My husband and I were in the prime of our hiking/camping/backpacking infatuation just prior to becoming parents. (We were two steps from dropping everything and becoming thru-hikers, or so we like to remember it.)
When we learned in the fall of 2018 that our first child would be born on the cusp of camping season, we weren’t sure what that meant for our adventuring plans.
Conventional wisdom told us you just don’t go camping with newborns (much less tent camping). We certainly didn’t know of anyone who had done it. Fair enough — newborn life, infancy, and the postpartum period is challenging. Why choose to add to the complexity?
Even so, we hated the idea of giving up something we loved so much, simply because it would be harder with a baby along. And we knew we wanted the outdoors to be a foundational pillar in our family life.
So, we went for it.
For better or for worse, we took our son on his first (gentle) hike at two weeks old, and his first camping trip at five weeks.
It wasn’t easy.
We quickly found we had a lot to learn, adjust, and iron out. But trip after trip, year after year, it’s gotten a little less hard. We have learned (and are still learning) to keep expectations low and the spirit of adventure high.
Entering our fifth consecutive year of tent camping with our kids (now a four-year-old, a seven-month-old + two dogs), the learning curve ever broadens. Still, it remains one of our favorite activities to do together.
Now understandably, you may not want or be able to get out quite so soon after birth (no regrets, but we were probably a tad overzealous at the beginning). But if the camping bug has bitten you too, here is your voice of encouragement: camping with babies is doable! And camping with little kids can be one of the most rewarding adventures you take together.
Of course, let’s not sugarcoat anything.
Things can become unenjoyable very quickly. There will come that moment (usually during a downpour) when you seriously question packing up mid-trip, wondering how you ever thought this was worth it.
But if you stick with it — push just a little past the discomfort — you will understand why it is entirely worth it. Through their natural inclinations towards wonder, joy, and excitement, these young ages allow for a uniquely elevated and beautiful experience.
Here are some practical tips and mental shifts I’ve learned over the years to help keep camping enjoyable with babies and small children in tow.
Tips For Camping with Young Kids
Embrace the fact that it can (and will) get uncomfortable.
Being at peace with this from the start is key to having a successful trip. The camping atmosphere is a great place to foster resilience for kids and adults alike.
Keep your camping gear pre-packed.
One of the best things I ever did was create a camping box. Our 40-gallon tote keeps nearly all of our camping-specific gear in one spot. This has streamlined our camping preparation exponentially, saving me a lot of headaches.
Maximized efficiency is a parent’s best friend, and a well-thought out, organized camping box is a gateway to more relaxed camping trips.
Your box setup will be individual to your family. However, some things to consider:
- Spend time thinking through how it’s organized so it makes efficient sense (i.e. put the tent and sleeping bags on the top if that’s what you set up first).
- Reflect on what you truly need on every trip and only include those things. You can get by with much less than you think, and less stuff = less chaos. (Remember, things like clothes and food will be packed separately for each trip.)
- Clean things as you pack them up at the end of the trip so you don’t have to take apart the box again at home. Then keep one person in charge of the box so it gets repacked the same way every time.
- Keep a notepad at the top to record anything that needs attention, replacing, or should be added.
Prep food beforehand.
You’ll never go wrong with the classic hot dogs/chips/s’mores meal plan! However, if you enjoy a little variety, you may be inspired to branch out (after all, food is half the experience).
Campsite cooking can get challenging with little kids underfoot. A little bit of prep work at home can make a big difference. This might look like:
- Pre-chopping vegetables
- Pre-cooking meat that will be part of a bigger recipe (i.e. ground hamburger, sausage slices, etc.)
- Combining the spices for your recipe(s) beforehand
- Whisking up a scrambled egg or pancake mixture and packing it in a pourable bottle or jar.
While these may seem simple enough to just do at the campsite, camp cooking with hangry toddlers milling around gets stressful and can take longer than you’d think. So, streamline!
Another great trick is to make double portions of your regular home meals and freeze the extra for camping. You can do this any time throughout the year. Then, just before you leave, pull it from the freezer, let it thaw on the drive (or during the day at the campsite), and simply reheat it over your camp stove or fire for supper!
Little kids slow you down. This isn’t always ideal in the rush of modern life. But nature is the perfect companion to it.
Borrow a page from your toddler’s book. Take time to stop and notice every little thing. Even the most seemingly boring thing (like the 20th rock they hand you) can become fascinating the longer you sit and truly study it.
Really listen to your kids’ questions (they’ll have a ton). Take time to ponder the answers without whipping out your phone. Use their frequent stops to look up and breathe deeply.
Allow yourself to be awed, not entertained.
Allow space for nap time.
When camping, the hours tend to slip by very unnoticed. This is great many ways. But it can make it easy to overlook nap times. And we’ve all been on the receiving end of that…
Build in quiet time at the campsite. Be on the lookout for nap “cheats.” For example, if we are doing an outing away from camp that requires a little driving, we’ll often plan to start the drive right around normal nap time, so our kids just conk out in the car. If your child is one to easily fall asleep in a carrier, you could also plan a gentle hike around that time.
Mimic your normal nighttime routine.
It’s inevitable that camping is going to disrupt the predictability and routine most kids thrive on. Additionally, sleeping outdoors can either prove very soothing or be really difficult for a child (my oldest did great as an infant and struggled as a toddler). And sometimes all that fresh air and excitement backfires, making them overtired.
The times we’ve had the most nighttime sleep success come when we honor our sons’ normal evening rituals. We keep everything the same as much as possible — time, order of bedtime routine, reading books, etc. Also, make sure to pack any current bedtime comfort items.
Keep your expectations low.
Kids can be unpredictable. Mother Nature can be unpredictable. The two added together may give you an entirely different experience than you were anticipating.
That is ok.
The truth is, even on our worst outings we’ve come home with some really beautiful pockets of memories.
Being outdoors exploring, resting, and connecting as a family is enough. Keep that as the main goal. By lowering your expectations for everything else, the highs are that much higher, and the lows are a lot less dramatic and paralyzing.
Have a ritual just for you.
Whether this is a glass of the good stuff around the fire, sneaking out of the tent for some alone time while you star-gaze, or brewing the “fancy” coffee in the morning (my personal fav), have a secret-extra-special-just-for-you camping thing.
Remember: It takes practice.
Don’t let a bad trip discourage you. Seasoned camper or not, camping with kids takes practice. Start small and simple. The more you do it, the more comfortable everyone and everything becomes.
There is no environment more boundlessly enriching for all ages simultaneously than the outdoors. With a little bit of forethought, flexibility, and deep breaths, camping with kids of any age can really be a beautiful return-on-investment for your whole family.