Let me get this out there at the very start -camping with a toddler is no picnic. If you came to this website looking for a foolproof plan that will allow you to take your toddler on a worry free, relaxing adventure in the wilderness, you need to keep looking (and please let me know if you ever find that website!) That being said, with proper planning and a little bit of thoughtfulness, camping with a toddler will be an exciting, enjoyable and transformative experience for you and your little one.
If you are anything like me, you have probably been looking forward to taking your precious little one camping since long before they were born. I am a huge advocate of exposing your children to nature as soon as possible, and even then, I waited until Baby Squatch was 14 months old before deciding the time was right to take him on his inaugural overnight camping trip. Granted, I felt like he was ready prior to his first birthday, but since that was in the middle of a Midwestern winter, I thought better of it. All children are different, but I feel that by 18 months (and certainly no later than 24 months), every parent should feel completely comfortable taking their tiny adventurers on an overnight expedition.
Is your child more or less sleeping through the night? If they still wake up crying multiple times every night, it’s probably not the best idea to take them camping (at least if you will be camping near anyone else).
This was my biggest concern. Even though Baby Squatch sleeps through the night pretty soundly MOST of the time, I am drawn to nature for the quiet and sense of solitude it provides. If I was a childless camper who was awoken in the middle of the night by a screaming baby, or my quiet fireside thoughts were interrupted by a wailing kid who just wouldn’t go to sleep, I would probably be pretty annoyed. I didn’t want to be that asshole who ruined the experience for someone else.
Here is how I dealt with it – I decided our first night camping was going to be in a popular state park near our home. FOR YOUR FIRST TRIP WITH YOUR LITTLE ADVENTURER, THIS IS THE WAY TO GO! Not only does it ensure that you have your home as a nearby backup if things get nasty, if you go on a weekend it virtually guarantees you will be surrounded by other families who have kids of their own. It is also very likely that there will be at least one group of loud, obnoxious college age kids who have already ruined things for most of the campground by the time your little guy lets out a midnight wail.
I tend to avoid most state parks, but the reasons given above are why they make such great child camper proving grounds. You (like I am) may be turned off by the lack of solitude, the wide expanses of cut grass and the play set (which your kid will love, by the way), but remember, this isn’t about you. This is about your little guy, who is still holding tightly to the very tips of the rabbit’s hair. He will be in awe of the clover and dandelion in the untreated grass, the robin hopping around the periphery of your camp site and the squirrels that get just a little too close for comfort while looking for a handout.
If you plan on doing lots of camping (as you certainly will after reading this website), I do not recommend that you overnight for the first time in your backyard. Although your baby would almost certainly have as much fun there as anywhere else you go, the temptation for you to retreat to the safety of your home may be too great to overcome.
I think the most important tip I can give about camping with a baby or toddler is that YOU NEED TO BE ORGANIZED!
To me this means you need to –
- Write down your baby’s packing list so you don’t forget anything.
- Pre-plan your menu and pack accordingly. Backpacking has made me a Freezer Bag Cooking fanatic, and I found that this translates very well into camping with Baby Squatch. The meals are easy, require little focus, and most importantly – require hardly any cleanup! Don’t forget to label everything.
- Make sure that your potential sleeping arrangements work prior to arriving at your campsite. If you plan on using a pack ‘n play to contain your little one while they sleep, you had better make sure that it fits in your tent before you get there. Floor space means nothing when you have sloping tent walls and a 3 foot tall pack n’ play.
- Pack in some sort of organized fashion. I find that plastic milk crates work perfect for organizing your food and gear. They are made to stack and you can see inside them. If you are camping in bear country, be sure to keep all of your smell good stuff together so you can easily move it to a bear locker or hang it.
Camping with a little one is about as far as you can get from ultra-light. As any parent knows, kids come with lots of baggage. This is doubly true when you are spending significant time outdoors. Because their body surface area is much greater relative to their size than adults, kids aren’t able to maintain their temperature nearly as well. This means extra clothes for sleeping…and a hat and jacket just in case (even in the summer). You will also need to bring along your containment device of choice (pack ‘n play, Peapod) to keep them corralled when you are setting up camp or doing camp chores. For our first trip, I also brought the top of Baby Squatch’s high chair, which was extremely helpful during meal time. If your high chair doesn’t break apart, then a booster seat or Bumbo type seat would work just as well. Since you probably won’t be backpacking with your little one (although it is possible!), weight and space probably aren’t an issue. Just think – if an ounce of extra gear takes an ounce of extra weight off your mind, it is worth it! You can always slim it down on your next trip.
One piece of clothing that I consider essential to Baby Squatch’s camping kit is a pair of adjustable Velcro sandals. These things fit so many bills. They are light and easily packable (both in the car and in our hiking pack). They are perfect for a stream adventure, and my favorite part – they are great to put on over a pair of footed fleece PJs during a crisp morning breakfast or hike. This allows him to walk on rough or dew covered ground, all without an unpleasant and cold outfit change.
Your first aid kit will need some expanding too. Be sure to include liquid diphenhydramine and ibuprofen along with dosing syringes for each and the knowledge of the correct dose. Write it down if you have to! If your kid is 6 months or older, you can give them ibuprofen at 10 mg/kg (that’s per kilogram, NOT pound!) and give it every 6 hours. If your little one is having a life threatening allergic reaction, the diphenhydramine dose is 1.25 mg/kg (again, that’s per kilogram, NOT pound!). Talk to your friendly local pharmacist or pediatrician if you are unsure. Although the ibuprofen is a “nice to have,” I consider diphenhydramine ESSENTIAL. When you first take them camping (and even later on down the road), your little one has likely not been exposed to every allergen the world has to throw at them. What if you find out they are deathly allergic to bees when you guys are on a trail in BFE? That diphenhydramine might be a literal lifesaver.
Last, but certainly most important – camping with kids IS NO EXCUSE to not follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace. As you may have noticed, I have already talked about two of the principles (Plan Ahead and Prepare, Be Considerate of Other Visitors). The two others that are most difficult when camping with kids are
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
To handle diaper waste, I use a 3 Ziploc system. This may seem excessive (and wasteful in its own right) to some, but it is the best solution I have found to handle the issue. I use 2, one gallon Ziploc bags along with some sandwich sized Ziplocs. A poopy diaper goes inside a sandwich sized bag, which then goes inside one of the gallon bags, which is then sealed inside the second gallon bag. A “just pee” diaper doesn’t get the sandwich bag treatment, but goes inside the gallon bags the same as the poop filled one. If you make sure you keep squeezing the air out of all the bags, you can contain a few days worth of dirty diapers this way. JUST LIKE YOU WOULD NEVER FLUSH A DIAPER DOWN YOUR TOILET AT HOME, YOU SHOULD NEVER PUT A DIAPER DOWN AN OUTHOUSE TOILET!
Leaving what you find can be very difficult with a little one. To learn about the world around them, children must pick things up to examine them more closely. That is fine – until it involves them wanting to keep a rock they just found or to pick a pretty flower by the side of the trail. If your little one is a rock fiend, take them somewhere that allows rock or fossil hunting in designated areas. Then, when you take them somewhere else, you can just bring some of your own rocks or remind them of the great cache they have back at home. I don’t combat the desire to pick flowers. Instead, I research the invasive plant species that have taken root in the area we are going to and allow Baby Squatch to help himself to those instead. Most (all) parks encourage you to remove these invasive species as you find them, so this is a big win-win.
Happy Camping – Sasquatch Dad