Last year, my baby was 4 months old and we took her camping multiple times. It went amazingly well and I even joked that she slept better in a tent than in her crib. Camping season has begun again and my girl is now a toddler. Camping with a toddler is an entirely different ballgame than camping with a young baby!
Instead of doing a classic how-to or tips article, I’m going to list all of the different issues/complications you need to think about before camping with toddler. Then I’ll talk about how I solved these issues so we could have great camping trips.
Issue #1: Toddler Sleeping Setup for Camping
The biggest concern you probably have about camping with a toddler is the sleep setup, particularly if it will be cold at night. You’ll need to consider the sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and maybe a camping bed.
Sleeping Bags for Toddlers
Unfortunately, no one really makes camping sleeping bags for toddlers. Only recently did this sleeping bag – the Morrison sleeping bag – become available. It is adjustable and fits children from 3-24 months. There are two versions. The first is synthetic and rated to 40F (Buy Here). The second version is a down bag and is rated to 20F (Buy Here). The bad news is that this is a new product, in high demand, and you may have to pre-order it.
If you need a toddler sleeping bag now, then I recommend this: Get a good children’s sleeping bag and tie the bottom. Tying the bottom means that there will be less empty space in the bag and it will stay warmer. It also means that you will be able to use the same sleeping bag as your child grows.
What about co-sleeping? As I write about in this post about sleeping bags for babies, co-sleeping is usually a BAD idea. Why? Well, you probably want to put your toddler to bed before you go to sleep. You’ll wake your child up when you get into the sleeping bag. And what if you want your toddler to fall asleep in front of the fire, all cozy in the sleeping bag? You can’t do this if you are co-sleeping.
Absolutely do not forget about a sleeping pad for your toddler! The ground sucks out a lot of heat. So, even if you have an incredibly warm sleeping bag, your toddler will still end up being cold without a good sleeping pad.
To save space, I’d recommend getting a half-size sleeping pad for your child. Therm-a-rest makes a good short sleeping pad called the Scout that has an R-value of 3.4. The “short” option is 47 inches long. This is what my older daughter uses and loves it. If you are on a budget, you can also take a cheap foam sleeping pad and fold it in half to get a higher R-value.
Camping Beds for Toddlers
I personally don’t use these. However, I get that they can be practical in some situations. For example, if you will be staying in a hotel for a few nights, the portable beds are great to have.
The portable camping beds with walls – like this one — also keep your toddler in place. This prevents a wriggly toddler from kicking you in the face while you sleep!
*If you use a camping cot, you will still need a sleeping pad to put in it. Otherwise your child will lose heat from below.
Sleep Solutions Recap:
- Make sure you have a good sleeping pad for your child. This one has an R-value of 3.4 (very warm)
- Either get this sleeping bag (the only cold-weather camping sleeping bag for babies/toddlers). Or tie the bottom of a child’s-sized sleeping bag.
- Consider getting a camping bed for wriggly toddlers.
Issue #2: Toddler will Get Dirty
I’m a firm believer that getting dirty is good for kids. It builds their immune systems and means that they are enjoying unhindered play. Don’t believe me? There’s lots of research to back this up.
That said, it’s not pleasant when your child is literally caked with mud. Or when you run out of clean clothes.
By far, the best thing I bought for my girl was her rain suit. Having a rain suit means that I can let her run freely anywhere without worrying that she will be covered with mud. She can plop her little butt down anywhere and I’m not left with an extra load of laundry. Likewise, when she decides to crawl like a doggy through grass, there aren’t any grass stains to worry about.
I would recommend a rain suit for any toddler, regardless of whether you are going camping or not. But you definitely want a rain suit if you are going camping. Trust me – your life will be much easier! Read my reviews of the best rain suits for toddlers here.
*I actually prefer separate rain pants and jacket (two-piece suit). This way my daughter can just wear the rain pants when it isn’t actually raining out.
You’ll also want to bring some rope with you to make a clothesline for hanging all your dirty/wet things. There are also a zillion other reasons to bring rope.
- Bring a mat or waterproof picnic blanket for your toddler to play on
- Get rain pants/rain suit for your toddler. I like these rain pants.
