Camping is pretty much our family’s favorite thing to do. It is a great vacation with young children. It is inexpensive and really relaxed. There are a lot of amazing places you can go camping. Camping can accommodate napping schedules nicely. If you haven’t tried it, do it! But be sure to read all of my tips because camping does have some harsh realities you need to be mentally prepared for.
We have camped with children starting at age 2 months. In my opinion, camping with a baby under one is relatively easy. A pre-toddler (somewhere between 12-18 months) can be the most challenging. They don’t like to sit still and aren’t really able to safely wander around the camp site.
The First Night Sucks
It just does. You absolutely need to expect the children to go to bed late and wake up early. They might even wake up periodically in the night. If you go camping, plan on going for at least two nights so you can have one good experience. Just know the first night will be the worst as everyone gets used to it. Go into it with that expectation.
This photo is my husband one morning after the first night of camping–this was about four years ago.
Think Through Sleep
There are many sleep considerations for you to take. Here are the basics–I will elaborate below:
- Remember and enforce family sleep policies. If you expect your children to follow them, they will.
- Try to have sleeping arrangements so that the children will sleep as well as possible. Have own beds/places to sleep as much as possible.
- Dress appropriately for weather. A tent or even a camper does not provide the protection from weather changes that a house does.
- White noise can be very helpful when camping.
- Keep bedtime and naptime at about the same time as usual as much as possible.
- If you have multiple kids sleeping together and need to stagger bedtime, think wisely about how you do it.
What are rules?
Think about your sleep rules at home and decide if they will be the same when camping. Can your kids get out of bed? Can your children be noisy after put in bed? What are consequences to rules being broken?
One time when we went camping, McKenna had been put to bed first, then was woken up when Kaitlyn went to bed, and she was ready to party. My husband didn’t want her waking up Kaitlyn, so he kept going in to her and telling her to sleep and be quiet. She quite enjoyed his visits and she kept up the party for most of the night. I finally told him he needed to just ignore her no matter what. He did and she finally went to sleep. That was our *best* camping experience ever. And by best, I really mean worst.
With that in mind, review sleep rules when you are getting your children ready for bed. Explain that the same rules apply when camping as they do at home. I let my children know that if they want to go camping in the future, they will do their part to make it enjoyable now.
Where to sleep?
Where will all sleep? Will you be in a camper, tent trailer, or tent? How will you arrange sleeping arrangements so that people can sleep as well as possible.
If you don’t share beds at home, you might want to think twice before doing it while camping–especially if you have young kids. Young children move A TON while sleeping. If you put two kids together, they might wake each other up as they kick the tar out of each other. If you sleep with a child, you will have your tar kicked out. Yep, been there. You also can have issues if you are sharing an air mattress with adults and children. My husband learned that the hard way one night when he slept on an air mattress with our three oldest and had them all rolled into him and on him all night.
If possible, have people in their own beds so their sleep only impacts themselves. For babies and toddlers, use bassinets, pack and plays, or a pea pod. In a bassinet, use blankets to cover the sides so the child won’t wake in the night and get woken fully by seeing an unfamiliar surrounding. For preschoolers and older, consider foam pads, air mattresses, and cots. The more comfortable your child, the better the child will sleep.
We love this travel bed. It can be used indoor or outdoor. It folds up to a nice small package that a child can carry. It is supposedly big enough for children up to age 6. I don’t know if I would really have Brayden (who is five) sleep in there, but he probably would like it.
Now, our family loves to camp. We do the easy camping where you camp in a trailer. I once swore I wouldn’t be a “weak sauce camper” who camps in a trailer, but then I got older and had children and realized weak sauce camping was more comfortable and more child-friendly. So I am not weak sauce.
Side Bar: did you know that when Brayden was two months old we took him camping in Wyoming in a TENT! What were we thinking?!!?!?!?!?!? I would never do that again. Now, the night went just fine–he woke up once, but it gets down to the 20s or 30s. That is cold in a tent!
Okay, back on track, so I thought this bed looked quite interesting for camping. McKenna needs to be in something enclosed so she doesn’t roll off the bed. When Kaitlyn was this age, we used a pack and play, but that took up all of the floor space in the “kitchen.” With this, McKenna could be on the bed!
They are spendy. They are about $85. But we thought it would be worth it.
And it was.
We used it for the first time in 2010 (it had been a cold year for us). A couple of days before we left camping, We set it up for her to play in and get used to. It is super easy to set up. It is literally one of those things you throw in the air and it sets itself up. All three kids had fun checking it out.
The night we were camping, she was excited to get in. I zipped her in and off she went to sleep. It has mesh you can have open to get fresh air in their.
The next morning, Brayden and Kaitlyn were gabbing at 6:30 AM. We decided to get them up and get going. McKenna was sharing the bed with Kaitlyn. Much to our surprise, McKenna was still sleeping away. So we took Brayden and Kaitlyn to our bed and tried to keep them quiet until 8:30 when we finally woke McKenna up. Do you know that until that moment, I have never had a child sleep past 7 AM while camping? Sure, it is understandable. The sun is up super early and shining on you. I couldn’t believe how well she slept.
Note that there are some less expensive PeaPods, but one person told me the less expensive ones don’t have the mesh opening options on the end. I thought I would want that so air could refresh in there. It also has a different mattress.
