9 Tips to Make Camping with Kids Less Stressful & More Fun
I’ve never been a camper. This is not due to a lack of trying by my parents – they dragged me on more family camping trips than I can count. But no matter how hard they tried, the idea of leaving the comforts of home to sleep on the ground and get covered in dirt was just not my idea of a good time.
This changed since having kids. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still not a fan of sleeping on the ground, or the dirt that seems to get everywhere. But after a few family camping trips, I had to begrudgingly admit that there’s magic in camping with kids.
Camping with kids allows the whole family to disconnect from the world and reconnect with each other. My kids are at their happiest outside, exploring the campground and enjoying the increased independence. This, in turn, gives Mom and Dad a chance to relax – a rare treat on family vacations!
Camping with kids can be intimidating, especially if you’re new to camping yourself. We have some successful trips under our belt, but we’re not veteran campers by any stretch. Here are some of the tips and tricks we’ve picked up along the way to make camping with kids easier.
Start Close to Home
Start small. A trial run in the backyard is a good way to make sure you have everything you need, and to make sure sleeping in the tent won’t be a complete disaster.
Stay close to home your first few trips. Pick a campsite close to civilization, so you can pop back into town if you forget something. The beauty of camping is that you don’t need to go far to feel like you’re getting away from it all.
Organization is Key when Camping with Kids
Organization is the key to camping with kids, and this is never more evident than when you’re setting up camp. Setting up a tent with your spouse can test your marriage at the best of times. Setting up camp while your children alternate between “helping” and exploring every dangerous thing they can find in the proximity of your campsite can derail your trip before it even starts.
When you’re camping with kids, the goal is to set up camp as quickly as possible. Pack to facilitate that. Pack everything you need to set up your tent in one bin: tent, hammer (to hammer in tent pegs), and any tarps and rope you need. In another bin, pack everything you need for inside the tent: foam tiles (more on that below), air mattresses, pump, sleeping bags, pillows, and, if you need one, the pack n’ play.
CAMPING WITH KIDS HACK: Place foam tiles on the floor of your tent (a tip I stumbled across here). The padding provides protection from the uneven ground (important for little ones who may roll off their air mattress), and it provides a little extra insulation for cool nights.
Organized packing will help the rest of your trip run smoother as well. For example, I try to keep food organized by meals as much as possible. If we’re having hamburgers the first night, I pack everything we need on top, where it’s easily accessible. I pack all of the coffee supplies together, and do the same for s’more supplies.
When you’re packing clothes, organize them by day and/or activity. I roll together each person’s clothes for the day, then place them in ziploc bags organized by day. I do the same with “extra” clothes that we may or may not need – like swimming gear, and extra cozy clothes. That way, if we decide to hit the beach, or if it gets extra cool, I just need to pull out the ziploc bag I need, rather than rummaging through bags to find what I need for everyone.
Get the Kids Involved
If your kids are old enough, give them jobs to do. This a good rule any time, but particularly when you’re setting up and taking down camp.
Kids can put the tent poles together and take them apart. They can pull sleeping bags out of their sacks and help set up beds. My dad always gave me the very important job sweeping off the tent with a hand broom and dustpan while he rolled it up when we were packing up. Gathering kindling is another task that will keep them busy for a long time.
Set Boundaries for the Kids to Explore the Campground
Riding bikes around the campground is a rite of passage for kids. My kids love the freedom to explore on their own, and will happily ride bikes as long as we’ll let them.
Before they take off exploring, give them boundaries on where they can and cannot go. For example, I don’t let my kids go near the water, in other campsites, or past the ranger station. You might want to have them stay away from parking lots or busy roads, or limit them to one or two loops.
Take Them Outside shared the brilliant tip of writing your campsite number on your child’s hand. We’ve always tried to get our older two kids to memorize our site number, but I will absolutely be using this tip on our next trip!
When the sun goes down well after 8:00, it’s really hard to enforce that 7:00 bedtime. Plus, everyone knows that some of the best memories are made gathered around the campfire after dark.
We relax bedtime while we’re camping. Our kids stay up just long enough to experience some of that after-dark excitement. This makes bedtime easier, as we aren’t battling with them to go to sleep while the sun is still shining.
However, be forewarned: the sun rises really early, and tents don’t come with blackout blinds. On our last trip we regretted the late bedtime when our daughter woke up before 5:00 a.m.
Which brings me to my next point – coffee. If you’re a camping veteran you’ll have this figured out, but for newbies, figuring out how to make your morning coffee is crucial. I recommend a french press that’s insulated and not made of glass (like this one). Your morning coffee will take a little extra effort, but it’s worth it.
Embrace the Dirt
You will get dirty when you’re camping, and you’ll be much happier if you embrace it. That said, there are a few things you can do to keep dirt under control.
Baby wipes are your best friend – even if your kids haven’t used baby wipes in years. A handwashing station is a convenient place for kids to wash their hands without having to make the long trek to the bathroom.
A mat outside the tent, together with a “no shoes in the tent” rule, are crucial to keep the dirt out of the tent. I keep a hand broom and dustpan inside the tent to sweep up any dirt that makes its way in.
Finally, since dirt inside my sleeping bag is not my idea of a good time, I set our bed up in the far corner of the tent. This doesn’t minimize the dirt, but does minimize how much I have to deal with it!
Don’t Forget the First Aid Kit
Expected the unexpected. With so much to explore, chances are good that somebody in the family is going to get hurt. Make sure your camping gear includes sunscreen, bug spray, and a basic first aid kit. We always throw in children’s ibuprofen or acetaminophen and allergy medication as well.
Glow Sticks are a Must-Have
Glow sticks are a must-have on our family camping trips. Our kids love playing with them after dark, and we love that it makes it easy to keep an eye on them. When they go to bed, we hang the glow sticks up in the tent. They provide enough illumination to make the tent a fun place – rather than a scary one.
Speaking of illumination, we bring enough flashlights for everyone in the family. The kids love to carry their own, and like stashing one beside their sleeping bag in case they wake up in the night. A headlamp is another good option.
Should you Bring the Potty?
If you have a newly potty trained toddler, consider bringing their potty. Bathrooms can be far away from your campsite, and may be scary for little ones (does anyone like outhouses?). Bringing their potty can help them feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar environment.
If your child is night trained, the potty can also be incredibly handy for middle-of-the-night wake-ups. After all, nobody enjoys stumbling to the bathroom in the woods in the middle of the night.
If your first family camping trip doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d like, don’t despair. The first time we went camping with all three kids it was a one night trip (thank goodness!), and I ended up with a grand total of about four hours of broken sleep. Learn from your mistakes, make adjustments as needed, and the next trip is bound to be easier!
What are your favourite tips to make camping with kids easier? I’d love to hear them!