Camping with kids can be as easy or difficult as you want it to be. Don’t get caught up in thinking that your child’s first camping experience has to look a certain way. If cooking outside seems overwhelming, it’s okay to make sandwiches or even order a pizza! If bedtime is difficult, choose a campsite close to home so you can stay for supper, drive home and sleep in your own beds, and come back the following day. The most important part of the process is giving your child a new experience and fostering a love of the great outdoors, so do whatever you need to do to make camping with kids a positive experience.
Choosing a Place to go Camping with Kids
Where should you go? That’s the big question! Think about what you hope to get out of your camping trip with the kids. Some campgrounds are almost resort-like, with arcades and pools and organized social activities like bingo or stargazing nights. Others are more laid back and might include a beach, hiking or bike trails, and a wooded area to explore. Both types of camping can be fun, but they can also make for very different experiences, so think about what you would prefer before you book. You can ask a local neighborhood group or parents’ group for specific recommendations.
If this is your child’s first time camping, it’s good to start with a short one-night trip (especially if you don’t have much camping experience). If you can, choose a campsite within an hour’s drive of your home, so if things go sideways in the middle of the night, you can always pack up and head home.
Camping with kids is one of the least expensive ways to vacation as a family, but it’s not free. If you’ve never camped before, borrowing gear from friends or family is an excellent way to try without spending a lot of money. You can also call a local outdoor store and see if they have any gear available to rent for first-time campers.
There are two main approaches to camping with kids: in a tent or a trailer. A trailer or RV requires a much bigger investment. You’ll need a vehicle capable of towing the trailer, which can be pricy for a rental. Camping with kids in a tent is probably the most cost-effective way – even if you decide to purchase a tent, you can usually find an entry-level model for around two hundred dollars, which will last for many annual camping trips.
You’ll also need sleeping bags and a sleeping pad to go between you and the ground. Some campers like air mattresses or foldaway cots for a higher degree of comfort, but with these come a higher price tag comes with these.
Next to sleeping, eating is the other main area you’ll need to buy, borrow, or rent specialized equipment. A camp stove or portable barbeque is a must. The most popular type of stove is a gas-powered stove that folds compactly for transport – and don’t forget to pack a small gas canister. To keep food cool and fresh, you’ll need a cooler. Filling the cooler with a bag of ice purchased at a store is quick, but it can make a mess as it melts.
If possible, save a couple of empty milk jugs or two-liter plastic bottles. A few days before you leave for your camping trip, fill these containers with water and stick them in your freezer. By the time you’re packing the cooler, they will have frozen solid into ice packs that can keep your food cool for three or four days, and as they melt, they won’t make a mess either.
Other gear that comes in handy is flashlights or headlamps for the whole family; this makes brushing your teeth and using the bathroom before bed easier. Collapsible camp chairs can also make a big difference in your comfort sitting around the fire in the evening, and chances are you might already own one that gets brought along to kids’ sporting events.
Kid-sized camping chairs are usually popular amongst the youngest campers, too. If you plan to make camping a long-term activity for your family, you might also want to invest in a screen tent. This type of tent has four sides made of mesh and can be placed over a cooking or eating area to keep you dry in the rain or keep the bugs away while you eat.
You also want to think about entertainment for your children. I know that sounds counterintuitive, especially since you are out camping with your kids. But think more along the lines of toys that help them explore and keep them entertained. You could create a checklist of all the animals in the area that they can spot with binoculars.
And if they find them all, they could win a prize, like an extra handful of sweets. Or maybe you could use a telescope to teach them about constellations and space. For older kids interested in science, you could help them explore microorganisms such as the little bugs on the leaves or what a spec of dust looks like under a microscope.
Tips for Getting Kids to Sleep While Camping
Concerns about bedtime disasters are one of the biggest deterrents to camping with kids. Before you go, you need to accept that sleeping outside in a tent will be a different experience than bedtime at home. First of all, there’s no doubt that sleeping in a tent is very exciting for kids, and they’re going to want to thoroughly explore the tent before they even think about closing their eyes.
