Sydney’s two toddlers in their camping tent looking out at the sunset

Camping With Toddlers

As 2023 is recently upon us, and everyone begins marking their calendars with family plans for the year, I thought I would share some encouragement and tips for anyone considering going camping with young children. Camping can be a fun and inexpensive way to get away as a family and enjoy the outdoors together. I especially think it’s a wonderful thing to do as a military family because it’s a great way to explore a new area — and find a new adventure not too far away from home when you are too far or unable to see extended family over a long weekend.

As our weekend camping plans approached this past October, my husband and I were surprised with many of the reactions we received when people learned we were doing such a crazy thing with a one-year-old and a three-year-old. To be honest, their reactions made us grow increasingly fearful as our trip approached. Were we actually crazy?

 Our trip did not happen without some challenges, but we left with happy hearts and fun family memories, and we were overall so glad that we braved this adventure. Here are some tips for those considering bringing little ones camping:

  1. Plan to spend a long time planning. Our camping packing list was four pages long, single-spaced. I spent weeks thinking about all of the things we would need. It was helpful to break the list into the following categories: tent and sleeping, things for the kids, equipment and tools, kitchen items, fun and entertainment, personal items, and two food lists – one for cold items to store in a cooler, and the other for nonperishable items that can be stored in a bin. For meal planning, it can be helpful to make a chart with items you plan to cook, as well as the equipment and tools needed to prepare and eat each of those individual items. You can’t make pancakes without a spatula. You can’t mix a salad without a bowl. You can’t serve leftover chili the next day if you don’t bring a container to store it in, etc.
  2. Bring more than just the bare minimum. You aren’t going rogue backpacking. You are packing an entire car, so take advantage. If your goal is to have fun, you should bring the extras! Bring fun foods like s’mores, Jiffy pop, comforting drinks like hot chocolate, apple cider packets, a jug of cold apple cider and some orange juice. We went camping around Halloween, so I brought candy and pumpkins to carve. Bring books to read to your kids around the fire, a basket of toys for the tent and a Bluetooth speaker to play music. Bring fishing and hiking equipment, a net and binoculars for the kids to explore the campground.
  3. Keep in mind, the first trip will be the most expensive. While camping is notoriously a cheap way for your family to have a getaway adventure, your first camping trip will not be cheap. You will need to invest in nice equipment that will last — a tent, a camping table and stove, sleeping bags, cookware and other basics. You can find lots of resources online with camping essentials lists. This might be something you spend a while saving up for, or you might consider putting some of those big-ticket items on wish lists for the holidays so family and friends can help with some of those expenses.
  4. Sleeping tips with young children. This seems to be what scares people most about bringing young kids camping, and it was certainly our biggest challenge. Our 16-month-old daughter made it clear she did not enjoy sleeping in the wilderness, and unfortunately kept us awake more than we would have liked in the middle of the night and early hours of the morning. While there is no way to guarantee great sleep with children, here are some things that helped us:
    • Bring as much as you can that your children are used to having at night, such as special blankets or lovies, and a sound machine can be incredibly helpful.
    • Bring a pack-n-play for any child who is used to sleeping in a crib. You really don’t want to experiment with your child sleeping in a non-confined space for the first time while camping.
    • Get everyone ready for bed before you put your kids to sleep. Make sure everyone (including mom and dad) is in pajamas and has toiletries accessible — so you are not rummaging around in a dark tent next to your sleeping children later in the night.
    • Remain positive. Just because you have a bad night of sleep, doesn’t mean your camping trip is ruined.
  1. Items we were glad to have. I can’t include our entire packing list, but I did want to include some of the not-so-obvious items we were glad to have on this past camping trip:
    • Tablecloth, paper plates and bowls, silverware and caddy
    • Baby carrier for hiking
    • Collapsible trash can with zipper lid
    • Glow sticks to put on the kids/dog to keep track of them in the dark
    • Plastic bags and containers to store leftover food items in the cooler
    • Broom and dustpan to sweep out the tent before packing up
    • Board games to play at night
    • Toys and books to keep in the tent and occupy kids during the day

A few days later, we drove away from Jordan Lake with happy, full (and tired) hearts. While it certainly did have its challenges, we were glad we braved the experience with our two little ones.

While camping with young children can certainly be an intimidating thing to attempt, it can be a very rewarding experience if you put in the necessary preparation and planning. I hope these tips are helpful and can encourage any parents out there who want to try camping with littles, but might be fearful, or just don’t know where to begin. So, you got this!

Written By Sydney Smith
Army Spouse

Sydney has been an Army wife for four years and has two children. She often writes on the raw experiences military spouses face during challenging times, striving to be a voice of encouragement and validation among the military spouse community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *