If you have a family and love nature, then the thought of taking a weekend camping trip has probably crossed your mind, but you’re not alone if you don’t know where to start! To help you out, I’ve written this post to give you some tips for camping with kids (whether they are babies, toddlers, or teens), as well as to give you some great camping ideas for how to have fun and be safe.
While you might have your mind set on driving cross-country to see Yellowstone with your family, if this is your first camping trip, I would recommend staying local.
Camping near to your home gives you the advantage of being familiar with the area. Since it will feel like you are taking your home with you, being close to familiar conveniences will add a level of comfort to your trip, especially if you forget something (like the extra diapers…).
You might even consider doing your first trip in your backyard. Your kids will love this, and it will help them adjust to the idea of sleeping outside. If it rains or gets too cold, it would be easy to move back indoors for the night, and you eliminate the chore of packing and moving all your gear.
I would also suggest that you choose a campsite with adjacent parking. Remember: whatever you pack, you will have to carry to the campsite, and it may be hard to watch them and take several trips from the car to the tent and back.
Pro Tip: Park close to your campsite!
Your ability to stay organized could become the limiting factor on your trip, so it’s worth taking a little extra time to put your supplies and gear in order.
I have found that clear, plastic storage bins work the best for keeping items organized. They are large enough that you can keep things like sleeping bags and blankets separate from other things, such as dirty shoes and wet pants. If you don’t have access to bins, try laundry baskets instead.
You can flip bins and baskets over and use them as small tables. Or, you might use one as a makeshift bathtub for small children, or a wash tub for muddy clothes.
For smaller items, such as playing cards, cell phones, matches, or toiletries, use gallon-sized freezer bags. Freezer bags will also help to keep things dry.
Lights at Night
Your children will sometimes find camping to be a little scary at night, and of course, you want to make sure everyone stays safe after the sun goes down. You should invest in a couple of extra flashlights or lanterns at the very least, but you might also like to have a headlamp or two.
Children love to have their own headlamps for exploring around the campsite, but they are great tools for adults as well. They become especially useful when cleaning up food items or making beds inside the tent. And if you have an infant or toddler in diapers, try changing a diaper at night with one hand. A headlamp is a worthwhile expense!
Pro Tip: Make sure you take extra batteries!
The Pragmatic Parent had the great idea of putting glow sticks in water bottles for use as night lights. Kids usually have a lot of fun with glow sticks anyway, and the glowing bottles could also be used for a game of campfire bowling.
One of the most cherished parts of camping is the campfire, so it is important that you plan ahead and bring what you need for starting and maintaining a successful fire.
Campfires take practice. Depending on the conditions, you will want to take some essential items for lighting the fire:
- Matches. Lighters can be used as well, but sometimes it’s not possible to hold a lighter close to the kindling, and matches will be more practical. Waterproof matches are also available, or you could use a fero rod.
- Old newspaper. Both dry and cheap, newspaper is excellent for fire-starting. It works best when ripped into small pieces.
- Used Car Oil or Kerosene. A word to the wise: do not use gasoline. Gas is extremely flammable and can be dangerous to start a fire with. Kerosene is safer, but I’d recommend used oil since it burns slower. (For a more environmentally friendly solution, keep reading.)
- Dry Kindling. Unless you are the first camper of the season, dry kindling may be hard to find. Keep a bucket or box in your garage, and as you pick up sticks in your yard, save them for the next time you go camping.
- Firewood. State parks will sometimes sell firewood, or you can find bundles of wood at gas stations or garden centers such as Lowe’s or Walmart. Most campgrounds have rules against cutting up fallen trees, so you shouldn’t plan on scavenging for wood to burn.
- Fire starters. Take some fire starters from home. These are super easy to make, and you use three items that you would normally throw away: toilet paper roll, lint, and candle wax (or wax paper).
Temperatures can change quickly, and the weather can go from sun to rain to snow in a couple of hours. Because of this, make sure you are dressing your children in layers. A good rule of thumb is three:
- Base layer – keeps moisture away from the skin and provides an inner layer of warmth
- Middle layer – consists of warm, insulating layers such as fleece or wool
- Outer layer – provides an outer shell of protection from rain, wind, snow, and sun
Also, keep an eye on the weather before you go, checking many sources so you get the best forecast.
If their clothes get wet during the day, you might want to have a portable clothes rack with you as well, or else a long piece of clothesline for hanging the clothes out to dry.
Pro Tip: Be sure to bring extras of each type of clothing!
And you may find yourself going with your child to the potty at night. In this situation, I recommend having a pair of flip-flops or Crocs. Shoes are harder to put on in the dark, and there’s a chance they will get wet from walking through dewy grass. Flip-flops are quick to slip on, and you can wear them in the campground showers, too.
It goes without saying that you want your time in nature to be both enjoyable and safe. In case an accident does happen, even if it is a minor cut or scrape, you will want to have a First Aid Kit with you.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on medical preparedness, but I would suggest having a few specific items in your medical kit:
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Band aids
- Medical Tape
- Kid-safe medication
- Antiseptic wipes
For a complete list of items to keep in your kit, the American Red Cross has compiled this checklist for you. Check the contents of your kit regularly, replenish anything you use, and make sure none of the medications have expired.
Ticks are an ever-present threat. While they are difficult to avoid, you can take steps to help prevent tick bites and the illnesses they transmit. You should check your kids throughout the day for any ticks they might have picked up.
Key areas to look for ticks are the scalp, neck, waist, and ankles. I recommend doing a full-body check before bedtime and another before breakfast. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created an excellent guide on ticks, the diseases they carry, how to avoid tick bites, and the regions where ticks are most common.
You should accept up front that your children will get dirty, if not very dirty, while on a camping trip. Even so, there are ways that you can maintain some cleanliness during your adventure in the woods.
The tent can fill with leaves and dirt if you’re not careful. Bringing a throw rug for the entrance to your tent will help prevent the influx of mud, leaves, and twigs. It will also provide a place to store shoes when not in use.
You could bring a mini dustpan and brush for the tent floor. Even if you don’t use it throughout the trip, cleaning the tent before you pack it up will help it to last from one trip to the next and save you the trouble of cleaning it when you get home.
And anti-bacterial wet wipes are a lifesaver when roughin’ it at camp. They’re great for a quick hand wash, for wiping grime off your face after a long day outdoors, and for removing sticky marshmallows and chocolate after making S’mores.
Finally, when preparing to go camping with your kids, it’s a good idea to take some surprise goodies with you.
Food-related surprises are always a hit, especially when it involves a fun twist on a classic meal. For example, you could make tacos in a bag (using Doritos), or if you have a pie iron, you could make campfire peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And don’t forget the S’mores!
You might also consider bringing a new camping tool as a surprise, such as a compass, fishing pole, or pocket knife (if your child is old enough).
And, depending on your location, you could try your skill with a duck or turkey call. This may create an opportunity for your children to interact with some wildlife, or at the very least, provide some good laughs! In all cases, respect the animals in their environments, never get too close, and never corner them.
Camping comes with a unique set of challenges when it comes to sleep, and you want to create an environment that promotes rest and rejuvenation. Try to keep your children’s sleep routine the same as when they are home, including nap time.
Sleeping Bags & Pads
Once the sun goes down, the temperature can drop radically depending on the time of year and your location, so you should pay close attention to the forecasted weather. Choose sleeping bags that are appropriate to the climate and have an extra blanket or two available.
Sleeping on the ground will reveal muscles you didn’t know you had. While your kids will sleep just fine without extra padding, you may consider taking a camping cushion for yourself.
Rain can sometimes spoil your night of rest, even if the tent is waterproof. Tent placement is key in that you should avoid a spot where water will run. Placing a tarp under the tent can help to prevent this yet is not a guaranteed solution.
Tent placement is important for another reason. During the day, the tent can become quite hot, and if you have young children, the heat might prevent them from napping. Also, the tent may be too hot when you go to sleep or in the morning when the sun hits it.
Going to Sleep
Children may find it hard to fall asleep because of the new environment. The forest possesses a different kind of quiet than that of the bedroom, and you will often hear animals calling to each other or moving across the forest floor.
If they are afraid of the dark, give them a flashlight to sleep with. If they are afraid of the noises they hear, explain that things sound much closer and larger than they do during the day. (It is probably nothing more than a rodent scurrying through the leaves looking for food.)
A great trick to help your kiddos go to sleep is to read them a story. Britney Robinson has compiled a list of 8 books that would be perfect to read your kids by flashlight once they are snuggled up and warm inside the tent.
One of the greatest benefits of taking your children camping is that it creates an opportunity for unstructured play.
Katie Hurley, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and parenting expert, writes that free play offers incredible benefits to childhood development. She explains that “unstructured play increases executive function skills such as organizing, staying focused, initiating tasks, self-regulation of emotions, and self-monitoring or the ability to keep track of what you’re doing.”
At the same time, camping helps kids learn responsibility when planning the trip, setting up camp, and maintaining a campsite.
Camping Activities for Kids
Here is a list of activities which, with a little help from you, will get your kids playing in ways they just can’t do at home:
Stargazing – Take a pair of binoculars or a small telescope and your children will be amazed by what they find in the night sky. Give them a star map to follow, see if they can locate the constellations, or give them the task of making their own constellations.
Scavenger hunts – This is a great activity for when you are preparing dinner. Create a list of items they need to find or identify. You can choose simple objects for younger kids or make it harder for older ones. (An example for teens: Find the leaves of oak, beech, birch, hickory, walnut, and ash trees.)
Camping bingo – This activity is like the scavenger hunt, except that you would make bingo cards with plants or animals instead of numbers, and there would be a prize.
Painting rocks – If you are able to bring some water soluble paints with you, your children can paint designs on rocks they find around the campsite or in the woods. And these rocks will make great souvenirs afterward, but be careful: some parks prohibit the removal of rocks and plants.
Rock paint – If you are camping near a lake or a stream, show your kids how to make rock paint, and tell them to paint themselves. (If you’ve never tried this: Find a colorful rock and a larger, flat rock. Add a little water to the flat rock. Then, take the colorful rock and grind it in the water on the flat rock. The result should be a paint-like paste that washes off in water.)
Map Making – If your children are older, give them some paper and something to write with. Let them explore, and encourage them to make a map of the trails they follow. Help them turn it into a story by adding buried treasure, villains, and monsters.
Climb trees – If there are safe trees to climb, let them go for it!
Skits – Nothing makes the hours spent around a campfire more memorable than stories that you and the kids can act out as you tell them. Take turns acting out skits, or have one person narrate while another performs.
Songs – Singing camping songs is another great way to spend the evening around the campfire, and there are tons of fun songs out there to learn.
Play in the sand – If you are camping by a lake with a beach, bring some sand toys.
Watch wildlife – If you already brought the binoculars for stargazing, use them during the day for watching birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and anything else that crosses your path.
Look at bugs – Although you might have to buy one in advance, take a bug examination kit with you and encourage your children to catch and study what insects they find.
Build a lean-to – The woods offer plenty of raw material to build with, and lean-tos can be as complex or as simple as your child’s imagination.
One of the hardest adjustments for parents to make is how to pack food when you don’t have a refrigerator. Unless you have easy access to bagged ice and a cooler, you may have to switch your go-to meals and snacks to ones that don’t require refrigeration.
If you need to keep things cold, you can save space by freezing your extra water jugs and using them in the cooler. Not only do they take a long time to melt, but as they melt, you have cold, refreshing drinking water.
With increased physical activity, your children will likely become very hungry throughout the day, so it is important to take lots of snacks.
