About a year ago, I wrote this piece about taking our toddler camping. My uncomfortable second pregnancy coupled with our toddler’s spirited independence, a.k.a. his normal growth and development, made our outdoor pursuits together a little more…challenging. Last summer alone, we saved him from falling off bridges, watched helplessly as he flung his sippy cup into a fire pit, held him as he flailed violently during temper tantrums on steep hiking trails, soothed several black eyes, saved him from falling off the platform at a train station in Germany, and doctored up the resulting bloody nose when he accidentally jabbed Dad in the face, in the tent (in the dark) during a backpacking trip.
Let’s fast forward one year. My aforementioned baby-bump is now a full-fledged babbling, crawling nine-month old who has recently completed her first weekend camping trip, under the mentorship of her much more experienced big brother and proud parents. Her big brother is now a two-and-three-quarter year old who loves to camp and, mercifully, now has a slightly better sense of self-preservation.
The trip went well, and we have already planned to take our first backpacking trip as a family of four before summer’s over. A friend recently reacted to this by saying “all this sounds great, but it sounds like a lot of work.” When I asked for clarification on what she meant by it, she pointed to my kids. Oh, right. That it. That ever-changing storybook of early childhood, its pages unfolding while pitching a tent. Setting up camp. Figuring out where everything happens…cooking, eating, playing, washing up. Saving the toddler from nature and all its perils. Meltdowns and tantrums at public campgrounds. All while caring for an infant. Nursing her, keeping her content and safe, soothing her rare but ear-splitting cries raising the alarm for who knows what. Packing in kids’ paraphernalia, changing diapers, packing out dirty diapers and wipes. Throw in ensuring an enjoyable and memorable camping experience for me and my husband, and capturing those quintessentially Instagrammable photos. It is a lot of work.
So, what do we do to enjoy camping with our baby and toddler?
1) We Make A Packing List & Bring Only What We Need.
We are pretty simple campers. As a family, we have decided that having less stuff lets us enjoy what we do have more. The less time we spend carting, organizing, keeping track of, and cleaning up our campsite, the more time we can spend with our kids and actually enjoy camping.
Besides critical items (food + water + camp stove and cookware, shelter: tent + sleeping bags + pads, change of clothing, rain coats, sandals/water shoes, diapers and wipes) we didn’t bring much else. One really doesn’t need any entertainment while camping because we are surrounded by nature and that is the best entertainment.
The only play thing we brought for Johann from home was his balance bike and helmet. This kept him entertained and active while we cooked, built a fire or did camp chores. Dirt, rocks, and hunting for edible berries around our campsite kept him busy the rest of the time.
Arya played with whatever we had laying around at camp, mugs, water bottles, carabiners, etc. and she had a great time. I know this will change as she gets older, so we’re cherishing her simplistic entertainment needs now. Even a salt-shaker was hilarious fun.
We brought camp chairs for the adults and toddler, and the GoPod for our baby. No one is paying me to say this, but if you’re an outdoor family looking for a safe place to put an older infant, I highly recommend the KidCo GoPod. It is as lightweight and folds up slim like a camp chair. We have gotten so much use out of this thing with both our kids on fishing trips, camping, picnics and very often just in our own backyard.
2) We Keep Camping Food Easy.
Prep easy meals at home that the whole family can eat, and bring everything marinated or pre-seasoned, so that the most you have to do at camp is sauté or boil in water. We like to eat good, wholesome food, so we put in a little extra effort at home to make easy and fast camp-ready meals – two important factors, since we are also watching the kids. Pictured here is what we brought on our last camping trip, enough to feed all of us for three days.
We love one-pot meals like rice and cous cous that can be pre-measured and pre-mixed into baggies with spices and dehydrated veggies. Toss the contents into a billy pot with water and boil, then fry up some nitrate-free sausages (or better yet, roast them over the fire pit) for a complete meal. Or serve with lentils, or just eat plain. Cous cous is a hands-down favorite, since it only takes five minutes to cook. You will need all that extra non-cooking time to go grab your toddler before he digs up the poisonous mushrooms behind your campsite.
