Camping With A Toddler: How To Survive And Thrive
Post Summary: Everything you need to know and pack for your first time camping with a toddler.
Does the thought of camping with a toddler strike fear into your exhausted and perpetually worn-out parent body? Yeah. I don’t blame you. Camping, in general, requires a good dose of work; adding a toddler to the mix feels like the very antithesis of a “relaxing weekend in the outdoors.”
Yes, taking a toddler camping requires some extra leg work and preparation, but it is possible to have a good time! Our first-time camping with our toddler, we went on a two-week camping trip through the National Parks. Many thought we were crazy. We are. That being said, we learned a lot about how to take a toddler camping and live to tell the tale.
We’ve compiled this complete guide to tent camping with toddlers to help get you started on the ultimate camping experience so you can sit back and enjoy your time together. It includes our best tips for camping with a toddler as well as everything you’ll need to bring so you aren’t left in a lurch when it’s the second day of camping, and you realize you actually needed to bring 500 pairs of pants.
Where To Go Camping with A Toddler
If you don’t already know where you want to go for your grand camping adventure, there are a few things you should think about before heading out:
1. What kind of amenities are a must-have for you? Do you want a campsite with showers, hot water, flushing toilets, electricity, a river or lake nearby? How rustic are you willing to go? Some campsites are privately owned with playgrounds and grocery stores, and some are state land campsites with nothing but a patch of land for your tent and car. Everything on the internet has reviews now, so look up the reviews for the campsite and see if it aligns with what you want for your trip. Campendium and Regreation.gov are great resources for campsite reviews.
2. How far do you want to go? Conventional wisdom suggests that the first time you try camping with toddlers, you should seek out a place close to home. It’s good advice, but I can’t say we followed it. Our first time camping with our son, we drove down to Yellowstone National Park, 9 hours from our home base, and we managed just fine. That being said, finding a national forest or state park close to home is a great way to dip your toes in the water. If something goes awry and you need to back out, you can rest comfortably knowing home isn’t too far away.
3. What kind of weather and animals are around? When choosing where to go on your first camping trip together, don’t forget to think about the type of weather and the animals that share the forest with you. While the daytime temperature might be a comfortable 80 degrees during the day, in high elevation campsites, the temperature at night can quickly drop to below freezing. Research the weather and animals in the area so you can be adequately prepared or bail out if it’s not something you’re comfortable with.
Prepare them Beforehand
One of the best toddler camping tips we can give is to adequately prepare them before your trip. You don’t need to be literal and explain the nuts and bolts of camping; rather it’s about getting them jazzed about a new adventure they get to have. Before we headed out on our two-week camping trip, we introduced camping to our son by reading camping-themed books at bedtime. This got him really excited and gave him imagery to associate with camping. That way, when we were all of a sudden sleeping in a nylon tent in the woods, it didn’t seem so out of the ordinary. Reading books to him was one of the best things we did before we took our first camping trip.
Here’s a full write up of our favorite camping books for toddlers.
We also put the tent up one day in the backyard so he could see how cool it was. He loved it! Before you head out on the trip, start mentioning camping and all the cool things you get to do when camping. It’s sure to stir up the natural excitement toddlers have in spades.
Camping Toys For Toddlers
Camping is a great way to promote unstructured play for your child, and while kids are great at finding games to play in the outdoors, it’s also a good idea to pack along some toddler camping toys for when you need to keep your young one from toddling off, or you need 20 minutes to cook dinner. We like to bring toys that go with the theme of camping and other old standbys that always make him happy.
Classic camping toys are flashlights, binoculars, bubbles, balls, a bucket, shovel, glow sticks, a magnifying glass, trucks, play-doh, kinetic sand, light sabers, and frisbees.
Check out our in depth post HERE on our go to camping toys for toddlers.
Camping Activities For Toddlers
In addition to having fun camping toys for toddlers, it’s a good idea to be prepared with some fun camping games to play when your toddler might need some stimulation. No need to go overboard with camping activities since most likely your little ones will be content with the activities that campsites naturally provide. When they’re done investigating rocks, piling up sticks, or jumping off tree stumps, consider some of these fun camping activites for toddlers:
–prep a craft box with paints, watercolors, crayons, markers, coloring books, notebooks
–ring toss with glow sticks (find a stick from the campsite and make a ring with glowsticks that can be turned into bracelets)
–painting rocks, leaves, or sticks from the campsite
–gluing campsite leaves to paper
–campsite scavenger hunt (Pinterest is a goldmine of free scavenger hunt templates)
–paper airplane making and racing
–storytelling in the dark with flashlights
Sleeping While Camping With A Toddler
The most common question parents have about camping with toddlers is, how the heck is my wild, crazy toddler going to sleep in a tent!? Yup. We worried about that as well.
