Camping was always one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid. I remember sitting around the campfire at night, roasting s'mores and loving every second of sleeping outside. I don't remember temper tantrums, broken tent poles, animals that ate our food or any other frustrating thing that could have happened.
When my own children were born, I knew from the beginning that we would take them camping to recreate the magical memories I had as a child. We've gone on several trips with these girls since they were born, our first when they were around 18 months, and I have learned so much about how to keep everyone happy, healthy and well rested. So, my friends, after our most recent camping trip I feel like I can finally tell you my top 10 tips for camping with kids!
1) Portable sound machine. This is my number one for a reason. If no one sleeps, it can still be fun but you will be exhausted and chances are everyone will be a little cranky. Campsites can be loud at night and the woods can be full of unfamiliar sounds that keep your little ones up (like little acorns dropping one by one on your tent all night long...) Having a portable sound machine can drown out all the noise and help everyone, including yourself, get a better night sleep. We use this one for nap time also and one full charge can give you a full night sleep and a nap time. Bringing a portable charger can give you even more (that's what we do for longer trips!)
2) Bring a portable crib for your toddlers to sleep in. This only works if your little ones are used to sleeping in a crib. If you co-sleep, then you will be used to doing that and it should work out just fine for you! If you don't co-sleep, then recreate their bedtime environment by setting up a pack n' play or portable crib right in the tent. We have these epic baby bjorn travel cribs that we have used for almost 3 years (huge investment but honestly totally worth it) and they fit perfectly in our tent. The girls have slept all night for every camping trip (maybe waking up once or twice just forgetting where they were) and it has made a huge difference.
3) Pre-cook your food. Whenever we are camping, we are always running all around and hiking or exploring and not paying any attention to the time. Then, all of a sudden, it's dinner time and we have to light a fire (we need a camp stove big time...) and build some coals and THEN cook dinner. By then we have two hangry toddlers on our hands and it is miserable for everyone. We have learned from experience that pre-cooking your food saves everyone in the long run. We always bring some chili to heat up for dinner one night and then will precook some sweet potatoes and zucchini to heat up the next night to eat with some hot dogs (the only time my kids eat hot dogs and that's probably why they love camping so much...) There are SO many meal ideas that you can pre-cook at home and then just heat up when you're camping. Trust me, it will save your sanity.
4) Bring more than what you think you will need. Well we learned this on our most recent camping trip. Bring more food than you think you need because there is nothing worse than realizing that your snacks are slowly running out when you have hungry children running around. Bring that extra pack of hot dogs, the second box of crackers and all the fruit you can pack. This is what we realized on our most recent trip, when we are running around and hiking and exploring- appetites are bigger than we plan for.
5) Bring a rug for your tent. Laugh all you want but seriously, this has been my favorite addition since camping with kids. We have one of those cotton rugs that you can toss right in the washing machine (those horrible ones that just slide all over your floor in the house) and we almost got rid of it BUT then I insisted we bring it camping to put in our tent. My husband thought I was loca but it made our tent SO homey and comfy that we have brought it ever since. I wouldn't take one that you are too attached to and I would personally only bring a cotton one that doesn't have a backing on it so it's easier to pack. Trust me, put a rug down in your tent and it will become such a comfy space to camp.
6) Bring the right gear. This one seems obvious but I feel like I should say it anyway. Get a tent that's big enough, sleeping bags that are warm enough and make sure you have a guaranteed way to start a fire and heat up your food/water. I'll make a packing essentials list soon with my favorite camping items.
7) Have a few nature crafts handy. I always like to bring along a few things just in case we are on a long camping trip and my little ones need something to do while we are setting up camp or making dinner. Bringing some nature crafts to work on can also help you make meaningful artwork you can save from your trip to remember! Here are a few things you could work on with your little ones while you camp:
8) Stick to a schedule with sleeping. It can be so tempting to push back nap times or let your little ones stay up all night and eat 500 marshmallows. This is just me telling you that you will probably lose a lot of sleep and you will have exhausted children on your hands (speaking from experience!) Stick to your normal schedule and bedtimes and let your little ones get the rest they need so they can fully enjoy the experience. It is sad sometimes having to put my kids to bed before all the stars come out but whenever I've tried to push their bedtimes, they are always too tired to really enjoy it anyway and it becomes a total nightmare. When they are older, they can stay up late and eat 500 marshmallows by the fire with me- for now, we stick to bedtime and nap time even when we camp.
9) Leave the toys at home. This one is just a personal preference but it is also a suggestion for you. Don't bring a million toys for them to stay "occupied" with. Let nature take over. There is so much to explore and experience at a campsite, from the trees to the dirt and the leaves and bugs and...everything! It's okay if your kids are a little bored, that will push them to look around and find something to do. Sometimes it can be exhausting because if they are brave toddlers, like mine, they will want to do all the risky things like climb boulders and jump off logs. Take a breath and let them explore (safely) and learn with their own two hands. Give them the chance and the space to really take it all in, they can't do that if they have all their stuff with them. Plus, no one wants to lose a favorite toy in the woods so save from potential disaster.
10) Backyard practice run if you're nervous. If you've never been camping before or if you are really nervous about how your little ones will do sleeping in a tent, give them a practice run! Set up your tent in your backyard or even in your living room and walk them through what camping will be like. Tell them what you will be doing, where you will be sleeping and even what you will eat while you are there. The more children know about what to expect, the easier it will be for them to transition into that unknown experience.
Okay, just one more...the most important one of all...
11) Embrace the messiness of it all. Chances are, things will go wrong. You could get lost, booboos will happen, the fire won't start, a squirrel will eat all your snacks, the tent poles could snap, you could have one million temper tantrums to deal with...the list of things that could go wrong is endless. It won't be perfect and you could end up driving home with scraped knees and marshmallow in your hair (my most recent trip...) but that won't be what lasts. You will forget about the arguments and the tears and the lessons learned and you will be left with amazing memories spent in nature with your little ones. It will be messy, it could be a total shit-show, but it will be worth it.
I hope this helps you have fun-filled camping trips with your kiddos! Trust me, we have had plenty of disastrous moments while in the woods with our little ones from high fevers and temper tantrums to missing tent poles and leaking sleeping pads- no matter what goes wrong we always leave the woods more connected and ready for another adventure.