The great outdoors. Sleeping under the stars. Hiking. Cooking on an open fire. S’mores. Crisp nighttime air. Two toddlers.
Whoa, Nelly. Hold it right there. Toddlers? Camping? Are you crazy?
Yep. And we’ve been crazy three times. That is, we’ve taken three camping trips with our little brood. Our first trip as a family was just a weekend away at a nearby state park with my husband’s family. Our boys were 6 months old and 2 1/2 years old. The second trip was a weekend away – just the four of us – for my husband’s birthday. Our most recent camping trip was a 9 DAY event – it was an organized retreat of sorts. For perspective, our definition of camping is tent camping at a water/electric site.
We’ve learned a lot from each trip and today I want to share those things with you, so that you can also enjoy successful camping trips with your youngsters.
–Pack extra flexibility. Expect overtired kiddos, early naps, a restless night here and there, and lots of memories. Pull out the flexibility to make them good memories. Your camping trip will be different from your pre-kid trips, but they’ll be fantastic if you come with the right expectations.
–Careful campsite selection. If you have potty trained littles, pick a spot within just a short walk of a bathhouse. I prefer clearer spots away from water and brushy areas…. just for peace of mind. We also try to avoid busier areas if possible. Toddlers are going to wander a little – even under close supervision – and if we can avoid them wandering to busy streets, we can all rest a little bit.
-Which brings me to another point… Take a sharpie and write your camp site location on your toddler’s hand. That way – God forbid – should they wander off, they can easily be returned to their family.
–Dirty kids. This is something we’ve got to improve our game in. Expect your kiddos to get grimy – and enjoy letting them have the opportunity to do so. Just bring along a plan for a way to wash them. Both of my boys are gun-shy around showers – which is about all you’ll find in a bathhouse. My plan of attack next time is to bring a simple plastic bin to prepare some warm (an electric kettle really simplifies the camping life!) soapy water and a big stack of clean wash cloths and towels so we can make sponge baths happen nightly and have clean kids without the unpleasant shower experience. Also, bring SEVERAL changes of clothes. I can’t count how many times our boys have gotten muddy or wet to the point that a change of clothes was mandatory.
-Bring a collapsible high chair or a booster that will securely strap to a picnic table or folding chair. This most recent camping trip, we had some major issues with our youngest (21 months) playing the old popcorn game (up and down, up and down…just sit down and eat already!) during just about every meal. It dawned upon me – too late- that he’s used to being confined in a highchair during meal time and he’s just not ready for the freedom of sitting in a chair without straps during meals. Also, think through a plan for a table of some sort (If your child is in a booster, they’ll have a tray of some kind). My 3 1/2 year old’s lap isn’t big enough to balance a large paper plate. We found it helpful to drag an ice chest over next to his camp chair to make a little table for him.
–Pack snacks. Lots of snacks. Camping usually involves a LOT more physical activity than most of us are used to at home… which means ravenous appetites. Granola bars, yogurt cups, applesauce pouches, and crackers all make quick and easy snacks. I’d also advise packing some juice boxes. My boys are great water drinkers, thankfully, but I still find it helpful to have something extra (and tempting for them!) to encourage them to stay hydrated. If you’re concerned about the extra sugar, the Honest juice boxes can be a good option, as they’re not nearly as sugary.
-We enjoy picking out a special camping chairs and sleeping bags (for those old enough to not sleep in a pack-n-play) for our kiddos. It makes it fun for them and makes them more likely to sit/sleep in their designated spot. We found some cute patterned items at Walmart for great prices and they’ve held up over several trips.
–Pick your season wisely. We’d take a chilly fall camping trip over a warm spring/summer trip any day. It’s darker sooner, which means greater bedtime success and it’s cooler, which means our boys sleep better/later because their warm, snuggly blankets feel so good.
–Camping with little ones isn’t the time to go hardcore and really rough it. Don’t hesitate to pack a small space heater to warm your tent up before bedtime, if you expect cold nights.
–Take a sound machine. It can drown out so much noise – cars driving by, new arrivals setting up camp, or the loud card game going down at the campsite next to you.
