I've been going camping my entire life - real tent camping, none of that wussy RV camping (I'm sure RV campers think tent campers are some kind of masochists so the disdain is mutual) (also probably if I ever went RV camping I'd be like OMG HEAVEN NO MORE TENTS EVER). Some of my earliest - and most favorite - memories are camping with my parents and siblings. I've camped in all sorts of weather (save the dead of winter) and in all kinds of campsites, and I've loved every minute of it.
Maybe not every minute.
There were a few cold, wet nights that weren't so fun.
But usually I love it and feel totally in my element (I mean, not showering and eating s'mores? ALL DAY EVERY DAY). Sometimes I hear a sound (a specific type of zipper being zipped) or smell something (burning wood) while I'm just going about my daily life and it instantly reminds me of camping and make me want to pull out the tent and take off to a campground.
We started camping with Carys early - she was just three months old during her first campout at Ledges State Park (now one of my favorite campgrounds) in October 2011. She loves camping and regularly asks to go (it's probably the s'mores, but I like to pretend she's just a nature lover). We've been camping with her - and now Emmeline - probably a dozen times. I wouldn't consider myself an expert in camping with babies and toddlers, but we haven't had any disasters yet, so here's what I do know! (Note: This list is assuming you camp already and you know things like how to pick good camp sites and to put a groundcloth under your tent and generally what to pack for yourself, etc. Camping basics would be a whole 'nother post. Also, this is for when you're camping for a few days with camping being the destination itself. Long-term camping instead of a hotel while on a vacation is an entirely different beast.)
I asked my dad for advice, since he has even more camping trips with kids (four of us!) under his belt, and he said, "Aim for warm, dry, well-rested, well-fed, dirty kids." I think that sums it up nicely.
If you start camping with them when they're very young, this won't be as much as an issue, but if you're going for the first time with toddlers and young children, they can get scared of the darkness and the sounds. Before you go, spend time outside, in the dark. Explore your backyard with just a flashlight. Let them play in the dark with glowsticks. Sit on your porch and listen to the sounds and make a game out of identifying them. Even camp in your backyard!
2. Try an outhouse.
This can be a little tricky, but if you can find an outhouse and get them used to going potty on one, it's definitely helpful. Carys thought the fact that she got to pee! on! trash! was amazing. So that's one (disgusting) angle you can use. Also useful: teaching them (boys and girls!) to go pee outside.
3. Get walking and hiking.
No matter what you do, if you go on a hike while camping, your toddler will want to be carried. However, you can minimize this by building up their endurance. Take lots of walks and hikes so they get used to walking and not being carried.
Pictured here is Carys's first camping trip, in October 2011. This trip started out wonderfully...but the first evening it got way colder than we'd anticipated, so we were all freezing (except for Carys, since I'd packed 100 blankets and swaddles and hats for her). Luckily, my dad was joining us the next day, so we begged him to bring extra blankets, and the next night we were all toasty warm. So there's tip number one - plan for the worst weather. Yes, it means you'll pack (a lot) more than you normally would, but if that bad weather happens, you'll be prepared. Adults and older kids can weather (ha) a storm or a cold night without a jacket, but babies can't. Well, I guess they CAN, but don't make them. That's mean. So be sure to pack for the worst possible weather. In May or October, that might be an unexpected cold snap. In July, that might be a monsoon. Actually, scratch that. Just plan for everything. Plan for a freak snowstorm in August. Just pack the baby lots of clothes, from a simple short-sleeve onesie for 100 degree days to a fleece snowsuit with a hat and mittens. Even if your plan is "leave immediately if the weather turns bad," still bring extra clothes. A beautiful, warm, sunny July day has surprisingly chilly evenings and mornings.
Also, camping takes place outside. Not sure if you knew that? But that means DIRT. And your kid will get filthy. So extra clothes in case of extra dirtiness is smart, too.
Oh, and long sleeves and pants will help protect from both the sun and bugs, so those are good to have on hand, too. Layers!
2. Diapers. Gross.
We cloth diaper, so I don't have a lot of advice for using disposables, but do the entire camp a favor and don't dump poopy diapers into the trash bins. Dump the poop in the toilet and THEN toss the diaper. Or pack it out. No one wants to camp downwind from a pile of poopy diapers. Even if you triple bag them. Also, bring extras. I know that's a big DUH but you really don't want to run out. And having to drive 30 minutes to the nearest town (or even five minutes into the nearest town) kind of takes you out of the camping spirit and no one wants that.
