Tent Camping with Babies and Toddlers 13

Written by Amy Rowland

For many new parents the thought of traveling and camping with babies and toddlers conjures up nightmarish images of blowout poopy diapers in the most inconvenient places and colossal meltdowns (sometimes from both the child and the parent). So, imagine the looks our friends gave us when we told them we were going to take our two-year-old and our six-month-old camping for two weeks in Grand Teton National Park and in Yellowstone National Park. Oh yeah, we were also in the process of moving from Kansas to Washington State.

Many of my friends considered placing bets on how many days I would last before quitting and moving on to the nearest hotel. Most said we were crazy and asked why we would choose to torture ourselves further when moving is stressful enough. Honestly, I asked myself these same questions and had the very same doubts about my own mental survival on this trip. To add to the stress and concern, we were going to be tent camping (not RVing) in locations where the temperatures average around 30°F and where bears are known for showing up as uninvited dinner guests!

Was I crazy to embark on such an adventure with my toddler and baby (who was still nursing, by the way, which presented its own unique concerns in bear country)? Perhaps. Or, was I just longing to get back to the great outdoors that I loved so dearly before we had children? Absolutely.

Whatever the reason, I discovered to my pleasant surprise, that camping with babies and toddlers can actually be a wonderful experience if you are prepared. In this article, I plan to share three important tips that will make any camping trip an (mostly) enjoyable experience with babies and toddlers. They are: (1) have the right gear, (2) research your destination, and (3) be realistic.

Have the Right Gear

            This first tip seems rather obvious but for those outdoor enthusiasts who are used to trekking into the backcountry with as little gear as possible, having the right gear when it involves children, takes on a whole new meaning. First, bigger IS better. Having a large tent makes life a lot easier when camping. Because we were car camping, we decided to make our living conditions as comfortable as possible. That started with purchasing a large tent with room for two cots, two pack-n-plays, and a small play area. We love our REI Kingdom 8 tent. Granted, there were only four of us, but the space we had was amazing! Plus, we hope to someday add a fifth family member to the pack.

In addition to a large tent, we also purchased cots for us to sleep on because there is just something about being up off the ground that makes a long camping trip more enjoyable. Plus, we can fit bags and gear underneath the cot, thus freeing up more space in the tent. For the children, we had both of them sleeping in pack-n-plays. Our two-year-old has almost outgrown his, but for the most part he was really content. If the toddler has outgrown the pack-n-play, there are toddler blow up mattresses that work great in the tent and, if need be, can be deflated during the day to create more space in the tent.

Because we knew we were going to be camping in colder climates, I had major concerns that our infant would freeze at night and I really did not want to have to spend each night with her in my bag (plus, it’s not very safe). So, I purchased warm, duvet style sleep sacks for both of our children. They are absolutely amazing and worked wonderfully. I also put hats and gloves on the both of them at night but each morning they were both nice and warm.

The real icing on the cake however was purchasing the Mr. Heater F232000 MH9BX Buddy 4,000-9,000-BTU Indoor-Safe Portable Radiant Heater designed for use in tents/indoors. This heater was a lifesaver for us and kept us all nice and warm when the temperatures dropped below freezing. Always use extra caution with a heater, though. Keep all objects away from it at all times! I have to admit that waking up warm, even when it is really cold outside at or below freezing, is such a morale booster! One further consideration for cold weather camping is to ensure that the fly on the tent goes all the way to the ground. Otherwise, the cold air gets into the tent much easier and I am not sure that a camping heater would be as effective.

Another item that we were quite thankful to have was our Eureka! Northern Breeze – Screen House which covered the picnic table. The one we purchased was 12’ x 12’ (which can be hard to fit in some campsites) and had plenty of room to walk around the table. This shelter has both the mesh siding and full wind curtains, which came in handy when storms blew in many of the evenings right as we were trying to cook dinner. On other nights, it was a nice, warm, bug-free place for my husband and I to escape to when the children fell asleep. Though it’s not cheap at all, it has made our camping experiences so much more enjoyable, especially on rainy occasions when you’re trying to cook a meal.

Beyond the items mentioned above, of course it goes without saying that you must not forget all the toddler and baby essentials, like a travel highchair that can attach to the picnic table (Chicco 360 Hook On Chair), or even a Bumbo Multi Seat, Aqua for feedings. Never forget those special security items that your child just can’t live without because this will help them feel more at home in an unusual environment. For the non-mobile children, we found that the Summer Infant Pop N’ Play Portable Playard was a great, mostly-dirt-free place to play.

