When my sister-in-law told me that she was going to go on a camping trip with two kids under the age of two, I thought she was crazy. Babies and camping? Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
But as it turns out, many families love the adventure of camping, even with little ones in tow. There’s tons of fresh air, the smell of the fire and the warmth it provides at night, and endless fun outside as you explore nature together. Camping with a toddler or baby is possible and even more than that, it can be enjoyable too. Here are a few tips for making the most of your family’s first camping experience. 1
Choose the Right Campground
A successful camping trip will first depend on where you choose to go. You may want to start out by choosing a site that is more local to you, so you’re not forced to make a long road trip with your baby or toddler, only to have them already tired and cranky by the time you get there. Consider too, your worst-case scenario for what would happen if your little one got sick. Is there an urgent care center or hospital nearby? Would the campground be close enough to home that you could leave in an emergency?
If you choose to stick local for your first trip, you might be surprised to find out how many camping sites there are nearby and just how many resources they offer. For example, many state parks offer perks like free shower facilities, paved trails, advanced reservations, and low site fees.
Some county parks can offer everything from splash pads and pools on-site to full restaurants and family fun like tennis courts or putt-putt golfing. There are so many different options for exactly what you’re looking for, so think ahead about what type of camping experience you’re hoping to find.
If you want a very rural and rustic camping experience, you may have to prepare for the unexpected. Some sites do not offer advanced reservations and only give sites on a first-come, first-serve basis. So take advantage of your baby’s early wake-up time to hit the road in time to be the first one to reserve your site.
Check your state’s Department of Natural Resources for a full list of available state campgrounds online. Many sites will let you call ahead to reserve a site or reserve a site right online if you have an account and the right information. Some states too, like Michigan, have a flat fee for entrance into all state parks, which makes camping a very affordable option for families. You can also filter your search by site type, or if there are resources like showers available.2
Consider the Camp Site
All camping is pretty much the same, right? You pitch a tent, start a fire, roast some marshmallows? Well, yes and no. Even if you choose a campground, there are many different types of campsites within the same campground.
If you can, check out reviews of the campsites so you can hear what sites work best for families. For example, if you’re using a tent and won’t have access to a bathroom, you may want to choose a site that is nearest to the bathroom if you’re traveling with a potty-training toddler.
However, if you are using an RV or another camper, you may want to make sure you’re closest to the beach or to the playground so your little one can stay entertained. If you book a site online in advance, you can look at the campsite map and gauge what site might be best for your family. Also consider the shade and sun of your site, which might sound like a small thing, but I can guarantee you that’s most certainly a very big deal indeed.
If you have a tent without shade and choose a full-sun spot in the summer, you may all end up sweltering and constantly worry about sunscreen. On the flip side, an overly shaded area can be a magnet for bugs and mosquitoes and make for a miserable, itchy camping trip. If you can find it, a partially-shaded site is ideal, because you’ll have a site that has fewer bugs, but also some relief from the sun, especially if it’s hot weather when you’re camping.3
Bring the Right Gear
Sure, camping is supposed to be rustic, but no one wants to go too rustic when you’re trying to enjoy time with your baby or toddler. Successful camping is all about the gear and you’ll want to make sure you have the right gear to make your camping trip fun for the whole family.
While camping with a baby, you’ll want to be sure to bring the following items:
- A portable camping highchair or pod, which usually runs from around $30 to $60, that can be easily folded up and wiped down. I know many people who simply stash the highchair in their cars or at their in-laws after use on a camping trip, for spontaneous trips out and about. There are many options that you might even want to purchase just to have around the house!
- A hiking carrier, if you plan to be walking around a lot or hiking. Look for one that’s sturdy and can accommodate a baby to toddler. If you’re on a budget, check online swap sites or sales for used carriers.
- Wet wipes: You can never have too many wet wipes, to be honest. You’ll also want to bring a bag to dispose of all of your trash, including wipes and diapers.
- An outdoor rug or beach mat: You’ll want something to extend your living space, especially if you have a crawling baby on the loose. There are many options you could use for this, from a leftover piece of carpet to indoor/outdoor carpeting to a plastic tarp. It’s also a great idea to pick up a beach mat if you plan on spending time at the beach to keep your little one from spending too much time in the sand. (Which includes, of course, eating the sand and/or stuffing sand down her diaper because you know it will happen.)
- A playpen or Pack `n Play: You’ll want a portable crib of some sort to both uses for your child to be entertained and corralled, as well as sleep in.
- A noise machine: I know, I know, a noise machine isn’t exactly rustic camping gear, but if you’ve got a fussy baby, it may just be worth it to bring a battery-powered noise machine of some kind to help soothe your little one to sleep.
- A cooler, if you will need breast milk or formula stored.
- Lots of layers: Temperatures can drop drastically at night, especially if you’re tent camping, so you will want to be sure to have layers for your baby to add as the night goes on.
While camping with a toddler, you may find the aforementioned items useful too. Your toddler may not want to spend too much time in a playpen, for example, but it will be helpful when you need to keep your toddler nearby and safe while you get dinner going over the fire.4
Be on Guard Against Bugs
Camping with young ones for the first time can be a wonderful experience, but it may also include a lot of unexpected and unwanted mementos in the form of bug bites.
If you’re going camping, thoroughly prepare to be on guard against bug bites and to carefully monitor your children for any bug bite reactions. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that repellant used on kids contain no more than 30% DEET
As an alternative, the AAP recommends that parents choose bug repellants with an active ingredient of picaridin first. Some types of essential oils repellants essential oils such as soybeans, cedar, or citronella can be used, although they are very short-acting. These repellants haven’t been studied in long-term use, so sparingly use them on your young children. If you can, use a bug screen net attached to your baby’s car seat or playpen whenever possible to ward off bug intruders instead. You should never apply any bug spray on a baby younger than 2 months old. Only apply bug spray to exposed skin and monitor your baby or toddler for any reaction to the spray as well.
The AAP also notes that many “natural” products on the market, such as wristbands soaked in essential oils or ultrasonic devices have not been proven to be effective against bugs.
A Word From Verywell
If you take a camping trip with your family, rest assured it’s the kind of vacation you will remember for a very long time. And as fun, as it may be, camping is not a trip to undertake spontaneously when you have a baby or toddler. The key to camping is preparation, and having the right supplies and gear to actually make it an enjoyable experience for everyone. So if you’re willing to do a little research and prep work, you can have fun camping experience, even with little ones in tow.