Camping with a Toddler: A Survival Guide

camping at goldstream provincial park

We recently went camping on Vancouver Island for two nights with our two-year-old. It was our first time camping with the Beast, and there was much teeth-grinding dread in anticipation of it. Would the Beast sleep through the night? Given that our toddler has a tendency to make a run for it any chance he gets, how were we going to enjoy ourselves while being on high alert 24/7? Was I going to have my sanity intact by the end of the trip?

Fortunately, the Beast did sleep well for the most part. And we ended up having heaps of fun in spite of the challenging moments. Things certainly did go wrong, but in the end it was all worth it.

Every time I’ve gone camping I’m astonished by how at ease I feel being outdoors all day and all night. It’s like some primal part of my being instantly feels at home being out in nature. It was gratifying to provide this experience to our son and watch him enjoy his first camping adventure.

I am no camping expert, but I wanted to share some tips based on our first camping trip with our two-year-old that I hope other parents with toddlers will find helpful.

Here are 12 tips for surviving a camping trip with a toddler.

surviving camping with a toddler

1. Have non-ambitious plans
Our agenda for this trip was to make it as easy as possible. We made no plans to do anything that would require a great deal of effort. We mostly just hung out. Our campsite was right next to a playground so we spent a lot of time there with the Beast.

2. Go with friends
I wouldn’t have done this camping trip on our own, and I’m so glad our friends invited us to join them. It’s gobs more fun to go with another family. We took turns preparing meals and that worked out really well. After our kids went to sleep we sat around the campfire chatting and drinking beers. Speaking of beer…

3. Bring plenty of booze
They don’t call alcohol “mommy’s little helper” for nothing. Booze is a good way to reward yourself after a long day of being hypervigilant and looking after a toddler who has absolutely no regard for his own mortality.

4. Mentally prepare yourself not to get much sleep
Does anyone ever get a good night’s sleep while camping? I felt like I slept no worse this time around than I did on previous camping trips in my pre-baby years. If possible, take a nap in the afternoon to catch up on some Z’s. That’s what I did, and it helped mitigate the wretchedness I feel after a night of poor sleep.

camping with a toddler

5. Find ways to contain your toddler
Our boy is a super active toddler who is allergic to staying still. Being outside 24/7 with no walls to contain the kid proved to be exhausting, so there were times when we were very tempted to tie him to a tree. We gave ourselves breaks from having to chase him all over the place by attempting to contain him occasionally. We brought a portable booster chair in order to strap him down during meals. He slept in a pack ‘n’ play so that he wouldn’t be bouncing around in the tent like a crazed ferret. We slapped on a harness (a.k.a. a baby leash) on him to prevent him from darting into the road after he almost got hit by a car. It turned out that the best way to contain him was to park him in the back of our friends’ SUV. He loved chilling in the trunk with the door open.

6. Prepare food ahead of time
I chopped veggies at home to avoid having to bring a cutting board and knife. I also pre-cooked food and froze it. When it was time to eat, the food was already defrosted and all I had to do was reheat it. For fruit, I packed grapes and blueberries because they travel well. I also brought dried fruit and cheese sticks – easy finger foods.

camping with a toddler

7. Use disposable everything
In an effort to have a hassle-free camping experience, I resorted to using disposable plates, cutlery, cups, and paper towels. It’s wasteful and terrible for the environment, I know, but camping with a toddler is hard enough so I get a free pass, right? I highly recommend doing anything it takes to minimize the number of dishes to wash.

8. Accept filth and dirt as inevitable
I mentally prepared myself to be okay with dirt because that’s part of the camping experience. We did not bother bathing the Beast, and we used baby wipes to clean his hands before meals. I managed to brush my teeth and face once a day and that was good enough. Remember, easy is the name of the game!

9. Go on a hike
We went on an easy 1-hour hike with our toddler. He walked most of the way since we didn’t bother bringing our stroller. It was a great way to tire him out for his afternoon nap! This was our most ambitious activity during the entire camping trip.

10. Try to stick to your toddler’s routine but be flexible
The Beast normally has set meal times, but while camping I let him eat whenever and whatever he wanted to eat since food was always within reach. We pretty much stuck to his sleep routine, putting him down at the usual times he normally goes down for naps and bedtime.

11. Bring warm clothes and blankets (yes even in summer)
Even though it was July and sunny, it was freakin’ cold, especially overnight. We unfortunately were underdressed, and my sleeping bag didn’t keep me warm at night (hence the reason why I didn’t sleep well). We used a winter-weight sleepsack for our toddler but next time I would definitely get a sleeping bag for him. I worried the whole night he wasn’t warm enough even though for PJ’s he was wearing a onesie plus a fleece sleeper over it. But then again maybe he wasn’t that cold because the second night he sprung a major diaper leak that soaked right through his sleepsack and he slept fine the whole night. Anyway, better to be safe than sorry – so take extra blankets and sweaters!

12. Pack extra extra clothes for your toddler
Every parent who’s traveled with their toddler knows to pack extra clothes. Toddlers are exceptionally talented at generating all sorts of liquids from every orifice of their body. So for camping take even more spare clothes because you won’t have access to laundry facilities and your toddler will manage to soil herself one way or another. During this trip, the Beast had more diaper leaks than normal. Given his overnight diaper leak (see #11), next time I would put a pull-up diaper over his normal diaper for bedtime in order to prevent him from soaking his PJ’s and sleepsack.

Bonus tip: Let go and have fun.

Camping with a toddler turned out be more enjoyable than I expected. It’s a shitload of work (literally, as the Beast pooped generously and frequently during our trip), but it’s fun to see your kid have a great time as he explores the outdoors. I hope we do it again next summer!

Have you gone camping with a toddler? Any tips you’d like to add?

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