Research Your Destination

There are many reasons why it is important to research the area in which you plan to camp, beyond ensuring that there are fun activities and great sites to see. Climate is perhaps one of the most crucial elements to research about your destination if you want to make sure the trip is a memorable one for the right reasons. When I told people we were planning to camp in Yellowstone, the overwhelming response I received was that I better be prepared for it to be cold and rainy, even in July. Most of the people I talked to, who did not enjoy their experience there, said that it was because they were unprepared for it to be as cold and rainy as it was. I took this advice very seriously and went so far as to pack my children’s snowsuits, just in case. Well, I am here to say that when camping with babies and toddlers, you should always prepare for the “just in case” situations, because when we drove into Yellowstone National Park on June 28, 2011, there were several feet of snow still covering many of the campsites!! I had been prepared for rain and cold nights but I was shocked to see that there was still so much snow. Thankfully, we were prepared for the “just in case” so this did not dampen our mood or experience whatsoever.

Also, going into Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, I knew we were entering bear country and I was prepared for the fact that we would have to pack up EVERYTHING every night and put it all back in the car at the end of the day. You cannot even leave a bottle of water out on the picnic table! My husband was not prepared for this nightly repacking ritual and it was very frustrating for him initially.

Another important consideration when researching your destination is the campground. It can be very frustrating arriving at a campground and discovering that the only restroom facilities are vaulted toilets (not ideal when potty training a toddler). It’s also a bit of a challenge (when planning to camp for several days) if there are no shower facilities. Our son has figured out how to get dirt into all kinds of nooks and crannies, and most days he was in desperate need of a serious wipe down. Without shower facilities and hot water, you are left with boiling some water yourself (which takes a while) and using a plastic bin as a bathtub, so having showers nearby is a real bonus.

Further, if you can make reservations in advance, I recommend securing a site that is near the potable water spouts and near the restroom and dishwashing facilities. You never want to leave your children unattended and having to lug them as well as your dishes a long distance is not pleasant for anyone. Even if you cannot make reservations in advance, these are important considerations to remember when scoping out a good site.

Be Realistic

The final, and probably most critical tip, is to be realistic. I am not sure why I have to learn this lesson over and over again but I always seem to think I will be able to do more than I realistically can with kids or get somewhere sooner than I ever will with children in tow. That being said, allow yourself ample time to do and see all that you want to at your destination of choice. I thought that a whole week in Grand Teton National Park was going to be way too long and that we would be bored out of our minds; however, as my husband so wisely pointed out, we were really only going to get out and see stuff in the morning most days because of nap time and we really didn’t want to push through nap time every day we were out there. So, it really does take twice as long to see everything you want to see if you are trying to preserve some sort of nap time (which I highly recommend for most days).

I also somehow thought I would have all this energy at the end of the day to cook up some gourmet meal at the campsite when, in reality, all I really wanted to do was lay down and go to bed many of the days (or drink a strong drink on one or two of the rough days). So, I learned that the best thing to do is prepare as many dinners in advance as possible and freeze them. That way, they serve two purposes: (1) extra ice packs for the cooler and, (2) an easy meal that only requires heating.

Finally, remember that with babies and toddlers there are rough days and there are great days no matter where you are, so keep that in mind even when camping. There will be a few rough days along the way but there are so many wonderful days, too. There are so many positives when it comes to camping with kids. You are exposing them to something you love to do and want to continue doing with them; they get to play with dirt, rocks, and sticks (what child doesn’t love that); and they are allowed to run around and act silly at a campground versus being cooped up in a hotel room with you trying to keep them from jumping on the bed.

Overall, I highly recommend camping with babies and toddlers (especially babies who are not yet mobile). So long as you prepare yourself for the “just in case”, have the right gear for the right climate, and try not to overdo it with the sightseeing everyday, then you should hopefully have a (mostly) wonderful camping adventure.


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13 thoughts on “Tent Camping with Babies and Toddlers

  • Gabriela

    Your post in inspiring so we are going to go camping with our 7 month old and 3 year old. What canopy/picnic shelter do you have that has curtains? What brand is yours? I can’t find out! Thanks!

    • Amy Rowland Post author

      Hi! Let me look it up and see if I can find someone who still sells it. I’m not at home this week otherwise I’d run out to the garage and tell you the brand. I’ll get back to you ASAP!

    • Amy Rowland Post author

      Hi Gabriela! I found our shelter online and linked to it in the article. It’s a Eureka! Northern Breeze Shelter. They are not cheap but we’ve never regretted the purchase and five years later we still use it every time we go camping. 🙂 We’ll worth the investment!

