You know how they say when you travel with kids, you’re taking a TRIP, not a VACATION?
I’ve been playing this mom game for 4.5 years, and here’s what I’ve learned – they’re right. Kids can complicate travel. It’s more expensive; more flights to book, more people in a hotel room, more activities to pay for, and more food to buy. It can be less relaxing (think hypervigilance at a pool all day as opposed to lounging with a book). Not to mention the packing. Ugh, the packing!
But that doesn’t mean that taking a trip with your kids can’t be enjoyable. It just might be different than vacations from your pre-kid life, and that is OK (I say to myself repeatedly as I pack suitcases and curse).
That’s why I want to share some of my hacks for my personal favorite getaway with young kids; the good old family camping trip. Camping with young children? Really?
Yes, really. There are so many reasons why camping is the trip of choice for my family of 4. We started going consistently when we had a 2.5-year-old and 6-month-old, so yes, camping with young children can be done! It’s cheap. It’s relaxing(ish). You’ll still have to pack (sorry). And even if you aren’t a seasoned camper, (I’m not either!) there is a type of camping out there for every comfort level and tons of opportunities to create shared family fun.
First – Choose Your Camping “Level”
Repeat after me. Bigger is not necessarily better.
If you have grand ideas about tenting in Yellowstone with toddlers, these tips won’t help you. That’s because either 1) you are already an expert OR 2) you’re setting your expectations too high.
My family’s camping level is less than impressive. We always go to the same campground. Unadventurous? We know what we like, and we know what works! We also don’t tent. Why? Well, we don’t really like to tent. We saved up for a small camper and it’s like a home away from home for the kids.
1 – Pick a Location
Something close to home is usually best. You will have less travel time, and you can always bail out if it isn’t working. Look for a place that has things young children might enjoy like a playground, open spaces to play, easy paths for walking, and swimming.
2 – Where Will You Stay?
Will you tent, use an RV, or stay in a cabin? What works best for you and your family? (Check out the “How to Keep Costs Down” section for more information on this.)
Do a Trial Run
1 – Nighttime
I already know what you’re thinking – will my kids actually sleep when we go camping?
Well, why don’t you try it at home first and find out?!
While it’s certainly not a guarantee, a trial run can do a lot to boost your confidence and help you work out some kinks before you go on an actual camping trip. A night in the tent in the backyard or a night in a friend’s camper can help you figure out sleeping arrangements, what supplies you will need, and whether or not this can really work!
2 – Daytime
The daytime trial run is just as important as the nighttime trial run, but we tend to get so caught up in the sleep aspect (hello, we are parents of young children) that we forget to consider it. Trust me, consider it!
If the place where you plan to camp is close to your home, plan a day trip to that location. If it isn’t so close by, try to find a local park where you can spend the day. Write down what went well and the supplies you might need for the big trip.
Keep Your Kids Safe
1 – Water
A camping trip often means time spent near or in water. Always practice water safety. Be vigilant.
2 – Campfires
Check out these campfire rules for kids. Also, consider whether your child is old enough and responsible enough to be around fire. My youngest child tests boundaries, is clumsy, doesn’t always listen the first time, and doesn’t have a high regard for his own safety. So when the kids are awake, we don’t have a campfire.
Well, how do you cook? We eat peanut butter and jelly or we cook when the kids go to bed.
“Don’t your kids feel like they’re missing out?”
Nope, they actually have no clue that this is a quintessential part of camping, so they’re good. It isn’t worth it to me to chance serious burns. For now, there’s no fire when my kids are present. Period.
3 – First Aid
If you don’t already have a first aid kit in your car, this is a good opportunity to put one together. Here are some suggestions for items that you can include in your kit.
4 – Know the Location of the Nearest Doctor or Hospital
It’s not what you want to think about, but what if there’s an emergency? What if your kid gets sick? Before you go, establish the location of the nearest doctor and/or hospital, just in case.
5 – Food
You will need to secure your food when you are camping. Here is why.
My parents took my brother and me camping when we were kids. That night we sat by the fire and roasted some marshmallows. It was getting late, and we all went to the bathhouse to brush our teeth before bed. The plan was to put the food in the car when we returned. We were gone maybe 5 minutes. When we got back, there was a skunk.
A marshmallow loving skunk.
My quick-thinking mother ushered us all into the truck, and we sat in that car for what seemed like hours until the satiated skunk finally left.
Want to avoid skunks? Or worse—a bear? Check out these tips for securing your food.
