family and friends in a relaxing, therapeutic environment! By slowly easing your child into camping adventures, you will find it a much less stressful process to instill a love of vacationing in the great outdoors.
Learning to love camping takes time
The smell of roasting marshmallows over the fire. The thrill of catching fireflies. The fun of camping in a tent. Everyone is relaxed and happy.
That idyllic picture of camping is not often reality.
We introduced our young kids to camping jumping in head-first. We started off great. We fished and cooked and played on the playground.
But by 5 AM the next morning my 5-year-old daughter was crying inconsolably. Nothing seemed to calm her down.
Fearing wrath from the entire campsite, who were all still asleep, we packed up our equipment with rapid speed. By 7 AM we had left the campsite with very cranky kids.
We vowed not to try this again for a while.
And we didn’t…. something I regret.
Even with the most seasoned and experienced campers, things don’t always go as planned.
Sometimes an important item is left at home. Your gear doesn’t set up properly. Someone doesn’t sleep well. Someone is complaining about the food. Someone can’t stop crying. Mosquitos are sucking the life out of you! UGH!
And then you start thinking… Why didn’t we just stay home?!
Actually, that’s not a bad idea.
“Wean” into camping
Maybe, like mine, your own childhood memories are filled with wonderful camping expeditions with your family. Maybe, like me, you can’t wait to share that love with your own kids.
But camping can feel like a very strange and scary thing to do for an autistic child who may become terrified when his or her daily routine is thrown out of whack and comfort zone severely challenged.
My kids were on the verge of getting their autism diagnoses when we first camped. Once I became familiar with autism, my child-rearing philosophy changed. I realized (many times the hard way) that adapting my kids to new things needed to be set at their own pace.
And, yet, I still needed to motivate them enough to try new challenges. I had to be a little more patient and “wean” them into unfamiliar experiences. If I had known then what I know now, we would have introduced them more gradually to idea of camping and helped ease them into camping.
If the idea of camping can be introduced in “digestible, bite-size chunks”, then the actual experience away from home can go a little more smoothly and become something your child will actually enjoy.
5 Steps to Easing Your Child into Camping
I recommend that you do these steps in order and as long as necessary to feel comfortable before moving to the next one.
1. Set up camp in your child’s bedroom.
What a fun way to introduce the idea of camping than in your child’s most comfortable place!
I always wanted a bed-fitted tent when I was a child, but I couldn’t convince my parents to buy one. So, I set up blankets over my bedpost and invited my sisters into my “tent” to play games and read stories.
Get your child comfortable sleeping in a tent in his or her own bed, whether it’s an actual bed-tent or something created. Maintain your normal bedtime routine. Bring in comfortable, familiar items (favorite blanket, toy or sensory equipment).
Use this time to talk about it as “camping” in order to associate it with a positive, comforting experience. Practice using flashlights.
*(If your child is co-sleeping with you, consider setting up something beside your bed.)
2. Set up camp in your living room.
This can be done during the day on a pretend-play basis at first. Keep a small play tent up permanently if you have room.
Do what you would do in a real camping experience: pretend sleep (or take real naps), pretend building a campfire, pretend cook, pretend fish, etc.
Include favorite comfort sensory items, like a soft or weighted blanket, fidget spinner, or a stuffed toy.
Watch videos of people camping to show what it’s like. Find or create your own social story of the outdoor camping experience so your child can associate fun “home camping” with camping in a new place.
When your child is ready, set up an overnight “living room camping” in which everyone in the family is involved. It could be included alongside your own weekend routine (like a movie or game-night) but call it “inside camping” when it’s time to sleep.
Share your enthusiasm with your child—make it fun! Do this a few times until you think your child is ready to try a new place to camp.
3. Set up camp in your backyard (if possible).
Moving your camp from indoors to outdoors can feel like sudden transition, even though you are still at home. There might be some anxiety about the darkness, being outside, hearing different sounds, etc.
Consider setting up a tent outside during the day for pretend-play first. Let your child explore the fun of outside-camping on his/her own.
If you can set up a campfire in your backyard, begin to introduce how to behave around a fire and perhaps cooking over a fire during the evening hours. Start introducing camping tools, like hot dog forks.
When you’re ready, have the family move to the tent to sleep. Be sure to include the same favorite bedtime routines and sensory items. Even if your child can only sleep half-way through the night outside, it’s a big step!
Keep trying until you make it through the night.
4. Set up camp at a family or friend’s house.
At this point your child should be more comfortable being outside. But now it’s time to move to another place away from home.
I suggest possibly setting up camp in the backyard of a beloved family member or friend as a way to transition to a real campground experience. Maybe grandma or grandpa would like to host your family’s camp-out and be willing to welcome you in the house in the event your child becomes anxious.
Remember, same routine…same comfort items.
5. Set up camp at a nearby campground or state park.
When ready, consider staying somewhere close by for one night, say…maybe less than an hour away (if possible).
Some campgrounds require more than one night minimum on holidays, so if you’re not ready for more than one night you may have to go on non-holiday weekends. That’s probably best to avoid the crowds.
Conduct some research into the campground. Does it have nice amenities that will allow your child to feel comfortable and have fun? Fishing, swimming, playground, hiking, outdoor games?
Be sure to include the familiar things from the previous camping experiences at home, including favorite meals, bedtime routine and personal sensory items.
The fact that the family is sleeping together in one tent or camper will provide some comfort in this new situation as well.
Small Steps Lead to Giant Achievements
While camping may be a hard transition for your special needs child, it will foster in him or her a love of nature as well as some incredible life skills.
When children overcomes their fears, they often feel a burst of self-confidence. This leads to a greater willingness to try new things beyond their comfort zones. Camping provides many new experiences to build self-confidence.
Besides vacations with family, one of the best ways to learn life skills and build confidence while camping is participating in a scouting organization.
My 17-year-old son has camped so many times with his Boy Scout troop I lost count. Simple weekend camp-outs led to week-long adventures.
When he was 14-years-old he spent several nights along lakesides at Boundary Waters in Minnesota. This past summer he explored the iconic Black Hills in South Dakota. His ultimate camping adventure was sleeping on a sailboat for a week in the Florida Keys.
Because he was comfortable enough to sleep outside away from home and family for a week at a time, he got a job at the local scout camp. He now has gained valuable employment skills.
Apart from therapy, Scouting has provided some of the greatest social and developmental benefits for my autistic kids. Read my article “Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth” to understand how involvement in Scouts leads to incredible personal growth.
Easing into Camping is the Key to Self-Growth
To access the potential development of life skills and self-confidence, consider camping! Hopefully, the five steps I have outlined of easing your child into the camping experience will help significantly in achieving those goals!
The trick is to maintain a sense of familiarity by using similar routines and comfort items from home and transfer the camping experience across different settings—from inside to outside and from home to another place.
Try to keep the experience positive all the way through the learning process to reinforce that camping is a “good thing”. Push limits but recognize when enough is enough. It may take weeks, months or even years…but you’ll get there!
For more information about the sensory and autism-related considerations of the camping experience, read my article “Camping with Autism“. You will also find helpful tips on campers to help you decide which ones is most suitable for your needs.
Above all, have fun!! The whole experience gets easier the more times you try it!
If you think your older child may be ready for camp experience for one night or several nights away from home, check out this very informative article by the Indiana Resource Center for Autism.