How to Camp with Little Kids

Estimated read time 6 min read

I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I’ve inspired them to take their family camping, but they don’t know where to start. Either they haven’t camped in many years or they never camped as kids and now they want to do it. Well hey! I can totally help you.

The two best pieces of advice I can give you for camping with children are to be prepared and have no expectations. If you are expecting to sing campfire songs and marvel at nature and sleep peacefully in a tent, I’m here to tell you that your expectations might not really match what’s going to happen.

From my experience, the first time you camp with a little one, this is what happens:

  • You realize you forgot a bunch of things you’d need.
  • Everyone ends up frustrated in a tent hours after bedtime with a kid who is too excited to sleep.
  • You don’t do most of the things you planned to do.
  • Everyone has tons of fun regardless and gets really dirty.

You’ll only get to that last point if you prepare for some setbacks, are organized in your planning and packing, and you accept that things will happen out of your control and all you can do is wing it and have fun.

I could write a super long post about this (and I will), but here are my top tips on how to go camping with kids. This is for anyone who is nervous about it, new to camping, has really little kids, or whatever.

blue lake and green forest

Camp close to home.

Camping in the backyard for your first try is totally legit. Or in a friend or family member’s backyard. It will give you a chance to see how your kid does in a tent, have a bathroom nearby, electricity, and it will give you an idea of how difficult it is to get your child to sleep in a totally fun and awesome new type of shelter. Take a notebook and write down everything you think of that you had to get from the house or wish you’d had. It’s a good idea to see how long your kids do different activities, too.

Bring different types of activities.

If it rains, you’ll be glad you brought card games or a board game, books, a couple puzzles, or anything else you can do in a tent. Worried that you might end up overwhelmed or stuck in bad weather? Bring a portable DVD player and movies. Yes, you want to be out in nature, but if you need a break does it really matter if you and your kids are lying in a tent watching a movie? Is that screen time going to ruin camping? No!

There are no rules for camping, so bring whatever is fun. Get creative, too, for cheap fun. I made a bucket toss game with tennis balls and buckets and containers from the garage. We always bring rocket balloons, which are SO fun inside a tent. And you can hit up the dollar store for little toys to use as prizes or to bury in the sand for a treasure hunt. Camping activities will probably be an entire post on its own.

virtual reality outside
Not really what I was thinking, but okay.

Plan for easy meals.

I love camping over the fire and getting really rustic when it comes to meals, but keep it simple if you’re new or anticipate being low on energy. You can roast some easy and relatively healthy hotdogs or sausages, make grilled cheese on a camp stove, whip up some simple quesadillas, or bring the ingredients for walking tacos and enjoy eating from cups.

Planning is easy. Just make a list of which meals you need to coordinate while you’re gone and think about your protein, veg, side, drink, and any condiments or seasonings. Write down the ingredients you’ll need for each meal, then write out your shopping list. Refer to the full menu while packing your cooler, and you won’t forget anything. Camping gone wrong? No one says you can’t leave to get sandwiches or burgers while camping! Ya gotta eat somehow.

Think about safety.

We recently had a camping accident that made me go back and recheck all of our safety practices and first aid ingredients. Everything turned out fine, but if you’re a high-anxiety person like me, it’s totally fine to buy or assemble a huge first aid kit, camp within 15 minutes of a hospital, know where the nearest emergency phone is, and talk to your doctor or nurse about what to bring (I did!). Whatever keeps you sane!

We frequently camp near water and always wear PFDs (life vests), but we also talk about staying on the grass, staying away from the grill and fire, etc. If you have a really little one and it’s time to cook, bring a portable crib or one of those freestanding baby cages. You know what I mean. What are those things called? Anyway, just think through what you’re going to do and what kinds of safety knowledge or devices you need. Also, consider safe sleep practices if you have a really little one. A baby might not be ready for tent camping if you can’t sleep in the same bed and it’s going to get very cold at night, for instance.

first aid box

Make sleep and hygiene priorities.

Camping can be exhausting. Between hiking, paddling, biking, and just generally being on your feet and walking around a lot, you’ll get tired. At the end of the day, you and your kids probably won’t get your best sleep if your bed is too small or you’re sleeping on the ground or you’re too cold or too hot. That’s why it’s a good idea to do a trial run. Then if you discover that your air mattress is shot or your plan to sleep on the ground is a bad idea, you’ll know. You’ll figure out before you leave for real that you need an upgrade.

A Note About Sleeping Bags

Keep in mind that sleeping bags are often rated for a degree that is FAR less than what you should actually have. For instance, I have a 30-degree sleeping bag that I would not use under 50 degrees. Check the weather and bring extra blankets if you’re not sure. If you have electrical hookups at your site, don’t forget an extension cord. That way you can plug in a fan or an electric blanket if needed.


Some Thoughts on Camping Hygiene

As for hygiene, a handwashing bin with a fingernail brush can go a long way. Even if you’re cool with getting dirty, it can make camping more stressful if you have no easy way to clean up and feel a little bit human. There are special soaps that are safe for the environment. Plus, many campgrounds have beautiful bathhouses where you can rinse off or wash your hair. Go with what feels good to you!

Some people say, “Camping isn’t really a vacation.” I disagree! But it will be more relaxing and way more fun if you are prepared and have chill expectations.

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