Mom Goes Camping

How to Get a Toddler to Sleep while Camping

how to get toddler to sleep camping

Worried about how your toddler will sleep while tent camping? I’ve been there! Here is some firsthand advice about getting toddlers to sleep well, including sleeping bags for toddlers, bedtime schedules, dealing with naptime, and other issues like not disturbing the neighbors.

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Don’t Stick to Bedtime Schedules

Pretty much all “experts” will tell you to keep your toddler’s normal sleep schedule when you are traveling or camping.  While this sounds smart in theory, it is often impossible in practice.  As one mom said,

“No self-respecting two year old is going to go to bed at their normal bedtime when they can hear the rest of the kids still playing outside. Take this as gospel from a mother of three whose kids have been camping from months old!”

If you try to get your toddler to bed on time, they are likely to have tantrums. Then your toddler will be so worked up that sleeping becomes even more difficult.

Here are some solutions for dealing with bedtime:

  • Let your toddler fall asleep next to the campfire. This is what I do with my girls. Preferably, have them snuggle in their sleeping bags while they lie next to the fire.  Then you can just pick them up – sleeping bag and all — and put them in the tent when they conk out.
  • Keep bedtime loose. If you still want to keep some sort of schedule, at least be loose about it. Let your toddler stay up a bit later and start the bedtime ritual when you see them getting cranky.
  • Go to bed with your toddler. Your toddler is less likely to fight bedtime if you all go to bed at the same time. You can always sneak out of the tent again after your toddler falls asleep.
  • Get your kids excited about bedtime in the tent. Read them stories with a flashlight or do shadow puppets. This will make bedtime more fun and help calm them down.

 

The First Night Is Always the Hardest

Almost all parents have trouble getting their toddlers to sleep on the first night of camping.  By the second night, your toddler will have adjusted a bit.  Toddlers are also tired out by day 2 (especially since they will probably wake up at 6am!) so going to bed easier.  Keep this in mind so you don’t go insane trying to get your child to sleep at a “reasonable” time on the first night of your trip.

 

Naptime when Camping

Naptime is tricky when camping.  You probably don’t want to stop activities in the middle of the day so your toddler can get a nap.  Even you do try to get your toddler to nap, you probably won’t be successful. Your toddler will be too excited, there’s no way to turn out the lights, and it might not be quiet at camp.  However, if your toddler doesn’t get some sort of nap, she can get really cranky by the end of the day – meaning you and your toddler both end up miserable.

Here are some solutions for naptime when camping:

  • Put your toddler to nap before she gets too tired: By the third day of camping, the excitement has worn off and my toddler will usually nap at her normal time. However, it’s important that we don’t delay naptime too much or she gets overtired and throws a mini tantrum.
  • Nap with your toddler: I lay down next to my toddler in the tent and pretend I am sleeping. Sometimes she gets so bored that she falls asleep too.  If not, at least we both got a little break.
  • Let your toddler nap in the stroller: We often plan a stroller-friendly hike around naptime. Our toddler almost inevitably would fall asleep in the stroller, especially if she woke up earlier than normal.
  • Napping in a carrier: If you use a carrier instead of a stroller, choose one which has a built-in pillow. Otherwise your toddler’s head will bounce around when she falls asleep on a hike. Here are some great child carriers.
  • Plan drives for naptime: If you have to drive to activities, plan it so the drive back is at naptime. Your toddler will probably fall asleep in their carseat.
  • Do restful activities instead of napping: Around naptime, have your toddler stop running around. Instead, do a restful activity like reading a book or coloring. It’s not a nap, but at least they get a break so are less likely to be cranky monsters later in the day.
  • Bring a bug net: If you want your toddler to nap outside while camping during mosquito season, bring a bug net to put over the stroller or playpen. I use binder clips to keep it attached to the stroller.

My daughter sleeping in her stroller (in full rain gear)

 

Sleep Setup for Camping with a Toddler

The key to a good night’s sleep with your toddler is getting the sleep setup right.  It’s not complicated but there is more to this than just getting the right sleeping bag.

