Ten Tips for Camping With Young Children


Taking our three-year-old son and baby daughter camping has led to eye opening moments – seeing sparkling stars unencumbered by city lights, tracking a snail along the forest floor, telling stories around a campfire, waking up to birdsong, and noticing the different shapes of sassafras leaves. There’s no doubt these times have brought us closer together.

But camping with our young children has also led to sleepless nights, crankiness, and the occasional tantrum. While going camping with kids under five is a definite parenting challenge, you’ll overcome it with the right planning. It’s definitely worth it.

Before kids, my wife and I made some of our most treasured memories while camping. After our son was born, we realized that not taking him as a young child would mean years of no camping at all. Now our son has grown to love camping trips so much that when we’re home he plays “camping” in our living room. His little sister is right behind him.

Spending time in nature while young kindles a lifelong love of the outdoors. Research shows that time outdoors helps children learn by promoting creativity and imagination, fostering social connections, lowering stress, encouraging exercise, and improving attention spans.

We’re Going to Need a Bigger Tent

Despite being much smaller than adults, young kids and their stuff seem to take up more space. You’ll need a bigger tent than you think to give everyone room to move and get comfortable. Our “10-person tent” is just about perfect for our family of four.

Look for a tent that can pop up and break down easily within minutes. Some newer models even have dark blackout fabrics that keep out daylight, making it much easier to sleep past dawn.

Even your youngest kids will love it if you give them a job at the campsite. Whether it’s helping with tent setup, rolling out sleeping bags, or gathering kindling, they’ll be happy to be helping out.

No Tent? Get Cabin Fever. *

Consider renting a cabin if you’re looking to ease your family into overnight nature trips. Many state and national parks have cabins that range from rustic to modern. Some have small kitchens, central air and heat, hot showers, and cozy fireplaces. This drastically cuts down on what you need to pack and set up, giving you more time to enjoy the great outdoors.

One of our favorite family outings this year consisted of a few days in a two-bedroom cabin in Westmoreland State Park. We filled our time walking the trails, wading in the river, and sitting around the campfire. We could easily pop into the cabin anytime for cleaning up, meals, and naps.

*Virginia State Parks COVID-19 Cabin Rental Protocols 

Sleep and the Comforts of Home

Getting a good night’s sleep is the biggest challenge to camping with kids. Keep your expectations low. While many kids love the excitement of camping, they also need routine. Take a favorite blanket and stuffed animal, a familiar book, and a couple of toys. We even pack a portable white noise machine. Bring flashlights, LED lanterns, or headlamps and give one to each kid. They’ll feel more secure (and will love playing with them).

Keep bedtime and mealtimes to the same schedule you follow at home. And wear the kids out with physical outdoor activities during the day!

Camping with a baby? They can sleep in a portable travel crib inside the tent. Preschoolers too big for a crib might sleep easier on a mattress. Our son kept rolling off the sleeping pad we set up for him, but slept well on a small mattress from home.

If all else fails and everyone has a rough night, enjoy your morning anyway and set aside some post-lunch tent time for everyone to rest in the tent.

Snack Time

Hungry and tired kids lead to meltdowns. Do your best to prevent this by always having some favorite snacks on hand. For us that means granola bars, raisins, trail mix, apple slices, mandarins, or fruit pouches. Make sure everyone has a water bottle to stay hydrated, even in cooler weather.

Prep Your Meals

You’re going to have your hands full with the kids, so keep meals simple and plan well. Make a pot of chili at home to just heat up when you arrive, or bring pre-cooked smoked sausages to finish over the campfire. If you’re cooking, preparing all of your ingredients at home in advance will save you prep and cleanup time at the campsite. You can even pre-make pancakes at home, or go for a simple breakfast of oatmeal with raisins and peanut butter. Sandwiches are an easy lunchtime classic. And there’s nothing wrong with picking up takeout on the way to the campground. Whatever makes meals easier will give you more time to enjoy your camping experience.

Keep it Short and Sweet

For tent camping with kids, start out with a one- or two-night excursion within an easy drive of home. If you go much longer, the change of routine starts to catch up with everyone. Our first trip with both kids was a one-night campout at Powhatan State Park, just 45 minutes from our home in Richmond. The short drive meant we arrived with plenty of energy and had lots of time to explore despite being gone from home for just 24 hours.

Choose Your Site Wisely (Consider a Midweek Break)

A crowded, noisy campground, loud RV generators, and neighbors up late can make camping with kids go downhill. When booking a site, study the campground map to pick one set apart from other sites, in a tent-only loop if available. Take into consideration proximity to the bathroom.

Campgrounds that fill up on weekends can be blissfully empty in the middle of the week. If you can take a Tuesday or Wednesday off, you can book last minute and still find a secluded site where you won’t have to worry about neighbors that are too close.

Follow the Forecast

Follow the forecast ahead of your trip and prepare for the weather. If you have the flexibility to book last minute, avoid rainy days, heat waves, and cold fronts. The spring and fall offer the best camping weather in our part of Virginia, but even then beautiful sunny days can turn chilly at night. Babies and young children have a harder time regulating their temperature. Pack warm clothing, extra blankets, and hats. Put a blanket both underneath and on top of your child, especially if using an air mattress.

Be Flexible, and Have Fun

When tough moments come up, don’t forget why you’re there. Keep a positive attitude, set expectations low, and have fun. Kids need to do things at their own pace. Don’t rush things or schedule too much. Let them take their time collecting acorns or exploring the campground, even if it means you’ll have to skip that scenic drive. When you slow down and focus on connecting with your kids, you’re encouraging a wonderful relationship with nature.

Kenny Fletcher

Kenny Fletcher grew up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland and now lives in Richmond, Virginia. He loves fishing and paddling on creeks and rivers, enjoys a nice walk in the woods, and is always on the lookout for a great story.

October 19, 2020

Main image: Photos by Kenny Fletcher and Ana Martinez
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