10 Tips for Successful Camping with Young Children

Written by contributor Katie Kimball of Kitchen Stewardship.

Bugs. Dirt. Sticks. More dirt.

If your child is at an age when everything goes right to the mouth, you may not feel inspired to take said child out into the wilderness where the list above is all you can find as far as the eye can see.

I, on the other hand, am always inspired to go against the flow.  My kids are all younger than five years old, and our family camped in a tent with no facilities – whatsoever – available on site.  We had a fire pit.  That is all.

Two years ago we left our home for the hour and a half drive while it was raining, crossing our fingers that we could set up at a dry camp by lunchtime.  Our 3-month-old daughter had a goopy unidentified eye infection that required a sterile, hot compress twice a day.

Last year the weather forecast called for temps in the low 40s at night during our planned camping time.  With our then 15-month-old everything-goes-in-the-mouth daughter, we did it anyway.  It was 42 degrees when we exited the tent wearing knit caps and mittens.

And you know what?

We had the best time.

I highly recommend camping, rustic or not so much, as a frugal, adventurous, eco-friendly, memory-making, family togetherness sort of vacation.  You CAN survive in the woods with little children, who really won’t eat quite everything.

6 Things to do with Preschoolers and Toddlers in the Big Woods

1.  Let them help. Setting up jobs like carrying smaller items and actually helping with the real tent and sleeping bag set-up, daily jobs like collecting twigs for the fire, and mealtime jobs like passing out plates or being the “runner” into the screen tent are actually fun for this age group, and it’s good practice for later when you’ll expect help from them.

2.  Go for a nature walk. Children can be expected to walk one mile per year of age.  Don’t underestimate their capabilities.  Be sure to point out the different leaves, insects, tracks on the ground, vegetation, etc.  Allow kids to touch and interact with things.  You have nowhere to go, after all!

3.  Bring a kid-sized shovel. Dirt + something to dig with = contented kiddos.  It’s almost impossible not to start digging holes when you’re 3 or 4 and surrounded by nothing but dirt.

4.  Make leaf rubbings. It’s nothing to pack a few crayons and some paper.  Once your kids see the plethora of different leaves in the woods, you’ll have a hard time stopping them from participating.

5.  Pack outside toys. There’s no better place than the great outdoors to play a game of catch and/or Frisbee.  I pack outside toys in an empty 18-lb. grapefruit bag.  It works perfectly.

6.  Bring a rainy day bag. Pack small things like a few crayons and coloring books, homemade playdough that can be thrown out if it gets dirty, card games and small toys.

4 Survival Tips for Family Camping

1.  Use a sling and a pack-n-play for infants. Being outside tends to calm even fussy babies down a lot, and being held by mom most of the time in a sling generally puts baby right to sleep.  For 6-18-month-olds, consider a sheet or blanket on the ground as a place for all toys.  Did you catch Megan’s article on Babywearing While Traveling this month?

2.  Make your vehicle “home base”. Keeping your clothing in the back of a van allows you to access them while still standing up and without giving bugs one more chance to get in your tent.

3.  Got a laundry bag? If you stuff the whole family’s dirty laundry in one bag, it can be literally tossed in the laundry room ready for the washing machine when you arrive home.

4.  Accept dirt. Dirt happens. Wear your “campin’ attitude” the whole time you’re in the woods and realize that you’ll never really feel shower-fresh clean until you’re home again.  Just enjoy the organic nature of it all…literally.

I’ve compiled tips like these, checklists galore, and real food adaptations to traditional camping recipes in my new eBook, “Real Food in the Big Woods: A Family Camping Handbook for the Unwoodsy.”  Whether you’re a newbie camper or a veteran, I hope you find something to chew on.

Find more of my family’s camping adventures and some Real Food camping recipes here, and check out my eBook on camping here.

Is family camping a tradition or wishful thinking for you? What’s your best tip to survive with little ones?

