Camping with a baby or toddler can be the most beautiful thing, there's fresh air, nature, no sense of time or too many toys lying around. But while reconnecting with your family in the great outdoors is priceless, it's not necessarily easy.
There may be late nights where your little one won't fall asleep. Some kids (and adults for that matter) can't do their business comfortably in the woods. Food doesn't always work out the way you think it might when cooking over a fire. But, you can count stars with your toddler, let peeing on trees be the highlight of your little one's trip, and give your child his or her first s'more.
"We started camping with my daughter at 4-months-old and it was dreamy and magical except at night, she didn't sleep well before and add in a sleeping bag and the evenings were rough," says California mom Sari Fordham. "She's 7 now and we've taken her back country camping and she still loves it."
For all these reasons and more, don't skip camping with babies and toddlers, make the most out of a special trip to the woods by being prepared and rolling with the punches. The adventure might not be perfect, but it will be memorable.
Making a plan for camping is kind of like making a birth plan, put out all your good intentions and get ready to throw it all out the window at a moment's notice. Hopefully a lot of it will stick, such as picking out a campsite and making reservations for it. It's good to also find out just how far the campsite is since many state parks are miles large and the camping area can be anywhere inside. No one wants to drive for hours only to find out there's another two hours needed in order to get to the actual spot.
It's also a good idea to map out the terrain. For hiking you may want a more kid-friendly trail, which means flatter, less-steep paths for little walkers. This also makes carrying a baby in a hiking backpack much easier. Add on some kid-sized binoculars for bird watching and for general exploring. And, if there's a little beach by a lake or river, bringing sand toys can be fun, and save your camping gear from becoming a dirty plaything. Of course don't underestimate the joy a pile of sticks, dirt, pinecones and rocks can bring a little one too.
Also, make sure to pack more than you think you'll need. Kids are messy, and camping with babies is no exception. Extra clothes to counteract spit up, mud, diaper blow outs and wetness from morning dew are key to staying comfortable. Same with extra shoes. Usually a pair of sturdy sandals, hiking boots and sneakers are the best options, and yes, we mean all of them for each person, save the baby who probably won’t do much actual walking (though be prepared for dirty knees if you have a crawler). Adding some towels and extra blankets can also be useful for shade, a picnic, warmth, clean up and anything else that might come your way.
The biggest piece of advice when it comes to choosing a campsite is making sure there's a strictly enforced quiet time and a lot of space between other camps, says Maryland mom Shannon Brescher Shea.
"The second time we brought my older son camping, he stayed up past midnight running around like a maniac because the people next to us wouldn't be quiet," says Shannon. "We finally got him to sleep by sticking him in the car and driving around."
Also make sure the campsite has any amenities you need, be that access to firewood, toilet facilities and water. Of course you can always bring your own toddler potty, which can help for shy kids. Put a plastic bag around the basin for easy poop clean up that you can seal and cart out of the forest with you.
"We car camp with our 5 and 2-year-old a lot, and my recommendation is to get a big tent, we have a 10-person for just four people," says Alabama mom Abby Olena, who runs the Friendlier Podcast. "Also, bring tons of snacks and changes of clothes and a flashlight for every member of the family."
As Abby says, the tent is key to making camping with babies and toddlers easier. For starters, it's a place to put them, even if it's not bed time. For example, nap time, if you're lucky enough to get the kids to nap on a camping trip. The tent is also a great spot to get out of the sun or rain. And a big tent ensures you have enough room to put in a travel crib or a playpen inside.
In general, this item doesn't have to be fancy, any large waterproof tent that can be staked down will do. If your child is old enough to unzip it you can bet it will be unzipped. If you're nervous about night time escapees, it's easy to add a twisty tie around the zipper holes. Another good way to see how your kid might behave in a tent pre-trip is to camp in your backyard first. Not only is it a fun deviation from a normal weekend night, but it's a great way to introduce them to the idea of camping and sleeping outside without the initial commitment.
Deck out the tent with plenty of sleeping bags or sleeping blankets, loose blankets and portable lights. Letting your toddler have their own chunky flashlight is fun for them and useful so they can learn to use it. Plus, it is also a toy with function, though we recommend turning it off at night so you don't end up with rude awakening.
The Sleeping Arrangements
For Abby, the Guava Family Lotus Travel Crib was the perfect kid gear for camping with babies. It has mesh on the sides for peeking at the little one, is tall enough so toddlers can stand up, and compact for easy traveling and packing. Another good option for babies is the Chicco Lullago Travel Crib, a small, simple bassinet that can be popped in the car and set up in the tent. For outdoor sleeping and containment, the compact Summer Infant Pop'N Play Portable Playard can be put in or outside the tent and accommodate babies and toddlers, and comes complete with a sunshade when needed.
Keep in mind that sleep schedules when camping with babies and toddlers are pretty much null and void. Don't expect your kid to go to bed at the usual time, and don't be surprised if they wake up more. After all, it is a strange place with different noises. One thing that can help with the noise aspect is a portable sleep machine to help blanket nature sounds or add some ambient noise when it's too quiet, because yes, sometimes silence is too loud.
Food is important when camping, as it is for every toddler who demands snacks with no end. That said, pack the snacks! Bring more than you think you need, and mostly stuff that doesn't need to be kept cold and can be thrown into a backpack during hikes. Depending on the age of your kid, we're talking granola bars, trail mix, home-made food pouches, fruit snacks, bananas, little seedless oranges and grapes, which you can cut up before you leave on the trip for easy munching.
As for other meals, it's important to make sure when camping with toddlers that they have their own plate. This gives them a sense of comfort and also makes sure their hot dog, campfire mac and cheese or scrambled egg has a place to go that isn't dirt. Kid-sized utensils can also help, especially when camping with babies. However, don’t be surprised if these food tools get used as digging toys as well.
Another aspect to camping with babies and toddlers is taking an RV out. This makes some things decidedly easier, such as you don't have to worry about setting up a tent, there's a potty inside and if weather is bad there's a solid shelter. Plus, it's easy to feed a baby or toddler by bringing a portable seat like the Mountain Buggy Pod Clip-On High Chair or Phil & Teds Lobster Hook On High Chair and attaching it to the RV's table.
"The RV is a cozy space where we can simplify and spend more time outdoors," says avid RV camper Chelsea Skaggs, who has kids ages 2 and 4. "And I love seeing the kids experience something new."
She suggests bringing bins of toys and playthings that can be rotated out just like at home, a trick that's especially useful on a rainy day or when they need a break from the sun. Get a headlamp for hands-free, nighttime ease (for both little kids and adults), chairs for outdoor sitting and good hiking boots (also for your toddler and the adults). She adds another activity she does with her little ones is to have them help out with meals, cleaning up and craft projects, which adds to the overall experience. And, even though babies can't do chores, they can be worn with an Ergobaby Omni 360 or Baby Bjorn carrier and be part of the action too.