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7 tips for camping with toddlers: How to plan, pack and have fun

Twin mom shares camping wisdom, some of it learned the hard way!

We’ve collected three years of fond camping memories with our infants/toddlers, and can’t wait for our summer camping adventure season to begin!

Every year has looked different as our kids’ ages and stages have changed, and we’ve picked up great ideas and tips from our experiences and fellow family campers along the way. Here are the top seven tips we’ve learned about camping with our twin toddlers.

1: Have fun!

Camping with little ones is a lot of work, but we (so far) have never regretted any trip. Some trips were easier or harder than others. But they all were opportunities to have lots of family time outside in our beautiful Pacific Northwest.

2: Plan driving breaks on the road to your destination

Before a long car ride, consider planning some strategic stops. Are there any parks along the way? Rest stops? Restaurants you might like to eat at? Friends to visit?

[ Related: Destination playgrounds for your next NW road trip ]

A little planning may go a long way when you’re in the car with screaming toddlers.

Our longest drive yet, from Seattle to the Pacific coast, coincided with one of our kids suddenly being very uninterested in being in the car. What great timing. It was a long day of travel, no doubt, but we planned a few stops along the way to give our little ones a break from being strapped into their carseats. Stops included a nature reserve just off the freeway (with a short walk and lunch) and a park on the ocean.

 

3: Don’t forget to plan for the trip home

Planned stops helped us avoid frantically looking for places to stop when our kids desperately needed a break, which unfortunately happened on the way home.

I was so focused on the trip out to the campsite, that I hadn’t planned breaks for the return trip (we took a different route home). And that is how we ended up in a tiny parking lot just off Highway 101, sitting directly in the sun, trying to keep our kids from touching the ground, while eating a thrown-together lunch. If I’d planned a bit better, we wouldn’t have had such a chaotic stop.

 

tips for camping wiht toddlers

When it’s time for important tasks, this family finds it makes sense to divide and conquer.

4: To keep the kids safe, divide and conquer

Instead of trying to manage the kids while packing/unpacking, cooking/cleaning or engaging in setup/break-down of camp, my husband and I divide tasks: One person is 100% on kid duty, and the other is 100% in charge of the task(s).

This ensures that we meet our non-negotiable goals for the trip (keep the kids safe and do the necessary tasks, like setting up the tent, so we have somewhere to sleep).

Kid duty usually looks like taking the kids on a walk around the campground or sitting and playing with them in the play yard that we hauled to the forest when they were mobile 1-year-olds.

Doing camp tasks is a big job, but a job that you can do more easily without worrying about keeping kids safe. We’ve found this method has worked well for our family (perhaps because we’re a family of multiples!). We’ll keep doing this until the day the kids can keep themselves safe and entertained or can help with camp jobs.

5: Bring a comprehensive first aid kit

Thanks to my prepared husband, we always bring a basic first aid kit on camping trips. In fact, he put one together that we just throw in the car on every trip.

We learned our lesson when our toddler had a terrible night of sleep, was cranky and lethargic all the next morning, and woke up quite warm from a nap. We didn’t have a thermometer to check his temperature and didn’t know for certain if our child had a rough night sleeping away from home or was warm because of the weather. Or maybe he really had a fever.

Thankfully, another family had a thermometer, which confirmed his fever.

We cut our trip short, packed up our gear, and headed home for our little guy to recover.

And I learned that, while any first aid kit is better than no first aid kit, perhaps it is better have a comprehensive first aid kit, especially when camping with little ones. As we begin camping season this summer, we’ll go through our first aid kit and see what items we should add. Included will be a thermometer and other helpful tools that will help with sick infants and toddlers.

tips for camping with toddlers

Only bring what you need, like portable cribs for naptime.

6: You don’t need all the gear

It seems like everywhere you look, especially as parents, you’re told that you need to have all the right gear for each different moment for your child. Camping is no exception. But before filling your closet or garage with gear, consider using what you already have for camping.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to keep my kids warm at night when they were 2-year-old campers. They had outgrown their full-body fleece suits, but seemed way too small for sleeping bags.

There are a handful of sleeping-bag-like bodysuits for camping, but it seemed silly to spend money on something that they would likely only use for a year (we anticipated them using sleeping bags the following summer). I was so worried about getting out into the forest and them being cold, but I just couldn’t justify buying something new for one season.
After talking with friends, I realized that we could put multiple layers of warm clothes on and cover them with blankets. This is what we did all summer, and they slept just fine. (We’d occasionally check on them and move a blanket over them if we thought they might be chilly.)

As you prepare for your adventures and consider what you might need, don’t forget to look at what you already have.

7: Consider the sun

I have to admit that I never thought of this when we arrived to a campsite and looked at possible tent locations.

Thankfully, other parents would always point out the constant rotation of the earth around the sun.

That’s right: Sun and shade will constantly be shifting throughout the campsite, which is a big deal when you desperately hope that, in early afternoon, your toddlers will peacefully slumber in their temporary woodland home.

I don’t have a tip for finding the best spot in your campsite for naptime, unfortunately. In our experience, sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about having your tent in the blazing sun during naptime.

I’m not sure how much research you could do, unless you’ve been to a site before, to know the makeup of a campsite well enough (Where are the trees? How tall are they? Where are the flat spots for tents? Will your tent fit in that spot?) to guarantee that you’ll have a shady spot during naptime.

Some things we tried, on those blazing afternoons, included keeping all of the vents and windows open in the tent. We tried putting blankets and towels over the tent (I don’t think this did anything to cool the tent down, but we were desperate). We even tried putting our travel cribs in a shady part of the campground. Also 0% effective, but our toddlers entertained our whole campsite with their jabbering and constantly craning their necks to see what was going on).

So, no big tip here, just a reminder that the sun can make afternoon napping a challenge. And make sure that you’re checking in on your kids if they are napping in the sun: Tents can get super hot, super fast.

Here’s to making camping memories this summer, with your infant, your 5-year-old, or your teen. Enjoy the joys and challenges of each stage as you experience life together with your kids in the outdoors.

 

Ellie White shares more tips on camping with kids

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About the Author

Ellie White

Ellie had the privilege of growing up in our beautiful Pacific Northwest. She currently lives in the Green Lake neighborhood with her husband and twin toddlers.