Rachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

Our family recently returned home from our vacation. We spent part of that time camping in a tent with a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old. If you’re contemplating a trip into the wild with your own brood, don’t worry … much. With some planning and mental fortitude, you’ll survive tent camping with toddlers and even have a good time.

My husband I each grew up camping, and we have now camped on four separate occasions with our daughters while they ranged from 18 months to 5 years of age. Our success rate is about 75 percent. We had three trips where the weather was pretty good, our neighbors were not too bad, and the children didn’t try to wander off into the poison ivy too many times.  Whether your idea of “sleeping outside” includes having a camping mattress or simply sleeping on the flat ground, giving it a try at least once with your kids when they’re still small is something I’d suggest — and we’re glad we did. There’s no shame if you get an air mattress. Tent camping is about being outside, with the comforts that make sense for your family.

Our kids have great memories of canoeing, feeding birds at the nature center, making s’mores around the campfire, riding ponies, hiking trails, and playing at the camp playground. Oh, and my kids are always fascinated by the bath houses at campgrounds. When you’re a preschooler, you apparently have not lived until you’ve taken a shower while wearing your flip flops.

However, one trip during an unseasonably cool July (our first time camping with children) left me with a greater appreciation for simple things like indoor plumbing, heat, and walls to shut out drunken neighbors on the Fourth of July. Someone once told me that when camping is good, it is very good, and when it is bad, it’s very bad. That’s about right.

Tent camping does have its allure. Primarily, it’s one of the least expensive ways to take a vacation wherever you want to go. Our family upgraded to a larger tent this summer to accommodate our newest member. After factoring in the cost of the tent, the cost to rent our site at a state park for three nights, and our purchase of a vinyl bag to strap atop the car for extra luggage space (you’ll need the space with all that camping gear), we spent slightly less than what it would cost to stay in a hotel. Where we really save is in the fact that we still have the tent and gear, so future vacations will cost much less.

These great camp trips wouldn’t be possible without having a camping mattress! There are many options out there so make sure you get the right one. What I would suggest is to that is super comfortable and durable.

These camping vacations can come with a bit of a learning curve, though. If you’re new to tent camping, consider these tips:

Surviving Tent Camping With Toddlers

  • Look for state parks in which to pitch your tent. They tend to be more regulated than private campgrounds and usually offer educational programming. It helps if you also find a campground with a playground, with a pool or swimming beach and nature center nearby.
  • Pick your campsite carefully. In addition to campground maps, many state park websites have descriptions or pictures of each site so you can scope them out before your trip. You can decide if you prefer a grassy, sunnier site or if you’re okay with more dirt and bare ground on a shadier site. (Go for the shade and don’t worry about the dirt!) You may want a site near the playground, or if you’re working on potty training, you may want to be near the bathhouse.
  • Weekdays are great times to camp. The campground will be less crowded and less noisy. Also, shun holiday weekends. I will never again camp on the Fourth of July.
  • Bring plenty of layers to dress in. Be prepared for the possibility of hot days and cool nights. Pack pants and sweatshirts for evenings around the fire. With infants or toddlers who may not sleep under blankets or in a sleeping bag, you may want to bring an array of sleepwear, from short-sleeved onesies to light cotton sleepers
    to heavy fleece sleepers. You’ll have lots of layering options depending on how warm or cool it is.
Acting goofy in our tent.
  • Be flexible with sleeping arrangements. My daughters have mostly slept in the Pack and Play in our tent while they were toddlers. However, during trips when they’ve had a hard time sleeping in an unfamiliar environment, it was easy to pull them onto our full-sized air mattress with my husband and me. This is one of the best reasons to tent camp instead of staying in a hotel. I worry more about my 1-year-old falling off a tall hotel bed if we co-sleep. Falling a few inches off an air mattress is no big deal. Plus, it’s nice to snuggle.
  • Before your trip, talk up the fact that you’re going to sleep in a tent. Set the tent up in the back yard so your child can see what it will be like. (You’ll want to set it up anyway to make sure you have all your tent poles and to put a waterproofing product on the seams.) Talk to your child about how she is going to sleep on an air mattress or sleeping pad, or in a Pack and Play. Talk about how you will sleep nearby. Once you’re at the campground and have everything set up, point out your child’s sleeping space and mention how cool it will be to sleep there.
  • Pack a long, outdoor-safe extension cord so you can use a fan or sound machine in your tent at night. You may be glad for the breeze and the opportunity to block noise from neighbors.
  • Bring a stuffed animal or lovey from home for your child to sleep with, and don’t forget a few books to read at bedtime.
  • Bring an umbrella stroller. It’s great for those walks to the bathroom and playground, and it’s a nice option if your toddlers are like mine and resist napping in the tent during the day.
  • Bring an old, soft blanket to spread on the ground with a few toys so the kids have an area in which to play. Also, have outdoor toys on hand like bubbles, sidewalk chalk, a bug bottle, butterfly nets, and water guns. If you have space, pack bikes and other ride-on toys.
My husband, firstborn, and me on the creek.
  • Pack easy snacks and meals, and plenty of water. I rarely buy fruit snacks, cracker-and-cheese packages, Pop Tarts, or sugary drinks, but those rules go away when we camp, much to my daughters’ delight. Hot dogs cooked over the fire are gourmet camp food, and they take up little space in a cooler. Also, this summer when camping with friends from church, a family offered us some of their extra pancakes at breakfast, but my 5-year-old was so excited about the Pop Tarts I’d packed that those were all she wanted. So don’t outthink yourself or work too hard when it comes to camp meals, and remember it’s okay to put your healthy diet on hold during vacation.
  • You can’t have too many baby wipes. They’re not just for dirty diapers.
  • The kids will get dirty no matter how many times you swipe their faces and hands with baby wipes. Don’t stress about it. You can throw the kids in the shower when you get home.
  • Keep a first aid kit handy. Don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray, too.
  • Begin to teach your children about outdoor safety. Don’t approach wild animals. Stay on marked trails. Leaves of three? Let it be. Also emphasize safety around the campfire. Once kids hit the preschool years, they usually understand that the fire is hot and dangerous, but they can easily stumble and fall into the fire. Close supervision is required. If you’re camping with multiple small children, you may want to forgo the fire all together. If you’re camping with family or friends and are spread out on multiple sites, you can be a little safer by building your campfire at one site and setting up the children’s primary play area at another site.

Above all, a successful tent camping trip with toddlers involves parents’ mental preparation and good attitudes despite challenges. Learn to roll with whatever happens, whether it’s rain, cold weather, or nighttime sleep troubles.

Tent camping with toddlers is never truly easy. Camping is work, especially when children tag along. I do it because of the memories our family makes and because my children enjoy it. It’s also good for all of us to get out in nature and slow down. I love teaching my 5-year-old about the birds we see at the observation area in the nature center, showing her how to identify poison ivy or sassafras trees, and getting our feet wet as we launch our canoe into the creek. It is worth the work, although I do feel a renewed appreciation for the modern conveniences of my home after every camping trip. My husband pointed out after our last trip that a little labor is good for the soul. I think he’s right.

Any experiences of tent camping with toddlers?

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Category: Family Free Time

Tags: camping