Camping with toddlers is busy, but so fun. I decided to write up a few tips on what’s helped us, camping with a toddler, this summer. Is camping with toddlers more complicated than camping solo? Of course, I’d be lying if I said it was easy. But it also doesn’t have to be a super stressful experience. Toddlers have such a contagious joy and they bring the best energy to camping!
For a little background, we’re not camping pros. But have enjoyed tent “car” camping in the past. Pre-kids, we would go camping a handful of times each season. At 9 months old, we took our baby cabin camping. Last summer, at almost two, we went yurt camping with him. So this summer is our first year of tent camping with a toddler! We’re just making things progressively harder on ourselves. And we ended up going camping four times in three weeks, so I guess we’re into it!?
So here are my tips for camping with a toddler. Jump ahead to:
Planning, Prepping and Packing Tips:
- Get your toddler or preschooler on-board with all things camping. This spring our toddler was obsessed with the book Ted & Fred Go Camping. He loved it when we changed the names reading to “[his name] and Dada Go Camping”. So he had been talking excitedly about camping before we had any trip planned.
- Set up your tent and gear to practice camping at home. This is helpful to both make sure all your gear is in working order and that you all fit in the tent etc. And it helps your kiddo practice and envision what camping even is. You could also try camping in your backyard first. We just set the tent up in the living room and it was a huge hit for the evening.
- Talk it up! The week leading up to our first camping trip we talked about camping a lot. Asking questions, talking about what we might eat or what we should pack etc.
- Try a one night camping trip to start. As mentioned on this post, I’m actually a big fan of the one-nighter now. Yes, it takes a bit to get packed up and unpacked, but after you get in a routine of packing (check out my camping checklist), it’s quicker than your first time out of the season. With a baby or toddler, one night with day time fun on either side can actually feel like a long time! So you get some adventure, it’s less pressure as you’re going home either tomorrow or today! :P And if sleep doesn’t go well you still get some normal sleep in your two day weekend back at home. Keep your expectations low.
- Keep it close-ish to home. Most of us are already keeping it close to home with camping during COVID. But doing a one-nighter and a close 1-1.5 hour drive from home helps make it feel like an easy and fun adventure and less of a slog, just to get there.
- Do a little research on recent reviews, Google maps, Instagram etc to see if anyone mentions recent camping issues at the spot you’re headed. Some months and years have worse mosquitos etc at different locations. When we were at Suttle Lake we learned that shallow parts of the lake had Swimmer’s Itch. So it was really nice to know that before we let our kiddo splash around like he usually does on the shore. Phew!
- Packing up! When you’re prepping to go camping with kids, I’ve found it useful to divvy up responsibility. Many relationships seem to have one person who is the planner and one person who is the joiner. I am the planner (obviously, and welcome to my blog!), so whether I’m going solo camping or with my family, I am the planner and packer. We designate one adult as the kid watcher (my husband, in this case) for the morning and one as the prep/packer (me!). His job is to get our kiddo out of the house, active since we’ll be in the car for a while, and busy, so he’s not asking me for things or unpacking all the work I’m doing. My job is to pack the cooler, food, and “Tetris out” the back of the car. It’s a win-win for everyone! Check out my recent camping checklist post to customize your own list to get packed quick and not forget things!
- When you arrive, it can also help to have one parent focus on setting up camp. The other parent is kind of helping, but more supervising the kiddo in a slow motion task like setting up a tent.
- Toddlers and younger kids love to have a job to do. Ask them to help carry firewood, or help you get water etc. Our almost three year old has been obsessed with both chores on our camping trips.
- Bring a travel potty. If your kiddo is potty training (or already potty trained), bring the potty. It’s nice to have an option in the tent or that you can grab from just outside. Especially when they say “I have to go potty!” and you know they probably don’t, but… well you know the drill. We have the OXO Tot style collapsible one. It’s great for camping because you can tie up the little bag and then not worry about there just being a container of pee sitting by your tent.
Camping Sleep Tips:
- You will not get the same quality of sleep as you do at home. Just make peace with that going in, but know it’s probably worth it for a night or two.
