Camping with littles: a game plan
We're experiencing some distinctly autumnal weather her in the PNW, so I thought now would be a good time to talk a little about another one of our summer adventures: camping with a toddler! We spent 2 nights camping near the Washington coast in July, and Logan had a fantastic time. My in-laws came with us, and having an extra set of adult hands definitely came in handy more than once. Logan loved time sitting in his own special camp chair, hanging out with the dogs, and getting covered in sand (seriously - covered. He even ate some.) Here are some of the important lessons we learned:
Don't pack light. Toddlerhood is not a good time for backpacking. Instead, go car camping - you still get to enjoy the outdoors and the s'mores and the bugs, but you also can bring 10x more snacks than you'd ever need, and a wagon and a giant tent. Give in to the creature comforts, it will make everything else easier. Some of the creature comforts we brought with us include:
A big red wagon - my mother-in-law has a wagon at her house for adventures on their property. We brought it with us camping, and Logan loved taking walks around the campground with it and the dogs. It was also very useful for our beach day - we loaded it up with a cooler full of food, chairs, toys, and towels.
A tiny camp chair - I'm more comfortable when I have a comfortable camp chair. There's no reason to think kid's aren't the same way. We found a tiny plastic chair at our local Marshall's (similar here) and Logan loved sitting around the campfire in his very own chair. Definitely worth the extra effort to keep him happy and comfortable.
Prioritize comfortable sleep. Before we had kids, we would camp in a 4-person dome tent with a cheap air mattress. It was fine, because camping makes you extra tired and sleeping when you're extra tired is usually pretty easy. Plus, we could sleep as late as we wanted. Now, though, a certain someone else tends to determine our wakeup time, so we have to make the most of every minute of sleep we get. This will look different for different folks, but in our case, this meant getting a big tent, using our tall air mattress, and letting bringing the pack-n-play along for Logan.
Big tent love - after a lot of searching, we narrowed down our tent choices to this Coleman 10-person tent or this Slumberjack 8-person tent. We decided on the Slumberjack because we liked that the height allowed us to stand upright, the waterproof design doesn't require a rain fly, and the price was a steal at $150 on sale. We love that it has two rooms - the 5 person side is big enough for our queen air mattress, as well as the dog's bed on the floor, with space to walk around the edges of the bed. The 3 person front chamber is big enough for the pack n' play and our bags, and will have plenty of space for a cot or small air mattress as our family grows.
Give in to the pack n play - we debated bringing the pack n' play versus letting Logan co-sleep for two nights, and were so grateful to have packed the pack n' play. First of all, recommendations suggest that children under 3 do not sleep on air mattresses, as they pose a suffocation risk. Second, when we co-sleep with Logan, our sleep suffers (totally defeating the purpose of prioritizing comfortable sleep). Lastly, Logan likes the pack n' play. He sleeps well in it. So why not bring the thing that helps our little one get the sleep he so desperately needs?
Set reasonable expectations. A little one's first camping trip is not the time to spend 2 weeks without potable water. Instead, plan on going for just a night or two, and look for campsites that have running, potable water. The first trip is just as much about feeling out camping as a family as it is actually being there, and you don't want to get in over your head and ending up miserable. As the saying goes: always leave them wanting more. We found two nights to be the perfect amount because it meant we had one full day out at the campsite. If we had just spent one night, it would have meant that we set up everything to just take it down the next morning.
Plan favorite foods. Food is always a high priority for us while camping - I've been known to make chicken tikka masala and homemade naan over a campfire. That isn't going to change because we have kids in the mix. Fortunately, Logan is an adventurous and enthusiastic eater, so we didn't have to modify our menu plans much when I planned our camping trip. I did, however, prep and pack a wider variety of snacks than I would have before becoming a parent - sliced grapes, applesauce pouches, and pre-cut veggies with dip to make grabbing a snack effortless and (relatively) healthy. I also packed a few special treats that aren't part of Logan's regular diet since it was our vacation - s'mores fixings, tortilla chips, and apple juice were particularly popular.
Have an early morning food plan - I realize not all kids are like this, but Logan wakes up HANGRY. Like, grumbling, whining, feed me now hangry. As such, we kept a couple snacks in our tent to feed Logan as soon as he woke up. This did double duty - letting the parents relax in bed for a few minutes at the start of our day, and keeping Logan quiet so he didn't disturb our neighbors in the next campsite over with his 7:15 am demands for food. (Note: if you're camping in an area that is frequented by bears, it is not a good idea to keep food in your tent. In this case, I'd recommend stashing a snack bag in an easy access part of your car for quick grabbing in the morning. Stay bear smart!)
Relax. Honestly, what's the point of getting out into nature a little bit if you're not going to relax? It's camping - you're supposed to get dirty, eat too much sugar, and stay up too late sitting around a campfire. Embrace it, have fun, and your kids will follow your lead. Enjoy this time you have together as a family, away from real life. Routines and balanced diets and bath time will be waiting for you when you get back.
Our biggest take-away from camping with a 15 month old was that it is possible. It's even fun! Getting organized and prepared took a little extra time than it did when we were kid-free, but the extra effort was well worth it. So tell me: have you taken your toddler camping? What does your game plan look like?
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