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    > The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids by Helen Olsson

    The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids by Helen Olsson

    Camping with Kids by Helen Olsson. Cover Art

    Way back when I started camping with kids, this book would have been a savior. Not just to help me relax about the whole ordeal, but maybe I would have packed a second fuel cartridge and not run out of fuel mid-pancakes. Or I would have checked the batteries in our headlamps before discovering the old ones had leaked all over inside – eeeeew, out with the headlamps. Or I would have bought a proper sleeping bag for my toddler before being forced out of my own sleeping bag at night because she was freezing her tiny toes off in a ridiculously thin fleece baby sleepsack made for a city apartment. Anyhow, Helen Olsson’s The Down and Dirty Guide To Camping with Kids is a great book for the parents who want to go out there, rough it up and benefit from experienced words on gear, activities and food. Come on, don’t be afraid – you can do it!

    Personal anti-RV Note

    First off, I want to thank Helen for 4 lines on page 11 that probably only resonate with me: “Note to RV folks: at all costs, stick to the electric sites and avoid tent-friendly sites. You won’t be able to plug-in your camper, which means no microwave and no TV. Plus, you’ll be surrounded by dirt-loving, tree-hugging tent campers roasting tofu pups over campfires.” Yes! I cannot count the number of times I’ve cursed against the atrocious views on a neighboring RV when I went through all the trouble of selecting a campsite where nature was the highlight. I asked for pretty trees and chirping birds – not a synthetic turf doormat underneath a giant awning where you hang your skivvies to dry! And no a painted view of the Grand Canyon doesn’t replace actual views of the campground. [Dear NPS, I’ve always advocated for separate RV sections in campgrounds but that’s a different discussion.] Now I got that off my chest, I can write the review.


    I don’t know if you read camping guides regularly but I do and they’re not exactly Saturday Night Live ha-ha material. How best to describe this exalting genre? Boring comes to mind, tedious too. Imagine my surprise when I realized that Helen Olsson’s book was fun to read, as in:”At night, camping is a little like a New York City blackout, but without the looting. It’s dark.” That was the intro to the chapter Flashlights, Headlamps, and Lanterns, a chapter useful to anybody who doesn’t fancy making a hazardous beeline amongst trees and rocks to the john at 3am in utter darkness. See what I mean? The author’s got humor.

    Obviously if potential campers think of camping in terms of fun, then half the work is done – their reluctant better half can be convinced too. Thanks to fantastic retro illustrations that will bring you back to the golden days of American camping, it can be done – taking you and your brood on a camp site where you’ll have a jolly good time. Skeptical?

    This guidebook will tell you what shape of tent you need to get, what type of jammies the kids should wear at night, how to build a fire, how to avoid spilling your wine glass on the rocks (make that my priority), what type of camping stove allows you to cook pancakes and grill bacon at the same time, what sticks are best for roasting marshmallows (and not just the sticks you’re thinking of) and the 12 camping uses of duct tape (one includes going into space). Of course that’s without counting pages filled with handy food recipes, first-aid checklists, packing lists and how to brush your teeth outdoors.

    I know I’ll use Helen’s advice on kids activities as I love to see what kids like or don’t like doing outside. Her nature rubbings, Inukshuk man and rope tricks all sound like great ideas to entertain a crowd of squirmy kids about to skewer each other with sharp sticks. I’ll also certainly have my kids design a photo book after the camping trip asking them to caption the photos with their own words – neat idea. And why not, I’ll try to have them stare at the clouds to find shapes but they’re kind of fidgety outside. I might need to rope them to a boulder. And you reader, when you get Helen’s book, make sure to play Bat Tag next time you camp with a group of friends. It’s an awesome game and not just for kids.

    What the Book is Not

    Well a review can’t be all pink now, can it? There are a few things this book won’t give you and that’s OK. It’s already a great book. Since the book aims at educating the future camper in general, it includes no region-specific information. To find the best campground near you, you’ll need to refer to a local camping guidebook. Moon Travel Guides has a great collection of  those by state.

    Also, Camping By Kids is meant for car campers – the book touches lightly on backpacking and if you want to really pursue backpacking with kids, you’ll need to ask Helen to write another book or write your own.

    Last: if you’re already a seasoned camper, you won’t learn a lot of new things here but then, maybe you need to tweak your habits and adapt them to a family style. At this stage in my camping life with kids, I’ve logged more camping trips with my kids than many people I know and I dare say in all weathers. I’ve got my hardware and kitchen “boxes” ready to go on as whim. Therefore I like to get technical and gadgety, I like to try new things. It was funny because on every page of this book I read, I was looking for a confirmation that I was doing things right. To my relief I’m doing fine except I now know I rate more as a “rustic” camper than the deluxe version. My dad will be pleased to know there’s room for plush improvement.

    All this is nothing compared to the wealth of information the book features, basically all you need to know for a successful family camping trip.


    Last but not least, I got the permission to reprint one of the book’s recipes and I chose one I plan to try on my next camping trip on Memorial Day weekend. Here goes.

    Hobo Packs (serves 4)


    • 1 pound ground turkey
    • 1 clove garlic, minced
    • 1 medium onion
    • 2 medium carrots
    • 1 red bell pepper
    • Kernels cut from 2 ears of fresh corn
    • 6 small red potatoes
    • 4 Tbsp olive oil
    • 2 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped
    • Salt and pepper


    1.  At home, chop carrots and red pepper into bite-sized pieces. Slice the kernels from the corncobs and put in a plastic bag wiuth the carrots and pepper.
    2. At camp, chop onion and mince garlic. Cut potatoes into quarter-inch slices.
    3. Lay out four large squares of heavy-duty tinfoil. Layer potato slices on each piece of foil, then top with veggies and garlic.
    4. Divide the olive oil among the packets.
    5. Break up the turkey and divide it among the packets.
    6. Season with fresh basil, salt and pepper.
    7. With each packet, bring two ends of the foil together and fold them several times to create a seam. Then roll the open ends toward the middle, creating a tight seal.
    8. Let your campfire burn down to hot coals.
    9. Set the Hobo Packs on the hot coals and cook around 30 to r45 minutes, turning every 15 minutes.
    10. Use tongs to remove the packs from the fire. Be careful of escaping steam when opening the foil

    Excerpted from THE DOWN AND DIRTY GUIDE TO CAMPING by Helen Olsson, (c) 2012.  Published by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

    Have fun!

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