- Schedule or wing it. There are two rules of thought when it comes to camping (really, travel in general) and sleep. Stick roughly to your same at-home routine or just wing it and let your kid stay up late and wear themselves out. I’m in the latter camp, as it just feels easier to me, to not be wrestling a toddler to sleep in a tent when it’s still light out. He’s usually passed out within 10-30 min of getting in the tent, except for when I took him backpacking solo and then he stayed up talking loudly for two hours.
- Stick to your rough bedtime routine, just later. Instead of a bath, we used a couple wipes to clean his face and filthy legs and feet, changed into jammies, and then one camping trip we read a book and the next trip we just told a little quiet story instead of reading a book. Other than being in a tent and sleeping bag, instead of his crib, the rest was familiar – his pillow, his favorite fleece blanket, his two favorite lovies, and his white noise.
- Get ready for bed at the same time, even if you’re planning to go back out of the tent after they’re asleep. That way you’re not fumbling around in the dark later looking for PJs, water etc.
- Your kiddos sleep needs will likely be your highest priority. I spent half the first night camping, covering him back up with his blanket and sleeping bag. And tossing and turning. But remember, just like the first year of their life where you’re getting up constantly etc. Just laying down is restful for your body. You’ve done this before! :P
- You don’t need all new fancy gear. Try to work with what you have when possible. We haven’t bought a kids sleeping bag yet. He’s just using one of my older sleeping bags and it’s working fine. If you already have two smaller tents, consider waiting to buy a big family tent. We are currently using a 2 person backpacking tent and a 3 person older tent (that’s not great with heavy rain). With one kid on a two night camping trip, we each got one night solo and one night with our kiddo. This actually helped the other parent to be better rested and more able to help out the next day. Note: If you’re co-sleeping in the tent, and your kiddo is currently “favoring” one of you parents, have them start the first night with the “non-favored” parent. This at least gives the other parent a shot at sleeping unbothered one night. Even if you have to swap half way through the night, it’s better than starting with favored parent, and then your child flipping out that they don’t get to keep sleeping in same tent as you the next night. Obviously, you don’t have to swap, but it was a nice break IMO.
- Consider getting a double sleep mat instead of two single mats. We needed a new sleep mat this year, so opted for a double mat that fits almost the entire footprint of our two person tent. Having a larger pad, helps keep our kiddo from rolling off or in between two pads. And if your child has ever been a co-sleeper or is a snuggler, a double mat helps them feel cozy and comfortable with you close by. Still no advice for how to keep them from forcing you to the very edge of the bed or tent. :P
- Get fleece hooded PJs or a fleece sleep sack to put your kiddo in. This really made a difference on keeping him warm since he’s always on the move at night and worms his way out of the sleeping bag. Wool socks and a beanie would also be good for colder nights.
- Don’t forget the white noise! We use an old cell phone and app for our white noise at home. So we also needed the backup battery charger as the phone died half way through the night our first time out camping.
- If you have a large tent and your baby/kiddo is younger still and has slept in a travel tent like the PeaPod, Dockatot, or travel crib like the Lotus crib, take it. We used the PeaPod while yurt camping at a few months shy of two years old. He did great in it. For tent camping at almost three, we felt like we wanted him to get used to the idea of camping being sleeping bags in a tent, not a tent within a tent and then having to pack lots of extra accessories from here on out.
- Have a back up plan for if the shit hits the fan. Our kiddo started crying at 3am when we were camping at a big campground. I was able to quiet him down, but racing through my mind was what I would do if he went all-in on screaming instead of sleeping. I decided on that I would put him in the car buckled into his carseat, take my phone for white noise, and drive around outside of our campground until he fell back asleep, then find a parking spot and try to snooze myself. So back your vehicle in to the spot friends. ;) lolol
- Have a few snacks, quiet toy/book at the ready, to occupy your kid if they wake up early. We ended up getting up and out of the campsite when our little one was ready to play at 6:30/7 and the neighboring sites were sleeping. We got our coffee and headed to the beach to let him play in the sand and it was so nice to not be shushing him.
