Some of my best memories growing up are camping with my dad. So, it was only logical that I would also take my kids camping once I became a parent. Yet, even as an experienced camper, that first camping trip with my daughter was a bit intimidating. I definitely made some mistakes (like forgetting a safety pin in the first aid kit on the trip where my 3-year old fell into a thorn bush!) but, overall, the camping trips have been great experiences.
I now have a 10 year old and 2 year old. I’ve taken them both on multiple camping trips. Based on my experience, here is some advice on how to go camping with kids and have an enjoyable, safe time.
Decide What Type of Experience You Want to Have
Camping means something different to everyone. There’s wild camping on public land, car camping, organized family camping events, glamping… I’ve even rented a rustic cabin and pitched a tent in the yard: it let us camp but still have a working bathroom and kitchen.
Once you know what type of camping experience you want with your kids, you’ll be better able to plan the trip. No matter your style of camping, it is going to have many benefits for your family.
Choose the Right Campground
Assuming that you will be staying at a campground (as opposed to wild camping), choose a campground that is kid-friendly. More specifically, kid-friendly for your child’s age.
For example, you’ll want to avoid campgrounds with safety hazards like water features if you’ve got very little kids. If you have older kids who aren’t so happy about hanging out with mom and dad anymore, choose a campground with a rec room where they can meet other kids.
Read more about how to choose a campground.
Get Your Kids Excited for the Camping Trip
Not all kids handle new experiences well. To help mentally prepare your kids for the camping trip, do some things to expose them to camping and get them excited.
- Pitch the tent in your yard. Let them play there or even do a “practice run” sleeping in the tent.
- Let kids pick out their own snacks. My dad did this with me. I loved going to the bulk bins at the local supermarket and getting to pick out all the candy that would go in my very own trail mix bag.
- Watch TV shows where the characters go camping. There are episodes of Curious George and Peppa Pig where they go camping. For very little kids, Cocomelon has a few camping songs. I’m sure there are a zillion more too (let us know in the comments if you have any to recommend!).
- Get older kids involved in planning. They will be more excited if you let them help with the itinerary and choosing activities.
Be Prepared for the Weather
You can go camping with kids in all weather. The key is being prepared for that weather. Otherwise, an unusually-cold night or unexpected thunderstorm can completely ruin your trip.
A lot of people don’t realize how quickly the weather can change when camping, especially if you are at a high elevation. It’s important to do your research – which includes knowing the weather possibilities of where are going and learning some basic camping skills.
- How Cold is Too Cold for Tent Camping?
- What to Do if it Rains while Camping?
- How to Pitch a Tent in the Rain
- Tips for Sleeping Warmer in Your Sleeping Bag
Choose the Right Tent (or Tents)
Depending on the age of your kids and your style of camping, there are lots of tent options. Since this is your home while camping, the decision can make a big impact on your family camping trip.
- How many tents do you need? Will everyone cram into one tent? Will kids sleep in one tent and adults in another? When my second child was still a baby, I slept with her in one tent and my husband slept with our older daughter in another tent. That way they didn’t wake up during nighttime feedings.
- Tent size: Big tents are roomier but also harder to pitch.
- Type of tent: Some types of tents have multiple rooms, more headroom, better storage, and are easier to pitch. See the types of tents and their pros/cons here.
Know What Camping Gear is Essential
There is some essential camping gear that you can’t go without: sleeping bags, sleeping pads, rain jackets, headlamps… But there is also some “optional” camping gear for kids that might really improve your trip.
For example: I can cook meals on the ground. But, when you’ve got little kids running around camp, it is a lot less nerve-wracking if you can put the camp stove on a table. A portable camping high chair for babies is also optional, but it sure makes feeding time easier.
On the flip side, bringing too much gear can ruin your trip too. You end up spending too much time organizing and keeping track of gear instead of actually enjoying nature. For example, my kids definitely don’t need things like S’more skewers when I can just stick marshmallows on sticks. Nor do we need glow sticks, a hatchet, or even a cutting board since all our meals are simple. That’s just my family though. Over time, you’ll figure out what is essential versus dead weight for your family.
Dressing Your Kids for Camping
You probably know that your kids need to wear clothing in layers when camping. These layers are:
- Base layer: This is a snug-fitting layer worn directly against the skin. It serves to wick moisture away from the body so you don’t get sweaty and wet. Wool and synthetics are good base layer materials.
- Mid layer (insulation): This layer is what keeps you warm. Fleece is a good choice.
