Essentials for Sensory-Friendly Camping Experience

For many families, camping is a yearly traditional event. Camping is a way for families to travel and spend quality time in nature together. Additionally, for many families, camping is a financially accessible way to go on a relaxing vacation. However, for families that have a family member with sensory sensitivities, camping is not a sensory-friendly activity. This is due to the inaccessibility and sensory-rich nature of many campsites. Many people experience sensory overload. People who are autistic, neurodivergent, with hearing loss, and have PTSD are likely to experience their senses differently. Simply the unknowns about what camping involves cause stress and anxiety. However, research by Li et al., (2019), “Exposure to Nature for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Benefits, Caveats, and Barriers” has shown that spending time in nature has been found to provide motor-sensory, emotional, and social benefits to neurodiverse children 1.  

This blog post will highlight aspects of campgrounds that are inaccessible and simple ways can modify these areas to be more sensory-friendly. It will also highlight ways families can plan out the trip in order for it to be enjoyable and fun.  

What are the common inaccessible features of campsites? 

You are likely curious as to what is inaccessible about many campsites. Although campsites typically do not have very much structure, there are several factors that may cause people with greater sensitivities to feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed. 

Firstly, many campsites are situated close together. Although this may not seem like a significant concern, it does cause campgrounds to become noisy very easily. For many people with hypersensitivities, loud noises can be extremely overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. Furthermore, many campsites may be located close to roads. This can cause the sounds of car traffic to disrupt the camping experience. Therefore, having campsites located somewhat in close proximity and close to roads can be extremely problematic. 

In addition to this, many children and adults with sensory processing disorders, for example, struggle with a change in their routine. As a result of this, people will feel very stressed while camping as they are sleeping and waking up in unfamiliar places, engaging in different activities, eating different foods, and being surrounded by a different environment. Therefore, travelling in any capacity can be very problematic due to this loss of routine. 

Lastly, many campgrounds may only have sensory-rich activities for campground visitors. 

5 ways to make a sensory-friendly campsite 

Place the campsites in wooded and secluded areas 

The first suggestion to help make your campsite sensory-friendly is by placing at least some sites in more secluded areas. This will help to limit sound transmission and create a quieter area for visitors. Furthermore, ensure that campsites are far from busy roads to prevent the sounds from traffic from impacting the noise levels. If possible, try to create limit road traffic to only local campers to prevent this issue. Ultimately, making these changes will help develop a more relaxing surrounding for families to enjoy the calming aspects of nature. 

Create campsites that are farther apart 

In addition to this, it is important to place campsites far apart from each other. As previously indicated, a common sensory-rich issue associated with many campsites is the close proximity to one another, the loud noise, and the unfamiliarity of having strangers staying close. Therefore, ensure that campsites are separated at an appropriate distance to ensure that families feel like they have the privacy they need, even if they are not secluded. 

Develop sensory-friendly campsite hours 

Furthermore, another suggestion to create a more sensory-friendly campsite is developing sensory-friendly hours. These are hours that are dedicated to quiet times on all campsites. This will help create a more peaceful and relaxing environment for everyone. Consider dedicating hours within the evening and night as sensory-friendly hours, for example. Ultimately, this will limit sound transmission around bedtime to avoid disruptions. Consider making certain times at a pool or lake, quiet times, too. 

Provide different sensory-friendly activities 

As previously indicated, many families may struggle to keep their children entertained while on a camping trip with sensory-rich activities alone. As there are not as many easily transportable activities to bring camping, it is difficult for parents to keep their children happy while camping. To help support parents, consider providing different sensory-friendly activities on your campsites. For example, create a quiet zone with signage for more quiet play. Include accessible playground equipment and structures to include all children. Make trails with signs for scavenger hunts. 

Create a social story about the campsite features 

Lastly, an effective strategy to create a more sensory-friendly is by creating a social story of the camping experience for your campsite visitors. A social story is a way to communicate the sensory experience of being in a specific environment or engaging in an activity using words and pictures. A common stressor for many people with sensory processing disorders is fear of the unexpected. Therefore, providing a social story for parents to show their children the different aspects of the camping experience by showing pictures of the site and the different activities they can participate in. Ultimately, this will give them the opportunity to ask questions and begin to develop expectations about this experience that may influence their senses. 

6 things families can do to have a sensory-friendly camping experience 

Acknowledge the impact of camping on your 8 senses

The first thing to do to make camping a sensory-friendly experience is to recognize how camping influences each of your 8 senses. Think of what you will see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Also, consider how you move, how you balance, and your internal body sense. Therefore, consider the different sensory experiences for each sense below before you plan your next camping trip.