The two most common ways to have sleeping arrangements in the tent is to bring your own portable crib or to cosleep. We’ve done both, and it’s ultimately about the temperament of your child and how they sleep best.
Our toddler sleeps very well in a pack n play, so it was a no brainer for us to bring the travel bed and hope that he would sleep okay in it. For us, a travel crib is the best option since he has a strong association of “sleep” with the pack n play. That muscle memory goes a long way in getting his wild toddler antics to calm down enough and go to bed. We also like a travel crib rather than a sleeping bag on the floor because most travel beds are lifted off the floor, which will help them to be more comfortable and can aid in keeping your child warm at night. Not a big deal if it’s not cold at nights, but if you’re doing any kind of camping where the weather drops down to the 40’s and below at night, you’ll want to be sure there is some lift or proper insulation from the cold floor.
Having a travel bed is also nice if you’re traveling with a younger toddler and need a safe space to put them at the campsite. It may seem unnecessary now, but when you’re making a campfire or trying to set up camp, it can be a godsend.
We use the Graco Pack N Play simply because it’s the one we’ve used since he was a newborn. You can find the different prices for Graco pack n plays HERE.
If you don’t already have a portable bed, there are a lot of different options that might work better for you than a pack n play. You can read our write up of the best travel cribs for toddlers and babies.
If you’re choosing to cosleep, you can get a sleeping bag for your toddler, or you can just pile up together in your sleeping space. On nights when he would wake up in the middle of the night calling out for us (yes, it did happen a few times), we would bring him into our “bed” and let that be the arrangement for the night. With camping, I feel like you have to be flexible and do what you have to do so that everyone gets some semblance of sleep. Did it ruin his sleeping patterns when we got back home? Nope. He went right back to sleeping in his own space in his room.
What about naps?
Yes, those darn naps that we love and hate at the same time.
For us, we were out most days and would opt to go on a drive and nap him in the car seat. Other days we we chose to forgo a nap and opted to put him to bed early on those days.
If you do want to try to nap your toddler in the tent, I would suggest getting a blackout cover to put on the portable bed. We use it for naps when we’re traveling and love it! More importantly, he likes it and it makes him feel like he’s sleeping in a fort. You can find the one we use HERE. Depending on the temperament of your toddler, you might have to hang out in the tent until they fall asleep and then sneak out for some blissful child-free time at your campsite. For any new product you use I always suggest you try it out at home beforehand so your child can be familiar with it so you’re not testing it out in a new environment.
We brought familiar blankets and sheets from home to help create creature comforts and and a noise machine as campsites can get loud in the early morning and at naptime. You can use a battery-operated one like THIS, or you can use a white noise app on your iPad or phone.
Lastly, tire out your kids as much as you can! Camping is such a stimulating experience that you have the advantage that they will most likely be exhausted at the end of the day.
Best Tent For Camping With Toddlers
The next question parents inevitably have is …so what’s the best tent for camping with a toddler or baby?
We are a tent camping family with no plans to backpack through the forest with our gear strapped on, so we wanted a tent that would be spacious and durable. We chose to go with the Coleman Octagon 98 Rainfly Tent because of its size and great reviews. It’s sturdy, easy to put up, and will absolutely keep the rain out. How do we know? Our second night of camping, we had a massive rainstorm complete with BIG wind, lightning, and thunder. The tent held up like a champ.
We also like the tent because it has a room divider. If you have older kids, they might enjoy having a sleep space that’s just for them. It also has a door that opens and closes like a regular door, which I must say…is a convenient feature!!
Overall, it’s a spacious tent (accommodates up to 8 people) perfect for family camping or anyone who wants room to glamp up their tent with hanging lights, cozy rugs, and side tables. Also, we love that we can fully stand in the tent. Crouching gets old!
Click on the following links to compare prices for the Coleman Tent on Amazon or Walmart.
It’s Going to Get Messy
It’s going to get messy. You’re literally sleeping outside with dirt as your foundation, so embracing the mess is vital to enjoying camping with a toddler. Bring a bunch of wipes and to the best of your ability, shrug it off when they fall into a dirt pile for the 2oth time that day. That being said, bring close-toed slip-on shoes you don’t care about for hanging around the campsite. We brought our Native Shoes, and while we love them because they are easy to clean and he can slip them on himself, his feet would be covered in a thick layer of dirt from the holes in the shoes. Now I realize that closed up shoes that can slip on and off like THESE or THESE would have been best.
Bring extra pairs of clothing since they will most likely need to be changed once a day. It’s also a good idea to dress them up in long pants rather than shorts, even if it’s warm. By nature of being a toddler, they fall and crawl around in the dirt, so having long pants is your best defense against keeping their bodies clean. It also can protect them against mosquitoes if you’re camping somewhere humid and warm. There were no showers at our campsite, so we kept him as clean as possible with wipes and long pants.
