Monday, June 25, 2012

Camping with Special Needs Kids

Debbie with Zachary, Joshua and Benjamin

My friends Debbie and Bryan (or, as I call them, SuperMom and SuperDad) love to go camping with their two older boys, 11-year-old Benjamin and Zachary, 7. So far Joshua, their 4-year-old, has stayed home with Mom while the older boys head out with Dad, but they plan to all camp together one day.

All three kids have special needs, and preparing a camping trip to accommodate Zach and Ben takes a little more planning and flexibility than it might with some kids, but – as Debbie is quick to point out – it’s totally doable... and totally worth it!

Bryan, Zachary and Benjamin on the trail

Benjamin has high-functioning autism and reflux, and Zachary has a dairy allergy. To accommodate Zach’s allergy, Bryan packs simple camping food (hot dogs, bread and oatmeal, for example) and is careful to read the labels when he shops. They also pack medication. Ben’s needs are more complex. Sometimes he is afraid to try new things or feels anxious. Debbie makes sure Bryan has some little bribes to smooth the way (like candies), and they often camp with another family, which means that Ben can stay behind at the campsite with someone if he doesn’t want to join an activity.


Benjamin loved Cub Scouts and did great with them, but it turned out that Boy Scouts calls for a level of social and emotional maturity that he isn’t quite ready for – Scouts normally meet and camp without parents, for starters. While typical 11 and 12 year olds can handle that level of independence, Benjamin found it difficult without the support of a parent.

Debbie says, “Having kids with special needs always requires flexibility! Many times we have headed home early from a trip (whether it was camping or not) because someone got sick. There are often sleep issues in new settings, as well as the need to bring safe foods or read labels if sharing in a group.”


And when it’s time for 4-year-old Joshua’s first camping trip, another level of planning and flexibility will be involved. Joshua has a metabolic disorder that makes him fatigue easily, dysphagia (a swallowing disorder), reflux, food allergies and an autism diagnosis. Debbie says, “Because Joshua fatigues so fast, we will need alternate activities for him if the others want to hike. He has a stroller wheelchair, but most trails and terrains will not allow for that. He does walk, but can’t walk far. It may work to have one parent - most likely me, as I tend to get tired, too! - stay behind after part of the hike, enjoying nature, maybe taking some photos, while the others go further.”

Future camper Joshua

“The best thing about camping for my husband and the kids,” Debbie says, “is simply that they enjoy it! It’s nice to find an activity they all can agree on. And it’s nice, being that we live in a city, for the kids to have some quiet time in nature.”

TIPS from Debbie and Bryan for first-time campers:

• Hope for the best but expect the worst! You just never know how things might go.
• If the first night is rough, consider cutting the trip short rather than dragging out a tough time. You can always try again another time.
• Bring as many familiar items from home as possible (bear, pillow, special blanket, etc.).
• Remember this is about making memories with your kids, not about perfection.
• Take lots of pictures! “Our kids love looking at the pictures of nature and wildlife (and themselves!) on the computer once they are home.”
• Pick a campground with amenities you like. “We like campgrounds with fishing nearby.”
• When picking a campground, try someplace close to home the first time. Look at the map of the campground and choose a campsite close (but not too close) to the restrooms or outhouses. Also talk to other people who may have been there before.
• Bring some bribes, like little candies, to convince kids who may be fearful to try new things.
• Nighttime is fun for roasting marshmallows or reading with a flashlight in the tent. The Scouts often prepare and perform silly skits. Try it!
• Try camping with a group or another family. “Being that my oldest does struggle with social skills, this is an opportunity for him to try and get to know others and share a common interest.”

Thanks for the tips, Debbie and Bryan! And give us a call next time you’re planning a trip near the New York Metro Area so we can tag along!

PS. You can follow Debbie on Twitter: @momx3deb. She also volunteer tweets for @popsiclecenter.



  1. Nice to see a family on a happy adventure. And great tips..I could share this to my friends.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and sharing, Henry!

  3. Taking children camping can be hard work but so rewarding to. My daughter is partially sighted and deaf and camping out in the wilderness where there are no distractions was perfect for introducing her to nature. She discovered many things on our camping trips and I feel camping is a great educator for children.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kelly. I love how camping diminishes the distractions for all of us and helps us focus on nature and each other. Each of us has quirks and unique needs, and it is so rewarding to figure out how to accomodate everyone so we can all enjoy the great outdoors. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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