If you cloth diaper, we just bring the number of diapers we need plus a couple wetbags. I keep a main wetbag in the tent for the dirties, and then take a smaller one if we go on hikes or anything. Dump the poop in the toilet. Be resourceful and use a stick to scrape it if you have to (at this point all the non-CDers are like "OMGWTFNO.").
3. Pack a stocked first-aid kit, insect repellent, and sunscreen.
A bandaid can cure tears in an instant for a toddler, so make sure you have lots of them (obviously in addition to the other first-aid kid staples - but lots of bandaids). I got those bug repellent wristbands (link here) for the girls to wear pretty much the entire time and they work well (if they have sensitive skin, you might want to put them over socks on their ankles). They're no DEET spray, but they don't, you know, cause cancer or anything like that, so that's a bonus. I also get big citronella incense sticks (link here) that I stick around the campsite and burn. The wristband plus the incense stick seems to work well. If you're particularly attractive to bugs, you might want to top it off with a spray as well. Don't forget calamine lotion in the first-aid kit in case of poison ivy. Tweezers are another oft forgotten staple - splinters are a real hazard! (It sounds like I'm joking, but really, some of those picnic tables at the campsites are basically just like one million splinters held together with leftover food particles from previous campers.) Sunscreen is obviously important any time you're in the sun - even if you're hiking in a shaded area, I'd pack it. I learned that trees don't block all of the UVA/UVB rays when I kept newborn Carys in the shade of a tree and she still got sunburned. For small children and babies, you CAN use sunblock - whenever people talk about sunscreen not being safe for babies, they're referring to sunscreens and not sunblocks. Sunblocks use zinc and physical blockers, sunscreen uses chemical blockers. I like Blue Lizard (link here - hint, the baby and the sensitive are the same formula and the sensitive is cheaper! It just doesn't have the UV indicator color-changing cap.) but there are other good ones like Badger, too. Sunhats are a GREAT addition to the camping bag, too, to help protect downy-haired scalps.
4. More things to pack!
This is a lot, but don't despair. Most of it is really small and won't take up much room.
General needs/Multi-use supplies:
- Water bottle for your toddler. It's easy to bring water bottles for everyone and forget the toddler. But you'll definitely want them to have one of their own.
- Water jug - keep a big jug (like a gallon) of water at the campsite. We usually have one for drinking and one for washing. That way you don't have to go back and forth to the water pump or bathrooms to fill up your water bottle or wash your hands (don't use soap at the campsite! You don't want to send soapy water into the ground!) all day long.
- Hand sanitizer. DUH. Although I really only break it out if they, like, pick up a pile of bear poop. (Kidding, there are no bears where we camp....but dog poop is another story).
- Travel potty for younger or newly potty trained kids. It can be quite a hike to the bathrooms, and as we know, toddlers don't always give a good amount of warning. Having a potty seat that you can just direct them to (we kept ours in a corner of the tent) helps prevent accidents. Liquid waste we just dumped into the woods behind the camp site (making sure there were no trails or anything) and solid waste went into a bag to be dumped into the toilets.
- Bring wipes. Lots and lots of baby wipes. They're like the most multi-purpose tool in your arsenal of camping supplies. You'll use them, your toddler will use them, your baby will use them, everyone will use them all day long.
- Glowsticks! The kids will love playing with them when it gets dark and they're useful for keeping track of toddlers running around a dark campsite. (Don't be those people that blast light at your campsite all night long and blind everyone else around you! Please!) (On the same note. WE CAN ALL HEAR YOUR MUSIC.)
- Mini backpack (ours - we have the owl). We put Carys's water and snacks in it, and make her carry it herself when we're hiking. We also put a few ziplock bags in here where she can collect small treasures (like a special rock or pretty flower - make sure you're not going against park regulations if you do this!).
- Extra tarps - they can be used inside the tent (to help keep everything dry in the case of rips/leaks), for the kids to lounge around on, for the baby to crawl on, as a sun shade, etc.
- Identification - have something on the kid at all times that has their name, your name, and your phone number on it AS WELL AS your campsite number. If they wander off, you want it make it easy for whoever finds them to get them back to you (and remember, cell phones don't always work at campsites).
