Leah Lefler enjoys adventures with her family and frequently camps with her two sons.
Camping with very young children can be daunting, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Developing a love for the outdoors and nature is important, as is the family bonding that comes when distractions from everyday life. Our family has camped with small children many times and we have learned many tricks to make the adventure a little easier with the littlest ones in the family!
1. Fire Ring Safety: Create a Safety Zone
One of the most dangerous elements of camping is the evening campfire. Campground fire pits are often not raised up from the ground, increasing the danger potential. Toddlers are often unsteady on their feet, act impulsively, and have no sense of danger around fire. It is imperative to set up a three foot “safety boundary” around the campfire where children are not allowed (or able) to enter. It is possible to do this by placing a ring of chairs around the fire and disallowing children from walking or playing in the space between the chairs and the fire. An alternate idea is to use stakes and twine to mark off a 3’ boundary line around the fire ring. Children of this age require constant supervision near the campfire.
2. Bring an Extra Sleeping Bag (and lots of Towels)
Every camping parent has had it happen: their deeply asleep toddler leaks through a diaper in the middle of the night, soaking their sleeping bag (or even worse: your sleeping bag). A spilled sippy cup or a toddler who gets sick in the night can cause a similar situation. Having an extra sleeping bag stashed in the car will make an unfortunate midnight wetness issue a solvable problem.
3. Pack a Portable Crib
A pack and play can help contain a toddler when the adult’s hands are needed for important work, like setting up a tent and campsite. Besides keeping a young child safe, the playpen can double as a clean place to take a nap.
In addition to a safe outdoor play space and napping location, a pack and play can also be placed into the tent. This creates a familiar sleeping area for the child. In the event a child gets sick or wets through their diaper in the middle of the night, a portable crib system also contains the mess.
4. Bring a Comfort Object
Most children have a favorite toy they like to sleep with. Do not forget to bring their special sleeping toy on your campout! Familiarity helps children relax in the new environment, so make their bed space as “home-like” as possible.
5. Bring the Right Toys
Certain toys are better than others when camping. Leave the stuffed toys at home, with the exception of the one special toy your child will sleep with. Playthings should be easy to clean, as they will likely become caked with dirt and mud throughout the course of the trip. Dollar store toys are a fantastic option, as if they are inexpensive if they are damaged or lost. Our favorite toys for camping include:
- Toy cars and trucks. You can make roads in the dirt and the kids will play for hours.
- Water toys for use in the pool, lake, or river.
- Bikes are great fun around the campsite, whether your child rides a tricycle or uses a two-wheeled bike with training wheels (or a balance bike). Riding down to a campground’s playground was a highlight of camping with my children.
- Beach toys, including sand sifter. My kids loved filtering sand and rocks at the campsite. The bucket can be used to study tadpoles from a local pond.
- Fishing net. This can be used to catch butterflies and other insects, and to scoop up interesting things from the water.
6. Light up the Night
Campsites can become darker than a small child is used to at home. Give them a light they can control – for very young children, this might be a glow stick. For older toddlers and preschoolers, a flashlight or headlamp is a great option for letting them control the light level around them. Use solar-powered fairy lights to mark the edges of your campsite or to light the way to the path to the restrooms.
7. Prepare Kid-Friendly Camping Meals
Meals that are easy to prepare, easy to clean up after, and well-liked by the child are the way to go on a camping trip. Avoid upset tummies by preparing food similar to what your child eats at home. When camping without kids, we like to make fancy shrimp dinners and more complicated meals, but with small kids we stick to simpler food like pasta, mountain pie pizzas, macaroni and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Bring plenty of healthy snacks, as kids are often hungry when playing in the fresh air all day long.
8. Bring Many Packages of Wet Wipes
Kids get dirty when camping. Bringing pre-moistened wet wipes is an easy way to wipe off hands before snacks and to clean off a dirty face. We go through more than one package when we are on longer camping trips, so plan accordingly!