- Naps – probably not happening while camping unless they’re in a reclined position at that time of day (hiking carrier or a hammock). Not napping can actually work to your benefit because they will be more tired to sleep that night. And you’ll probably also get a nap on the way home if you time it right.
Camping Eating Tips:
- Take 5x the snacks you think you’ll need.
- Buy some new and exciting food and treats. Camping is a fun time to introduce new treats and maybe some savory snacks or meals they haven’t tried. Plan to have foods you know they already like and a few [fun] surprises like s’mores or a special trail mix with a new to them treat like M&Ms.
- Don’t stress about veggies or nutrition. Camping is like other travel, where when it comes to eating, you just try to go with the flow and get some nutrition. We definitely have more sugar, and snacks, and chips etc. We are mostly over the pouch stage, but I threw a couple in our camping food bag and offered them as “smoothie pouches”. This isn’t the time to try to trick them into eating a veggie they don’t like.
- Bring a tablecloth for campground picnic tables. A folded lengthwise blanket is also nice for bench padding. Since toddlers touch all the things and set food down off their plates etc, it was nice to not stress it because there was a tablecloth instead of just dirty old picnic table. (In normal times this wouldn’t bother me, oh COVID)
Toddler/Baby Camping Clothing & Gear:
As I said in my camping checklist post. Every baby, toddler, and kid is a different temperament, has different activity, eating, and sleep needs, and experiences weather differently. You know your child best, so here’s a jumping off point for what you might need for your little one.
- Remember: layers, layers, layers.
- Check the high and low temperatures for where you’re going. And remember, just because the weather app pulls from the closest area, doesn’t mean that it will be super accurate, if you’re dealing with elevation gain, rain, or wind chill.
- Bring all their warm outerwear – even in summer. Fleece, puffy jacket, Buff headband or a beanie.
- Shoes: bring at least two pairs. Toddlers have an uncanny ability to find water sources and douse themselves. We just kept him in river shoes most of the day and reserved shoes for around dark.
- Bring 2-3x the outfits. 2 outfits per day if you’re going for 2+ nights, 3 outfits if you’re just going for 1 night. Bring more if you’re worried about it. Including – 1 pants, 1 shorts, 2 tees, 1 long sleeve shirt, 2 socks, 2 undies. I prefer legging type pants for toddlers for both hiking and camping in summer, over regular shorts. We still wear some shorts, but leggings are nice to protect them from bug bites, and to protect their knees for all the inevitable falls. (makes most falls an “but I’m ok!” instead of a long and dramatic ordeal.)
- Keep toys minimal. Think of toys as the tools and the campsite and nature as the “work”. We usually do: small bucket, small scoop shovel, couple toy vehicles or animals, small notebook and few markers.
- Bring a few different small toys/activities for the car ride. A book or stickers, a lovie, a few Duplos, or Matchbox cars etc.
- Don’t forget the “Hush Money”. Gummies, a surprise small toy, anything little that can serve as a distraction or treat when you need it! Or something outdoors related that can be both useful and a gift – like a magnified glass, Field Notes book, or a kids headlamp or flashlight.
- Getting dirty – “I’ll allow it”. If your kid doesn’t get filthy, you’re doing it wrong. Just kidding, depends on the kid, but wow can a two year old get dirty fast while camping. We pack two outfits per day. Enough to have a change when you really need it, but still rewearing some items. They’ll just get dirty again.
- When you first arrive to your campsite, look around, get the lay of the land and identify any issues, like cliffs, hills, sharp areas, fire pit etc.
- Campfire safety. If your child is old enough to understand about fire and heat, talk to them about staying away from the fire pit, not ever touching it (even when it’s not on), and never running near a fire. Of course you’ll need to watch them still.
- Water safety. Just like fire safety, explain to your child your rules for playing in the water. Life jackets are also a very useful camping item if you’ll be playing in water.
I hope these tips have helped you feel like camping with a toddler is more doable. Camping is such a nice time to get a reset and unplug in nature. It’s not the same level of relaxing as previous camping trips might have been. But it’s also way more exciting! Instead of thinking of camping as a vacation, think of it as an adventure. And it’s so fun to see everything about camping experienced for the first time through a kid’s viewpoint.
Happy memory making!