A Guide to Camping…with Young Kids

Do you think your kids are old enough to go camping? Why not?! We waited a whopping 2 weeks before taking our oldest (Stella) to a remote backcountry lake, and 10 months before we took her on an overnight backcountry camping adventure. Not only is backpacking and tent camping possible with young kids, some of our favorite memories and stories came from camping. Cooking sausages & smores over the crackling fire, falling asleep smiling after shooting-star snuggles, and waking up to deer grazing close by are all experiences kids won’t ever forget. But how is this even possible with small kids?!

Naive optimism

Our first attempt bringing kids along on an overnight backcountry camping trip was frankly, a train-wreck. We were the first of our friends to have a kid, so when we got an invite to go camping with the old crew, we didn’t hesitate.  Convinced we’d be fine, we packed up our 1 year old daughter and a backpack full of naive optimism, and headed out on an overnight camping trip to a remote backcountry lake.

We enjoyed a wonderful evening at the lake and sat by the fire thinking this was too good to be true…and it was. We calmly went through our tried-and-true bedtime routine (without the book of course, because who thinks to bring a kid’s book on a camping trip?) only to find that placing a baby into a tent for the first time has the same effect as giving them 3 giant shots of espresso?? This did not go well and we quickly realized our best laid plans were getting trampled by a 1 year old wearing a blue teletubbie suit.

Learn from our mistakes

Remember our nice friends who invited us along to find the peaceful solitude of remote camping? Yeah, they weren’t too stoked that the sound of the babbling brook and whispering aspen trees was drowned out by a screaming demon-baby until 1am. That’s right, Stella eventually exhausted all hope of sleeping in her comfortable bed at home and passed out on my chest at 1am. A few hours of broken sleep later, she was bright-eyed and ready to go explore. Oh how I wished we could just sing her a quick song on the monitor and sleep in longer. 

One thing was sure: we had a serious need to rethink our strategy for camping with kids. We were beat up, but we sure as baby poop weren’t going to hand in our camping card and turn into mall surfers. We needed a real plan, and we needed it fast.

Tips for tent camping with young kids

Over the last seven years we’ve stumbled upon several tips that turned soul-shaking nightmare experiences into heavenly adventures worth sharing. 

Ease into it

Don’t make remote camping the first time your kid has ever been in a tent or away from home for an extended period of time. Ease into it. Set up a tent in your house during the day and play a bunch of games in it. Next move it out into the yard or take it to a park and read stories to them. Try sleeping in it with them at home. Go for a long hike to a fun destination. Try car camping first. This requires way less commitment and is much easier to bale if things aren’t going according to plan. The best way to set yourself up for success is to make new things familiar and create positive associations.

Do the math

Kids are so adaptable, curious, and excited to experience new things, they will do just fine as long as you are prepared. The biggest struggle for us has always been how to carry the necessary gear. 

Before kids, Megan and I would each have our own backpack filled with our own gear. It was so perfectly neat and tidy. Now with a kid on one parent’s back and all the gear for three people on the other, you have to be way more strategic!

We create a supply list based on where we are going, who’s coming, and how long we will be gone. Before we actually go camping, we do a mock-trip. We pack our bags just like we would for camping and then we go for a short walk around the neighborhood to test things out and make sure everything will fit and is manageable. 

Our second attempt at “backpacking”…with four adults and 5 kids

To stay warm, ditch the sleeping bag

Trying to keep a young kid in a sleeping bag can be just like one of those greased pig competitions at the state fair: actually impossible and leaves you demoralized. For kids under 2 we ditch the sleeping bag and put them in a winter full-body snow suit. We rest easy knowing they are warm and safe all night.

Be brave

You can do it. Be ready to get kicked in the butt a few times, but get back up, learn from it, and try again. Remain adaptable and tenacious. 

…and most of all

Have fun!

This is the whole point, right? Enjoy what you love and share your passion with them. Start small and work up from there. Be prepared, be brave, and remember, the only failure is to not try. You got this. Let’s see how far we can get!