- Shell: The shell layer protects from wind and rain. A soft-shell jacket is good in mild weather because it is breathable but still water-resistant. In rainy seasons, you’ll want a proper rain jacket and maybe rain pants too.
Avoid cotton clothing when camping because it gets wet easily and takes forever to dry. Wetness = cold = miserable experience.
But You Don’t Have to Buy Clothes Just for Camping
The problem is that camping clothes for kids can be expensive. And your kids might not be thrilled about wearing it. Somehow my daughters are both fashionistas and complain about wearing “ugly” or “dorky” rain pants, jackets, etc. I’m definitely not going to shell out a fortune for camping clothes that they might only wear a few times before outgrowing it.
So, yes, my kids sometimes wear their everyday cotton clothes while camping. This just means I bring more backups in case anything gets wet. And, I am always on the lookout for cheap kids camping clothes in secondhand stores! You can sometimes find good deals on kids camping clothes at REI’s Online Outlet too.
Keeping Kids Safe while Camping
Camping with kids is safe – but only if you understand the risks, are prepared, and set rules for your kids before you go.
For example, when my daughter was 3, she loved playing with rocks and making towers out of them. The problem is that snakes often hide under rocks (there are venomous ones where we live). So, I had to explain to her that, while camping, we don’t pick up big rocks.
There are also a lot of other risks which you might not be aware of while camping. Like how people die every year from “widowmaker trees” –tree branches which fall on the tent. This is easy to avoid simply by checking for dead or damaged branches before pitching your tent.
Please stay safe! Read:
- 10 Ways People Die when Camping
- How to Keep Kids from Getting Lost in the Backcountry
- Camping in a Thunderstorm Safety
Plan for Small Emergencies Too
In addition to the major safety issues when camping, also plan for the small emergencies. For example, you’ll want a first aid kit in case anyone gets injured or sick. You might need to bring an extra sleeping bag in case your child has an accident at night.
Having an “exit plan” is always smart too – like knowing of a nearby hotel where you can go in case everything goes to hell and it’s not worth continuing with the camping trip.
Keep Meals Simple
Cooking over the campfire might seem like a fun activity, but it actually requires a lot of time and work (not to mention your dinner plans can easily be ruined by a bit of rain). Even things like a salad can be annoying to make: you need to rinse the veggies, bring along a cutting board, make sure salad dressing doesn’t spill all over…
To make life easier, I try to only bring meals which:
- I know my kids actually like (tested at home first!)
- Only use one pot
- Do not have many/any ingredients which need to be chopped up
For example, my kids love to eat “camping noodles” (ramen) which I spruce up by adding some dehydrated veggies and tofu to the pot. Instant mashed potatoes with slices of hot dogs added is another favorite.
Need meal ideas? Read:
- 18 Camping Meal Ideas which Are Easy, Kid-Friendly and Mostly Healthy
- Kid-Friendly Camping Breakfast Ideas
Guess what? I wrote a book on DIY dehydrator meals for camping and backpacking!
Leave No Trace
The philosophy of Leave No Trace involves more than just packing out your trash. It also means things like not picking or trampling plants, only making fires in existing rings, and digging a proper cathole when going to the bathroom in the woods.
Speaking from experience, Leave No Trace is a lot harder when you’ve got kids! Like when my then 4-year-old daughter told me she had to poo while on a hike. There was not enough time to dig a cathole beforehand (leaving me with the complicated task of burying it after the fact).
Simply talking to your children about Leave No Trace can make some aspects easier. Like explaining why we don’t pick flowers before your camping trip instead of waiting for them to return to camp with a bouquet of endangered plants. It also helps to brush up your own knowledge, so visit the Leave No Trace website for advice.
Camping Activities for Kids
A lot of campgrounds have activities for kids like lakes for swimming, horseback riding, mountain biking and canoeing. Some of these activities are worth it, especially if you don’t get an opportunity to do them in your everyday life.
But you probably don’t need to plan too many activities when camping with your kids.
Kids are remarkably good at coming up with ways to entertain themselves. Like how my daughter entertained herself for hours by poking muddy puddles, catching fireflies and tadpoles, or building forts from sticks. None of these activities were planned but still incredibly fun.
Still not sure how to entertain your kids? Read:
Special Considerations By Age
Want to go camping with really little kids or even a baby? These posts go into detail about some of the special gear you might need and other advice.
Do you go camping with your kids? Let us know your advice in the comments below.