I never went tent camping until I began dating my now husband. It just wasn’t something my family did when I was growing up. But, in the early years of our relationship and our marriage, my husband and I enjoyed vacationing at campgrounds in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. Tent camping became something both of us wanted to continue doing every year.
None of our experiences during these ‘early years,’ however, prepared us for bringing our kids camping.
After our son was born in 2011, we honestly avoided camping for over three years. During his baby and toddler years, he was a great sleeper compared to many other young children. That is, when he was at home in his own space. Our biggest fear was that he wouldn’t sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag inside the tent. We also worried that he would be noisy late into the night, keeping the ‘neighbors’ awake. The last thing I wanted was campground management to kick us out if they received too many complaints about our son’s overnight meltdowns and shenanigans.
We did, eventually, work through our fears. We came up with ways to prepare our children for camping and ways to keep them busy so that our trips as successful as possible.
My husband and I are by no means ‘experts’ on taking our kids camping. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers are going to have their moments no matter how well you prepare them, and they may not be keen on every activity you suggest to keep them occupied. However, I want to share some ideas that have worked for us. I feel these ideas have allowed us to enjoyably tent camp with our young kids and create positive memories for them.
Do a ‘Test Run’
We actually did this by accident. My husband’s family has a friend who lives on the Cape with a cottage in her yard where we stay. Upon arrival, we realized that having both kids in the cottage wasn’t going to be ideal because there are no actual bedrooms in the cottage. This meant if the baby was up and crying, everyone else would be woken up as well. We decided to try to pitch a tent outside of the cottage and have my husband sleep there with our son. Meanwhile, I set up the portable crib on the ground floor of the cottage for our daughter next to the futon where I would sleep. There were no other ‘tenting neighbors’ so we had little to worry about in terms of complaints from others trying to sleep.
These sleeping arrangements lasted for 4 nights and our son had few issues. It was a perfect opportunity to introduce him to sleeping in a tent. I definitely recommend doing a ‘test run’ like this. You could do this in your own yard, in Grandma’s front yard, or anywhere where you feel your and your child’s stress will be minimal.
Reserve a Spot at a ‘Family’ Campground
This may seem really obvious. However, there are definitely campgrounds that are more geared towards families. Sometimes state park campgrounds are family-friendly and sometimes they are not. Many campgrounds have the words, ‘family campground’ within their title. No matter what, you should sit down with your trusty internet browser and do some research.
Check out locations of campgrounds and read the reviews before you select one to take your kids camping.
Find one that seems to fit your family. See if there are any off campground attractions nearby that you’d love to see while you’re in town, or that could provide indoor entertainment on a rainy day. When we reserved a site for our first family camping trip, my husband made a list of campgrounds he would prefer. After doing my online research, I was concerned that many of them were not really family-friendly. I understood his desire to be in a quiet place vacationing. At the same time, I didn’t see many of them as places our children would be content.
After searching the same geographic areas for more campgrounds, I presented some new options to my husband. I picked campgrounds that had playgrounds, swimming pools, and beaches. Ones that were close to tourist attractions and miniature golf courses. I knew the camping sites may be closer together than my husband originally had in mind, but I really wanted to give our children a good experience camping.
We ended up going to a campground I picked out. We had such a good time there as a family, we returned the following year. My husband and I both agreed that we had made an excellent decision and we plan on returning to that particular campground for years to come.
Have Your Child Sleep on Something Familiar
I know a lot of people tend to camp with air mattresses. That’s awesome if you know your child sleeps on them when you spend the night with family. My kids, however, haven’t had very much exposure to air mattresses. I have a good guess as to what my kids would do on an air mattress. They’d probably jump on it, roll off of it, jump on it again, and repeat. All. Night. Long. Mostly because it would be a novelty for them.
Instead, the last couple of years, we used the portable crib mattress because that’s what they were used to sleeping on when we were away. Last year, we gave in and bought a big tent that fit the portable crib for our youngest (with plenty of room left for the rest of us). I know that seems really silly. But I honestly think we all slept more having our daughter in the portable crib than we would have without it.
Buy a Special Flashlight or Battery Powered Night Light
Both of my kids have a battery powered animal night light. They reflect stars on the ceiling of whatever room or tent they happen to be in, so we do tend to bring them camping with us now. Our five year-old also enjoys having a flashlight next to him overnight, even after we make him turn it off. This gives him the comfort of knowing he can turn a light on if he wakes up and gets nervous or can’t find his blanket, drink of water, or other night light.
Reserve a Lean-To Site
This is probably not as crucial as my aforementioned tips. However, the last couple of years we have gone camping with a group of our friends and we had lean-to sites on both trips.
Lean-tos are useful in many ways when you have young children. If you have a child in diapers, they provide a terrific alternate location for changings (assuming you carry a portable changing mat). After all, changing a diaper in a tent can be challenging. Using a lean-to, you don’t feel the need to take your shoes off before entering, you don’t stand up into its ceiling, and you can easily find all the items you need to finish those changes quickly.
Lean-tos are also ideal if you are camping in rainy weather. On our group camping trips, during periods of rain, our children have eaten under the protection of a lean-to and used it as a play area. There was even a time or two where our group of kids sat and listened to books being read to them in the lean-to.
Have a Separate Compact Tent
We usually do this when we don’t have a lean-to, but sometimes even when we do. My husband likes to hike and owns a two person tent for his own excursions. We started bringing it on family camping trips and always set it up across from our sleeping tent. This compact tent becomes the home of toys, books, and coloring supplies for the duration of our trip. We send our children to the tent for some quiet play time when we think they need to wind down or when we need them to occupy themselves. This also aids us in accomplishing important tasks, such as cooking dinner. The bonus here is that they are out of the sun and away from the bugs while they’re in there. This has definitely made taking our kids camping more manageable.
Camp with Friends
Our third annual camping weekend with friends is scheduled for August this year. My children are always super excited to take this trip. In their minds, there is only one thing more thrilling than hunkering down in a tent with a flashlight; hopping out of a tent at some ungodly hour of the morning to play with their very best friends outside!
I’ll admit, it gets a little insane sometimes with 6 or 7 kids (literally) running between our campsites. Often, my ‘teacher skills’ kick in. I feel like I’m constantly counting heads to make sure we didn’t lose any kids.
I wouldn’t trade this yearly experience for anything, though! Having familiar faces in the less familiar setting makes my children feel more comfortable. Not to mention, having friends there to play with also distracts them from some of the less pleasant parts of camping, such as bugs. (My son doesn’t really care for bugs and my daughter seems absolutely terrified of any bug lately). There is generally less complaining out of my children when we are with friends than when we are without.
Overall, by using these strategies, we have created many positive tent camping experiences for our children so far. They actually become excited when I tell them we’ve booked a camping weekend. As parents, we don’t tend to dread taking our kids camping anymore, either. It is so exciting to me that we can vacation affordably this way without major stress.
Do you bring your young children tent camping? What other helpful tips would you add to this list?