Oatmeal is another favorite – mixed with cinnamon, raisins, and brown sugar if desired – just add boiling water for a hearty breakfast. Eggs carefully nestled into the cooler then soft-boiled at camp, along with some fresh spinach we had laying around, and sausages, all thrown together into tortillas made great breakfast burritos another day. Some canned salmon and tuna, chopped red onions and capers that we prepped in a tupperware container beforehand (leave the cutting boards at home) went into more tortillas for easy no-cook lunch wraps between hiking and beach exploration. Tortillas are pretty great for camping and backpacking – they hold up better than bread, take up less room, and they don’t get squished like bread. A peanut butter and jelly wrap tastes just as good as a sandwich. And Johnny’s Seasoning Salt – never leave home without it.
Not pictured: Fresh fruit (cherries and apples). Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches that we ate in the car en route. Marshmallows for toasting, a camping must-have! Our small cooler to house the eggs and other cold stuff, ice-filled water bottles, and three small icepacks.
3) We Give Each Other Space.
While we thrive on our family-time, my husband and I both love alone-time, too. It is quite impossible to find much of either at a crowded campground, much less at our own campsite (or in our 6’x7′ tent)! We are with our kids all.the.time. Even when they get fussy and/or misbehave. It’s at these times that we plan strategic alone-time.
The boys will go for a walk while I nurse the baby and enjoy the quiet. Or I take the Johann down to the water while Ryan and Arya get a chance to enjoy some quiet time. An example from our recent camping trip: our first night was rough, I hardly slept. Baby girl was in my sleeping bag and she stirred and fussed every hour or so. It was awful, and so unlike sleeping at home. The next morning I was trying hard not to be a sleep-deprived zombie. Ryan wore Arya in the Ergo carrier, and watched Johann ride his bike around the campground while I stole a few minutes to journal and enjoy my morning coffee. Those few minutes went a long way, and I really appreciated that break.
4) We Accept That The Kids Will Get Dirty.
This was a hard one for me, but having a boy first made me get over the fact that kids will find dirt and get into it no matter what. Johann was six months old the first time we took him backpacking. I had laid down the rain cover of my pack and gingerly set him down on top of it while we set up our tent, but in less than half a minute he had already moved to the dirt and was happily eating it. That was my A-ha moment. On this recent camping trip, our daughter sucked on some large rocks on the beach. Oh well.
I’ve come a long way and just accept it now. Dirt makes kids happy, and it’s good for them, too. We give our littles a good hand and face scrub at the end of each camping day and call it good enough until we hop into hot showers back home.
5) We Keep Our Sleep Expectations Low.
Does anyone really sleep the same while camping as in their own bed? When we camp, we all go to bed at the same time, which is usually very late (with the sun), and we all tend to wake up very early (with the sun, again). The minute they see any day light the kids are up and at ’em…lest they miss any of the day’s excitement. We’re learning that we all can operate remarkably well on less sleep – temporarily. The other thing is personal space. We have a small (3-person) backpacking tent. When our toddler was a baby, he would bunk in one of our sleeping bags with us and we would be very careful not to squish him. This usually meant that we ourselves did not sleep very soundly. At about one-and-a-half years old, we got him his own sleeping bag, which made a huge difference and helped all of us sleep better. Now, we’re reliving it with our baby girl who wakes up and fusses every time one of us tries to roll over. But – we know it is temporary, and this works for us – for now. We plan to get a bigger tent for future car-camping trips as our littles ones are only getting bigger, and before we know it, Arya will be a toddler and will have her own sleeping bag. There are more options for those who have bigger tents – like sleeping on an air mattress to absorb some of the movement, or a travel crib or pack n’ play for the baby. This works really well for our friends who camp with their littles!
We had a blast. We explored a new place, witnessed firsts, bonded in new ways, and made memories for a lifetime. We look forward to many more camping adventures with our kids! Here’s wishing you all the same.