Nuts, granola bars, and jerky are easy to find and will usually come in sealed packages. However, you may want more variety and better nourishment for your kids. If you will be preparing foods at home, make sure you store them in sealed containers with locking lids.
Depending on where you go hiking and the time of year, ants may become a nuisance, so sealed containers are a must. But, ants are not the only wildlife you should think about. Bears are always a concern, as well as raccoons (especially during the middle of the night…speaking from experience…). With this in mind, make certain you store your food at night or when you are away from camp, either in a bear bag hung in a tree, or locked in your vehicle.
While it can be a lot of work, camping gives you the opportunity to create meals that are unique and fun, and if you find a recipe your family loves, it can turn into a camping tradition.
If you need some ideas for what to make, here is a list of 30 recipes from The Pragmatic Parent.
The First Night
Your kids’ first camping trip will produce some of their most lasting memories, and if you want to continue to take them camping, you will want to make the experience as smooth and comfortable as possible. For this reason, it is in everyone’s best interest to do some extra planning for the first night at camp.
Get there early. Give yourself enough time to set up in the daylight. You will feel less stressed about getting the tent set up, starting the campfire, and learning your surroundings. Your children will have the chance to look around and explore, and this will help them to feel more secure during the nighttime.
Set boundaries. There are real dangers in the wilderness, so when you arrive at the campsite, make sure your children have a clear understanding of where they are allowed to go by themselves and what they should do if they get lost. Show them where the dangerous areas are, such as a nearby river or cliff. And, emphasize that wild animals should never be approached or touched, no matter how calm or cute they look.
Plan a simple meal. Choose something that you can prepare ahead of time, store in a container, and dump in a pan once you get the fire going. One of my favorite first night meals is sliced sausage with diced bell peppers, onions, and potatoes – throw the mixture in a mason jar and – voila! Cook it while you set up the tent.
Tips for Camping with Toddlers
Young children will often love the novelty of sleeping and eating outside for a few days, but the change in routine can be hard on them, too. I recommend bringing either a favorite toy or blanket – something that will give them a sense of security and help them feel comfortable in the strange environment.
Additionally, you might consider bringing an extra tent if you will have space at the campsite. You can use it as a designated play area, or even for naps during the day.
Also, you may find that a lightweight travel crib, such as the Lotus Backpack Travel Crib, will be helpful to keep your young ones out of the dirt and away from bugs and bees.
It might also be worthwhile to invest in a portable high chair. Not all campsites have areas where you can sit and eat, and having a self-contained seat and tray for your baby while camping is one of those essential #parentinghacks!
The Baby Delight Go With Me Chair has received good reviews on Amazon, and while I have not used it myself, I do like the features it comes with.
Tips for Camping with Teens
Having an extra tent may also be a great trick if you are camping with teenagers. Letting your teens have their own space separate from your own will allow them to feel more independent as well as give them some extra privacy. It may also give them the chance to bring a friend and establish some life-long memories.
Remember that experiences in the wilderness teach self-reliance and innovation. Be willing to give your teens some responsibility, and give them the freedom to create solutions to whatever challenges they encounter.
Even if you are new to camping, your son or daughter can learn a lot simply by watching you learn and experiment. Nature can be very humbling at times, and you may find many opportunities to mentor.
Pro Tip: Embrace the learning process, and lead by example.
The time you spend in the wilderness should be a time of rest and rejuvenation, and if you leave the campsite with anything less, I recommend that you take time to reflect on the trip and the ways you could improve it next time.
Encourage your kids to keep a journal specific to their camping trips. It can be a general account of their experience, or a record of insects they discover, or even a journal of drawings describing the trip. Whatever they choose, journaling will boost their memory, sharpen their skills of expression, and create a meaningful record of their trips.
And don’t be too hard on yourself! One of the great joys of camping is that it is an adventure, and if you are able to take the ups and downs in stride, both you and your family will come away feeling refreshed.
Happy Camping!Show Sources