Summer is around the corner and that always gets me thinking of camping with my family. While I love being out in nature with my kids and my spouse, camping with young children can feel a bit overwhelming. So many things can go wrong! Young kids can require so much stuff!
But camping with young children can be simple and fun, and it’s so rewarding to do something the whole family can enjoy.
Once, while camping overnight in a tent when my son was a young toddler, I learned that he could unzip the tent door and climb out on his own. Luckily, we were in a safe space, but it definitely changed how much sleep I got! I also learned that it makes sense for an adult to sleep in front of the tent door, to prevent escapes. Now that my kids are three and six, camping is easier, but still not without its unique challenges. Raccoons attacking your tent because of all the snacks inside, for example? Been there. But as soon as school is out for summer we’ll start preparing as a family so that when we head out into the wild, we don’t end up feeling too feral.
How I prepare to go camping with young children:
Of course, I always prepare with books. One of my favorite camping books is The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann. If your trip will involve a hike, the book Hiking Day by Anne Rockwell and Lizzy Rockwell and The Hike by Alison Farrell are some good choices. Other fun ones to read before camping are The Golden Glow by Benjamin Flouw and Have You Heard The Nesting Bird by Rita Gray and Kenard Pak. These books might inspire your kiddos to search for rare flowers and listen for birdsongs while outside and then return to make the tent a quiet nest. There are also some cute camping-themed I Spy books that can help get everyone in the spirit.
Set up the tent in the backyard and let your kids explore it before the trip.
You can even try sleeping in it. My oldest looks forward to our annual “start of summer” backyard sleep-out as much as actually going camping in the woods! It’s also helpful for kids to understand that this is where they will be sleeping, even when it’s really dark.
Make sure you know what toxic plants (poison ivy, poison oak, and poison parsnip) look like and have pictures of each to reference while you are camping.
Let your kids know what plants are off-limits for touching. There is nothing worse than your kiddo handing you a bouquet of freshly-picked poison parsnip flowers while you are miles away from any anti-itch cream! (Hot tip, bring anti-itch cream.) Poison ivy and oak can cause an itchy and uncomfortable rash, but poison parsnip can cause serious burns, so it is essential that your kids know not to touch it.
As simple as it sounds, it’s so important to explore nature before you go camping.
Use magnifying glasses and binoculars in your yard, write and draw in nature journals, go bird-watching, hike, and check out some fun identification books before leaving home. Bugs, birds, trees, plants, mushrooms, and butterflies/moths all have beautiful identification books, and many of these guides can be found in your local library. Older kids can bring along nature journals where they can write or draw pictures of all the amazing and interesting things they see. Your budding nature-lovers and scientists can compare what is in their own yard to what they find on the camping trip.
Get a cute headlamp, mini flashlight, or other night light for kids to use whenever they want.
These lights will definitely come in handy for middle-of-the-night bathroom excursions, and you will save your batteries if they can play with their own flashlight instead of yours. (But still bring extra batteries!) My kids love having their own lights, and it definitely adds to their feelings of safety and security if they wake up in the middle of the night in a very dark and possibly spooky tent. Just make sure you can sleep with their light on! Or try a LuminAID light, if you’d like. Waterproof, solar-powered, and not too bright, these are made for emergency situations but also really fantastic for camping. We use them all the time during power outages at home as well as in our tent.
Simple, but worth considering: is the place you are going kid-friendly?
If there is a hike, is it too long, rocky, or difficult for your children to manage? Will you be able to carry them while hiking, if needed? If you’re going to a campground, is there a playground or swimming area? Is there a lifeguard or is the area fenced off? Will you have a long walk to the bathroom or water source? Getting some basic details about your location will be helpful when preparing, especially for first-time campers and hikers.
A little preparation can really maximize your fun! Some extra things to pack when camping with young children include:
- A beloved “snuggle buddy,” and/or a favorite small blanket. Some familiar comfort items help make the tent feel more like home at bedtime. There are some light-up soft toys that might make for a sweet night light in a dark tent.
- 8 million gallons of bug spray. Seriously. Depending on where you are, you may need more than you think. I spray the outside of the tent to help keep us mostly mosquito-free while we sleep since my kids love to zip and unzip the tent a billion times, which is basically an open invitation for bugs. My favorite bug spray for camping is Badger because it’s all-natural and actually works.
- Sunscreen. No explanation needed.
- Bring extra reusable bags and waterproof bags for wet clothes, garbage, or any other random items that somehow don’t fit back in your pack. It’s amazing how my kids’ stuff always seems to multiply or expand every time we go somewhere.
- Layers of warm clothing and some sort of waterproof jacket and hat. There is nothing worse than a suddenly very cold toddler who is refusing to sleep in the tent anymore. Even if it’s ridiculously hot during the day, I like to have thermals, hats, and extra warm socks for bedtime, just in case. Long sleeves, socks, sun hats, and pants are also key when hiking in the woods as extra protection against ticks. Waterproof gear comes in handy since it can rain when you’re camping, and getting wet can be a real damper on family fun.
- Don’t forget the nature tools that you explored with before the trip! Binoculars, a magnifying glass, and maybe a small jar to bring home all the nature finds that are safe to handle (and not living creatures). I always bring our nature journals and colored pencils for my kids to use on hikes and at the campsite. Quick tip: those slim reusable diaper wipes cases that often come in diaper bags make fantastic pencil cases.
- Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and wet wipes (or washcloths). You will probably use them approximately five thousand times, and not just for bathrooming.
- Toss a tweezer in your first aid kit in case you encounter any hungry ticks along the way. I am rarely outside without one for this very reason. If you do get bitten by a tick that you suspect might be carrying Lyme and you can’t bring it home for testing, take a picture of it to share with your healthcare provider. You can get lots of tick information here.
- A small bag with some random materials you can use to Macgyver something should you need to, like zip ties, string, rubber bands, or duct tape. Especially duct tape! It comes in handy when you need to tape up a hole in the tent screen from when the toddler stuck a stick through it. Or for rigging up a tent-zipper lock so they can’t escape in the night. Ahem.
- Snacks on snacks on snacks. Every seasoned parent knows that traveling without snacks is basically a crime against humanity, but this is especially true for camping. Something about the fresh air really makes kids ravenous, so save yourself from a hangry toddler- they are worse than hungry bears. I always bring a few small snack containers filled to the brim, and then a bag to replenish them as needed. Same goes for water bottles. Snacks with protein will keep your crew full longer. And don’t forget the s’mores ingredients!
All this said, don’t overpack! As a chronic over-packer, I want to make sure we have what we need, but whenever we travel I am reminded we don’t really need a whole lot. All the things on this list will make your time camping with young children easier, but depending on where you are going you might not want to lug the entire contents of your house on your back while also carrying small children.
Camping with young children is definitely better when you prepare, but stuff still happens so it’s always a good idea to let go of all expectations and just enjoy nature- and your family- as much as possible. I go on every camping trip knowing it is going to be so much fun, but also messy and exhausting. And guess what? My everyday life is so much fun, but messy and exhausting too! At least when we are camping, I can look up at the stars after the kids go to sleep instead of unloading the dishwasher. What’s your favorite family camping spot in Vermont?
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Camping with our 1 year old for the first time at Allis State Park in a couple weeks! Keeping close to home in case it’s a disaster.
Thanks for sharing, I’ve never heard of Hipcamp. Can’t wait to try it out this summer!
These are great tips! We love camping with our kids. We love using Hipcamp to find special spots. It’s like Airbnb for camping and you can find some really unique, kid-friendly camping spots that aren’t crowded.