- Flashlights - bring one for each older child (maybe like 2+). For the smaller kids, make it a light one that isn't very powerful (because I guarantee they will shine it in your eyes a hundred times). But for night hikes and going to the bathroom after dark, they'll want to hold YOUR flashlight, and it's really hard to navigate by flashlight when the toddler doesn't understand the directive to hold it at the ground a few feet in front of you. They want to shine it everywhere BUT on the ground a few feet in front of you. So give them their own.
- Loud whistle (aluminum tube style) on a lanyard that your walking toddler or older kid wears everywhere. Teach your child to blow it if they are lost or scared or in trouble. Also teach them to blow their whistle in response to yours (very Sound of Music, I know).
- Emergency survival kit - this should be a staple in every camper's gear, but it's even more important with kids, because you REALLY don't want to have an emergency situation and be unprepared. Just a small pouch (I mean small, like palm-sized) or tin with things like waterproof strike-anywhere matches, a really loud whistle, a few pieces of candy, a tiny compass, an emergency blanket (these fold up TINY), a pocket knife, a pencil and paper, a mini-flashlight (with fresh batteries!), length of cord/rope, water purification tablets, a few first-aid supplies, etc. You can find lists of survival kit necessities all over the internet. Make sure you don't leave it in your car - take it with you if you go hiking or off-trail!
- Looooooong skewers for marshmallows and other roasting foods (these extendable ones are ace!). Short ones are worthless with little kids, because it requires them to get way too close to the fire to be safe. Use the long ones so they can be back from the fire, but still enjoy roasting fun.
- Baby carrier! I assume if you read this you're probably somewhat of a hippie like me and take your carrier everywhere, but if not, this is a good time to get one. Strap that baby on you and go hiking!
- Real tennis shoes for the kids - don't pack them just sandals. Pack real shoes that they can use for hiking and walking and exploring. Have you ever had a stick jam itself up into your sandal? IT HURTS.
- Any necessary bedtime accouterments - do they usually sleep with that infamous seahorse? A Sleep Sheep? A special blanket? BRING THEM.
- If you have a crawler, bring a Pack and Play or some other way to contain them (these PeaPods are awesome because they have netting built in to keep bugs out and they are WAY lighter than Pack N Plays - they also come in a larger "Plus" version for bigger kids). It's nice to have someplace clean to set them that they can't immediately crawl off of (like they can a blanket). Because you know they'd go right for the fire.
- If you have a small baby that can't sit up on its own yet but isn't yet a crawler, bring a Bumpo or other travel seat (like a bouncer). Even their bucket infant seat can work for this! You're looking for someplace to be able to set them down that's clean and safe while you do things like tend the fire or cook.
- Bring a Rock N Play or Pack and Play or the above mentioned PeaPod for sleeping babies. I preferred the RNP because it took up less space in the tent and kept her off the cold ground. I sleep on an air mattress or foam mat with a sleeping bag, so not really safe co-sleeping arrangements for a small baby - hence the need for a safe space for them.
- Changing pad to change diapers in the tent.
- Kid-sized camp chairs (or at least a chair for them). I can't tell you how many times I've been relegated to the picnic table when everyone else is around the fire because the kid stole my goddamn chair.
- Small battery-powered fan - this is mostly important if you're camping in the heat of the summer and have a small baby - everyone else can just suffer. That's what camping's all about, amirite???
- Bib and kid-sized plates/utensils/cups - small toddlers might not be able to use the adult-sized utensils. Don't forget to bring their toddler-size versions so they can eat with you easily.
- Travel high chair - this is a "helpful if it works, waste of space if not" thing, although it packs pretty small so it's not a huge waste of space, at least. We have this travel high chair that hooks onto tables. It was REALLY useful for the times that it worked - I'd say we are able to use it on about 80% of tables, including picnic tables. It's great for those kids who are feeding themselves, but can't quite sit at a picnic table all by themselves yet.
- Interlocking foam panels can be used as a tent floor to make it softer (and you can buy a cheap set, trim them to fit, and use them every time). I've never done this, but I've seen them used and can definitely see where it could be useful and increase the comfort of the tent. Me, I'm too lazy for it.