How to dress for sleep?
When Brayden was two months old, we took him on his first camping trip to the mountains of Wyoming. What was I thinking?!?!?!?!? It is FREEZING in the mountains of Wyoming at night. He was a two month old! In a tent! After that, we bought a camper so our babies could have a heater to keep an even temp at night.
For warm dressing at night, consider:
- Layers. For the babies and toddlers, have socks, onesie, footed PJs, and sleep sack to keep them warm. These little ones do not keep blankets on them, so you have to dress them for sleep as though they have a blanket attached to them. You don’t want to over dress because people don’t sleep well hot, either.
- Blankets and sleeping bags. As children get older, they start to keep their blankets on them. You can then dress them warmly (socks are very important for sleeping in the cold!) and then get a sleeping back and a blanket for each child.
While it is cold at night, it gets hot in the day. As soon as everyone is awake, I open all windows to let things cool down. This is wise whether in a tent or camper. When you are choosing your spot to camp, if at all possible, set up where there will be shade. If you have a cover or awning of some sort, use it.
If it is warm at nap time, have your child sleep in a onsie only and be sure to have some air flow in the place the child is sleeping.
How to block noise when sleeping?
A great thing about a camper is that it is quieter than a tent. I have loved having one for my babies. When we are choosing a spot to set up the camper or tent, I always try to be a distance from where the action will be. We always go camping with my extended family each year. I stay away from the fire pit because that is where the action is and the noise will be.
There is a lot of natural “white noise” when camping, but if you are worried about things being noisy, bring along a sound machine that runs on batteries. I love white noise for naps so the child has a better chance of sleeping with the chaos that is usually going on around you during the day. Then if you have older children, they can plan
When to do bedtime?
For younger children–toddlers and babies–I try to keep bedtime as close to normal time as possible. Remember, overly tired people don’t sleep as well as well-rested people, so if you want the best shot at sleeping well, you want your child down on time.
As children get older–4-6 usually depending on their natural flexibility–they can start staying up later when camping and they still sleep fine. Don’t be fooled into thinking a late bedtime will equal a sleep-in session in the morning.
How to stagger kids?
When you have all of your children in a tiny space, you need to be smart about how you stagger their bedtimes. I put my deepest sleeper in bed first. I also consider how long the child will likely take to fall asleep. A fast fall-asleeper is wise to put to bed first.
A tricky thing in staggering is you don’t know when the first child fell asleep. We have put the second child to bed before shortly after the first actually fell asleep and then the first child has had a power nap. Not fun. If your kids will be quiet and go to sleep quickly, it can work to have them go to bed at the same time.
What about that sun?
Where I live, the sun comes up early in the morning and goes down late at night in the summer. A hard thing with camping for people around here is that the sun is up in the 5 AM hour and usually people wake with the sun. Keep this in mind as you are setting up your sleep situation.
Prepare for Playtime
When camping, you might worry about how your child will entertain him/herself while camping. I find a child 2 or older is really quite adept at entertaining themselves with the nature around them. Yes, there are some things you can bring with you for your child to play with, but don’t overpack! You don’t need to over complicate the situation. And don’t pack things you can’t clean easily. Have your child play with nature and imaginations (but be careful about any poisonous plants you might have around you!).
One note, when Brayden was a toddler, he REALLY needed his consistency. He had to have independent playtime even when we were camping. He would need a place he could be alone and play for a bit. You could do this in a pack and play, tent, or camper.
Here are some things we commonly do when camping:
Prepare for Mealtime
When you are deciding what to eat and what food to pack, don’t forget to consider where you will eat. While an adult can sit down on a log with a plate of food and eat it, children are not that coordinated. If you have a baby, bring along something that can be a high chair. If you have toddlers or preschoolers, you might like a small table of some sort that they can sit at. Be aware of what your campsite is like. Many campsites have pic-nic tables at them. We tend to camp in the middle of no where so we need to provide our own stuff.
Packing for camping is hard. You can justifiably pack a TON of things. You need jackets, warm clothes, light clothes, pajamas, socks, shorts, pants, diapers, sunscreen, bug spray, perhaps swimsuits…sleeping gear, tables, food, wet wipes, entertainment items…oh my goodness. The list goes on forever. The more you pack, the more you have to wash and put away when you get home.
Return Home with Realistic Expectations
So…when you get home, everyone will be tired. You might need early bedtimes and longer naps. You might have kids falling asleep during independent playtime.
You will have a ton of laundry. Really, a ton. Just be prepared.
One of the best things about camping is that you can just relax. Don’t stress too much. If you really feel like you need more knowledge on what to expect before setting out in the great outdoors, try doing a trial run by setting up a tent in your backyard or in your family room. See what curve balls your children throw you and what you will need for your family’s camping trip.
Let your children play with nature while camping. Don’t worry about getting dirty. Let it happen. Have fun! Let me know if you have any questions.
Do you have tips for camping with children?
- Tips for a Successful Camping Trip with Children
- Utah National Parks with Kids Travel Tips
- How To Travel Without Destroying Your Babywise Progress
- Grand Canyon Travel Tips for Families
- How To Plan the Perfect Family Vacation
Check out Rachel’s tips for Traveling with Small Children.