Camping with your children is an awesome way to enjoy some family time, while also introducing your children to the wonders and majesty of the great outdoors.
However, while many campers wait until their children are elementary-school-aged to take them into the wilderness, there is no reason you have to wait this long. Toddlers between 1 and 3 years of age are often perfectly capable of enjoying a family camping trip and most will enjoy the experience.
But camping with toddlers does present a few additional challenges. None of these challenges are insurmountable, but you will have to plan carefully to accommodate your young child’s needs and ensure a good time is had by all. Read on to learn the best ways to keep your toddler smiling and safe on his or her first camping trip.
Camping with Toddlers: Pre-Departure Considerations
You should plan any camping trip carefully, but this is especially important when bringing your little ones along for the journey. Your toddler will affect many of the fundamental aspects of the trip, so you’ll need to take these into account early in the process.
Some of the key things to keep in mind and plan for include:
➡️ Talk with Your Toddler about the Trip
It is wise to discuss your upcoming trip with your toddler (particularly older toddlers) before heading out into the wilderness. This will give them a chance to mentally prepare for the journey, and it will probably help reduce any anxieties they may have – especially if you present the trip in a positive, exciting fashion.
For example, you’ll want them to understand that you may encounter wildlife and that they’ll be hanging out in the forest or mountains for a few days.
➡️ Select a Location Appropriate for Your Toddler
You’ll have more fun camping with your toddler if you select a location that is well-suited for your little one. You don’t, for example, want to select a location which requires you to cross rugged terrain or rivers, nor should you select a place that is overrun with biting insects or other problematic wildlife.
Instead, select a place that is easy to reach and provides plenty of room for your toddler to run, jump and play. Fields are preferable to forests, and moderate altitudes will remain much more comfortable than high-altitude locations.
➡️ Consider Car Camping Rather than Backpacking
Although this may seem sacrilegious to hardcore backpackers, who want to introduce their child to “real” camping, it is often wise to scale things back a little for your child’s first trip or two. Car camping – in which you park right next to your campsite – allows you to bring along a car full of supplies and it eliminates the long hikes that usually accompany backpack-style camping.
Additionally, your car will serve as an emergency retreat, should the weather become unexpectedly adverse; you may not mind shivering through a cold night in your tent, but you don’t want to take chances with a young child. Your car also provides a quick way back to civilization, should your toddler fall ill during the trip.
➡️ Prepare for the Extra Weight
Your toddler will saddle you with much more weight, through both direct and indirect means. You’ll likely have to carry your toddler while hiking on the trails, so you’ll need to be sure you are capable of carrying your son or daughter along with your share of the gear.
Don’t count on your toddler to carry his or her own weight – you’ll be lucky if they walk on their own very much.
➡️ Introduce Your Toddler to Camping Food
The types of food eaten during a camping trip are often quite different from those enjoyed at home. And because children can be picky about the foods they eat, you’ll want to introduce your toddler to camping foods before leaving home.
Try to make the experience fun and exciting to frame it in a positive light. For example, you may want to head out to the backyard and cut up a meal as you would while camping. Let your little one help out or watch as much as possible, and then allow them to try out the food. You may need to experiment with different flavors and recipes to find ones they like.
It also makes good sense to incorporate some fun meals during the trip, such as roasting hotdogs or marshmallows over the fire. Most 3-year-olds can participate in such activities, you’ll just need to supervise and help them out.
➡️ Practice Sleeping in a Tent
Sleeping in a tent is an unusual and potentially unsettling experience for some toddlers, so it is wise to introduce them to the activity before leaving home. You can do set up the tent in your living room and have the family spend a night sleeping inside, but it is even more effective to set the tent up in the backyard for a night before heading on your trip.
By letting them sleep outside in the relative safety and familiarity of your backyard, they’ll be better prepared for the upcoming camping trip. Additionally, this type of “dress rehearsal” will give you a chance to make adjustments, such as tweaking the blankets or sleeping bags you bring along, to ensure your child remains comfortable.
➡️ Consider Increasing the Size of Your Camping Party
Because toddlers will force you to haul more weight on your journey, you may want to invite more friends along for the trip. This will allow you to spread out the weight of some of the communal items, which will offset some of the extra weight you must carry.
For example, things like water purifiers, mess kits and first-aid kits can be shared among the members of a camping party. By expanding the size of your camping party, you can spread the weight out among more people, and lighten everyone’s load a little.
➡️ Bring Along a Playmat or Playpen.
