Our family has always enjoyed the great outdoors, and we have camped since our children were very young. We truly enjoyed helping them grow up with an appreciation for nature and wildlife, and now have the privilege of doing the same with our grandchildren.
Whether you pitch a tent, use a pop-up, or own a motorhome or travel trailer, camping with toddlers can be part of a most enjoyable vacation if you do a little planning and preparation.
I suggest the first few camping trips be kept short. At my home in Florida we are lucky enough to have a myriad of wonderful parks and campgrounds close enough to spend just a weekend—any longer than that may become stressful for a little one.
Toddler Schedules and Changes
We try to keep as close to a regular schedule as possible but improvise where necessary. If your child still takes naps in the afternoon, it will probably be next to impossible to get him to go down when there is so much to do and see, but a few quiet moments cuddling on a towel in the grass guessing cloud shapes, or enjoying a swing or hammock from the comfort of Mom or Dad’s lap can work wonders. The child who goes nowhere without his “blanky” can usually be cajoled into carrying it in a zip lock bag at the campsite if you explain he wouldn’t want ants crawling all over it.
While I have used a small blow-up pool with a bassinet mattress as a bed for my youngest before he could crawl, a portable playpen for larger children two and under works well, especially when we camp in a tent. An adult sleeps between the child and the door just in case a little one wakes up before anyone else and wants to go searching for adventure.
Safety for the Little Ones
In addition to a regular first aid kit, I bring antiseptic hand cleaner, and use it at least once an hour whether the child’s hands appear to be dirty or not. I recommend rinsing their hands with clear water or wiping with a wet cloth afterward, as most toddlers continually have their fingers in their mouths.
An extra vigilant eye is necessary to keep a child from picking up and tasting new and unusual objects. Don’t forget lots of sunscreen, and insect repellant. I prefer the spray on; it gets in all the cracks and crevices. Do not spray directly into the child’s face, spraying on your hands and rubbing on his face works well. Be extra careful not to get in or near his eyes and do not allow him to touch his face until it is fully dry
Mealtimes can get a little hectic; usually one of us will take the little one on a nature walk while the other deals with the fire and cooking. Trading cooking and walking duties gives each of us special time alone with our special child. I use this time to point out animal or bird footprints and see how many different trees, bushes and leaves we can find. Don’t forget to pick some pretty flowers for the cook, if picking flowers is not against park rules.
We have found meals and snacks are best eaten a short distance away from the campsite. Little fingers drop or spill food and drinks. All manner of insects and critters will come a-running to enjoy dinner with you, and you don’t want to have a sleepover with them.
Eating sugary snacks, roasting marshmallows and making s’mores are best done several hours before bedtime. Trying to put a sugared up toddler to bed is close to useless, and a battle of wills can spoil the whole evening and leave the child with a bad memory of camping.
Other Toddler Camping Considerations
We find the traditional scary stories around the campfire are best told in a hushed voice after the little one is safely asleep. The older kids still enjoy getting the bejeebers scared out of them, but you don’t want to affect the little one. The later it gets, the scarier the story seems anyway.
While birds and small animals are most curious and hungry in the early morning, waiting until the child has had breakfast and run off a little energy makes it easier to teach him to sit quietly so the birds and squirrels will come close enough to view and enjoy. It is important to teach children early on not to feed wild animals by hand. As cute as they are, wild animals will bite if frightened, and dealing with a wild animal bite is much more difficult than dealing with a nip from a neighbor’s puppy.
My husband and I have truly enjoyed opening the outdoor world and all its treasures to every child we have had the privilege of camping with over the years, and we intend to be right here when the third generation of my family gets the camping bug.
Rose Padrick, who lives in Cocoa, Florida, camped with her five children when they were young and now has 15 grandchildren to take on camping trips.