How to Camp with a Toddler
Just try it. See how it goes. And don’t worry too much.
How’s that for a canned, cop-out answer?
But really, try not to overthink this. If you normally go camping every summer, then normal camping you shall go. The sooner you make camping a part of your newer child’s life, the sooner it will just become “normal.” Having a baby or toddler in the house doesn’t have to change your normal family activities. And it’s really not as hard as you might be thinking!
We were worried about how our little girl would do too, but we went anyway and winged it. Actually, we went last year when she was only10 months old. Having a baby? Doesn’t stop us from enjoying our favorite past-times. In fact, having Rayna there enriched the experience tenfold. Try going camping through the eyes of a one-year-old. Fascinating!
This is our camper and set-up. As a side note, that there umbrella-tent thing, the Sportbrella is awesome! You can fit two normal camping chairs under there and hang out when it’s raining or super sunny (our overhang needs repair). BYOS, Bring Your Own Shade. In fact, my BIL uses theirs at my nephew’s soccer games.
Ok, now let me give you a few more legit tips for camping with a tiny human:
The sleeping situation
So, Rayna still sleeps in a crib. And she needs to. She is a rolly-polly sleeper and falls off normal beds still. She also doesn’t have the discipline to stay put yet. Problem is, all we have in the camper are normal beds. And they’re the type of beds that you can’t hook a toddler bed gate to, otherwise we would’ve done that.
Luckily, our camper has a cabinet that blocks part of the bed, so I put her as close to that end as I could. I also added a full-body pillow to that side of the bed so she would be kinda nested in there. We think she fell out a few times: once when the dog took over her space (#sillypuppy) and once when she had rolled to the opposite side of the bed. None of this was dangerous though.
So, I would suggest using a toddler gate if you can, making a nice sleeping nest, and putting something soft on the floor beside the bed, just in case. No biggie.
Also, since toddlers like to get up after you’ve put them down for bed, you have to be consistent about putting them back every single time they get up. It actually only takes several times before they get the picture. The picture you have in your mind of putting your child back 50 times over the course of 2 hours while pulling your hair is way exaggerated to what usually happens in reality. A few times was all it took for Rayna the first day, and it got easier every day thereafter.
The kids’ set-up: side-by-side beds with a pull-out table and a TV stand with their movie player.
So, toddlers are not the greatest at kicking back in a camping chair and watching the fire. No, they are not.
So, we made sure we had a small excursion planned for each day (nothing too involved) that we were at the campground and we broke the day up into chunks.
Actually, each thing we did was like a mini event: prepare and eat breakfast, run to the showers and get ready (Rayna oddly LOVED this part), do a little excursion, come back and do lunch, go down for a nap, go down to the playground for a bit, gather wood for the fire, have dinner, wind down with a movie on the portable DVD player, go to bed.
All these little experiences were a great way to keep our toddler active all day along with us. while doing the things all of us like to do. Like I said, she doesn’t like to just lounge around, so we used what was available to us (playground, hiking trails, beach) to keep her busy.
She swam, collected seashells, looked at the fishies, jumped off the dock into my arms and explored the sand.
Taking a slow family hike, collecting fun things in her hands.
While camping, it’s important to maintain all of your normal daily routines, as much for comfort in a new place as for practical purposes.
We did all our normal routines like bedtime teeth brushing and back rubbing, our normal morning breakfast, after-lunch naps, and those kinds of things so our daughter understood what was going on and felt secure in her new environment. We brought along all her favorite stuffed animals and blankets too, for her comfort.
Even the times that we did things like naps and bedtime were pretty similar to at home, so we didn’t mess up her internal clock either.
We brought along a lot of non-cook snacks for the kiddos to enjoy on our trip like applesauce, fruit cups, oatmeal, trail mix and things like that. These are easy to pack, keep fresh and grab when needed.
There’s no reason to get anxious about meal planning for camping. Keep it simple. We have a camper with an oven so we like to cook the same things we would at home. But we also camp at a place with a grocery store nearby so we don’t worry if we forget something either. Actually, sometimes we leave the bulk of the grocery shopping until we get there.
Cooking hot dogs and S’mores over the fire is like a rite of camping passage, so don’t forget those supplies;) It’s one of those things that your children will form memories around and likely pass on to their own children, so make it meaningful. It’s an entire experience in itself, everyone gathered around the fire, getting the browning down to a science, and enjoying the food at sunset around a picnic table. Mmmmmm. Such brilliant memories…
Camping trips are one of those times when it’s ok (and pretty hard not to) let your toddler get dirty. We could not keep shoes on Rayna for the life of us. Every. single. time. we put them on her, she had them off within minutes. And really, who cares? Even though there were pine needles and pinecones poking up everywhere, we weren’t the least bit worried. Think about all the sensations your child is learning, the closeness to the earth they’re experiencing, the earthing they’re getting to do.
In fact, I often wonder about the sheer magnitude of stuff that’s happening in a toddler’s head when they’re in a new environment. Can you imagine all the neurons firing and brain cells being activated when they’re experiencing all these new things?
Rayna even stole my contact case at one point and used it as a sand scoop on the last day. I wasn’t bothered in the least. Not only do I have plenty of them at home, but I was happy to see her exploring the earth.
On one of our hikes, Rayna helped me collect “pretties” for our signature #fingerbouquets
It rained one of the nights we were there too, and Kayne took his bike splashing through the puddles at the campground. Totally fine! There were free showers where we stayed and that’s just what camping is all about! Let them experience nature in all its dirtiness! We sweat, we kicked mushrooms, we played in the lake water amongst fishies, we walked barefoot through the sand, we went down wet slides, and just plain got dirty. It was fun!
After the trip, when I was cleaning out the camper, I was amazed at the sheer volume of sand that was left in there. I sure do love getting it squeaky clean afterwards, but during the trip, getting dirty is just a natural part of the whole experience.
Things To Do
Even if you don’t want to plan any excursions or just plain aren’t near any, there are so many little things you can do with your toddler at a campground to keep them busy and engaged. We didn’t bring along very many toys, and you don’t need to either. Here are just a few that I came up with, many of which we’ve tried:
- Do a scavenger hunt. For small children, just ask them to bring you simple items like twigs or pinecones. For older children, print off a list of harder-to-find items that they can be on the lookout for and collect throughout the entire trip.
- Create a finger bouquet.
- Bring along a wagon or wheelbarrow for them to collect twigs for the fire.
- Take walks around the campground (this could keep them busy for hours).
- Walk the trails nearby.
- Visit the beach.
- Bring sand toys to play in the sand. Our campground had not only a beach but also a volleyball court where we played in the sand.
- Bring a guitar or music player and play music around the campfire.
- Create a nature mandala, like this one or this one.
- Find a new secret spot to picnic for each meal.
- Make a fort.
I hope these tips give you some insight into camping with small children. And if you’ve had any hesitations or reservations about going, I hope this inspires you to give it a shot!
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Have you ever tried camping with a baby or toddler? How did it go?
What are some of your best memories from camping as a child?