Photos by Katie Kimball

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KatieK

Katie Kimball is a mother of three from Michigan who spends a ton of time in the kitchen making real food with whole ingredients, and then blogs about her successes and failures at Kitchen Stewardship.

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Comments

  1. Great read. While I don’t have kids (lol) this definitely motivates me to take a camping trip sooner then later. I hope to get my whole family to go sometime this summer.

    I LOVE seeing little kids helping out – seeing your young child digging with that small shovel is too awesome – keep it up!
    .-= Primal Toad’s last blog: Primal Fitness: Simple Fit Workout Day 2 =-.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this! I totally agree with every word. All my three kids (now ages 10, 4 and 2) have been camping since they were infants and they love it so much that we’re having trouble getting it through to our 4 year old that we’re not sleeping in a tent on vacation this year! People always look at us like we’re nuts when we say we camp with all the kids, but it’s so much simpler than they think. You just have to decide to do it and go.
    .-= Charissa’s last blog: The Olympic Winner =-.

  3. Francis says:

    This is a great article! We tried several times to camp when our kids were infants but never truly succeeded until last year when our youngest was 3. This year we went on a 10 day camping trip in another state and we had so much fun together. I wish more young families would do it. Thanks for the inspiration! One year/ year of age!!! We need to work on that one. 🙂

  4. Great article to encourage other families to try camping with young children. When our 3 children were very young we would camp for most of the summer. One was born at the end of May and we were camping that summer…advantage of breastfeeding! After a few tries, parents understand they do not have to pack as much as they thought. Happy camping! Lorna d’Entremont

  5. Great article. I have been camping since I was a wee lass, and when I started camping with my girls people thought I was crazy. The girls love it. We do most of what is said in the article (clothes and food containers stay in the car – racoons have thumbs and can and will open you coolers and food lockers if they have been fed at the site before). We pack crafts (nature based – needs fallen leaves, sticks, pinecones, etc.). Usually on the first day after we set up go on a nature hunt and collect treasures, then we have those treasures for later in the day. We bring Beach toys and other outdoor toys as well as bikes.
    My best advice is if you forgot it, realize you can probably live without it, and most everyone over packs for camping. The first time you go camping keep of list of things you wish you had and add to it as the trip goes on. Then when you are packing up write down all the stuff you didn’t use and might not need to bring next time.
    .-= TreeHugginMomma’s last blog: Neglected Duties and Burn Out! =-.

    • Oh! The lists are a good idea. I use a similar approach for business travel, but I never thought of applying it to camping (duh). Thanks.

  6. I love the mile/ year of age rule! It’s much slower when they walk, but they love it so much.

    We hiked a lot pre-kid, so when she came along we continued just the same. She loved being carried, so they were dream days for her (held the whole day? yes!). We actually hiked the Grand Canyon when she was six months old, and she was the happiest of the bunch! It helped she was still nursing, of course. Now that she’s older we have to stop more and go slower, but it’s still great family time.

    We haven’t done much overnight camping with her. I love all your kid tips, especially the shovel and leaves. Embrace the dirt. 🙂 Thanks for all the tips!

  7. Such an inspiring list! I am more eager to go camping than my husband is. Maybe once our youngest is totally toilet trained we will dare to take the plunge…
    .-= Julia’s last blog: How to Make a Fishing Game in Five Minutes =-.

  8. I have never enjoyed tent/camper camping with my kids for personal reasons but I have a number of friends who go camping with their infants, toddlers and preschoolers and have a great time. The sling is definitely the way to go! We are hoping to go on a big camping trip this summer in Europe (Rv’ing) and your ideas about the leaf rubbings and the shovel are definitely ones I am taking away.
    .-= Melodie’s last blog: She’s A Ballerina Again! With Prima Princessa Review & Giveway =-.

