The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids

Young Girl in Camping Tent

Camping with babies and toddlers? Yes! It’s an affordable, low-stress, fun family vacation if you do it right. We asked Helen Olsson, author of the new book, “The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids,” for her top tips.

The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids
The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids by Helen Olsson

It all started with one nightmarish airplane ride when her son was a toddler. “He got really sick during the flight,” Olsson remembers. “High fever, double ear infections, stomach flu … I vowed I would never fly with really little kids again.” Olsson kept that vow – which is why the now mother-of-3 had plenty of experience to draw on when she wrote “The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids.” A super-fun read that’s packed with useful info, the book covers everything from family-friendly campsites to how to dispose of a dirty diaper in the woods. We asked Olsson for a few extra tips on hitting the trail with “really little kids” – i.e., babies and toddlers.

Is there any age you consider too young to go camping?

Well, I wouldn’t want to camp with a brand new colicky infant who’s waking up every hour, but once parents feel their babies are sturdy enough, camping with babies is great. There’s nothing cuter than a little baby snuggled up in a nest of blankets in a tent. In many ways babies are easier to camp with than toddlers – especially before they get mobile. A baby can cuddle in a car seat while you’re setting up the tent. Babies can be easily contained in a Pack & Play or a portable high chair. And when you’re hiking, you can carry a baby in a front-loading baby carrier and they’ll nap for hours. Toddlers, on the other hand, are constantly on the move. They want to explore but aren’t self-sufficient yet. When you’re camping, you have to watch toddlers every minute. I’ve taken many a hike with a toddler strapped to my back (in a baby backpack carrier), but they’re much heavier than infants and they swing their feet and lean over. Often toddlers get antsy in the carrier, yet they don’t have the longevity to walk a long way on their own.

What type of camping trips do you recommend for babies and toddlers?

That depends on how adventurous the parents are. There are plenty of folks who backpack with small children, but it’s a pretty big endeavor. For most people with babies and toddlers, it’s wise to start with car camping. That way, you can keep food, milk and formula cold in a big cooler. You can pack the car to the rafters with all the requisite gear and have it all at your disposal. Plus, when you car camp, you can make a quick getaway if things go south. We decided to wait until our kids were big enough to carry a small pack themselves before we went backpacking with them. My son was 7 when I took him on his first backpacking trip.

What absolute essentials would you pack for this age group?

Front-loading baby carrier or a baby backpack carrier, depending on the size of your child. This is an essential piece of gear if you want to hike with babies or toddlers, but also handy if you need to get something done around the campsite and your child wants to be carried.

Portable crib or Pack N Play. When we car camp, we bring a huge family sized tent that’s big enough to put a pack and play inside. When our kids were babies and toddlers, this was so critical at night as they slept better in the familiar crib-like environment. It was great for naps during the day and if we needed our little ones to be contained and safe while we worked on some camp job like setting up the tent or making dinner.

Portable potty or potty seat. This is so key! Kids need to pee all the time and some little kids (my kids, anyway) don’t like porta-potties. This is understandable! Even once our daughter was potty trained, we kept a little potty chair inside the vestibule of the tent and she used it all day and—even better—at night.

Battery-powered night-light. Especially if you’re camping during the new moon and your kids are afraid of the dark, a portable night-light is a great thing to have along. You can’t really expect kids who sleep with nightlights at home to sleep in the pitch black (not to mention in the woods…).

Kid-friendly headlamps. Hands-free is really helpful when you’re camping and kids love headlamps.

Any pint-sized pitfalls to watch out for when camping with wee ones?

It’s advisable to choose kid-friendly campsites. While water features are fun for kids, when it comes to camping with babies and toddlers, I advise against camping near water. Unless you can have one parent committed to watching your toddler every millisecond of the day (and that’s a tall order), you’re better not camping on the banks of a fast-moving river. It’s just not worth the angst. Same goes for campsites near cliffs, ravines, and rocky drop-offs. Parents should look for campsites with family friendly hiking and biking trails nearby. Kids also love interpretive trails and visitor centers.

One major pitfall that’s best to avoid when camping with kids is arriving at a campsite after dark, around dinnertime. The witching hour, we call it. Everyone is hungry and crabby and you have to set a tent up in the dark. This is a scenario best avoided on any camping trip, but especially when you have little ones in tow.

As far as stuff not to forget, I can tell you from experience, you don’t want to forget the following: ketchup, diapers, marshmallows, maple syrup, and tent poles. I’ve forgotten all of these items on one camping trip or another, and the results have been near disastrous.