–Prepare for the elements and unexpected, like rain or bug bites. Rain boots, Crocs, or flip flops can really help if there are puddles to splash in or mud to run through. A lightweight hoodie is going to be a lot more practical and effective to keep heads dry, rather than trying to keep an umbrella over them. As far as unexpected ouchies and itchies, I make sure to pack my most used, diverse essential oils. Quick, easy, and they don’t take up much room.
-Just like any out-of-town trip, make sure you set your kiddo up for success by packing their favorite (and most critical) routine items… this is not the time to leave the paci, bottle of warm milk, or special lovey behind.
–One thing that we’ve found challenging up until our last camping trip was naptimes! It can be so challenging to young children to halt play and be stuck in a sleeping bag or play pen in broad daylight. I’m not sure I’d sleep very well, either. This last time, I finally found something that works (at least for our kiddos). We buckled our child (only our youngest naps at the moment) into the stroller, laid the seat all the way pack, gave him his nap time usuals (paci, milk, and stuffed puppy), and went on a shaded walk. Each time he was out cold within minutes. You can continue the walk or go back to camp and park in the shade at your campsite for the remainder of the nap. Obviously, this is what worked for one baby…. and the solution for your child might be different, but think about your plan before your ever leave home and set your toddler up for success.
-If you plan to do some light hiking, come prepared with either a good stroller or baby carrier.
-For two of our camping trips, we had a baby who was not yet walking. Having a pack-n-play for the baby to play in helped keep him happy while hanging out at the camp site. Also, bringing along a cushy picnic blanket to put on the grass helps give them a clean and protected area to crawl around on.
-For us big people, sitting around and drinking a cup of coffee might be enough entertainment, but little ones need variety. I pack a variety of outdoor toys when we camp… a ball to kick, trucks to roll around, and something to dig in the dirt with will all be helpful.
–My in-laws are awesome campers. Seriously. They’ve spoiled me forever. One of my favorite things they do is set up a large tent to be the kitchen. It’s a great place to store ice chests, prepare a cup of coffee (again – an electric kettle will be your friend!), contain kiddos while you tackle food prep, etc.
– Danielle C. tells me that when they go camping they have a small tent (2 person size) that is the designated game tent. They clean up the kids, get them ready for bed, and then let them go to town with games, flashlights, coloring books, etc.
-Rachel reminded me of a great tip… Pack a TON of baby wipes. They’ll make clean hands and freshening up before PJs so much easier.
-Holly and Rachel both suggested keeping a toddler potty at your campsite. That sounds like a really great and simple solution if you’d rather not venture out for 2 am potty trips with your kids.
-Ashley suggests the following, “As for bathroom issues, we camped close to the trees and the boys just went and did their business there during the night. I have a woman’s funnel that I bought off Amazon called a P-Easy that [my daughter] and I use. I know! Weird! BUT it works Amazingly well! I would just use an empty water jug with a lid to use the bathroom in and keep a Thieves cleaner bottle close to clean everything. I don’t like getting up during the night so it saved me from having to make a lot of noise leaving the tent .”
-Danielle P. agrees that bringing an abundance of outdoor toys will be helpful. She says her kids especially enjoy having every kind of sports ball available for play time. As a bonus tip, she suggested making sure each child has their own flashlight. (We’ve found some good little ones for $1 each at Walmart.)
-Camarell suggests simplifying your trip by doing as much food preparation ahead of time as possible. Some tips she offers are premixing pancake batter or cracking eggs into a container before you ever leave for your trip.
–But will my children sleep? Yes. They will! Just remember to set them up for success – don’t leave behind their normal bedtime routine, pack a sound machine, bring favorite blankies and lovies to make their sleeping bed or pack-n-play feel as much like home as possible. We’ve had a cumulative two weeks or so of nights spent camping with our sons and have had maybe two rough nights. Your children are going to play SO hard that they will be completely wiped out come bed time.
–What about campfire safety? We teach our boys to not go near the fire pit, even if there is no lit fire. While on our most recent camping trip, however, I saw a family that have built a barrier – a short fence of sorts – out of scrap wood (it wasn’t this sophisticated, but here’s an idea to get you started). Just be sure to do enough to prevent little ones from toppling over and getting hurt. But ultimately, if you’re nervous about this aspect of camping, skip the fire. There is not set-in-stone law that requires a campfire and there’s nothing that says that you won’t have a fun trip without the campfire.
Leave a comment below and tell us YOUR best tips for camping with toddlers!
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