- Use a giant sleeved bib during meal times. This one is great.
- Lower your expectations about cleanliness!
- Bring a giant bucket for impromptu baths
- Bring zillions of baby wipes
- Only bring toys which are easy to clean.
Issue #3: Food for Camping with a Toddler
What to eat is probably the most stressful part of camping – whether you are with a toddler or not. I’ve gone on dozens of camping trips and it still stresses me out a bit! The reason it’s so damn stressful is that both my girls are picky eaters.
Oh, and my toddler is finicky as hell. One day she will love something. The next day she won’t even look at it.
How do I deal with this? For starters, I make sure to have LOADS of healthy snack foods. Then I don’t worry as much if they don’t touch much of their dinner.
As for cooking meals, I won’t cook anything which takes more than 5 minutes. How is that possible? Here’s my method:
- I cook a meal at home.
- I dehydrate that meal.
- At camp, all I have to do is add hot water to rehydrate it.
Not all meals can be dehydrated. For example, mushrooms don’t rehydrate well. They end up all gummy and weird. However, I can make badass sauces for pasta, soups, chili, and stews.
I wrote a book about how to dehydrate meals for backpacking (or camping). There are 50+ recipes in it. You can buy the ebook instantly for $9.99.
What if you don’t want to dehydrate meals? There are other options, like instant meals from the supermarket, packets of soup, and freeze-dried backpacking meals. These options generally aren’t healthy and/or cheap.
*Don’t try to do any fancy cooking while camping with a toddler. You will go insane if you try to make pancakes (and clean all those bowls and pans) or other meals from scratch. Keep it simple and you’ll enjoy the experience more.
- Bring tons of snacks.
- Choose simple meals that don’t require much preparation.
- For healthier meals, consider dehydrating your own meals. Read how in my ebook.
Issue #4: Rainy Days Camping
Sometimes it will rain on a camping trip. It does NOT have to ruin your trip – but that is contingent on you being prepared.
The last thing you want is to have your toddler cooped up in the tent while it rains. So, it is crucial that you have rain gear so your toddler can still go outside in the rain. You absolutely need rain boots and a rain suit. Ideally, you also get rain pants for yourself too (I’m assuming that you already have a rain jacket or poncho).
What about cooking and eating outdoors when it rains? One useful thing to bring is a tarp. You can set up the tarp to make a rain shelter over your cooking area.
- Get a rain suit for your toddler. See my top picks here.
- Consider rain pants for yourself too (plus a rain jacket obviously)
- Use a tarp to make a rain shelter.
- Don’t forget to bring rope to make a clothesline for drying clothes.
Issue #5: Feeding Your Toddler while Outdoors
My toddler is constantly moving. If we don’t put her in restraints (i.e. her high chair) at meal times, she would just run off. I’d be left chasing after her with a spoonful of food.
Since my family doesn’t have a car (yes, we actually go camping with a toddler without a car!), we can’t bring a lot of stuff. But we will bring her stroller. We put her in the stroller for meals. If we did have a car, I’d bring a portable high-chair. These also double as camping chairs for your kid, which makes them feel very grown-up. 🙂
We also make sure to put a GIANT bib on her when eating. It looks like a graduation gown it is so big. But it keeps her clothes clean so I don’t have to change her clothes a zillion times per day. *She wears these during meals at home too, not just while camping.
- Feed your toddler in his/her stroller.
- Or consider bringing a portable high-chair. See my recommendations here.
- Definitely bring giant bibs with sleeves that cover the ENTIRE clothes.
Issue #5: Campground Bathrooms
If your toddler is still in diapers, it will actually be easier to go camping. Just make sure to bring enough diapers and a changing pad. You’ll also want a zillion trash bags and hopefully you don’t have to walk too far to the campground trashcans.
What if your toddler is potty trained? Campground bathrooms are notoriously disgusting. You don’t want your toddler sitting on those nasty toilets. Plus, the bathrooms might be far from your campsite. Since toddlers only give you about 10 seconds of warning before they pee, it’s unlikely that you’ll reach the bathroom on time.
I’d recommend bringing a portable potty for your child. Yes, that does mean you’ll have to carry it to the bathrooms to dump (gross), but it’s better than dealing with a bunch of urine-soaked clothes.