Your toddler will need somewhere clean and safe to crawl around, and a playpen or playmat provides them with the chance to do so. Because a playpen will generally keep your child from getting into much trouble, they’re certainly preferable, as they’ll give you a chance to take a break or focus on other tasks, such as cooking or starting a fire.
However, if a playpen represents additional weight that you don’t want to carry, you’ll still want to bring along a play mat, which will give them a good place to lay down and crawl about. Playmats can also serve as a place for your toddler to take a nap.
➡️ Prepare to Pack-Out Diapers.
You’ll want to bring along an extra garbage bag or two to help manage the trash – primarily that which takes the form of dirty diapers — your toddler will produce. There’s really no other way around this problem unless you want to use washable diapers; however, washing diapers in the wilderness is a formidable task, which most parents will want to avoid.
Camping with a toddler who’s in the middle of potty training can be especially challenging, as you’re probably not interested in bringing along a training toilet. Accordingly, you may want to postpone your trip until your youngster is capable of using outdoor restrooms.
Regardless of the bathroom procedures you’ll utilize on the trip, you want to prepare your toddler for the trip. For example, it may be helpful to teach your child the procedure for peeing in the woods before you are out on the trail, miles from an indoor bathroom.
➡️ Plan for Naps
Your toddler will still need the chance to snooze each afternoon and recharge his or her batteries. This can limit the amount of hiking you can do on a given day and it may require you to stop and set up a make-shift camping site for a few hours, while they get a nap in.
➡️ Be Ready for Boredom
You may find the peace and quiet of a camping trip to be soul-soothing, but your toddler will probably find it boring. And, because a bored child is a difficult child, you’ll want to be sure to bring along plenty of things to keep them stimulated and occupied.
Outdoor toys are a great way to combat boredom, but just be sure that you don’t bring any particularly special or expensive toys, as they may not hold up to the rigors of a camping trip.
➡️ Start Slow
You and your spouse may be used to hiking dozens of miles over the course of a camping trip, but your toddler probably won’t be happy doing so. Instead, you’ll want to scale back your travel a bit and start out by taking shorter trips until your child gets used to camping.
Toddler Camping Checklist
In addition to your basic camping supplies, you’ll want to pack a few extra items to ensure you and your toddler remain comfortable and smiling for the duration of the trip.
- Wet wipes
- A favorite toy or two
- Toddler-appropriate medications and first-aid supplies
- Chest-mounted baby carrier
- Two complete outfits for every day the trip lasts
- Playmat or playpen
You can and should spend plenty of time and effort trying to make the trip as fun for your toddler as possible, but above all else, you must ensure that your toddler remains safe. Let your basic parenting skills and instincts guide the way, but be sure to embrace the following strategies and tactics to ensure your little rug rat avoids injury and illness during the trip.
- Never allow your toddler out of your sight. This is parenting 101, but it is especially important while spending time in the great outdoors. Dangers and threats abound in the wilderness, and it only takes a moment for your youngster to get into trouble.
- Keep your toddler on the trail. Although your toddler will probably expect to be carried for much of the trip, there are also times when he or she will want to scoot around on their own two feet. This is perfectly fine; just be sure to keep them in clear areas, where they aren’t likely to stumble into poison ivy, step on a snake or become tangled in thorns.
- Coat your toddler in sunscreen. If your trip takes place in a sunny location, you’ll want to prevent your toddler from becoming sunburned. Apply sunscreen to any exposed areas frequently, and always reapply it after they go swimming or take a bath.
- Spray your toddler with bug repellant. Camping requires to you coexist alongside myriad biting insects and invertebrates, ranging from mosquitos to ticks to chiggers. A good bug repellant will help protect your youngster from these critters and keep him or her more comfortable during the trip. Just be sure to select one that is safe for toddlers.
- Clean your toddler’s hands frequently. Toddlers love to put their hands in their mouths, so you’ll want to be sure your child’s hands stay clean while camping. Bacteria and other pathogens are quite common in natural habitats, so use wet wipes or hand sanitizer frequently to keep your child’s hands as clean as possible.
- Be sure your toddler remains warm during the trip. Generally speaking, the smaller a person is, the more rapidly they’ll become chilled in low temperatures. Accordingly, your toddler will be especially vulnerable to cold temperatures, so clothe them in multiple layers and be sure to keep their head, hands and feet adequately covered.
Camping with a toddler certainly presents additional challenges, but if you plan and prepare for the trip, you should still have a great time.
Have you ever taken your toddler on a camping trip? What steps did you take to make the trip enjoyable and safe for your family? What mistakes have you learned from? We’d love to hear about your experiences, so share your thoughts in the comments below.