- Tricycle/bikes/scooters - Full discloser: I've never brought these along, yet. But I see other campers with them all the time. We usually have too many people in the car to bring a bike for each person, so we just don't bother (plus, we're big walkers/hikers). But if you know the area well and know it will have lots of flat pavement (usually the roads around the RV camping area are great for this), bring it and let your toddler bike/scoot around to their little heart's content. Carys is actually super into biking right now, so next camping trip I'll probably try to bring it if I can squeeze it in.
- Wildflower/bird/bug/butterfly identification books. You don't need them all for every trip, but having them is beneficial from a practical standpoint (OMG WHAT FLOWER DID THE BABY JUST EAT AND DO I NEED TO CALL 911?) and from a fun standpoint. Carys loves looking through the pages of birds trying to identify the one we just saw. Plus, educational! I really, really, really love the Fandex series (we have trees, bugs, butterflies, wildflowers, and birds) but they are limited in scope, as well as listing flora and fauna that might not be native to your area, so they may or may not work for you. But they are really fun!
- Magnifying glass, binoculars, bug hut (you know, those little screen bug houses? Target usually has them in the dollar aisle or you can make one or you could buy one here) - these types of things are all items that the kids can use to explore the campsite. Make sure to bring them on your hikes! (I usually take a backpack on our hikes to hold all our stuff + diapers + wipes + water + ID books, but these can also go in your kid's backpack.) Note: Bug huts are for very temporary use. Release the bugs after a few minutes!
- Swimsuits, water shoes, and towels - if there's any sort of water-based recration at your campsite, come prepared for it.
- Paper bags for scavenger hunt, GPS for geocaching, travel games, and other fun/game type things (see #4 below!).
4. Toys and activities
I'm an advocate of NOT bringing many toys/distractions other than what's listed above - I want the kids to explore and connect with nature, not sit on the picnic table playing video games or with their dolls that they can play with at home. I do, however, love nature-related games that the whole family can do - for instance, we do a scavenger hunt every camping trip, including a picture-based one for Carys (hint: draw the pictures on a lunch bag so they can use the bag to collect!). Nature-based crafts, like gluing leaves down to make pictures or doing leaf rubbings are also fun (although to do this you have to remember to pack glue and paper and crayons and that can be kind of a pain). Another family favorite is looking for nearby GeoCaches. You can use your phone to download the GeoCaching app (the one technology exception I personally am on board with!) or use a device like this (my mom's preference, and nice when you don't have cell phone service). And if you don't know what GeoCaches are, look into it! They are SO fun for literally the entire family. We also bring Boggle or some other easily packed game for playing with the whole family in the evening, but we focus mostly on hiking/exploring/enjoying the great outdoors.
Your kid will probably tell you they're bored at some point. Send them on a hunt for three different colored rocks or tell them to sit and identify five sounds that they hear or have them collect sticks for the fire [watch out for poison ivy!] or anything you can do to help them connect to nature. Or do what I do and ignore them and make them figure their own entertainment out (lazy + mean!).
Now, when you're talking about entertaining the kids on the drive to the campsite - by all means bring toys. Just leave them in the car!
That said, there might be a place for electronics while camping (if you have service). You could watch a movie in the tent on your iPad if it's raining for a couple hours, or use your phone to identify a tree, etc. I just hate walking around the campsite and seeing kids lounging on their chairs, playing games on their phone.
When you're camping with kids, taking location into consideration is even more important than when you're camping with just adults. This might not be the best time to be a day's drive from the nearest hospital. We drive about 3 hours to our favorite site, but it's an hour from a big city and about 15 minutes from a small town with a gas station/Dollar General. I mean, not to mention that most people don't consider driving for 10 hours with small kids fun. If you do, may I have your secrets?? But if, god forbid, anything should happen - allergic reaction, broken bones, etc. - you want to have fairly easy access to help.
2. Get written directions.
If you've never been to this site before, have paper maps/directions written out. We got lost on the way to a campground once because we stopped getting phone service and had been relying on our phone GPS for directions. NOT FUN. I mean, it did lead to driving through streams and going the wrong way on a road, so it was memorable, but it also lead to a lot of anxiety and worry that we were going to get really, REALLY lost. Getting lost with two adults is a far cry from getting lost with two babies. Don't risk it!