  9. This is great!!! I loved camping as a kid. Helping Dad set up the pop-up camper was fun. Also, I really don’t think kids mind that it’s dirty…I mean I don’t think I even noticed I needed a bath/shower until I was a teenager. Now post-college, I’m so looking forward to the day when I have my own family and can take them camping (possibly, this could be my wishful thinking? :D).

  10. I love your tips and admire your guts to take an infant camping, even if it rained. I camped a lot as a kid and now I camp with my son in a trailer. He loves it.
    All you really need to do is to accept dirt!

  11. Love this post – Isn’t it true adversity is a great memory builder… Remember when we nearly froze, remember when we nearly washed away… love your adventures!!!
    .-= se7en’s last blog: The Week That Was – 2.50… =-.

  12. WE love to camp and started with our kids when our 3 yr old was just 5 months. The hardest part is at night…getting them to sleep and keeping them asleep. We have found that we need to just let them run crazy all day (easier now that they are both able to run!), forget naps, and pray that they crash hard at night. I like your idea of clothes in the car…hadn’t tried that. We leave tomorrow to camp again! hope the rain goes away! I also do what one commenter said, make a list. I have one from our first two trips this year. Details DO matter when camping with kids! Love your blog! thanks

    • We took our 9 month old for the first time Memorial Day weekend. We only went for one night and had a lot of fun, but it was very difficult getting him to sleep. For naps, we put him in the car and drove around the campground until he fell asleep, then just let him sleep in the car seat. At night, he wouldn’t sleep until we went down with him. Nursing was a huge help! Besides our lack of sleep, it was a really great time. Next time I go, I will try to bring one of those play pens that can be set up anywhere so that he can run free and play, but I don’t have to worry about him falling into the fire. My parents camped with us, so I’m determined to bring my kids too.
      .-= Kim @ Staying Home’s last blog: Cloth Diaper Giveaway =-.

  13. We tend to mostly go camping at the beach. We use a solar shower to get sand free before bed. I also love our luggable loo so that we don’t have to dodge crabs in the middle of the night to get to the bathroom. Right now we’re trying to come up with a good time to go for our 10 month old daughter’s first trip. I like the idea for leaf rubbings; I’ll have to remember that for our next woodsy camping trip.
    .-= nopinkhere’s last blog: Parental Abuse? =-.

  14. Wow, loved this article! I am not as brave as you though… Dirt makes me twitch 😉
    .-= Kathryn’s last blog: How do babies learn to dance? =-.

  15. This is SOOOOO timely, as I just sat down to make a campground reservation for us and another family with a 2 year old.

    We keep a “camping bin” in the garage with all our standard camping supplies and a list on top of the stuff we need to add from other parts of the house.

    The other thing that really helped us was to start with a one night camping trip somewhere close to home. It really builds confidence for longer and further trips later. (Or allows you to abandon ship at 2 AM when you find out your 3 year old WILL NOT sleep in the sleeping bag – happened to friends of ours.)
    .-= Alissa’s last blog: First – Second =-.

  16. Our tent is up drying in our yard right now from the camping trip we came home from yesterday. We had to take it down right after a thunderstorm that arrived just after we removed the rainfly, of course. Sigh. I’m repacking our awesome Grubby II that we used for the first time. We are headed out on another camping trip a week from today. I love the tip about keeping the clothes in our car. I’d never do that at our usual spot since it is a small hike from the car to the tent, but we will be in tent sites right next to the car this coming trip and keeping the suitcases in there is something I wouldn’t have thought to do. The shovel is great idea too. I never seem to have a kid friendly one around, so our two year old loves to use old measuring cups and spoons to dig and play in the dirt. He also has great fun with the mallet and extra tent stakes. He sleeps very soundly in the tent, even through thunderstorms as we found out this time. 🙂

  17. Great post! We started camping with our son when he was 4 months old (he’s 4 years old now) and are planning a 2 month camping trip with him and our 11 month old daughter this summer! Both kids love to be outdoors so much that it seems like less work than trying to occupy them in the house. My best tip for survival is a laid back attitude, keeping it simple, and being organized.

