First Time Camping with Kids? 5 Tips!

It’s that time of year when parents with young children are beginning to plan that very first camp trip with their young child.  Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve read a ton of articles about camping with kids.  What can possible be added to the discussion?  I have a few extra tips for that very first overnight camp trip specific to camping with a baby, toddler, or preschooler.

  1. Stay local:  Road trips are always a little stressful when traveling with little kids, so why not keep the “road trip” out of that first camping experience?  I recommend finding a campground within an hour drive from your home.  And make reservations, if possible, so there’s no reason to stress about getting to the campground early enough to secure a site.  Or worse, getting there and finding there are no spots available at all.  Well, guess that wouldn’t be a crisis, as you’d get to enjoy a day trip to somewhere beautiful and have a short drive home!
  2. Keep it short:  Make your first camping trip a simple one night adventure.  It’ll give you an idea of what future, longer trips will be like, and also give you a (relatively) painless way to learn from the experience.  You’ll find out if your tent is large enough for your family,  if your sleeping pads are comfortable, and if your sleeping bags will keep you warm enough.  You’ll also learn never to go camping without the mosquito repellent or the sunscreen, two things that you can survive one night without, but not two!
  3. Make mealtime easy:  I know for many, the cooking over the campfire or on the Coleman is what makes camping fun.  But here’s a radical idea… why not skip cooking altogether?  If you’re heading out for a simple, overnight trip, it’s super easy to either pack food that you prepared at home, pick up some take-out from the market on the way out, or bring items that can simply be cup up and served.  Think pasta salad, a fresh-tossed vegetable salad, a vegetable platter with hummus dip, a fruit salad or cut fruit, a cheese with french bread, or sandwiches.  For breakfast, consider bagels and cream cheese, cereal, or fruit and yogurt.  Ensure the food you take stays fresh and safe by packing everything in a large cooler full of ice.  Of course, if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, you’re going to need to haul the Coleman out to at least boil water!
  4. Simplify:  Camping does require a lot of stuff, but not as much as you might think.  Skip bringing a ton of toys for your child.  My boy has been completely entertained for a couple days of camping with the sticks he found in the camp site, a shovel and bucket, a dump truck, a ball or two, and his bike (or Skuut bike when younger).  There’s something about riding bikes at a campground that kids love!  And keep activities simple, too.  This isn’t the time to plan a lot of sightseeing activities or a long hike.  Hang out at the campsite, lazily explore trails near and around the campground, or find a pretty location to have a picnic.
  5. Seriously consider sleep and potty needs:  Still in diapers?  Pack extra, and you can’t have enough wipes with you while camping.  They’ll come in handy not just for diapering needs, but also for cleaning dirty little bodies and wiping up sticky spills.  Using a toilet?  They might not want to use the one at the campground.  I recommend bringing along the training potty, even if your child isn’t using it anymore.  As for sleep, it’s pretty tough to get those much-needed naps in when trying to put your child to sleep in a bright tent.  Tents also tend to get pretty hot during the day, adding to discomfort.  Consider alternate sleeping arrangements.  Can your child nap in the car on the way to the campground, or on the way home?  Each child is different, and what works for one may not work for another.  Consider your own child, and work around their specific needs.  Same goes for nighttime sleep.  It’s tough for a child to fall asleep in a tent when it’s still light out.  But if your child isn’t getting enough sleep, he or she may be crankier than normal, perhaps putting a strain on the enjoyment of the outing.

Once you’ve survived that first camp trip with your kids, you’ll have the confidence to do more on your next outing.  For that one, plan fun meals, head out for several nights, and explore farther from home!

Have fun!

For more “camping with kids” suggestions, especially about gear and safety, check out these articles!

103 thoughts on “First Time Camping with Kids? 5 Tips!

  1. Hi, Linda:)) just came across your blog… love what you are doing here:)) I have two boys, I will be stopping by quite often for advice:)))

  2. May I add a tip? If your child usually sleeps without the light on, don’t choose a full moon night for your camping trip. We learned this one the hard way! We’re hoping our second family camping trip doesn’t involve so much explanation of why we don’t read books and play at 2am…

    Thanks for a great article!

    1. So true! You can schedule your trip around the schedule of the moon. The hardest part of summer camping with our son when he was small was that he simply couldn’t go to sleep because it was still light out! Normally, he was such a good sleeper, but he’d become so overtired after a couple days from reduced amount of sleep. But there’s nothing we can do about the sunlight. 🙂

  3. great advice! I’ve been camping with mine a few times, but now as they are soon turning three and one year, and summer is approaching I am seriously planning on spending more time in a tent:-) I will definitely opt for a hassle free meal:-) thanks

    1. Glad you found it helpful! We still like to bring along prepared food sometimes, depending on where we’re camping… it really helps take some of the hassle away. Of course, other times, cooking outdoors is part of the fun!