3. Consider the amenities at the campsite.
When choosing a location to camp, look at the list of amenities. We have done everything from "primitive" camping (no running water anywhere, outhouses only, etc.) to "regular" camping (where there's a toilet/shower building with running water) to fanceh cabin camping (which is obviously camping...in a cabin) with or without it's own bathroom/kitchen/etc. Ok, but staying in a cabin with a kitchen and bathroom isn't really camping, it's more just "staying at a hotel in the woods." Right? We most often go "regular" camping. [These are my own definitions, btw...don't call your local park and ask about "regular" camping!] If you have small kids, running water located nearby is probably a little more important. If your kid won't go potty in an outhouse, flush toilets are probably important. We don't like to bring in our own firewood (plus we're usually camping out of state, so it's illegal) so we always make sure that firewood is available for sale nearby. Take a look at the list of amenities at the campsite and make sure that it matches your needs. Make sure to find out what kind of toilets they have, especially if your kid is outhouse-averse.
4. Setting up your campsite.
- Obviously there are the basics - look for a nice level spot with decent shade, without any big roots running across it, that's somewhat sheltered from the wind, etc. Clear out any sticks, rocks, etc that are in the site. I like to lay the groundcloth/tarp down the run my hand over the entire surface to make sure that I got all of the sharp items out from under it. Even novice campers know this, so I won't linger on this point.
- Consider distance to other campers, the bathrooms, etc. Kids are loud. They like to run and scream and act like tiny drunk hooligans. I like to let them do this whenever possible (and there's something about the great outdoors that really brings the hooligan out in children). Also, babies cry at night. So I try to find a fairly isolated campsite to let them go crazy without disturbing others. I also like to be close enough to the bathroom that I can run over easily, but not close enough that there's heavy traffic through our site with people trekking to the bathroom or that I can smell them (THE. WORST.). I also like to be near other kids, because there are no friends like two-day-long-camp-friends.
- Check the perimeter of your campsite for poison ivy, nettles, and other poisonous plants. Usually there's a plant or two, but if it's just one or two I don't worry about it too much. We had one campsite, though, were the entire campsite was ringed densely with poison ivy. I didn't want to have to keep the kids from exploring, so we moved campsites. Check for this before you set up - the last thing you want is to get all set up and have to decide between moving ALL THAT SHIT or letting your kid run free and explore. Note: MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHAT THESE PLANTS LOOK LIKE!
- Use firewood to create a fence/barrier around the fire. Honestly, the fire is probably the most fear-inducing part of camping with kids to me. I'm always nervous that they're going to trip and fall right into it (note: it hasn't happened). So I make a ring around the fire with firewood (at night time, building a huge ring of glowsticks and laying them around the ring helps too). It doesn't physically keep them out - they can step right over it - but it acts as a good visual reminder.
- Keep the ax out of sight unless you're using it, and keep a cover over the blade. Otherwise they're going to want to use it. When you're using it, teach them some ax safety and remind them that it's sharp and only for mom and dad.
You will be outside, exploring and getting down and dirty. Just let the dirt happen. I assume if you're camping you're cool with dirt, but if not....love the dirt. You (and your kids, to an even greater degree) will just have a fine layer of grime the entire time and that's okay. Be one with nature. If you don't like bugs, um, well, don't go camping? There will be bugs. They're cool. Your kids will love them.
It's kind of a drag, having to schedule around your kids, but do whatever you can to stay on their regular schedule camping. Have them take their regular naps, go to bed at the regular time, etc. I'm telling you now: this might not happen. They probably won't go to bed until sundown, which in the summer is probably a good hour past their bedtime. And maybe they'll wake up as soon as the sun rises. And they might be too excited to nap. But do what you can to keep their schedule by having quiet time (maybe laying in the tent reading books) during naptime if they won't actually nap, and start winding down for the day and doing quiet activities when it's their bedtime. If you think they might actually nap, I've found that positioning the tent in the shade helps keep it dark, then I further darken it by throwing a quilt or two over the top of it. Also, if you fill up the morning with hiking and exploring and long walks, by the afternoon they're (sometimes) ready to crawl into bed and begging for a nap.
Here's what we do for sleeping arrangements:
Me (did I mention Chris doesn't camp with us? I camp with my mom, sister, and sometimes aunts/uncles/cousins) - I usually sleep on either a foam pad with a sleeping bag on it or on an air mattress, depending on how many nights we'll be there. We have a 6 person tent and usually my mom, sister, the two girls, and I are all sleeping in it.
