If you used to camp a lot before expanding your family, the chances are that you have taken the challenge and slept under the stars with you brood in tow. Or maybe a family camping trip keeps showing up on your summer to do list but somehow it also keeps getting postponed.
Either way, there is a lot to learn when it comes to successful tent camping with small children. Any type of vacation, long or short, may feel daunting when it’s not just your adult selves that you are responsible for. But a little preparation goes a long way. With many camping trips under our belt, we have compiled our best tips and tricks for tent camping with your kids.
There is nothing like huddling together in a tent when it is pouring rain outside. Indeed, with your sweetheart and a bottle of wine maybe, but this is certainly not the case when it comes to camping with young children. You cannot always avoid a late afternoon thunderstorm. But if the weather forecast for your weekend in the mountains or on the ocean makes you want to cook soups and huddle by an indoor fire, this is probably not the best time to go camping.
In some places, you have to reserve far in advance if you even want to get a camp spot at all. However, we find that even in crowded areas you can find drop-in camp spots if you get there early enough. Or pitch for free and with ample space in National Forests or on BLM land. Often it is worth it to drive the extra hour to get outside of crowded areas, where there is no need to reserve a camp spot six months in advance.
Critical to any successful camping trip is making sure that your gear is in good shape. Did your tent survive the winter months, are all poles still intact and stakes not misplaced? Avoid the need to drive back home after sunset because a tentpole turns out to be broken into pieces.
Yep, been there. Decide if your tent is the right size for your family. It is up to you what the right size is. A large tent may allow you to stand in it upright, allow for several compartments or bedrooms and even have room for a toilet bucket. Quite the luxury, but be aware that the downside of a large tent is that sometimes it can be hard to find a flat piece of ground that is large enough to fit your mansion.
Another issue with a larger tent is that it can be challenging to stay warm at night unless your neck of the woods is an area where you would plug in a fan if you could. Check if your camping mats don’t leak. Kids may be okay either way, whether they are sleeping on a camping mattress or straight on the ground, but us adults have pretty much aged beyond that level of flexibility. I have camped with friends where between all of us (4 adults and three children) we needed to share two pads. It was not our best night.
How important it is to bring toys on your trip, depends on your kids. You obviously want them to play outside rather than on a screen. Otherwise, you would not bother heading into the woods. We love making room in our car for dump trucks, buckets, shovels, and even rope. But you will also find that flashlights, and for older kids, pocket knives are fabulous for children to entertain themselves while camping.
It is quite common to stock up on all standard American fare when you think of cooking on a fire or camp stove. Burgers, corn, baked beans and potatoes, it doesn’t matter what you cook, as long as you keep it simple and the family likes to eat it. Stock up on easy snacks as well and bring more than you think you need. Hangry kids are the worst. Consider cooking on a campfire if a fire is allowed.
Bring some sort of rack to put on your fire, and you won’t need your camp stove any longer. The kids will be thrilled if they can make marshmallows so gather sticks by daylight. If you own a cast-iron Dutch oven, it is worth it to stuff it in your car. Use this pot to make popcorn on the fire. Do the world a favor though, and be aware of the amount of trash you create. It’s really not all that hard to do dishes instead of carrying out or burning up all your paper plates and red disposable cups.
One of the most challenging things when tent camping with kids, is how on earth you get through the night. Many nights have I been awake, uncomfortable because of cold or lack of my comfortable mattress, to find myself counting every minute and feeling like the hours were ticking away like weeks.
Thank goodness for coffee in the morning. Several kids and many nights camping later, I can honestly say that camping with a baby is challenging to say the least. Keep them warm preferably by dressing an infant up in layers, finishing off with an oversized wearable blanket and make sure head and hands are covered.
If this is not sufficient you can safely share a sleeping bag, which basically means that you will only be covered up to your belly button or so. Especially if you are nursing your child at night, dress yourself extremely warmly with the appropriate and convenient layers. Do not despair: I have found that my kids are the best tent sleepers as soon as they reach the age of 2.
Depending on your kids’ ages, it can be hard to relax when you are camping. Teaching your children what a safe distance is from a campfire, keeping littles away from ditches and lakes and let’s not even begin about wildlife, is exhausting. But the earlier you start, the sooner you will have natural campers.
Make them aware of risks and dangers without just making them scared. Talk about things like snakes and spiders, and teach them how to behave around bear and moose. Prepare yourself though and make sure you leave home with a first-aid kit and bear spray if appropriate.
Think beforehand what your options are if there were to be an emergency. Do you have a cellphone connection? Where is the nearest hospital or fire station? One trick is to put fresh ice in your cooler to keep food cold. If needed, it’s perfect to use on sprains and bruises.
Be realistic of potential safety concerns, but at the same time try not to control your kids’ free play too much. Teach them for example how to climb trees safely so they will hopefully make the right decisions, and then allow them just to discover.
If you can, go camping with friends. Especially if they have kids, you will be able to share the responsibility as well as the work. With two adults it can feel like camping is only hard work, but when you share the load, the balance usually tips in the right direction. Also for the younger generation, it is usually incredibly fun to have more buddies to play with, and peer pressure can be a great help in getting kids comfortable in a campground setting.
Whatever your life usually looks like, be sure to throw most of it out of the window when you enter the woods. Sure, babies need to nap, and there is such a thing as kids’ bedtime. But if you relax, (and as long as you aren’t camping under the midnight sun) children will naturally get tired from being outside all day. Enforcing strict bedtime is usually not helpful.
Besides, that leaves family time for making marshmallows. Don’t worry if the kids dig into the dirt and get all muddy. Make sure to bring spare clothes, plan on washing those sleeping bags at home and if absolutely necessary, turn your cooler into a bathtub. If something important doesn’t go according to plan, it is okay to make changes.
Unexpected bad weather can make it necessary to leave early, and sick children will never be happy in a tent. But also remember that you are just camping. If they end up making it through the last day with anything but their own clothes on their body, it doesn’t matter. As long as the family is happy and healthy, it will make for fun stories and great memories.