4 Tips for Camping with a Special Needs Child


Want to go camping but you do not know how your special needs child will respond?  Well follow along as there are some ways that might help your child enjoy the great outdoors.

Pulpit Rock Hike With Our Special Needs Son

Camping with children is tough.  It can be even tougher if you have a child with special needs.  I know!  And while my child is now an adult, not too much has changed.  My son was diagnosed with Autism when he was three years old.

He is very low functioning, which means he has to relay upon his mother and I to do some things for him that his motor skills do not allow or that he just cannot comprehend.  He will never have the ability to support himself and that is ok.  As parents it can be tough to get past the thought of your child never being able to do the things you wish they could, but that’s life…you must adapt and enjoy the things they can.

If it were up to our son, he would just sit in his room all day, watching the TV, his iPad, listening to CD books, playing with his wrestlers, and coming out to eat when he was hungry.  But we do not let him always do what he wants.  Through trial and error we have learned how our son will better respond to change and new things.

As a military member we move around quite often, and we have used these opportunities to see what works best for incorporating these types of events in his life…and we are not perfect!  As an active family, we have had to curb some of our adventures knowing that our son would not be up for it.  We used to wait till we had family to come to town or a friend that he felt comfortable with to go and do a hike or trail ride…and sometimes we still do.

You see it is all about understanding the limits of your child.  It is also about knowing how to stretch them as well.

1. Make the experience as close to normal as possible. 

Allow them to bring their electronics with them if that is their thing.  Elyja knows that once we complete a hike, he gets free reign to play on his iPad.  We make sure we pack the foods that he enjoys the most and eats often.  We also have him bring some of his wrestlers and a ring that he can sit in the tent and have his wrestling time.

All of this takes preparation and proper equipment.  A power system is key…this will ensure the devices stay charged.  If you are going to an area where the Internet and cell service will be spotty, download episodes and movies that they love to watch.  We always ensure as a safe backup plan that he has at least 2 movies and a few episodes of Sponge Bob or Rugrats downloaded.

2. Give them plenty of time to understand what is happening. 

When we are planning a trip, we like to tell him weeks in advance…if possible.  This allows him to prepare, but also it gives him time to fully understand what we are going to be doing.  Our son loves to put things on the calendar so he has something to look forward too.  We have capitalized on this, having him put on his calendar our trips.  He will talk about them, remind us of each one about a thousand times, but that is ok with us.  It means he understands and knows what is going to happen and the expectation.

Elyja also knows that we will not be sitting at camp all day long.  We call it “walk time” and it all started at our house in Charleston, South Carolina.  Every evening after dinner we made him join us for a 1 mile walk around the neighborhood.  To our surprise, he termed it “walk time” and would tell us it was time to go.  Once again we capitalized on this term and incorporated it into our adventures while out camping and exploring as “walk time.”

Sure have we stretched him past his limits a few times and completed some hikes that were out of his comfort zone, but he is doing just fine.  And to be quite honest, we were ok with that. 

3. Have some kind of reward for their efforts.

How we offset his anxiety and stress is by discussing the reward at the end.  You see our son loves McDonalds…double cheeseburger meal with a coke and additional 10 piece chicken nugget!  He also likes just a bottled coke from time to time.  So we use this as a reward to completing a hike.

When we first arrived to Colorado Springs, we took the family to hike Pulpit Rock.  I did not know there would be some climbing involved, but there was…even my two younger children who love to hike were a little scared at first.  But up we went…and when we got to the top, Elyja was nervous and at first was not having much fun.

After a few photos we started the trek back down…he was still nervous and scared, but my wife and I was with him every step of the way.  And once the climbing down piece was complete he let out a sigh of relief, turned around looked at what he had just done, and I could see something in him…that said yes I just did that!

As we made our way back to the car he became so talkative about how scared he was, that it was fun, and that he could not wait for his double cheeseburger with a coke.

4. Understand all the senses they will be exposed to.

Noises, smells, tastes, etc all need to be considered prior to departing on any adventure.  We are fortunate that our son, while he has some sensitivity to loud noises, does not get bothered to heavily in this area.

We always bring food and water that he is used to.  Trying to introduce new things like food and beverage in an already unique situation is not a good idea.  If your child is sensitive to certain tastes, then avoid those at all costs.  If they prefer certain filtered water, then bring it. 

Noises can be another obstacle.  We made the mistake one camping trip of being near train tracks.  We had no idea, and we had a three separate trains come through during the late night into the early morning.  This bothered our son…shoot it even bothered us, but the loud and squealing noise created a little chaos.

We eventually we able to get him to calm down and fall back asleep, but you better believe I look for train tracks near any campsite location we choose.  As for hikes, there really are not many loud noises we have experienced that bother him.

Campfires are a smell that can also affect your child.  While a true campfire may be soothing, the smoke smell that fills your clothes and hair may not be something your child can handle.  One way we offset this to meet our desire for a fire is using a propane firepit. 

Amazon has an awesome option in the Outland Firebowl 893 Deluxe Outdoor Propane Gas FirepitOpens in a new tab..  We also have to deal with a lot of fire bans where we live and this is a great too still have some form of flames at the campsite.  No smoke, nice little flame to sit around and problem solved. 

At the end of day, you cannot be afraid to expose your child to the great outdoors.  It does not have to be for extended periods of time, but they need some good ole fashion fresh air.  Mother Nature has a soothing sense to her when you are out in the wilderness looking at beautiful scenery.

You know your child best.  Plan that family hike or camping trip and build it around what they can handle and are comfortable with.  And do not be afraid to test that limit a little as well.  If you would like more tips to camping with kids in general go check out Mikes article “Camping With Kids – 7 Tips, Tricks & S’more for the BEST Trip” here.

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