6 – Know Your Location
Upon arrival, help your child (if she is able) memorize your campsite number and some nearby landmarks. Establish a meetup point to use if you were to get separated.
1 – Bring Toys, Bikes, Scooters, Balls, Sand Toys, etc.
Yes, you will have a great time exploring nature, but it’s nice for your kids to have some items from home with them to make them feel comfortable too. While there are so many fun things to do when you camp, your kids might just want to chill and play, and that’s great!
2 – Have Your Kids Help Pack
This is a good exercise in responsibility. While you are the primary packer, ask your child what he or she thinks you should pack and have them help you gather supplies.
And then, when they go to bed, double check it all, because everyone knows that you can’t fully concentrate when your kid is awake.
3 – Plan to Get Dirty
You should see what my kids can do to a pair of white socks at a campground. It’s terrifying.
Pack clothes that are already stained, holey, or clothes that can afford to get damaged and dirty.
If you plan to swim in a lake, you may want to take older bathing suits or ones that are darker in color. Depending on the lake, lighter colored bathing suits may retain some of the color of the water and stain. I grew up swimming in a lake called Black Moshannon, where the water is actually black from the plants that grow there. My mom’s rule every summer was “no white bathing suits” because they would end up looking tan after the first swim of the season.
4 – Layers
Check the weather and plan for highs and lows. Remember that your child is likely to get dirty or wet, so you might want to pack more than one jacket or sweatshirt. Have options available for different temperatures.
5 – Flashlights
Take one for every person. Yes, you will need them, but the flashlight will likely be your kid’s favorite part of the whole experience.
Keep Costs Down
1 – Borrow Supplies
Camping with young kids seems like an inexpensive trip until you start to buy all of the gear you need, and then look out! If you don’t have the supplies that you need, try to borrow from family and friends first. And guess what? In my experience, people who love camping are some of the nicest, most generous people around. Many of them would love the opportunity to share their favorite pastime with others. Chances are a friend of a friend would be glad to lend you a tent and a lantern. The same thing goes for an RV or even a cabin that someone isn’t using for the weekend. Ask!
2 – Rent Supplies
Did you know you can rent camping supplies? If you are just trying this whole thing out for the first time and you aren’t ready to commit to the purchase of your own supplies, this might be a great option for you. Check out local sporting goods stores that offer this option.
3 – Take Your Own Food
You may be thinking, “well how else would we get food in the middle of the woods?” The thing is, a lot of campgrounds or lakesides have snack bars that are quite tempting, and the cost of those after swim ice cream cones can add up! Take your own supplies for inexpensive but tasty meals and treats.
And give your food supplies a double check before you leave home. Prices are definitely higher at the camp store, and you don’t want to have to fill in forgotten items.
Fun Camping Activities
1 – Keep a Loose Schedule
While it is good to have a few activities in mind, camping is the perfect opportunity to go with the flow and see where the day takes you. Having low expectations and following your kid’s lead can result in an enjoyable experience for everyone.
2 – Go for a Walk
Find a flat trail and go explore nature. Not only will it be good for your bodies, but it might also just wear out your kiddo enough that she will sleep tonight. Take a bucket and let them gather acorns, leaves, and sticks.
3 – Ranger Talks
Most parks and campgrounds feature educational talks and programs geared toward kids. They’re typically free and give your child the opportunity to learn about the environment in a hands-on way.
4 – Read
Is there anything better than reading outside in the sunshine? Take a midday book break and share this delicious treat with your children.
5 – Go for a Swim
Most campgrounds are usually near some type of water. A combination of sand and water can entertain my kids for hours.
Don’t forget to take sand toys!
6 – Geocaching
This activity probably works best as your children get a little bit older, but it still might be a fun option to check out. Geocaching is the modern version of a treasure hunt. You use a GPS receiver, a set of coordinates, and clues to find a cache of goodies. You can find more information on how to get started geocaching here.
7 – Board Games and Cards
Perfect for when you need something less active, board games and cards are a camping classic. Games for young kids can even be fun for adults. My family likes Candy Land, Don’t Break the Ice, and Cootie Bugs. Plus, playing games promotes problem-solving skills. Win, win!
Head Out to the Woods & Give it a Try!
Try some (or all!) of these hacks to keep your trip simple, safe, and fun for the whole family. With a little planning and preparation, you can reduce complications and focus on making new memories with your family.
So, what do you think? Are you ready to give it a try? Welcome to the great outdoors!