  18. Great post, Katie! We love camping, even with littles (although we have yet to venture out with our new son!). I think on our next trip we’ll definitely try a nature walk and some leaf rubbings for our three year old. 🙂
    Congrats on your new e-book, can’t wait to check it out!

  19. Great tips! It is SO good to get little ones outdoors. Totally agree that you just have to expect the dirt, and know that everyone will get a good bath at home!

    Also, a shovel. Totally. Our kids love just digging in the dirt! 🙂
    .-= Hannah’s last blog: Beach Days, Stormy Night =-.

  20. Thanks for the great pointers, Katie – I linked!
    .-= Lenetta’s last blog: Daybook for June 25, 2010 =-.

  21. Camping, whether recreation or sleep away summer camps, builds independence in children! I have been involved with Texas summer camp for 14 years and it has helped me develop life skills necessary to impact my life as well as others. Camping facilitates an environment where kids learn how to fail and succeed, surrounded by the impact of positive leaders. Share it with those you love and enjoy!

  22. Love this post. We’re new to camping with the kids and have already had some interesting times (as in the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times). I took my 5-y-o camping by myself when she had a cold. We made do. I picked up a few tips here such as keeping the clothes in the car. I’d add one other: keep meal planning simple with foods that you know the kids will enjoy. While I love a good, hot breakfast outdoors, sometimes Cheerios and milk is just fine.

  23. Love these ideas! We’re getting ready for our first camping trip with kids and apprecite especially the shovel idea!

  24. Heather says:

    Great ideas everyone! I am in the process of preparing for my first camping trip with my nearly 3-year-old son. I have a running list of things I need to pack/buy/make and have started today gathering things – the trip is in three days. The hardest part was trying to come up with meals for three days of camping…I searched the web for easy firepit meals and found a couple of really great ideas for foil pack cooking. My husband and I have been camping before – every summer for the last 7 years but this is our first attempt with our son and I have over prepared to ensure it’s going to be a good trip. I even went out to get a bigger tent incase it rains and we’re stuck inside for the entire trip… my main goal is to relax and make sure everyone is comfortable. I can’t believe I did not think to bring a shovel for my kid – all he does in our own yard is dig in the dirt – great suggestion and I plan to use the leave coloring trick to keep him busy while his dad and I put up the tent – we tried putting the tent in the yard a couple of times to get him ready for the trip but he just jumped all over it so we need to keep him busy haha… happy camping everyone!

  25. If you want to buy a car, you would have to get the mortgage loans. Moreover, my brother commonly takes a student loan, which seems to be really fast.

  26. It’s such a rush to get outdoors, take a break from your everyday pressures, to really unwind….& so neccessary for our health, both inside & out. Your site is knowledgable & supportive, thank you.
    camping and hiking

  27. I was reading the article and thinking back to when I was a kid. I was really fortunate because my parents took the family camping from back in the 1950’s, a long time ago. My father was great at planning everything you could imagine. We had a tent trailer and I remember him checking it out to make sure that everything was in good working order.

  28. I have twin boys who are 4 years old and an 11 year old daughter. We have been camping countless times since the boys were 8 months old and she was 8. We all lived. It is impossible to hold them all the time and putting them down at that age in the woods is not a good option. Something that worked really well for us was throwing a tarp down on the ground for the babies to play on and then added a “octogon” fence around them with a portable play yard/gate of some sort that I found at a garage sale. It snapped together in a big circle. They didn’t stay in it all the time, but we had to set up camp, cook, break down camp, etc. It was a life saver. We bought a small 3×4 utility trailer to put all the gear in. Now that they are older, we can fit everybody and all the gear in the minivan.

  29. Thanks for this! You’ve helped convince me that we CAN camp this summer with a 2 month old and 2 year old like we want!

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