It can be a good idea to give kids plenty of playtime inside the tent during the day so that when it’s time to crawl into their sleeping bags, the novelty may have worn off a little. And the excitement has not worn off. You could use the tent playtime for toddlers as a sensory play moment. Let them explore the different materials, textures, and sounds they can find in the tent. Exploring new textures and sounds will tire their little brains out and make them ready for bed.
Another tip is to make sure the kids get lots of exercise before bed. If your campground has a playground, consider making a stop there on the way back from the bathrooms to run their energy out. Having an active day outside can often tire them out, so bike rides, hikes, swimming, exploring nature, and making new friends at the playground can leave them worn out.
One of the big difficulties of sleeping outside with young kids is that camping is typically a summer activity when the sun sets later in the evening, and there are no blackout curtains in a tent. This makes it hard to get kids to sleep if they have an early bedtime. You can try a fabric sleep mask, but you might have to accept that bedtime will be later than usual.
If you’re camping not far from home and have a difficult sleeper, it’s not the end of the world to come up with a hybrid camping plan. For example, if you’ve got a toddler who struggles at bedtime but think your older child could handle it. After dinner, one parent could drive the difficult sleeper home for a night in their familiar bed while the other stays at the campsite and sleeps in the tent with the other child. In the morning, you can drive back to enjoy the morning together at the campsite before packing up and coming home.
Tips for Feeding Kids While Camping
The thought of cooking outdoors can be overwhelming if you’ve never done it before, but it can be a lot easier with a bit of preparation than you thought!
The number one thing to keep in mind is that planning ahead and preparing will make your life easier. Fruits and vegetables should be pre-washed, pre-cut, and stored in airtight containers. Bring a cooler to keep perishable food cold. You can store dry foods in a plastic tote, such as bread, crackers, and marshmallows. Before you go to bed, put all food inside your car to not tempt any critters nearby.
Most campers bring a small portable barbeque or a gas stove that folds up compactly when not in use for outdoor cooking. If you want to rough it, you can also cook over a campfire by placing a pot on a grill over the flames, making tin foil dinners, or roasting hot dogs or marshmallows.
The key to successful outdoor cooking is choosing easy to prepare meals. Pasta is easy to cook in a pot on a gas stove, and you can easily grill hot dogs or hamburgers on a portable barbeque. Tacos are another popular and easy meal – prep your veggies and salsa ahead of time, and either cook the meat at the campsite or bring it pre-cooked. If you’re feeling ambitious and want an authentic camping experience, you can try tin foil dinners:
For breakfast, the easiest meal option is a box of cereal, and some milk kept cold in your cooler. If you want something more ambitious, pancakes are always a popular choice. Mix your pancake batter ahead of time and keep it in an empty squeeze bottle, so when you’re cooking breakfast outside at seven in the morning, you’ll need to fire up your gas stove and squeeze out the batter in a frying pan. Don’t forget the coffee for adults, either! If you have a pour-over or French press coffee maker, those are ideal for camping, but instant can work.
The second step to cooking is the washing up afterward. If you’re camping with your kids in an RV, you can probably do your washing up inside, but not if you’re tenting. Most modern campgrounds will have a dishwashing station of some kind, but you’ll need to remember to bring your own dishwashing liquid. It’s also helpful to have a small tote or plastic basin to collect dirty dishes in and make it easy to transport them to the dishwashing station.
Tips for Using the Bathroom While Camping with Kids
If you’re taking a newly potty trained child camping, the best advice is to take a potty with you and keep it at the campsite. Newly toilet-trained children don’t always give you a lot of advance notice that they need to pee, so having a potty nearby is a good idea.
For older children, take a close look at the campground map you’ve chosen. Depending on the campground you’ll be staying at, there might be a wide range of facilities available. Privately operated campgrounds can either have bright, clean, and modern facilities or run down and dirty. If you can, check reviews or ask other campers to make a recommendation. Campgrounds operated at a national or federal level (such as national parks) will be more uniform across the board in terms of what facilities they offer.
Look carefully at the map before selecting a campsite at whichever campground you choose. Some campgrounds have multiple small bathroom facilities, while others have one central facility. Try choosing a campsite that is only a short walk away from the bathrooms for everyone’s comfort.