  4. I love that people take their kids camping – it teaches them to love the outdoors and feel a connection to it. My Aunt and Uncle took 8 from three families camping in an old green army tent, no floor! of course this was YEARS AGO! It gave me a life long love of the outdoors. Our camping trips (yes, they took us more than once!) give us a lot to remember and laugh about at family gatherings 30 years later.

    Great Blog!

  5. Josh here from the BlinkPack blog. We have a happy three-year-old camper, but about a year ago, camping with him was pretty much a disaster. It seems that language development has much to do with the success of camping with young children. If they wake up scared or disoriented in the middle of the night, lack of language skills can mean a lot of screaming and crying — not exactly good form for camping around others. Wishing you all the best in your camping and blogging adventures. Cheers!

    1. So true. My son freaks out in the dark in unknown places (he has some monster fears). At two, I’d go to bed with him and stay by his side all night. Later, when he was better at sleeping through the night, I was able to head back out to the campfire with my husband.

  6. Thanks so much for liking my post! Your post is great – we just went hiking with the kids yesterday (only brought a few crackers with me – terrible, I know) and talked about going camping. We’re still a bit intimidated by it, but once we muster up the courage to try it for the first time, I’ll refer back to your post!

  7. Great tips. Camping as a family is one of our favorite things to do and it only gets more fun as they get older. I encourage everyone to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Tips like this help make that happen.

  8. These are great suggestions. Growing up we camped all the time. I don’t know how my parents did it with 6 kids all in one station wagon…We lived on Long Island, but we went everywhere from Canada and Maine down as far as Williamsburg, Virginia.

  9. Good tips, especially about staying local (at first) and keeping it simple. I always made sure my son knew we were on a great adventure, too, so expectations of everything being the same as at home were not part of the deal. Have fun!

    1. We, too, call many of our nature outings “adventures”, especially camping and hiking. You never know what you’ll discover or experience! Thanks, Eleanor!

  10. Just wanted to let you know that I voted for you today and I will everyday until the voting closes! Good Luck! 🙂

  11. These are great tips! 🙂 And perfect timing, as we are looking this week to book a camping trip for this summer. We are right on the same page about the one night! My kids are 3 and 5, and though we did take them “camping” once, it was only in our backyard. A test run, if you will. Tons of fun, we did s’mores and puppet shows, but we had all the amenities within a few feet (read: bathroom). I especially like your take on the food — better to just enjoy the experience than to worry about the vaulted campfire meals! Save that for when the kids are older.

    1. I hope you and your family have a wonderful camping experience! I think it’s a great idea to do a test run in the backyard, too. I used to love camping in the backyard as a child when friends would stay the night (obviously older than our five-year-olds)! My parents would sleep inside as normal, so we’d be on a total adventure!

  12. Personally, if you were to write a book based on everything I have so far read in your blog. it would quickly become a best seller.

  13. Great summary! I’m a big fan of premade meals. The potty seat is also a big hit, which I discovered when I was pregnant and needed to pee every 30 minutes (not fun!). Have any tips about how to deal with crying babies at midnight/2am/4am? Can’t nurse all night because he’ll expect it when we get back from camping. It was okay when he was a newborn, but now he’s 9 months. I guess I just gotta put my tent between a lot of trees?

    1. LOL… Can’t help you with the screaming baby bit! But I agree that the potty is also useful at times for adults in need. I once read about a runner who kept hers in her van for pre-event emergencies when there are 50 people in the bathroom line and the race is due to begin in five minutes.

  14. Great tips! We have been doing mini-camping trips for the last two summers at a nearby regional park. We book it for one night and usually my older son stays with my husband overnight while my daughter and I spend the entire day there and drive home. We incorporate all your tips above! I’m not sure when we will all four sleep a night in a tent. We would need a much bigger tent but someday we will! Here in MN, we also have “rustic cabins” you can rent for a night which are minimally furnished (usually only with beds and no electricity) where you can sleep a family. I would love to try that! Great post! I love the Bay Area. It would be an amazing place to live! 🙂 nicole

    1. Creative way to keep everyone happy, but still allow your older son some quality camping time with his dad! There are a few places around here that have rustic cabins, too, that I’ve heard great things about. Enjoy your mini camp trips this summer!

      1. I believe they will! For instance, the cooking…thank you for giving first time campers permission *not to cook*! Sometimes, if we eliminate something–even if we think it’s essential to the experience–the whole experience is less stressful and more enjoyable. 😉

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