Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or a newbie looking to create special memories with your little one(s), camping with kids comes with its own joys and challenges. Camping as a family provides priceless opportunities to bond with each other and to ignite a love of nature. It’s a chance for all to disconnect, reset and recharge in ways that other family vacations just can’t provide. While every family and camping scenario is different, here are a few tips and tricks we’ve learned over years of camping with our little ones (each starting as young as 3 months old).
Do your research: location is everything.
If there’s one thing that will make or break your family camping experience, this one’s it. Where we are located in New England, the best campsites book out at least one year in advance—so set your calendar reminders and book for more time than you think you’ll need to give you more flexibility to work around potential weather conditions when the time comes. More flex here = far less stress when the time comes to actually go camping. What makes for an ideal family camping spot? For us, non-negotiables include plenty of space within and between campsites, a waterfront spot, and close-enough access to key amenities when you need them.
Know that the first trip’s the trickiest.
Preparation is everything when it comes to camping. If it’s your first rodeo, the first trip will undoubtedly involve the most work to prepare for with the biggest learning curve. Alas, it will only get better! The beauty of surviving your first camping trip as a family is that you will now have a much clearer idea of what you need to do differently next time (and precisely how much space you need for things you want to take). You’ll also now have most of the things you need to take camping with you for your next trip: this is the time to wrap up your camping checklist with all the things you now have and the ones you’ll want to get for next time. If you only plan to use these items for camping, keep them stored together so you are virtually ready to roll for your next trip.
Expect the first night to be horrible.
In our experience, the first night camping is the worst. Actually, it’s more than that: it is truly a nightmare. No one wants to go to sleep, everyone is in a terrible mood, and YOU are exhausted from the sheer preparation and set-up involved. At this point, you will be ready to pack up and head home. FIGHT. THE. URGE. If you can survive the first night, you will find yourselves waking up to the sounds of birds chirping, leaves bristling and wonder and delight coming from your little ones who are now well-rested and eager to explore the beauty of the wilderness around them. It is for this reason that I strongly suggest you camp more than 2 days and certainly more than 1 night. If you’re going to go through all the effort of getting there and setting up, you definitely want to give yourself time to ease into and enjoy a proper camping experience. Plus, by imagining the absolute worst on the first day, things might not turn out so bad after all.
Embrace nature as play.
Nature provides all the play time opportunities our little ones need, and camping provides a beautiful opportunity to watch imaginative play in action. We can stimulate nature play with small prompts too:
- Acorn people/fairies/figurines: Grab an acorn and create a character out of it (you can draw a face on it too). Watch this expand quickly from 1 acorn to others to other elements of nature!
- Scavenger hunt prompts: Can someone find a butterfly? A frog? A heart-shaped rock? Watch as the targets unfold.
- Letter or number hunt: Who can find branches shaped like letters? Can we find a shape representing each letter in the alphabet or the numbers between 1-10? What about the letters in your little one’s names?
- Sink or float game: If you’re near a body of water, what nature elements sink and which float? Let little ones hypothesize before throwing them in, and do keep an eye on any children when they’re near any body of water.
Consider a toy tent.
This year, we repurposed a small 2-person tent into a “toy tent” for the kids. While we set up the larger family tent, the kids had a chance to set up their own smaller tent, which they then filled with a handful of toys that we allowed them to bring along. Coupled with some old sleep mats, they had their own cozy tent for play time which doubled as a reading nook for quiet time. This helped tremendously to give them an outlet that did not involve destruction of the main tent when they wanted a break! Come to think of it, this is really just an older kid version of this next recommendation…
Involve the littlest one(s).
One of the biggest challenges when camping with babies is where to put them! When you need your hands for set-up, meal prep, campfire cooking, etc., you’ll need a safe contained place to put the baby. Queue portable baby gear! The most consistently used and useful baby gear for our camping trips have been a folding ergo baby bouncer, this playpen and a child hiking bag, the latter two of which members can book anytime via The Toyary.
Make mealtime playtime too!
In my humble opinion, s’mores are the most perfect camping food ever created: they’re relatively kid-friendly to make, easy to put together and deeelicious to bite into. But, s’mores aren’t the only kid-friendly camping option out there. Campfire cooking is all about roasting things on sticks, cooking things in foil and keeping things simple. Get the kids involved from the meal-planning stage (that golden moment before you go camping when you need to work on your grocery list) to meal creation (and the wonderful physics involved when you cook food over a smoking campfire). Hot dogs on sticks, check! Will bread dough from a Pillsbury tin also roast on a stick? There’s only one way to find out… and just like that, your wilderness journey continues! (P.S. for a truly gourmet campfire meal, this one-pot grilled brie recipe with a baguette is pure heaven.)
Embrace the journey there—and back.
Getting to your campsite and back is sometimes half the battle. Make for an enjoyable journey to your destination, at it and back, with some well thought-out travel games and activities. We like to rotate among the items listed in The Toyary’s “On the road/Travel-friendly” filter, which comprise easy to pack, relatively compact items that are ideal not only for road trips but for camping excursions, plane rides and dining out with kids too!
These are a few of the big pointers we’ve compiled through many years of lessons learned for our growing family of campers. The joy of camping with kids is that every camping trip is truly different: the children are at different ages and stages every time we embark on a new adventure, and so are we as parents learning to enjoy and cope with it all. If you too are a camping family, what have you found that works best for you? If you’re considering camping as a family for the first time, what are you most excited about and what are your biggest reservations? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below, and happy camping to all!