Tips for Successfully Camping With Kids

I’m honored to once again be able to share a guest post by Maura Marko, travel blogger extraordinaire. She previously shared her Top Tips for Hiking with Kids and now she’s back to tackle the topic of camping with little ones. Thank you to Maura for this great contribution!

Setting up camp at Jay Cooke State Park in MN

The idea of camping with kids can seem intimidating. I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you: taking kids camping is hard work. But it really is an absolute blast at the same time. I also want to remind you that your kids will be just as worn out and exhausted following a weekend of camping as you will be!

We get asked many questions about camping with babies too so I’ll do my best to address our most frequently asked questions.

Why bother?

What’s so great about camping anyways? It seems like a lot of work. Don’t you have to buy a bunch of gear? It’s easy to think of all the reasons why camping is difficult and easy to forget how amazing and fun camping really is. Why do we love to camp so much? The answer is simple. My husband works a stressful, time-consuming job that keeps him attached to electronic devices for the majority of the day. It’s easy for us all to get burned out by the need for outlets. Setting off on a week or weekend of camping means we all get to stop, take a deep breath, disconnect from our screens, and simply be together. We sleep, eat, play, and explore together. We reconnect with one another in ways that just aren’t possible when juggling the craziness of day to day life.

Hiking at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Yes, camping with a baby/toddler/kid is hard. Yes, it means packing a lot of gear. Yes, we spend a weekend living in our own, each others, and the dogs filth. Yes, we have a ridiculous amount of fun. Yes, we are watching our son grow and develop into a child as he explores trails, campsites and campgrounds. Yes, we get to watch his self-confidence grow as he becomes more daring and brave in his explorations. No, I wouldn’t trade this time for anything else in the world.

Exploring at City of Rocks State Park in NM

When to start?
The big question of what age is best to start camping?!? This can be a highly personal question because a lot of the answer depends on the comfort level of the parents. A lot of people thought we were crazy for taking our 6-week old baby camping. For us, it was a little nerve-wracking, but we also felt comfortable and confident in the decision we had made. This is key in having a successful trip, all adults that are going along should feel confident about the decisions being made. If somebody isn’t on board with the whole plan the endeavor may not be successful.

6 week old Jack on his first camping trip!

I am of the opinion that the earlier you start a child out camping, the better. My husband and I were both brought up camping with our families from a very young age. Neither one of us remembers our first camping trips. This means that we never had to be told by an adult that we could survive in a tent…that staying at a campground was fun. We just knew these facts to be true. So we wanted to get our son out into the tent and campgrounds as quickly as possible. For him, we want camping to be the norm. We want him to think that all families go camping and hiking on their vacations.

If you have an older child, I encourage you to start as quickly as possible. It can be difficult to do if your child is not at the most amenable stage of development. But, remember that all ages can be challenging and there is no perfect age at which you know everybody will be well-behaved and have a good time.

Take the leap. Take the chance. And just go camping!

Enjoying breakfast at St Croix State Park in MN

What if…
I think that what holds a lot of parents back from taking their kiddos camping is their own fears and worries. They play out all the “what if…” scenarios over and over in their heads and talk themselves out of it before planning has even begun.

Believe me when I say I had these fears too. I was (and still am) an anxious first-time mom. I constantly play out those scenarios in my head and did a lot while we were planning for our first trip with Jack. I chose to deal with my own fears and insecurities by being proactive. I listened to myself and used my fears and instincts to guide my decision-making processes. Some of the scenarios I played out were very helpful in creating packing lists. I had thought of pretty much every thing that could possibly go wrong and packed accordingly. What if my infant gets a stuffy nose? Pack the Nose Frieda. What if it gets really cold at night? Pack extra base layers, fleece pjs, and warm sleep sacks.

I also found that talking with my husband about my worries was very helpful. I would say, “This may sound crazy but, I’m worried about a bear coming into the campground and taking Jack.” He would reassure me, by showing me bear activity in the area, talk to me about the number of bear/human attacks there had been in the state, etc… He would never belittle me or my fears. He listened and did his best to help soothe them. I was only 5 weeks postpartum as we were planning our first trip and my hormones were doing a number on my emotions. That paired with sleepless nights meant that Bobby had to do a lot of hand-holding that first trip. As we have continued camping with our son for almost two years now, most of my initial “what if…” scenarios are now a thing of the past. Now, I anticipate trips with excitement  knowing how much fun Jack will have. Each trip gets easier and easier. You learn as you go what your camping essentials truly are and packing lists decrease in size.

