There was once a time when camping was a simple thing for my husband and me. Load up your gear in a backpack and hit the trail. The lighter, the better. Once, he even rigged up a used tuna fish can, punched holes in it, poured in white gas and that was our stove for heating water for dehydrated food packets. Then we had a baby.
While you can hang tough and go with minimal when you have a baby, I have to admit that I’m loving our current glamping ways. It’s getting us out at least a few weekends a month with our 3-year-old because it’s easy. It’s not that I don’t think we’ll ever go back to true backpacking, but when you have everything you need to make camping comfortable for your kiddo, it’s much more encouraging to go often.
Here are the five things to think about when spending days and nights outdoors with under-5-year-old kiddos.
Go With Friends
A few weeks ago I camped with a bunch of friends a mere 40 minutes from my house. Even though I could have driven home in a moment, and the people I was camping with I see often, it felt like an adventure because only a few of us had camped together before.
Some people think just because you are camping you need to have a remote, solo experience. Maybe, but with toddlers it’s sometimes nice to have others around to help you muscle through tantrums in the woods or avert them all together. Find your tribe and make a plan. Keep it close to home so if it’s not working out for one of the families they can go home.
In our case we went to Oxbow Regional Park. We like this park because is it is quiet (lights out by 10pm), no alcohol allowed (keeps the rowdy party crowd out), there’s a fee for people coming into the park in the day which keeps it fairly uncrowded and there’s a decent amount of staff always around which makes it unattractive for those who don’t want to abide by the rules.
When you have little kids it’s nice to not have to worry about cars blasting through at high speed, loud music, broken bottles in campsites, overflowing trash cans and nasty bathrooms. While these things never used to bother me, once you have a little person in the mix it’s easy to become more sensitive. Once I camped–now I glamp. I’m OK with that.
Sleep is Key
Mason is a terrible sleeper. He doesn’t like light, he is particular about his pillow. He likes to roll around a lot. Life will suck when camping if you or your kiddos are sleep deprived. This summer we’re giving the Carlsbad 6-Person Darkroom Tent a go from Coleman. From the start I could tell this tent would be a winner for our family. The size is great for a 3-4 person family and all of your stuff, but not such a big footprint that your tent takes up the whole campsite. Once it’s all set up and you crawl in it is noticeably darker than traditional tents. If you want more light, simply remove the fly.
The only downside I saw was that the black thick material which keeps the light out also feels a bit warm. For Northwest camping this isn’t a problem because we have trees, cooler evenings and a lot of rain. I could see this tent being not-so-good for somewhere like Joshua Tree mid-day, but a shelter over it could combat heat issues.
Blankets are another thing to consider. In Oregon we have some pretty warm evenings that get cooler as dawn approaches, so being inside a mummy bag isn’t always a nice way to start out your sleep. For a while we just pulled bedding from our house, but then it got pretty dirty and required cleaning when we got home. Then we found the Rumpl blankets. This blanket is a cross between a sleeping bag and a comforter. It’s fairly weather resistant and toddler-proof, meaning Mason often drags his baby version through our campsite and it doesn’t pick up much dirt. They are super light and stuff into a stuff sack as well, making it easy to pull them out when sitting at the fire hanging out and great for throwing on a stroller for walks around the campground when a baby won’t fall asleep.
Sheltering From the Elements
Mark and I went on a raft trip once that was more or less a downpour for most of the trip. Not a lot of fun. The only saving grace was that we brought a shade shelter we could pop up over our tent which allowed us to come out during downpours and hang out without getting soaked upon leaving tent. These days we have two shade structures. A fast pitch one, Alps Tri-Awning, that’s more portable for taking to a beach or popping up if we are trying to keep our camping load light. We also have a super deluxe version that you can put the whole tribe under and has LED lights making it easier to cook, clean and play games at night. This structure is pretty hefty to haul around, but it’s nice when kids are in the mix and you have a crew. What we have found with taking a shade or rain shelter is it makes the decision to camp on a weather-questionable weekend a non-issue.
Also, if rain does happen, pop your tent under the structure and you can wait out most storms in comfort and emerge dry. Should you need to pack up in bad weather, it’s much easier when you have something to shelter everything. What I love about the Coleman All Night Instant Lighted Eave Shelter that we have is even though it’s pretty massive to transport, once you get where you are going it has wheels on the bag which means even a mom camping solo (something I often do with Mason) can muscle the tent around. Set-up does require two people, however.
Camp Kitchens Matter
I love to cook at home, so I can’t help but take that passion when we go camping. Often I pre-prepare meals that we can just heat up later, but there will still always be some prep. Cooking with a tiny backpacking stove when you have an impatient toddler sucks. If your kids are hangry, no one will be happy. Two burner stoves can feel excessive and clunky, but when you can crank out food in ten minutes after a long day or running around in the woods, you’ll be grateful. My camp stove seems to keep getting bigger. Like most backpackers, I own a Jetboil. It’s easy to take everywhere. You can heat hot water up in a minutes and have hot chocolate or food fast with minimal mess. I actually still often take the Jet Boil camping for two reasons: emergency back up if our stove breaks (this happened to us a few months ago) and when I don’t want to deal with the whole stove because we pulled in late and just want to heat soup fast and eat.
Once we start unpacking and get the kitchen set up we use a two burner stove. Our most recent trip I tried out a new Coleman Frye Commander 3 in 1. What is great about this stove is that it is super easy to pull the legs off of their tidy tucked away position, screw them on, click a button and cook. No need to set up a table to rest the stove on. Also, this allows you to move the hot stove away from where kids are crawling around like a picnic table or food bins. What I also loved about this stove was the ability to pop off the burner where I was cooking mac-and-cheese, one minute and pop in a grill to cook up sausages for adults a moment later. The grill allows BBQ-ing and boiling water at the same time. In the past we took a grill and a stove with us, so this combo is perfect for allowing me to chef it up at the campsite.
With all the cooking I do we often have a fair number of dishes. Luckily my husband often is the dishwasher. He’s rigged up a great system for us with using two large metal buckets with handles that we can fill at any water spigot and then carry back to camp and wash with. Make sure you have an easy way to wash dishes if you are planning on cooking.
Melt Down Management
Toys, toys, toys. My husband used to laugh at me insisting on bringing toys camping. Then he did a solo trip with Mason and he was glad I forced him to bring a bag of legos and books. While you can hope your child will be so enamored with nature that he will not need toys, there’s also the reality that he may get bored from time to time and act up. Bring plastic toys you can wash like big Lego blocks. Cars and trucks are great. Balls for kids to kick around. We often have a few tiny cars we can hand to Mason while on trail if he starts to throw a fit. Bubbles and crayons are great camp activities too.
Have a rough idea of what you are going to do everyday. Camping can be casual, but put a little bit of a schedule in place, especially if your kiddo is used to a schedule at home. Camping will go better if you know when, how and what you are getting it all done. Plan meals, naps and hikes according to how your life goes. If your kiddo goes to the playground at daycare at 10am and then naps at 1pm, make that your camp schedule too.
Camping with babies can be a blast and a lot less daunting than you might think. You can do it minimalist or you can pimp it out as I have suggested here. Both ways you win because it’s more outside time for your family. Summer is passing us by quickly so now is the time to gather your gear and head out for a glamp out.
Shanti Hodges is the founder of Hike it Baby. She and her family try to camp out at least every other weekend in the summer.