9. Stick to the Schedule
Keep your child’s normal routine when in the great outdoors. If your child normally naps after lunch, keep this in mind when planning day trips or activities. Camping can make a child more tired than typical indoor pursuits, so be prepared for the need for longer or more frequent naps. Keeping your child’s typical daily routine for mealtimes and naptimes will help avoid meltdowns.
10. Bring a First Aid Kit
Accidents happen, and toddlers are prone to getting splinters, insect bites, and dirt in their eyes. Make sure you carry a first aid kit that contains (at a minimum) the following items:
- Tick removal tool
- Antibiotic ointment
- Eye wash solution
- Powdered Pedialyte or rehydration salts
Use a Laundry Detergent Container as a Camping Wash Station
11. Make a Wash Station
Repurpose an old laundry detergent container that has a spigot into a wash station. Thoroughly clean out the container to remove all traces of detergent and fill the container with water. This creates an instant faucet to rinse off hands, feet, and sippy cups that have fallen into the dirt.
12. Pack Clothes in Plastic Bags
We use this trick for all of our trips, not just camping trips. Pack each day of your child’s clothing into a gallon-size re-sealable plastic bag. This keeps clothing organized and separate. More importantly, it keeps each day’s set of clothing clean and dry!
13. Bring a Canopy
Whether you use a stand-alone canopy or tarp you can tie to surrounding trees, a canopy is a necessity. Even if the forecast doesn’t call for precipitation, rainy weather can happen at any time. The canopy can be placed over the campsite’s picnic table or over an indoor/outdoor rug for a dry outdoor play space in the rain. A canopy also helps to create a shady place on hot days, helping to prevent sunburn.
14. Use Clear Plastic Totes to Organize Supplies
Using clear 5 gallon or 10 gallon totes keeps camping supplies organized and visible. We typically have one tote for kitchen supplies, one for clothing, one for basic camping supplies (including lanterns), and one for personal and cleaning supplies like soap and sunscreen. Being able to use one of the clear totes as a toddler bathtub is an added bonus of having this type of storage system.
A Poll: The Best Age for a First Camping Experience
15. Mark Tent Lines with Glow Sticks
One of the most awful things that can happen while tent camping is to have the tent collapse at night in the rain. Having camped numerous times with many small children, one of the most common causes of this unfortunate event is the fact that staked tent lines are often difficult to see and are easy to trip over. This can easily collapse a tent wall. A simple solution is to tie or tape glow sticks to the tent lines to make them visible each night. Place a glow stick bracelet at the bottom of each tent line to mark where they join the ground.
16. Bring Heavy Duty Garbage Bags
Keep your car clean on the return trip by placing muddy laundry, sooty pans, and your tent’s ground cloth into garbage bags before leaving your campsite. It is much better to isolate filthy camping equipment than to have to clean the equipment and your car when the trip is over!
17. Use a Camping High Chair
Small, portable camping high chairs are almost a necessity when camping with a younger toddler. These seats can keep them safe during campfire time, and also help small children have an eating space that is the right size. Sitting at a picnic table can be difficult for really young kids.
Toddler High Chair for Camping
18. Bring a Portable Fan for Hot Nights and a Hat for Cold Nights
Camping means you are subjected to whims of nature. We have gone camping when the mercury has dropped to 27°F (-3°C) and we have also camped when the temperature has climbed to greater than 90°F (32°C). Bring the right equipment for the forecasted weather, and make sure you have a contingency plan for extremely hot days and/or extremely cold nights. A portable fan and ice from a cooler can help cool off an overheated child. For cold nights, a winter hat helps prevent heat escape from the only body part that isn’t covered by a sleeping bag.
19. Use Outdoor Rugs
We love using a sturdy outdoor rug on our campouts. We often place one inside the tent – on rainy days, this helps keep water from wet feet from creating puddles on the tent floor. Placing a rug outside by the tent flap prevents mud from being tracked into the tent. A sturdy, waterproof picnic blanket or outdoor rug can also be used as a relatively clean and dry play space for toddlers.