- Bring a portable toilet for your toddler.
Issue #6: Wetting the Bed/Sleeping Bag
Another serious issue (that I learned about the hard way) is wetting the bed. Or, in this case, peeing the sleeping bag.
The first time I took my older daughter camping, she was 3 (she’s now 8). She was potty trained then and we rarely had issues about wetting the bed.
During the first week of the camping trip, everything was fine. Then we went to a different camp that was at a higher elevation and much colder. Even though I made her pee before bedtime each night, she still wet the sleeping bag each night there (I’m guessing it was because of the cold air).
She’d wake up around 5am all wet. I would peel off her wet PJs, throw them and the wet sleeping bag outside of the tent, and get her into some dry clothes. Luckily I am very small so she could crawl into my sleeping bag with me (though not a comfortable arrangement!).
In the morning, I washed the PJs and sleeping bag in the freezing cold stream next to camp. Luckily, it was super sunny so everything dried by bedtime. After that, I made sure to put a leak catcher in the sleeping bag when camping.
- Make sure your toddler pees before going to bed.
- Put a leak-catching pad (like this) inside the sleeping bag.
- Seriously consider some nighttime diapers, like pull-ups, for your toddler.
Issue #7: Crying/Annoying Other Campers/Night Waking
As much as you love your toddler, other people probably won’t. Especially when your toddler is having a tantrum or waking up in the middle of the night screaming.
Night waking can especially be a big problem. As this family talks about, their toddler loved camping during the day. During the night was another story. They had to put their toddler in the car and drive around until he fell asleep.
There’s not much you can do about this. Even the best-behaved toddlers can have bad days. However, there are things you can do to minimize the annoyance you cause other campers.
- Ask for a secluded campsite.
- Choose a campground that is family-friendly.
- Consider wild camping instead. There won’t be anyone nearby to bother.
Issue #8: Transporting Your Toddler/Hiking with a Toddler
If you are going camping, then you probably want to enjoy the nature. Well, nature isn’t exactly stroller-friendly.
You’ll need to get a good hiking child carrier for your trip. Ideally, you test this out before you leave. Otherwise you might be stuck with a carrier which isn’t very comfortable.
It’s also not a bad idea to get a leash for your toddler. I used to think that child leashes were terrible, tantamount to child abuse. But then I got remarried. My husband has a disability and can’t run after our daughter. He wouldn’t be able to watch her outdoors without a child leash. We use this one.
Even if you can physically run after your toddler, sometimes you want to be able to actually enjoy the view without having to keep an eye on your toddler every single second. A leash makes life easier and ensures that your toddler doesn’t get lost/hurt.
- Get a good child carrier. If your toddler is bigger/heavier, then choose a backpack carrier with an internal frame (like this one by Deuter)
- Consider a leash for your child. It will allow you to relax while your toddler runs ahead of you.
- Go easy. Don’t choose tough or long hikes.
Issue #9: Mentally Preparing Your Toddler for Camping
Some children just don’t handle new situations well (and there’s absolutely no shame if your toddler is one of them!). You can help your toddler out by doing a “test run” before your trip.
Set up the tent in your backyard and play in there. You can even do a backyard camping trip. If your toddler freaks out, you will only be a few steps away from home. Talk to your child about the upcoming trip during this time.
Doing a test run is also a good way to check all your equipment. Because you should ALWAYS test equipment before going camping. You don’t want to arrive at camp and realize that you are missing a tent pole or have no idea how to use your stove!
Also don’t forget to bring your child’s favorite toys/stuffed animals. I always try to keep toys at a minimum, but my now-older daughter could bring a couple small stuffed animals for sleeping with. Our current toddler gets her favorite books and her “lovie.”
- Go camping in the backyard.
- Talk to your child about the trip beforehand.
- Bring familiar toys and comfort items.
Issue #10: Nap Time for Toddlers while Camping
The issue with nap time while camping is that you need somewhere to put your toddler. Our solution is to bring the stroller. My daughter is already used to sleeping in her stroller. Since it has a 5-point restraint, we don’t have to worry about her waking up during the nap and wandering away.