The only space I would attempt to keep free of dirt was inside the tent. We taught our son to take his shoes off right when he enters the tent and keep them on the special mat we brought for dirty shoes. Other than that, don’t worry about how messy they are getting and embrace the “imperfect” nature of camping.
Let Them Pitch In
Toddlers are never too young to learn about the basics of camp life. Lean into their natural curiosity and let them help you with all the tasks of camping. When you’re setting up the tent, give them bite-sized things to do and heap generous praise for their accomplishments. Toddlers thrive on doing “grown-up tasks” and want to be involved, so don’t be afraid to give them the mallet so they can give a few gentle swings on the tent stakes. Is it going to take longer? Yes. Are you going to have to go back and correct a lot of of things? Yes. Are you also teaching them about cooperation, patience, and teamwork? Yes!
Our little one wanted to do EVERYTHING. He wanted to collect firewood, roll out the sleeping bags, put up the tent. Pretty much anything we were doing, he wanted to do. Get your toddler as involved as you can, and you’ll be rewarded with a toddler who feels like he or she matters.
Finding small things they can do will go a long way to stave off meltdowns and have them feeling like a contributing member of the family.
Have Your Food Prepared
The key to stress-free camping with toddlers is everything you do beforehand to prep. Top on the list for what to prepare is your food. We camped for seven days in Yellowstone, and we brought in EVERYTHING from breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, and snacks. That being said, many campsites have food or restaurants inside the camp or at least a grocery store a short drive away. That is something you’ll need to know beforehand so you can adequately prepare. If your situation is like ours and you need to have everything before, you’ll want to cut, peel, and prep all your food at home so you don’t have to do that at camp.
I marinated meat, cut the potatoes, washed all fruit, and portioned out salad greens before I left so I could quickly grab the bag out of the cooler for the day they were being used.
Easy kid-friendly meals are the name of the game. I would invest in a propane stove like THIS so you can cook anything you would normally cook at home on the stovetop. Yes, you can use a campfire to set up a grill, but there is a steep learning curve to cooking over an open flame. If it’s your first time, you may not want to learn when you’ve got a tiny tot who’s entire mood rests on consistent blood sugar levels.
Easy camping meals can be found in abundance on Pinterest. Our favorites camp meals are:
–Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce
–Pre Made Chili with Corn Bread
–Pre Made Soup, Bread, Salad Kits
–Charcuterie Plates with cheese, meats, olives, dried fruits, crackers (great for lunch)
Also, if you’re going to bring all your food in, you’ll want to invest in a high-quality cooler that can keep your food cold. We like the classic Yeti Tundra Cooler, largely considered the gold standard of coolers, but if you need something more affordable, you can opt for this cooler that claims to keep ice for up to five days.
Lastly, we opted to go natural and use sticks for when we made S’mores (you have to make s’mores), but I think from now on, I’m going to buy these s’more sticks since they extend up to 32″ making them better for toddlers who you want to keep a reasonable distance from the fire.
Camping Gear For Toddlers
While we strive to be minimalist in our approach, there is some toddler camping gear you’ll want to get to ensure you have a comfortable time. Here’s a list of some toddler specific items you’ll want to bring.
What To Pack For Tent Camping With Toddlers
1. Extra clothes
2. Even more extra clothes (camping is dirty, plan for two to three changes a day)
3. Slip-on close toed shoes you don’t care about for the campsite
4. Slippers for inside the tent
5. Wipes (pack more than you think you need)
6. Sound Machine
5. First Aid Kit
6. High Chair
7. Toddler Sleeping Bag, Sheets, Pillows
8. Portable Crib
9. Camping Toys
10. Camping Crafts
12. DEET free bug spray
13. Portable potty for the potty training toddlers
That’s our shortlist of must-haves when camping with a toddler. You’ll need more stuff for camping in general, but that’s the baseline for things you’ll need for your toddler.
Attitude is Everything
While prep is everything to camping, a go with the flow attitude will help your toddler relax and enjoy the extraordinary adventure you’re creating for them. The more you can surrender into the experience and let it be imperfect, the more fun everyone will have. Your kid might have a tantrum (ours did…a lot), but it will pass, and the next moment you’ll be roasting s’mores and delighting in their untethered exuberance about chocolate and graham crackers.
After you’ve prepped the food, painted rocks, read some camping books, taught them how to arrange the logs on the fire pit, and let them make a royal mess of themselves, you can congratulate yourself on being an awesome parent. Taking a toddler camping can be a lot of work, and we think you’re fantastic for getting your kid out in the wild. Do you have any questions for us or your own great tips for going camping with a toddler? We would love to hear them in the comments below.
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