If you’re a member of Hike it Baby, chances are, you’re an outdoors lover. You might have ventured out on backpacking or car camping trips before you started a family, but camping with kids can be intimidating, to say the least. What if they don’t sleep? What if they get bored? And what if they go feral and turn on us? (No? Just me?) Don’t worry. With the right planning, you can make sure your overnight adventure is a successful one, and we have some advice to help your time outdoors.
Guide to Camping with Kids
KNOW YOUR TENT
First, make sure your tent is big enough. I don’t know how this is possible, but my toddler manages to take up more room when sleeping than both me and my husband combined. So for our first camping trip as a family, we opted to upgrade from our cozy two-man tent to something twice as big. You’ll be grateful for the extra space, too.
Have a plan for keeping the kids busy while you’re assembling the tent. While older kids can find a play spot or help with the tent, it can be helpful to baby wear or have a portable playpen for the littlest of campers.
It’s also worth a run-through at home to make sure you’re familiar with the assembly and that it’s free of leaks or tears, because nothing’s worse than waking up to find out that an overnight rain turned your tent into a bathtub. Bring a patch kit or a tiny roll of duct tape just in case.
If you’re in the market for a new tent, check out our recent reviews on family-style tents for some great options.
If you love the outdoors but prefer sleeping somewhere a little sturdier, look into a cabin rental instead. National parks and campgrounds usually have primitive shelters, yurts, or basic cabins – some with climate control.
Another option: if you own a hatchback or minivan with folding or removable seats, you might consider sleeping in your car. A futon mattress, some cozy bedding, and a string of lights can turn the family wheels into something magical. My son loves this so much, we sometimes camp out at home in our driveway.
Pay attention to the weather when choosing your bedding. The sleeping bag rating should be lower than the expected lowest temperature, and a sleeping pad can provide some vital insulation from the cold ground. If your kids have their own sleeping bags, make sure the bags aren’t too big – empty space at the bottom can keep the kids from retaining enough heat to stay warm overnight. Remedy this by stuffing some clothing into the foot of the bag, or zip two bags together to share warmth with your little one. Too warm? Take off the tent fly to get air circulating through your tent and open up the sleeping bags.
Check out our previous article for more tips on sleeping in a tent with your kids.
Temperatures can vary unexpectedly from day to night, especially if you’re camping with kids at a higher elevation. Pack layers that you can add on as the evening gets chillier. For cold-weather camping, layer your kids for sleep the same way you would if you were hiking. Start with a wicking layer (wool, polyester, silk, or bamboo), add a warming layer (heavier wool or fleece), and then the sleeping bag acts as your outermost layer. Don’t forget a beanie and wool socks.
If your child likes to sleep with a security item – a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, sound machine, spatula (my kid, true story) – don’t forget to bring it along. You and everyone in the surrounding area will regret it. Even if you don’t typically use white noise at home, it can be a good idea to bring some along for your camping trip when nighttime nature sounds are unfamiliar and distracting. You can use a battery-operated fan or find any number of free white noise apps for your phone.
LIGHT THE WAY
Nighttime in a campground can be far darker than your kiddos might be used to. Make the campsite a little less scary for the kids with string lights or a lantern to create some ambient lighting. A little extra soft light can also be helpful for you for nighttime diaper changes or for getting in and out of the tent after the little ones have fallen asleep. Tip: For a homemade lantern, wrap a headlamp around a gallon of water or a clear water bottle and turn the light inside out so it shines through the water.
Headlamps are handy for trips to the bathroom after sundown. We love the Princeton Tec Byte headlamp for kids – it’s smaller and lighter than a typical headlamp and includes a red light for preserving night vision. The Princeton Tec Helix Backcountry Rechargeable lantern is also a fantastic option for camp lighting – you can stand it on a table or hang it in your tent, and it recharges via Micro-USB.
CAMPING WITH BABIES
If you’re camping with a baby, you might want to consider bringing along a travel playpen. Not only does it provide a familiar place for them to sleep, but it’s also a great way to keep them out of harm’s way while you’re assembling the tent or cooking. A fitted crib sheet stretched over the top of the playpen can provide protection from bugs and shade from the sun. Spread out some washable mats or blankets for crawlers so they have a safe place to move around. A travel high chair or a stroller can also be helpful for keeping them corralled at mealtimes.
