Family Camping in January? It Can Be Done — in FLORIDA!

This post was written by Holly Ambrose, one of National Wildlife Federation’s Be Out There Founding Mothers and the author of the award-winning book 30 Eco-Trips in Florida: The Best Nature Excursions (and How to Leave Only Your Footprints).

Photo by Holly Ambrose

Just a few yards from the northern shore of Florida Bay, I sit enjoying the company of my family and our friends. It is a balmy New Year’s Day in Everglades National Park, and we have taken the weekend to enjoy camping in this subtropical wilderness area.

We awoke to the sound of bird calls and spent the morning on the Anhinga Trail spotting egrets, herons, wood storks, a couple of American bitterns, a purple gallinule, piles of alligators, turtles and of course — true to its name — anhingas too. Now it’s late afternoon and we are thinking about cooking dinner when my husband calls out, “Dolphins!” He points just offshore.

Holding our 17-month-old baby, I scramble closer to the water for a look. Friends rush over, and we scan the expanse of blue to find three fins arching up and down from time to time. Two large fins and a small fin  a small family of dolphins. We watch them as they made their way westward, until we can’t see them anymore.

We all agree that seeing the dolphins was nothing short of a gift of providence.

Kids-Eye View of the Everglades

Nine young ones (including four children under age 5 and four tweens) from four families were along for our New Year’s camping adventure. We felt lucky to find such great campsites right on Florida Bay, the body of water that separates the Florida peninsula from the Florida Keys, and to be celebrating the New Year in such a beautiful place.

Photo by Holly Ambrose

Everglades National Park is about an hour from our home and I had explored and camped there many times before. But I was happy to be sharing this amazing national park with my children and our friends’ kids. Not only did I get to show them around the park, but in many cases, *they* showed us adults the park.

  • It was the older kids who risked ruining their shoes to find a tiny crab in the mudflats of the bay, and brought the crab back to camp for everyone to see. (Mr. Crab was returned safely to his hometown.)
  • It was my preschool son who kept saying how much he liked “tenting” — and pretending to see the dolphins again in the water.
  • It was my baby, who — with his still-developing language skills — kept reminding us where we were by saying, “Out the door! Out the door!” throughout the weekend.
  • It was our friends’ 11-year-old son who saw movement in the grasses under a boardwalk, which turned out to be an American bittern.

All of the kids were excited to see the alligators that are a fixture in the Everglades, and many little fingers pointed to birds (we identified 18 different species) that flew, or swam, or just rested near the water.

Camping Challenges

I’d say the only thing the kids didn’t like was the longish walk to the restrooms — and the older kids moaned just a bit about helping with setting up camp, breaking down, cooking and cleanup.

Photo by Holly Ambrose

It was a relief to me that things went smoothly with the kids, because it was my baby’s first time camping, and my preschooler’s second time. My husband and I had camped together many times, but taking a child camping adds another element to your preparation. Knowing how some children can be unpredictable, especially in new situations, can also make you ask, “What if?”

My main “what if” was concern that my preschooler might slip out of the tent at night while the rest of us were asleep. My husband positioned the preschooler’s air mattress on the far side of the tent so my husband’s cot was in between the boy and the door. Mostly, I’d say camping tired out my son too much for him to be physically able to get up in the middle of the night! I worried for nothing.

However, one situation with our son wasn’t something I could have predicted. He had a panic attack as we were driving to the campground the first night. We usually set up camp in the daylight, but circumstances didn’t make that possible this time. As the sun set, we were still driving on the main park road (38 miles), which is pitch black at night. This deep darkness is great for stargazing, but it scared my son. Once we reached Flamingo and he could see the lights and buildings of the visitor center and marina, my son calmed down.

Tips for Camping in the Everglades

A wood stork/ Photo by Holly Ambrose

My husband and I want our sons’ early outdoors experiences to be positive ones so they will enjoy being in nature — and overall, they both had a superb encounter with the wilderness in Everglades National Park. It was the same for all the children on our trip.

If you want to camp in Everglades National Park, here are some tips:

  • When to Go: Visit in the winter and early spring. In subtropical Florida, the dry, cooler season is roughly December through April. It can be cool at night, but warms up during the day. On our New Year’s trip, the temperature stayed in the 60s and 70s, and there was no rain. It was perfect! A winter trip also means less chance of encountering insects like mosquitoes.
  • Reserve Online: Make a reservation through the site There are two campgrounds in Everglades National Park: the Long Pine Key Campground closer to the main entrance of the park, and the Flamingo Campground at the end of the main park road that lies near Florida Bay. Currently, the Long Pine Key Campground sites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and only the Flamingo sites can be reserved.
  • Be prepared. Just as with any camping trip, make sure you bring with you whatever you’ll need, including food, water and medications. When you have kids that may mean bringing a lot of extra items that campers without children wouldn’t need: baby wipes, tiny camp chairs sized for kids, favorite toys, books or sippy cups. Our kids are young (4 years old and 17 months old), so my husband and I thought it would be best to bring what they were used to having at home to keep them comfortable — even their favorite pillows. Older children might be able (if not willing!) to do without some comforts from home.
  • Start local: If you haven’t camped with children before, a great way to get started is by joining the Great American Backyard Campout. The national event is on June 25, 2011 – but you can register and camp at any time and get great tips on how to have an easy first time campout.
  • Read up: You also might check out a book like Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping & Boating with Babies and Young Children by Jennifer Aist or the Outdoor Baby Network site. Reading magazines like Ranger Rick, Your Big Backyard, or Wild Animal Baby with your children can help them get excited about viewing wildlife.

Between watching the children discover the park, the wildlife sightings and being surrounded by the Everglades’ wild beauty, my family and friends had a perfect camping trip that I don’t think will be easy to forget. In fact, I think it will be on my mind for some time. At least for 11 or 12 months.

I see New Year’s is on a weekend again this year…