 

Where Will Your Toddler Sleep?

The first thing to consider is where your toddler will sleep during the camping trip.   If you don’t have any other children, then this is pretty simple: your toddler will sleep in the tent with you.

If you have other children though, you might want to sleep in multiple tents. For example, my older daughter has a later bedtime.  I didn’t want her to wake up my toddler when she came into the tent. Nor did I want my toddler’s nighttime waking to bother her.  So we bring two tents camping: I sleep in one with the little one.  My husband sleeps in the other tent with our older child.

 

Toddler Sleeping Bags

Even in summer, it can get really cold when camping.  Your toddler may need a warm sleeping bag.  Unfortunately, there aren’t too many toddler sleeping bags which are actually designed for camping – especially for temperatures of less than 50F.   The Morrison Big Mo is by far the best option.  There are two versions: one rated for 40F and another rated for 20F.  A more affordable option is the BabyDeeDee Travel Nest. It is good for down to 50F.

For more info, see my picks for Best Toddler Sleeping Bags for Camping.

What about sharing a sleeping bag with your toddler? This is generally a very bad idea. Read why here.

My 1-year old in her BabyDeeDee sleeping bag

 

Sleeping Pads for Toddlers

You can have the warmest sleeping bag in the world for your child. However, if you don’t have a good sleeping pad, your child will still be cold.   The ground will literally suck the heat right out of your child’s body.

Both my toddler and older daughter use the Therm-a-Rest Scout sleeping pad (available at Amazon and REI) which is very warm but lightweight and affordable.  See my picks for best sleeping pads for little kids here.

Tip: To keep your toddler from rolling off her sleeping pad and getting cold, have her sleep between you and your partner, pile gear on both sides of your toddler so she can’t move off the pad or get a toddler camping bed.

Your toddler WILL roll off the sleeping mat if you don’t put up a barricade!

 

Camping Beds for Toddlers

Portable beds can be very useful when camping with little kids. They keep your child in place, which means you are less likely to get kicked in the head while sleeping.  Also important, a bed will keep your toddler on her sleeping pad, which is crucial for staying warm.

See my picks for Best Toddler Camping Beds 

 

Keep Your Tent Out of the Sunlight

One very annoying thing about camping with a toddler is that they will inevitably wake up at 6am (or earlier!) when the first rays of morning sunshine hit the tent.  This happens even if your over-excited toddler didn’t fall asleep until 10pm.  Then you are left with the task of trying to keep your toddler from waking up everyone else at the campground at this ungodly hour.

To ensure your toddler sleeps at least a bit longer, try to get a shady campsite. If there is only one tree, for example, position the tent so it gets shade during the morning.  Unfortunately, that does mean your tent will be in the sun by the afternoon and thus too hot and sunny for napping in the tent. If you are really ambitious, you could even hang a tarp over your tent so it is shaded at all hours.

 

Wetting the Sleeping Bag

If your toddler is out of diapers, be warned that nighttime accidents are more likely to happen when camping (speaking from experience here).  My theory is that the accidents occur because toddlers get too tired out.  Colder weather also makes it harder to hold it at night.

Consider getting some padded underwear or pull-up diapers for your toddler to wear while sleeping.  Or, at the very least, put a leak-catching pad inside the sleeping bag.  Your toddler’s pajamas will still be all wet but at least the sleeping bag won’t be drenched.

Tip: If your toddler wets the sleeping bag, an adult puffy jacket works as a backup sleeping bag.

 

Your Toddler Annoying Other Campers at Night

As much as you love your toddler, other campers probably won’t.  Especially when your toddler is having a tantrum or waking up in the middle of the night screaming.