Some parents like to bring a Pack-n-Play for naps. This is also great for playing in, especially while you do camp tasks like making dinner.
You could put your toddler to nap in the tent. However, this can be tricky. First of all, your toddler probably isn’t used to sleeping in the tent and might not go down so easily. I know my girl would try to crawl away. It’s a bit tricky to hold your child/rock her to sleep in a tent with a low ceiling.
- Bring your stroller.
- Or bring a Pack-n-Play
- Consider getting a tall family tent so you can walk around/rock your toddler to sleep.
Issue #11: Mosquitos
Even though the FDA says it is safe, you probably don’t want to slather chemical bug spray all over your toddler. There are all-natural bug sprays, but these definitely don’t work as well as the chemical ones.
I try to go camping at a high elevation where there aren’t so many mosquitoes. Avoiding campsites right next to water is also smart since mosquitoes breed on water. If we are at a campground and it has a restaurant/café, we might escape indoors at dusk (when the mosquitoes are at their worst).
If you don’t mind packing a lot of extra stuff, you could even bring a giant mosquito netting tent. Then you can sit in it at dusk when the mosquitoes are out of control.
- Get all-natural bug spray for your toddler (see my top picks here)
- Choose a camping spot away from mosquitoes (high elevations, away from water…)
- Go indoors at dusk, if possible.
- Consider bringing a mosquito tent.
Issue #12: Safety Issues when Camping with a Toddler
As a mom of a toddler, I feel like I am constantly on edge. Will she run into the street? Why is there broken glass in the playground? What is she putting in her mouth???
The good news is that (at least for me) camping is less stressful than life in the city. There are actually fewer things to worry about. However, since we aren’t used to worrying about these things, they can be pretty overwhelming/scary. There also might be some new dangers — like poisonous berries, thorns, and steep cliffs.
- Learn about these potential dangers of camping
- Bring a Pack-n-Play to put your toddler in while you do camp tasks
- Consider a leash for your toddler.
- Research which plants are poisonous.
- Keep a very safe distance away from the campfire.
- Avoid camping right next to water where your child could drown.
- Follow these tips to prevent your child from getting lost.
- Pack a complete first aid kit (here’s a full checklist)
Camping with a toddler is lots of fun. However, don’t let all those happy-toddler-camper images you see on Instagram fool you.
There WILL be stressful times!
You will get exhausted at times.
Your toddler will probably get some scratches, bites, or stings.
But it is worth it.
Not only does camping with my children mean I get out of the city (where I tend to go crazy quickly), but it’s a great bonding experience. All that dirt is good for their immune systems. And I’m certain that the time outdoors is good for their physical and mental development.
My advice is this: When things start getting stressful on the camping trip with your toddler, just think about what you’d be doing at home. Chances are there would have been a struggle there too. For example, my toddler will cry at bedtime whether in her crib or a tent. When I remember this, bedtime while camping isn’t as stressful.
Packing Checklist for Camping with Toddlers
When going camping (with toddlers or without), it helps to use a checklist. Otherwise you’ll probably forget something. I’ve made a complete family checklist which includes items for babies/toddlers. Download the printable PDF checklist here
Some Products I Recommend for Camping with Toddlers
Full disclosure that I do get a very small affiliate revenue if you buy any of these items. However, I only recommend products that I think are actually valuable and will help you have a better experience camping with your toddler. Hope that this helps. 🙂
- Kelty Woobie Sleeping Bag
- Therm-a-Rest Short Sleeping Pad
- Portable Camping Sleeping Bed
- Pack N Play
- Toddler Camping Chairs:
- Playshoes Rain Pants
- Child Carrier:
- Babyganics Mosquito Repellent
- Bumpkins Sleeved Bib/Smock
- Leak-catching pad (for inside of sleeping bag in case of wetting)
“Good in Tent” (CC BY 2.0) by makelessnoise
“IMG_5353” (CC BY 2.0) by abbybatchelder
“the boy’s first camping trip” (CC BY 2.0) by koadmunkee
“Think Outside photo contest Douthat Stat” (CC BY 2.0) by vastateparksstaff
“The Beginning of Wickedness” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by mikecogh