What tent should I get?
Many people want to know what tent is the best for camping with kids. A tent can be a hefty investment or a quick trip to Target to grab whatever they have. Here’s my best advice for selecting your new tent. I want you to think of the following.

First off, plan for the future. Don’t buy a tent for the size family you have now, buy the tent that you will want your family to have 5 or 10 years from now.

Think about the sleeping arrangement that will work best for your current and future family.

The setup inside our tent when Jack was less then 2 months old

Think about how often you plan on going. Are you an avid camper that needs something that will stand the test of time and all weather conditions? Or are you an infrequent camper who will only be going out occasionally IF the weather is nice.

When all was said and done we answered the questions thinking, we wanted a tent that would sleep four people and one large dog comfortably. Our dream is to have two children and always have a dog along. Jack slept independently as a baby so we wanted a tent large enough to fit a pack n play in which he ccould sleep. With a 70-pound dopey dog along for the trip, the idea of putting Jack on the ground where he could be crushed by the pup didn’t sound like a good idea to us. We knew we’d be getting out as often as possible and in any weather. So we knew, for us, a more expensive (but better made) tent would be a must. In the end we opted for the REI Kingdom 4 tent. It is a giant two-room tent that stands just over 6-feet tall.

A bit different from the two-man backpacking tent we used to use!

The price tag was steep ($389) but we are hoping this tent will last us for many years to come as our family grows. When you think about it, that is about the same price as two nights in a hotel but you’ll get years of use out of it.

Where should we go?
So, you’ve decided to start planning that first camping trip and you realize just how many camping options are out there! If you have an old favorite – something you remember fondly from childhood or a campground you know well – I would suggest you start there. Being in a familiar setting will help you feel more at ease for that first night out. If you’ve never been before, here are some of my favorite Minnesota campgrounds.

Wild River State Park: Wild River is located about an hour from Minneapolis. This campground has it all – tent sites, backpacking sites, group sites, horse sites, even some camper cabins if you want to start your introduction to camping a little slower. There’s a shower building, visitor center, 35 miles of hiking trails, and 2.6 miles of biking trails.

Jack exploring near the group campsites at Wild River

Tettegouche State Park: Another great option, this park is further north at around 3.5 hours from the Minneapolis area and is situated on the shores of Lake Superior. If you wanted, you could get a campsite right on the water. Remember though, with little ones along, those campsites can get very cold if there is a breeze coming off the lake. We generally opt to stay at their more inland campground when we have Jack along. This campground offers car camping, RV sites, cart-in sites, and many more with 81 sites for varying usage. The park offers a variety of recreational activities including beautiful rock climbing on Shovel Point, a fishing pier, 23 miles of hiking trails, and a 1.5 mile mountain bike trail. This is one of the most scenic spots on the North Shore and definitely a must-see if you venture up that way.

A short jaunt from the campground is picturesque High Falls

Sawbill Campground: This is my personal favorite campground in Minnesota. Though a pretty substantial drive from the Twin Cities at 4.5 hours, you will find yourself in a lush campground right on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The campground is located within the Superior National Forest and is more primitive than most state park facilities. Only vault toilets and drinking water are available within the campground. However, Sawbill Outfitters is located just steps from the campground and they have flush toilets, showers for a fee, and coin operated laundry. Their small store also offers forgotten essentials, camping equipment, and canoe rentals. The campground itself is incredibly beautiful with ample vegetative screening between the 51 sites, allowing you more privacy within your site then is often offered by state park facilities. Some of the sites even have peek-a-boo views of nearby Sawbill Lake.

Sawbill Lake at Sunset

We are so lucky to live in a state like Minnesota where there are hundreds of camping options! There truly is something for everybody here. You can get as primitive or as resort-like as you’d like depending upon your camping experience preference.

Will they sleep?
This is a scary topic for most parents. The idea of taking our children out of their normal day-to-day routine seems very overwhelming. I tell you from experience that throwing them off of their schedules for a weekend or even a week will not result in the catastrophe you may envision. I do want to say that you probably won’t get as much sleep when out camping as you normally do, especially in the summer. Late sunsets mean that most kids are up past their bedtimes and the excitement of sleeping in a new and super fun space, like a tent, means that settling them down is a lot more difficult than it is at home.