There’s not much you can do about this. Even the best-behaved toddlers can have bad days. And remember that it can be scary for your toddler to wake up in a dark tent. However, there are things you can do to minimize the annoyance you cause other campers, such as:

  • Ask for a secluded campsite. Make sure you call the campground to explain you’ve got a little kid.  They might even put you next to another family.
  • Choose a campground that is family-friendly. Other parents will sympathize with you when they hear your toddler crying.
  • Go wild camping instead. Because there won’t be any other campers, your toddler can be as loud as he wants without bothering anyone.
  • Consider getting a bigger tent. If your toddler wakes up, then you can walk around the tent with her in your arms until she falls back asleep. It’s not ideal but at least your camping neighbors won’t hate you.
  • Get a lantern with a red-light setting. The red light setting allows you to see well enough to attend to your toddler’s needs without blinding her (and thus waking her even further).

My toddler taking a nap with the kid from the next campsite over. Other parents are less likely to mind if your toddler cries a bit because they’ve been there!

 

Pajamas for Camping

Unless you are going into frigid weather, you don’t need any fancy PJs for your toddler while camping. However, it is important that your toddler’s sleepware is made from a breathable material.  Otherwise your toddler can end up sweaty.  Sweating causes evaporative heat loss, so your toddler can end up cold even in mild weather.

For this reason, cotton pajamas usually aren’t recommended.  Merino wool is a much better choice. If you are going to use cotton, then make sure you don’t overbundle your child (more on that below). Also bring some backup pajamas in case the cotton gets wet.

*Don’t forget to bring a dedicated pair of socks just for sleeping in.  The daytime socks will get gross.  You don’t want these in the sleeping bag.

See my picks for best kids camping pajamas here.

 

Don’t Over-Bundle Your Toddler At Night

One of the big mistakes that parents make when camping with little kids is over-bundling them at night.  If you put too many layers on your child, they will get really hot.  This in turn will make them sweaty and uncomfortable, so they end up waking up multiple times during the night (again, speaking from experience).

To make sure your toddler is a comfortable temperature when sleeping:

  • Touch your toddler’s neck: It’s normal for hands to feel cold. To check whether your toddler is cold while sleeping, touch her neck instead.
  • Invest in good pajamas: Merino wool pajamas are breathable and keep your toddler from sweating. They can double as long-johns in winter.
  • Keep the sleeping bag unzipped at first: It probably won’t be too cold when your toddler goes to bed around 8 or 9pm. By the time you go to bed though, the temperature could have dropped significantly.  I will keep my toddler’s sleeping bag unzipped when she falls asleep and then fully zip it up once I crawl into the tent.
  • Have an extra blanket nearby: If your toddler feels cold, put the blanket over her. A puffy jacket also works well.

 

Make Sure You Get Some Rest Too

So long as your toddler is entertained, they should remain happy (here are some activity ideas).  But it’s a lot of work to constantly entertain an energetic toddler while camping.  Make sure you stay rested so you have the energy (mentally and physically) to deal with your toddler.

To stay rested:

  • Go to bed early on day #1. This is important because your toddler will probably wake up VERY early the next morning.
  • Don’t plan any activities for the first day. At least don’t plan any activities which are strenuous or far away from the campground.
  • Rest when your toddler is napping. Even if this means stopping for a long break in the middle of your hike. Otherwise your toddler is likely to wake up the moment you finish the hike, meaning you get zero downtime. Here are some tips for hiking with a toddler.
  • Choose easy meals. Don’t bother with campfire cooking or meals which require multiple pots. It will just stress you out. Here are some toddler-friendly camping meal ideas.

 

How do you get your toddler to sleep when tent camping? Let us know in the comments section below.


Image credits: “IMG_5013” (CC BY 2.0) by abbybatchelder,
Title image from Morrison Sleeping Bags
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About the author /


Diane Vukovic grew up camping and backpacking in upstate New York. Now, she takes her own daughters on wilderness adventures so they can connect with nature and learn resiliency. With dozens of trips under her belt, Diane is an expert in minimalist camping, going lightweight, planning, and keeping her kids entertained without screens.

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