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.
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.