See

  • Are you staying in an open area or a more shielded, private space?
  • Is there space between your campsite and other campsites?
  • Are you planning on remote camping or more “urban” camping?
  • What will be familiar or unfamiliar in what you see?
  • Bring familiar things to look at, like a favorite book, to help reduce novelty.

Hear

  • How close is the road to your campsite?
  • Are there other campsites close by?
  • What about nature sounds around you that could different e.g. a nearby waterfall?
  • Noise-cancelling earmuffs and earplugs might be helpful. 

Taste

  • Will food be familiar or unfamiliar?
  • Are you able to bring snacks or meals that you know your child prefers?
  • While novelty is fun, sometimes keeping some things the same helps!

Touch

  • What types of surfaces will you be sleeping on?
  • Where will you set up the tent?
  • Are you packing comfortable or relaxing seating (e.g. a hammock, comfortable chairs)?
  • In fact, practice sleeping in sleeping bags before you go!

Smell

  • What are the different scents while camping that might be a problem?
  • Will the smell of the campfire be irritating?
  • A small fan might help.

Movement

  • Moving more might be tiring or a great outlet.
  • What types of activities are there to do while you are camping?
  • E.g. swimming, hiking, canoeing.
  • Planning rest breaks or quiet times in between activities can help create a good schedule.

Balance

  • Hiking along trails at a height might be unsettling.
  • Sleeping in hammocks also might be a little too much.
  • If your child like their feet on the ground, plan accordingly.

Interoception

  • Interoception is your internal body sense.
  • Camping likely will interrupt your daily routine.
  • Are toilets nearby and along the way?
  • Can you plan mealtimes and snacks for “regular” times?
  • Eating, drinking, and going to the toilet at usual times is incredibly helpful.

Practice camping beforehand

The unknowns about camping cause stress and not happy excitement. Especially if camping is not something you have done before or something your family does not do often. Practice camping as a solution. Here are some practice ideas:

  • Set up a tent in your backyard.
  • Play in the tent, too!
  • Sleep overnight in the tent.
  • Practice sleeping in sleeping bags in your own beds, first.
  • Include the whole family in planning.
  • Pull out pictures and videos of past camping trips to review together.
  • Look at pictures and videos about your camping destination.

Look for sensory-friendly campsites

Accessible campsites may offer sensory-friendly features, too. For instance, Parks Canada has accessible camping options. Moreover, Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada, even has autism-friendly options. As another example, the National Parks Service in the United States has many accessibility options, too. Finally, accessible campsites can also be found in the UK. Do your research to see what amenities are a match for your family.

Plan camping activities that are enjoyable for your child

Set your family up for success by first planning activities that you know everyone will enjoy. While the location will be completely different, choosing things to do that are familiar but in a different environment might be enough of a change for your child or family to manage.

Young family sitting on picnic table at campsite eating watermelon.

Bring sensory-friendly devices, tools, and toys

Furthermore, it is helpful to pack sensory-friendly devices, tools, and toys with you while you camp. They can help reduce the overload of new sensory experiences! Some examples include:

Be realistic: adjust your expectations

Lastly, it is crucial to be realistic about what your child and family can handle. For instance, on your first camping trip, going on a week-long camping trip may be a bit overwhelming. Instead, try to plan shorter camping trips to help your child become more comfortable. Additionally, you may want to plan a camping trip that is nearby to where you live. This ensures that if your family needs to unexpectedly leave earlier than anticipated, being closer to home is a help.

Chantilly Comfort Wear, Frogglez Swim Goggles, and Hammer Head Swim Caps are all Sensory Friendly Solutions’ Favourite Things. Sensory Friendly Solutions’ Favourite Things recognizes products that help people manage sensory sensitivity or reduce sensory overload.

For more suggestions, consider checking out Parks Canada’s list of autism-friendly campsites. In the United States, learn about the accessibility of National Parks. By checking out these websites you will be able to find more information about accessible camping near you! 

All in all, by utilizing these strategies everyone can have a more sensory-friendly camping experience.  

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Source

  1. Li, D., Larsen, L., Yang, Y., Wang, L., Zhai, Y., & Sullivan, W. C. (2019). Exposure to Nature for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Benefits, Caveats, and Barriers. Health &Amp; Place, 55, 71–79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2018.11.005
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