We find it works best to follow our nighttime routine as closely as possible with Jack, no matter where we are. The cues help him to realize what time it is. Still, there’s usually 20 minutes or so of monkeying around as he explores the space he will be sleeping in for the night. As an infant he went down easier in the tent than he did at home! But, as a curious and busy toddler, things have definitely become more complicated. He’s generally most excited by the squishiness of his sleeping pad and the fact that the dog is sleeping in the same area as him. Each family will find their own ways of dealing with the nighttime squirms. We give Jack a little slack for about ten minutes and answer his questions and comments. After all, we want him to feel comfortable and understand his surroundings. After that, it’s all business and we usually pretend to fall asleep. He touches our faces or climbs on us and tries to engage us in toddler conversation. We just do our best to convince him that no matter what he does we are already sound asleep. Soon enough he gets bored, settles down, and eventually falls asleep.

We use an app on our phone that makes rain sounds to help drown out the noise of a campground at 8:00 p.m. That has really helped us be more successful with sleeping in the tent. As the sun comes up, Jack begins to stir and definitely wakes up earlier than he would at home with his black-out shades.

As for napping, we leave that schedule pretty wide open when camping. Jack usually has one afternoon nap but often the effect of less sleep at night while camping means an early morning and an afternoon nap. These can occur while out hiking in his backpack, in his seat while out for a bike ride, or in the car while driving to day trip destination.

Napping while biking at St Croix State Park

Again, you will get less sleep while out adventuring, unless you have an amazing sleeper who can sleep through anything (in which case I seriously envy you). But remember that these nights and days spent together as a family will be well worth it!

How do you cook?
This was a tricky one for us to figure out as we incorporated this tiny human being into our camping trips. We used to share the duties of campsite cooking. With Jack along, one of us needs to ensure that he is safe while we are cooking, especially if we have a campfire going. Generally, we don’t start campfires while camping unless in a group setting so that multiple adults can help wrangle our intrepid explorer. We generally cook using our Coleman Gladiator Camping stove or our dutch oven.

Pancakes on our camping stove

Finding meal ideas for camping is super easy using Pinterest! It’s where I get most of my inspiration. I also have a couple of camping cookbooks, though many of those are more gourmet than I’m willing to try with a toddler along. Remember when packing food for trips, pack lots of simple, calorie-rich options. Camping really does exhaust everybody and some extra calories are what everybody will need to keep their energy levels up.

Dutch Oven French Toast

My other big tip is to do as much preparation at home as possible. For example, if I’m preparing a chicken dish on a trip, I will pre-cook the chicken at home so it’s just a matter of heating it up at the campsite. I’ll chop vegetables for a stir-fry at home and put them in Tupperware or a Ziploc baggie to save myself a step at the campsite. If you are going to need to refer to a recipe take screenshots of it with your phone so you don’t have to worry about printing anything off or having service to pull it up. It’s true what they say about food tasting 100 times better while you’re camping than it does at home!

Giant hamburgers cooked over the fire

Bugs, sun, and other worries
Here in Minnesota, we have to deal with a lot of extremes. We have extreme weather patterns that need to be considered when planning a trip. Watching the weather report – ensuring that your camping trip won’t be miserable because of inconvenient or even severe weather – is important. Know when to say, “Maybe it’s best we not go” or “Maybe we should pack up and go before the storm hits.” Missing out on a trip because of weather is a bummer but safety and comfort are really important when camping. If the whole weekend is going to be wet and soggy and everybody is just going to be miserable, maybe postponing would be best. Remember to set yourselves and your children up for success. You want everybody to have fun and bad weather can turn opinions of camping south fairly quickly.

Bugs are also a huge concern for a lot of families. People hear the word “tick” and start to panic. There are things you can do to prevent ticks. First off, consider treating your clothing and gear before you leave with Permethrin Spray. This should protect you from mosquitoes, ticks, and many other insects and lasts up to six weeks or six washings! Also, just pay attention to your environment. Do your best to keep kiddos out of tall grass. Be sure to do a thorough tick check every night. Wood ticks are large in size and – though unpleasant – are pretty harmless. Deer ticks are tiny (about the size of a pin) and are the ones that have the potential for carrying Lyme’s Disease. If you find a deer tick on yourself or a child and are concerned, call your medical professional and seek some advice.