PLAN FOR NAPS
When camping with kids, the excitement of being in a new place might keep your kids from wanting to sleep, but more likely than not, they’ll still need their regular naps. Try to have the tent or beds made up for them in time. Or if they sleep well in their car seats or carriers, plan to take a little drive or hike with them at naptime. Tip: Set up a fan or white noise to keep them from hearing all the other sounds of the campground.
FUN AND GAMES
The hours until bedtime can stretch for-e-ver for kids who are used to the endless entertainments of home. Plan appropriately and you won’t ever have to hear those dreaded words (“I’m bored!”) come from your little ones. Bring dirt-friendly or washable toys for babies and toddlers. For older kids, nature-oriented gear like binoculars or a magnifying glass will keep them excited by their new surroundings. Games like scavenger hunts or flashlight tag can be fun for a wide range of ages (download a free scavenger hunt sheet here).
KEEP THEM MOVING
There’s no better way to spend a day in the wild than to take a long family hike. Bring water, snacks, and your favorite soft-structured or hard-framed carrier in case the kids get tired along the way. If you’re camping with kids at a more established campsite with sidewalks or big open spaces, a balance bike is a fantastic option for busy toddlers. The more you wear the kids out, the harder they’ll sleep afterward!
DON’T BUG OUT
Make sure your little ones are protected from burns and bites. Bring your favorite bug spray and sunscreen, and reapply both throughout the day. Be aware of the plants around your campsite, keeping an eye out for poison ivy or anything else the kids might get into, and bring along a first aid kit just in case.
Give kids their own camp chairs to sit in and place them a safe distance from the campfire. Your kids will love the novelty of having their very own miniature chair, and you’ll love that they’re parked where you can see them and not inching up to the fire like the adorable pyromaniacs that you know they are. You could also draw a “fire line” in the dirt around the campfire and explain that if they cross the line, you’ll put the fire out. For curious crawlers, keep your baby safe in a playpen or a carrier while near a campfire.
Anyone else’s kid completely Hulk out when they’re hungry? Prevent those hangry meltdowns that we’re all so familiar with and pack far more snacks than you think you’ll actually need. Bring items that don’t need to be refrigerated like protein bars, crackers, fruit pouches, or trail mix. Distribute as needed.
MAKE CAMP MEALS FUN
Plan some fun meals around the campfire. Hot dogs, just-add-water camping meals, and S’mores are easy to prepare and will keep the kids happy. For a breakfast option that will impress the family, try cinnamon toast on a stick.
- 1 package of refrigerated crescent rolls
- Long barbecue skewers
Unroll and separate the dough. Wrap each section around the end of a skewer, winding them down diagonally. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and cook over the campfire for 5 minutes. Rotate frequently until the inside is fully cooked.
BE REALISTIC ABOUT DIRT
Lower your expectations of cleanliness, because let’s face it: everyone’s going to get dirty. Something about camping just makes kids want to roll around in the dirt like wild little beasties. But when the accumulated filth is just too much for you to handle, tackle it with wipes. They’re easy to pack – no water or soap needed – and they’ll clean any number of things. Foaming hand sanitizer is also a great thing to have on hand if your campsite doesn’t have running water.
IT’S OKAY TO GIVE UP
For your first time camping with kids, consider staying close to home. If the kids just won’t calm down or can’t get to sleep, or you’ve forgotten any essentials, it’s okay to bail out. Truly. Remember, this is supposed to be a fun experience for you and your kids; and if no one’s enjoying it, don’t push it. There will be other opportunities for you to camp as a family, and you can try again soon.
CAMPING WITH KIDS CHECKLIST – Free Download
Finally, here’s a helpful downloadable packing checklist for camping with kids.
READ MORE ABOUT CAMPING WITH KIDS
- Tips for Sleeping in a Tent with Babies
- Let’s Go Camping with… Toddlers!
- Easy Camping Meals for Kids
Have you been camping with kids? What are your tips or tricks, or what questions do you have? Comment below!
Photos by Kristin Hinnant.
Hike it Baby was provided products from Princeton Tec in exchange for inclusion in this post. We would not recommend something that our children do not love. Our opinions are our own. All other gear pictured above is the author’s own.