    • Amy Rowland Post author

      Hi Andy! Here’s the one we purchased that was/is definitely warm enough to help heat the tent: Mr. Heater F232000

      I will say that it also helped that the outside tent fly went all the way to the ground. That helps keep the heat in the tent. If your fly does not go all the way to the ground, then the heat will definitely escape out and not provide a whole lot of warmth. My husband also rigged our more exposed side of the tent (the doorway) with a space blanket. That also helped reflect the heat (just keep the heater far away from the space blanket…it should shut off automatically if something is on it but it’s always good to be extra careful).

      I hope this helps!

    • Amy Rowland Post author

      P.S. Our tent was a huge, 8 person tent so the heater I mentioned should be great for you. I saw that it was also #1 on that article’s list. I completely agree!

  • Stacey

    Hi Amy,
    We are going camping in cool climates with our 4 month old in March. My husband tried out the mr. Heater big buddy in our tent last night as a test run and it got down to 29 outside and said it got down to 40 in the tent. I just don’t think that is warm enough. What can we do to get the air warmer in there? Thanks for your help.

    • Amy Rowland Post author

      Hi Stacey!

      So, a few things: does your tent fly go all the way to the ground? That’s important for keeping the heat in. If the outside fly doesn’t go all the way to the ground then you will definitely lose a lot of heat from that and there’s really no way around that.

      The other thing we did was clip a space blanket up on one end of the tent to “reflect” the warmth back into the tent. The heater was kept far away from this space blanket but it was just one extra step that helped keep some more warmth in the tent.

      Our little ones were also sleeping in the down sleep sacks which helped keep them warmer. We didn’t have a thermometer, so I’m not sure how warm it got in the tent; however, it was below freezing outside and out tent was probably close to 50 degrees with all of that.

  • Whit

    Thanks so much for your article. My husband and I are going to Washington soon with our 4 month old to camp and hike like we’ve always done. Many people think we’re nuts, but I think we can definitely do it with flexibility, observance, and some research in advance! However, my biggest concern is the wildlife (i.e, bears and cougars specifically). Did you find this a challenge? My baby eats formula, but I’m guessing we’ll have to string it up in the trees every night and get it down back and forth throughout the night. The other concern I have are all of my little one’s baby noises being an attraction. Did you have these same concerns? I emailed the DNR out there and requested input but they have yet to respond. Any help you could offer would be greatly

    • Amy Rowland Post author

      When we camped with littles we were in main campground areas but with a lot of bear activity. We did have bear boxes so we didn’t need to string anything up; however, if you are doing back country camping then definitely string up everything you can.

      I have not done back country camping with our little ones yet. I was very paranoid about every crumb our kids dropped while we camped and we never did have an issue.

      I wish I had better advice about what might attract bears or not but it’s hard to say for sure. I did nurse in our tent, as well as bottle feed. I would ziplock everything in an attempt to keep the scent out but I’m sure, if an animal is really hungry, they might still be able to follow the scent.

      To the best extent you can, cook your food away from, and downwind, from where you sleep and string everything up. Maybe try talking with others who have camped where you’re going and they may have a better idea of what type of bear activity to expect.

      I hope you have a wonderful trip and I’d love to hear about it when you’re done!!

  • Staci

    Hi Amy! I happened to run across your blog post while researching for our upcoming trip to Yellowstone and GTNP. Our kids are much older than yours and we have lots of experience camping, but a couple of the points you touched on are things I am worried about! We have the same tent you do (love it!!) and it’s so big I am concerned about campsite sizes. Did you encounter any trouble with fitting the tent in the sites you were in? Do you mind sharing at which campgrounds you stayed? We are also considering the Mr. Heater in case of extra cold temps. Did you use the propane tank adapter? And did it seem to make the tent floor overly hot around or under the heater? Usually our camping trips involve hot summer weather, or at most cool shoulder seasons, so this will be a first for us. Thanks in advance for any helpful info!

    • Amy Rowland Post author

      Hi Staci! I’m so sorry I didn’t respond sooner! I thought I had but it looks like it never went through! First, yes, we were concerned about our giant REI tent fitting in the campsite. It was tight, but we were able to make it fit. Unfortunately, we were unable to use the fire pit due to how close it ended up being to our tent. So, that was a big disappointment. I have seen people actually pitch their tents in the area designated for the vehicle and that may be an option if you want to use the fire pit. Parking the car somewhere else could be a bit of a pain, though. Also, our Mr. Heater was great and did not over heat at all. In fact, because it was sensitive to anything touching it, it did turn off frequently. We tried our best to keep everything as far away from it as possible. We did have a longer propane adapter hose that could reach just outside the tent to the propane tank. I’ll try to find out the adapter we used and add that to the post.

      As always, I suggest testing out the heater before camping with it so you have a good idea of how it responds to getting close to various fabrics, etc…

      I hope you have a great trip and I hope my response is not too late!