A lot of people use Deet-based repellents while they camp. If you have a thumb-sucking or teething child who will gnaw on anything, you may have to think twice about using such strong chemicals. We opt for an all-natural bug spray, we like BabyGanics. Yes, they need to be applied more frequently then a strong Deet spray but we feel better about using it around our babe.

Clothing choices can also help to prevent bug bites. Long pants and long sleeves, tucking your socks into your pants, hats, and even mosquito netting work well for particularly bad days of bugs. Investing in some breathable wicking clothes before heading out might be necessary if you go to those extremes and it’s a hot summer day.

Sunscreen and sun hats are also important when out camping. Regular re-application of sunscreen throughout the day will help to prevent sunburn. Again, we like BabyGanics and the whole family uses it. We also invested in a sun hat for Jack that has flaps for the ears and neck. Being very fair-skinned, we want to ensure that he didn’t burn. Getting a solid sun hat with a good strap on it to prevent its removal is key.

His sunhat came in really handy while exploring the deserts of TX and NM this past winter!

We are incredibly passionate about getting our son outdoors and spending a whole weekend camping as a family is one of our favorite things to do. I truly hope that this has helped to answer some questions and concerns parents may have around camping with kiddos. I really want to encourage you to get out there and try camping with your family. I think you’ll be amazed by how much fun you will have and all the remarkable memories you will make!

Thanks to our guest poster Maura!

Maura MarkoMaura Marko and her husband Bobby bring their baby Jack along on all of their recreational excursions. Whether they’re hiking, camping, backpacking or rock climbing, they somehow make it work for the entire family (it can be done)!

Maura and Bobby’s blog “We Found Adventure” is beautifully written and documented with gorgeous photography that will make you want to hit the trails ASAP. Be sure to follow Bobby and Maura’s travels on social media as well:

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  • Gianna Kordatzky
    06/07/2016 at 6:43 am

    We found it easier to go camping with babies than with potty training toddlers. Once they can move, it’s a whole different ball of wax.

  • Morgan
    06/07/2016 at 1:22 pm

    This is excellent advice! Exposing your little one to the all of the beautiful things you experience while camping is a fantastic idea. It’s so important to foster an appreciation for adventure and nature with them early on, and it looks like your little guy is totally into it! Nice work! Thanks for sharing this!

  • Fred Carter
    07/20/2016 at 6:24 am

    Hey Buddy!

    This is so thoughtful to camp with kids.I haven’t experience it yet .It could be tough to handle little ones at camps.But if one has decided to go along with babies then they should take care of the basic needs of baby at camping area.You have shared good points here in your post .Thanks for the share.I can further share it with my friends who h ave decided to go for camping with their young ones.

    Fred carter

    • all sports camps Montclair NJ
      08/05/2016 at 9:40 am

      Get your kids to go to summer camps to enhance their skills and have fun at the same time.Build their personality in a good way by letting your kids be in summer camps that can enhance their skills.

  • Gary
    08/29/2016 at 11:25 am

    Hi Maura,

    Thanks for sharing your ideas about camping with kids. We don’t do this ourselves but have friends who have taken their less-than-1-year-old along with them on short camping trips. I haven’t heard that they’ve had any major problems doing so.

  • Melissa
    10/24/2016 at 11:11 pm

    Wow, that Colemans stove looks amazing! And so do those pancakes:) Your family looks really happy to be out in nature camping….great photos.
    Thanks for sharing your adventures:)

  • Selene
    02/02/2017 at 2:41 pm

    Wow great post, definitely some awesome ideas for camping! Also a great thing to bring would be a satellite phone. They can definitely come in handy in areas where there might be bad reception, especially if there’s an emergency situation!

  • Jennifer Berkey
    11/22/2017 at 1:51 pm

    These tips are beneficial and one thing’s for sure in camping is the learning experience you gotta have to share with people. Great post!

  • Michael
    02/21/2018 at 11:31 pm

    Wow. You guys are brave. Camping with such little ones. but yeah, camping is sooo great for kids. The memories they make are super important. And we also love every minute of such quality time spent with them.:)

  • Kari
    03/16/2018 at 9:22 pm

    What kid carrier is that?