Baby under 1 year: Rock N Play - I like that it's up off the ground and out of the way.
Baby 1-2 years: Pack N Play or PeaPod
Toddler 2+ years: Either in their own portable cot (we have this one and use it alllll the time) or on foam pads and a sleeping bag with their own pillow from home, usually between two adults to help with warmth.
Sleep is easy as long as you a) make them comfortable and b) try to stick to their schedule.
Everyone has their own camping staples, but some of our favorite campground meals are chili/soup, hot dogs, sloppy joes, tacos, cold cuts, S'MORES S'MORES S'MORES and did I mention marshmallows with graham crackers and chocolate? Look up "foil meals" too - anything that can be cooked by wrapping it in a foil packet is great, too (for instance, bring pita bread, pizza sauce, and toppings - wrap in foil and put on the fire until the cheese melts!). Some people like to cook with dutch ovens, some like to cook on the campfire, some like to use camp stoves - tailor your meal plans to how you plan to cook them. For breakfast we usually keep it simple and boil water for oatmeal and hot chocolate and have yogurt and fruit and granola bars. And s'mores (it's not just a dessert!) (okay it is but when you're camping it's breakfast too). Oh - and pop tarts toasted over an open fire are amazing. Bring lots of snacks, too - something about the great outdoors makes people HUNGRY. And seriously, don't forget the toasting sticks - my sister and I love toasting anything and everything on the fire. Cookies? Bananas? Reese's Peanut Butter Cups? YES. PUT IT ON THE FIRE.
4. Hiking and exploring.
They'll get tired if you go on a long hike. Just know that and prepare for it. Don't skip the hikes, because hiking! Nature! Beauty! But just know that you'll probably end up carrying them. (This is why I love hiking with my sister and mom, because we take turns. Although my mom takes probably 70% of the carrying, no joke, she's like Iron Woman.) Take a baby carrier for sure. Don't take a stroller, unless it's some sort of cushy boardwalk hike. Build in times for taking breaks (i.e. what would normally would be an hour-long hike will probably be two hours), but savor those breaks. Break out some snacks, explore the area, etc. Or take lots of shorter hikes.
5. Let them help.
I'm assuming you know how to pitch your tent pretty quickly (if not, practice!). And you know how to chop firewood and start a fire and do all those camping basics. But with kids, there's a twist: they'll want to help. Whenever possible, let them. Give them a stake to hold, or show them how to safely add wood to the fire, or let them gather kindling. Let them find a walking stick to use on hikes. Almost all camping skills - knot tying, fire-building, cooking, first aid - have age-appropriate parts that you can teach even a two-year-old. This is a great opportunity to teach them and have them develop skills that will seriously last them a lifetime. Let them do it. Take a leap of faith and let them!
6. Slow down. Let them lead sometimes.
Kids love to explore and look at every. little. thing. Slow down and go at their pace for once. You'll be shocked at how much they can show you. I know it sounds cheesy, but it's true. They'll spot the tiniest bug and the most interesting rock and seeing the world through their eyes is like WHOA MAN. Camping is great for wandering and taking your time and soaking in nature and getting lost (but not too lost). Even babies LOVE to look at the leaves and rocks and things around the campsite. My mom took 6-month-old Emmeline around the perimeter of the campsite, just letting her look at and touch things, and she was totally enthralled (pictured left).
7. Clean your shit up.
Those little ones? They can be messy. You'll always clean your campsite (RIGHT) and remove any trash left behind (RIGHT??) and leave it looking even better than when you arrived (RIGHT?!?!?!) but it's doubly important when you have kids who have been running around to every square inch of the site. Make sure you check the entire area for dropped toys and food, etc. And this is a great way to help teach the kids about helping to keep all the bugs and animals and plants "happy and healthy" by making sure that there's no trash around that can make them sick.
Camping is such a great, cheap, educational family activity, and really the biggest thing is for YOU to have fun and be relaxed. No kid is going to have a fun time if his or her parents are stressed and fretful and freaking out about the bugs or a little bit of rain. But if you embrace it and love it, your kid will too - and they'll learn so many valuable skills during the process!