20. Bring Non-Toxic Sunscreen and Insect Repellent
Even on overcast days, being exposed to the elements all day long can create a nasty sunburn. Bring plenty of sunscreen to help shield your little one while they are exploring the great outdoors. Buying an environmentally safe sunscreen will also protect the fish in the lakes and rivers you explore. Insect repellent is also a must: whether you use a spray-on repellent, Citronella candles, or mosquito netting. Mosquitoes can carry disease and no one likes to be bitten by black flies and other problematic insects.
21. Bring a High Quality Cooler
Food poisoning is extremely serious in young children. Ensure your cooler is of a high enough quality to keep ice frozen for at least a 24-hour period. Check the ice levels and temperature regularly to verify food is maintained at a cool enough temperature.
22. Make it Short and Keep it Close
The first camping trip your child experiences should be kept short in length and relative local to your house. This allows you to work out the kinks prior to taking a bigger adventure. There is always a piece of equipment you find you need (and don’t have) on that first camping trip! By staying close to home, these issues are a minor annoyance rather than a major problem far from civilization. Camping is a new and exhausting experience for young kids, so shorter camping trips are ideal for the first forays into the great outdoors. After the kinks have been worked out and everyone has more experience under their belts, longer and more remote camping trips can be attempted.
23. Bring Rain Boots and Water Shoes
Even when the forecast calls for only sun, campground and forest trails can remain muddy. Many campgrounds have ponds and fishing holes that have thick mud around the edges. Rain boots help to tame some of the mud in these situations. Many campground swimming areas may be rocky, have sharp shells, or have a muddy bottom. Water shoes help to protect little feet and make little ones more comfortable on the water’s edge.
24. Bring a Potty Seat
Campground toilets range from rustic latrines to fully plumbed bathrooms. In all cases, toddlers may have trouble using the adult-sized toilet in a strange environment. Bring a folding child’s toilet seat to fit on top of the existing amenities. A complete potty chair is a good idea for younger toddlers, as the urgency to use the bathroom may not wait for a walk down to the public toilets. Having a portable option in the campsite for emergencies or for middle-of-the-night needs is a great idea.
25. Get a Big Enough Tent
Tent sizes are slightly deceptive, as a four-person tent will sleep four people, but without cots and lying tip-to-tail in very close quarters. A good rule of thumb for camping with small kids is to purchase a tent that is rated for double the size of your family. A family of four should purchase an 8-person tent. This will allow for inflatable air mattresses, cots, and a young child’s portable crib to fit inside the tent. Many families opt for a two-room tent, which allows one side to be converted to a play space during inclement weather.
Camping with Toddlers: A Checklist
|General Camping||Mealtimes||Health and Hygiene|
Camping high chair
Wash water jug
Spill proof cup
First aid kit
Pots and Pans
Child’s portable toilet seat
Mountain Pie Maker
Clothing appropriate for the forecasted weather
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Leah Lefler
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on September 08, 2020:
Hello, Surendra. Have you gone camping with toddlers? What are your best tips?
Surendra on July 12, 2020:
Hello , love from east .
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 30, 2020:
We really love camping, Dianna! It is such a great way to help children appreciate nature and to bond as a family. The only time I struggle with camping is when we have a trip that encounters a lot of rain! We roll with it, but that is definitely tough (particularly keeping mud out of the tents)!
Dianna Mendez on March 28, 2020:
This was such a fun and informative article. I like the idea of using different types of lights to make it even more of an adventure.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on December 05, 2018:
Getting kids outside and living in nature for a few days is such a wonderful experience, Richard. Particularly in this day and age, disconnecting from electronic gadgets and spending time wading in a pond and playing in the dirt is really necessary! There are definitely difficult elements parents encounter when camping with very young kids. We had one night with a child who had a stomach bug and it was definitely a tricky situation. Bringing a lot of extra clothing items and towels (and wet wipes) got us through it, but I'm grateful the stomach flu never made a return visit on other camp-outs!
Richard F. Fleck on December 05, 2018:
This brings back memories of camping with our 3 toddlers who are now gown-ups at ages 47,48 and 50. A very helpful article!