My Best Tips for Camping with Toddlers

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Here’s some real talk. We took our almost two-year-old twins camping for three nights and though we had moments of fun, it was on the challenging side. Usually my kids love the outdoors, and they know and love all the people we camped with, so I expected them to be in heaven. But as soon as we got to camp, they both went straight to the car and cried “home”. Those demands didn’t stop, and when they weren’t asking to go home, they were clingy and just wanted to be held. I’m going to chalk this all up to some sort of toddler stage that I don’t understand and say it can only get better from here!

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In both my research and my experiences camping with toddlers, I’ve learned some things I thought I would share-

Talk it up

Talk to kids about the idea of sleeping in a tent so it’s not a surprise. We did this and I think it really helped them get to sleep at night. We also had been taking the kids outside every night before bed to show them the stars and the moon, so when we got to camp they were so excited to see so many stars.

Make sure they nap

If your kids are used to napping, do everything you possibly can to make sure they nap. Ours ran around like crazy when we tried to get them to sleep for a nap, so we finally went for a drive and they were out in minutes. I’m sure that was the only thing that made the afternoons and evenings tolerable.

Prep food at home

Prep most (if not all) of your food at home so that when you get to camp, all you have to do is reheat. The less work you have to do preparing food at camp, the better. If you end up with a child who will not let you put her down, you’ll be able to heat your meal one handed.

Don’t count on campfire cooking exclusively

I made the mistake of planning to cook most of my meals on the campfire, without thinking about the timing of things. It takes time to build a campfire that’s hot enough for cooking, and by the time our fire was ready, the kids were way too hungry. Also, having a campfire around a toddler requires CONSTANT supervision. So if you’re going to start a fire before the kids go to bed, you’ll need at least one adult whose job is to make sure a child doesn’t get too close to the fire.

Bring healthy snacks

This one seems obvious, but I screwed it up so maybe it’s worth mentioning. Junk food will arrive at camp, so focus as much as possible on bringing healthy snacks that your kids love. I was so busy thinking about meals that I forgot about snacks and so the kids ate way too many chips. Some of our favorite snacks I wish I had are string cheese, small apples, and those fruit and veggie puree pouches (which you can freeze and stick in your cooler).

Bring a play tent or play yard

Our car was completely packed, so we didn’t have room for an extra tent or play yard, but if you do, bring one! It’s so nice to have an “indoor” play space that can get dirty. Our kids were constantly in and out of the tent and it was a pain to have to pull their shoes off and back on again whenever they changed their fickle minds about where they wanted to be.

Bring some old and some new toys

Familiar toys and books are a must have, but I kept things exciting by bringing some new things like glow necklaces and new crayons and coloring/sticker books. Camping is a great time to bring out all those art supplies that you might not want to deal with at home for fear of a big mess.

Throw out expectations

Finally, don’t be disappointed if your kids aren’t happy and/or things don’t go as planned. You have to go into this knowing that it could go any way. Even if it’s hard, you’re creating a memorable experience for your kids that will have a lasting positive impact on their lives. The next trip will be easier because they’ll be more used to it. They had new experiences and that will benefit them (and you!) in many ways. And the only real way for the whole family to get good at this stuff (even without toddlers!) is to practice.

Do you have any favorite tips for camping with toddlers?

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2 thoughts on “My Best Tips for Camping with Toddlers

  1. Having started camping with our daughter when she was ~2 years also (now 5 going on 13), I can add a couple extra tips:

    * Plan for dirty kids. It sounds obvious, but it took a little bit of mental gymnastics for my wife to get prepared for the idea that we would be intentionally letting the kiddo get dirty then have to clean her “in the field” Having a set of clothing (especially socks!) that stay clean for bedtime only is important.

    * If at all possible, meals should be comfort food/kid favorite items. I know for adults part of the allure of camping is getting to cook in a different way, but there are enough “new” things already so having a reliable go-to meal or three can really help return some normalcy.

    * As a variant of the above, be prepared to improvise some comfort foods. I pack a few extra ingredients so I can always whip up a quesadila, a bean/cheese burrito, a grilled cheese, or a few other favorites should “emergency comfort food” be needed.

    * If at all possible, arrange your first trip or two so that there will be other kids (preferably slightly older/more experienced campers) there. One of the happy accidents for us was on one of our earliest trips to the desert – we met another family at the trailhead while airing down. They had a son around a year older than my daughter and she spent most of that weekend following him around, playing, and generally trying to emulate his behavior. We still camp with that family on occasion and our best trips are always the ones where someone else is kind enough to bring a couple of kids along.

    * Keep your first few trips short – weekend-length is about all the “new” and adventure a toddler can reliably handle.

    * Have a “bailout” strategy – We’ve been lucky (and sufficiently prepared) that we never had to quit a trip part-way through, but I know other families with young campers who HAVE, and it’s usually been a blessing for them to be within an hour or two’s drive of home when things went really sideways. Weather, illness, or a terminal attack of Crankenstein’s Baby are all possible.

    * Expect and plan for the Inevitable Fit – Every family has their own strategy for parenting and how to deal with “the fit”. My only advice here is to expect that there will be more than one, and to try to plan your response so that it doesn’t ruin the trip.

    * Another Plug for Glow-necklaces and the like – I always kept the old-school large-form glowsticks in the emergency kit in our camper. On our first camping trip with the kiddo I busted one out for her and tied it onto a necklace for her. We immediately realized how much easier it made keeping track of her. It also doubled as a night-light for her first night in the camper. We buy entire rave-worthy packages of the things now and they’re a regular part of every trip. She gets a minimum of a glow-necklace and bracelet every night. As she gets older it really helps us to worry less as she wants to have a bit more autonomy to move around camp when it’s getting dark. (Also especially important if there are other people or vehicles around – it’s never happened but I worry the most about her getting into the “road” at an established campground where there always seem to be cars at all hours)

    1. Wow, thanks so much for the great tips Mike! My favorite is the one about taking other kids with you. I think that would have helped us tremendously on this last trip.

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