Before having children, holidays often consisted of lazy pub lunches, afternoon naps, late nights and spontaneous decisions. After children – well, I guess we all acknowledge, it is a ‘bit different’. When you have a child with additional needs though, just going outside the front door for a couple of hours can take an operation of military precision and preparation.
So, why on earth would you even think about bothering to camp?
Simple. You either love camping or you can’t afford another kind of holiday.
We are hardcore campers.
For context, our eldest son needs all care. He requires two people to move him, has medications throughout the twenty-four hour period and wakes up through the night. He isn’t verbal and has profound and multiple learning disabilities as well as being PEG feed. However, my husband and I will camp all year round and take our son with complex needs between April and October in the UK. It is a mission but we still occasionally feel it is worth it.
We typically camp somewhere without a toilet, with no running water and where we can use a campfire for cooking. We only go as a whole family for a couple of days at a time because lifting my son isn’t good for our backs. We have all slept out (without tents) around the fire. My husband, Tim, has also taken our eldest son to sleep out on his own for a proper father and son adventure with Tim’s bed laid out next to my son’s – both by the fire.
Whatever your reason for choosing to take your family camping, here are some of our tips for camping with children who have physical disabilities.
Choosing a tent
There are so many tents to choose from and we have several. The things to look out for is the lip (if using a wheelchair). If you are lifting your child in and out of bed, then standing room is important for your back – even in the sleeping areas – oryour child can sleep in the main part of the tent as nowadays, these often have sewn-in ground sheets.
For years we used a trailer tent as this meant we could lift our son onto the bed for changing. We currently like the Robens Prospector for head height and lack of entry lip and Stingray safari for putting up at hip height and its relative ease of getting in and out. They are both very expensive but there are cheaper versions, so make a list of what you need and hit Google.
Table / Storage
When you are seemingly taking away everything but the kitchen sink, you need somewhere to put things down: medications, pads, bottles etc – so much stuff. You can use hard plastic boxes with lids for storing equipment, clothing and accessories which can then be slotted under camp beds or stacked on top of each other. There are also specific camping cupboards like this or use a camping table. For us at least, keeping the tent tidy is a must.
Without sleep – life is miserable. At least for me, when I haven’t had sleep, I feel as though I am walking through treacle. I wear treacle slippers regularly.
You can read another blog on our website about how to maximise sleep when camping by clicking here , but my top tip to share is to only go camping for two to three nights at a time. If you are facing a week of worse sleep than normal it is bad. Two nights is very ‘doable’. Pitch your energy levels, make the most of the days and don’t expect your children to go to sleep much before you.
Don’t let yourself or the person with complex needs get cold. Add layers early and use a hot water bottle. Be careful not to use boiling water – warm water in a bottle on the person’s lap, feet or legs will make all the difference. Use layers of blankets, especially around the back of the legs if the person is in a chair. If you are using an airbed, put a blanket underneath AND on top of the bed – the cold air goes right through you otherwise.
Oh, and don’t get wet…
When a person is sitting all the time, being wet or damp is very cold and uncomfortable. We use a wheelchair poncho as well as a waterproof, fleece-lined leg cosy for staying dry and therefore warm. We have an extra-large golfing umbrella and camping tarpaulins for shelter from the rain. Our Robens Prospector tent also has a wood burner – hence why we can camp in colder months!! Take a big black bag (or equivalent) for wet washing.
Accidents happen, so make it easy on yourself. My son doesn’t normally wear pads but when we are out and about he does (just in case), both for his dignity and our ease. In addition, it’s a good idea to take either washable incontinence sheets (we use these) or disposable (like this). A bin/bucket with a lid is great for wet pads in the middle of the night (which you can leave outside if soiled). My son uses a toilet seat and we take it everywhere with him. Our top tip for the toilet seat is, if your child is using it with the commode part in the tent (as oppose to using it in a toilet block), take some biodedradable food waste bags and line the commode with them – it is so much easier to keep clean.
My son also uses a which he will use for a wee whilst still in bed or sitting in his wheelchair (we have adapted his trousers so the zips are longer). It is a great piece of kit and he isn’t the only person in the family to use it for a 5am wee!
You’re all set up and have decided to head off for a meal out (one fabulous way to avoid washing up!) but when you get back to the tent it is pitch black. The pyjamas are at the bottom of the case (of course!), toothbrushes nowhere to be found and evening medications still not drawn up. So, before it gets dark, get everything to hand that you might need before the morning. Pads, wipes, meds, torches, lamps, bin, wash stuff, extra blankets … all of it. Knowing where everything is should you need it, will make camp life a whole lot easier.
Ok, so if you’re away in the UK this isn’t normally a problem, but sometimes we get lucky. Create your shade, stay well hydrated (extra water in the PEG), and hats and cordless fans are a must. Use hot water bottles with cold water this time and simply use a damp cloth to wash and cool hands and faces.
Keep it simple. Go with food everyone will eat and things that are easy to prepare. Think ahead and make up something like a favourite Bolognese in advance to heat up. Make it last longer despite not having a fridge by freezing it before you leave and let it defrost in a cool bag, ready for next day. This will also act as an ice pack to keep your cool bag cold. Our son has a blended diet so we use the Blendjet 2 when out and about.
There are various specialist all terrain wheelchairs but since my son was three years old, we have used the Hippocampe and LOVE it. My son’s has been in the sea, across rivers, up hills, over dunes and even over our heads when the bridge we were crossing was too narrow. He is bigger and we need stronger muscles, but for us, the pride of achievement is part of our adventure. We use the Promove sling for transfers as he recently had spinal fusion surgery and a typical 2-person lift is no longer suitable. (I know we should be hoisting but this is the real world and the real world isn’t set up for our son and his needs).