Camping with kids isn’t really relaxing. Let’s admit that from the beginning. Tent camping, which frames my experiences so far as a parent, is a lot of work in itself; add young children to the mix and it’s no longer the type of tranquil nature experience that one might have enjoyed during pre-parenthood camping trips.

If your kids are older than five, camping is a fairly straight-forward experience. And if they’re younger, there are some great resources to help you – such as Jennifer Aist’s website wildernessforkids.com and her book “Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping, and Boating with Babies and Young Children” (read my review in OTM’s July 2011 issue online). Here are my five tips for camping with kids:

1. Talk to other parents to learn what has worked best for them. Be aware that tent camping and trailer camping are very different experiences for packing, meal planning and sleep quality. I recommend repeating this mantra a friend once shared with me when kids are running around the campfire with sticks. “We’re not relaxing, but the kids are having fun.”

2. Keep your expectations simple and low. It’s going to be messy and exhausting. Your children will get scraped knees, dirt in their food and smoke in their eyes, if you opt for a campfire, which you should. Accept this reality. Find joy in all of it. For your first few trips, perhaps stay closer to home and plan for only 1-2 nights. If anyone vomits on a sleeping bag or all hell breaks loose, even in the middle of the night, you can always come home. It’s better to end a trip early and try again later, rather than tough it out and swear to never go camping again. Ever. Or at least until the kids are 13.

3. Make reservations at a campground that’s near non-rustic attractions. For example, if staying multiple nights at Farragut State Park near Sandpoint, consider visiting Silverwood Theme Park. Or when camping in Washington’s Cascades Mountains (there are two great campgrounds located off I-90 west of Snoqualmie Pass: Tinkham and Denny Creek) and exploring the trails within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, plan a day trip to Seattle or visit the Northwest Railway Museum in the town of Snoqualmie too. Off-campground excursions break up any monotony and provide excitement. If you have any train fans in your family, the Northwest Railway Museum (open every day 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.) hosts “Day Out with Thomas the Tank Engine” on July 11-13 and 18-20 this summer. Visit www.trainmuseum.org for details.

4. Plan ahead to create intentional fun and surprises. Bring along items such as glow-sticks, bug nets, bubbles, water squirters, special food like Jiffy-Pop or ingredients to make gourmet or unique S’mores (how about Peeps marshmallows?), or camping-related bedtime stories (one of my kids’ favorites is “Curious George Goes Camping”).

5. Leave electronic entertainment devices at home; exhaust the family with outdoor play. Give everyone a campsite “job.” By bedtime your children will be more than ready to sleep. And then you can finally sit in your chair and relax by the campfire with a glass of wine, and maybe even read your book. Toast yourself – you’re a great parent who took your kids camping! //

Win a Family Train Ride on the “Thomas the Tank” Engine at the Northwest Railway Museum!

Enter online at www.outtheremonthly.com to win a family 4-pack of tickets ($92 value) to the Day Out with the Thomas the Tank Engine event at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, Wash. on Sunday July 20 (courtesy of Northwest Railway Museum and HIT Entertainment). Each ticket includes a train ride with Thomas the Tank Engine, themed entertainment, arts and crafts, and other activities.