Camping with kids age two to five is an art. The kind of art that splatters everywhere, involves a lot of emotions and needs a lot of practice to develop skill. It’s also the kind of art that can produce both joy and wonder when the magic happens.
Okay, I admit—it’s scary. Every time my husband and I plan a camping trip with our two boys (1 and 3-years-old), I have a mini-panic attack. Will they sleep? Do we have everything we need? What time should we leave the house to avoid traffic? These are all things that parents get to stress about, and the blissfully kid-free never really consider.
Here’s the thing: It is SO worth it. Snuggling in the tent with your kids, telling stories by the campfire, checking-out bugs, seeing a river, an ocean or a lake for the first time through the eyes of a toddler. The first time your kid says, “Oh MY! Look at all the stars!,” and you know the immensity of the universe is dawning on him… you will never again regret one minute of planning and preparing, because that’s why you came here.
I can’t give you a recipe for success, but I can help you lay the foundation for an awesome experience. In my opinion, these are five MUST HAVES, to enjoy a camping trip with littles:
I don’t care how gorgeous Yosemite is, if you can’t get there within ~3 hours, please don’t go there for your first camping trip with the family. Arriving at a camp exhausted, cranky and in-the-dark is the worst way to start a vacation. Kids are notoriously bad at transitions and asking them to adjust to a new environment under those conditions is just too much. If you need to leave on a Friday evening and the drive is too long, consider staying in a motel halfway through the drive and arriving early Saturday morning. Alternatively, leave early Friday or Saturday morning and have a long break for lunch and play.
This is not the time for anyone to be tough or hardcore. Sure, maybe you and your spouse climbed Kilimanjaro in a blizzard in 1989, but guess what? Preschool homie don’t play that. Little kids are the biggest wimps in the world about weather. The only character you will be building by taking kids out in bad weather is your own, because you will be the one having to survive for two-plus days while your entire family whines, cries, fails to sleep and then refuses to ever camp again with you.
CAVEAT: Okay, so don’t let this recommendation be an excuse to cancel every trip you ever plan. I know families that have cancelled EVERY reservation they have ever made to go camping because the forecast wasn’t 80-degrees and sunny. If the chance of rain is 20 percent, then go for it, dangit!
Misery loves company (wait, did I say that out loud?). Here’s the thing: if you go camping with another family, the tough times are easier, the funny times are funnier and everyone in the family has a peer to empathize with him/her. Extra points if the other family has done a lot of camping and can do things (like prepare meals, make a fire, etc) that will support you and make your trip easier.
This is important. Listen to Elsa and let. It. Go. If you can’t do this part, you will have a bad time. Naps might not happen (or you might just have to put your kid in a car seat and go for a little spin if you really want/need it to happen). Bedtime is pushed waaaaay back (like to whenever it gets dark). Nutrition is a very long word with lots of syllables signifying nothing. Just feed your kids pounds of junk food so they love being outside. And, in general, allow them to behave like the savages they are.
Did I mention they will get dirty? Wait, dirty is not a strong enough word. Absolutely Filthy. Dress them in rags and bring plenty of them because you will have to change those rags every so often to make sure there is still a kid under there.
….for a minimum of two nights! It is very possible that you will wake up after night one and want nothing more than to pack up the car and leave immediately. DO NOT let yourself do this! You can hunt me down and find me if it turns out that I am wrong, but I am willing to take that risk to tell you: the second night is ALWAYS better. Everybody acclimates to the new surroundings, time starts to flow by like the stream next to your site; and the relaxing and not-caring about the “real” world sinks-in. Trust me.
The rest is pretty much up to luck. But hey! I believe that’s what the folks at Hipcamp call ADVENTURE! Go have one with your kids.
Here are our top 5 picks for camping with littles in Northern California:
Got any more suggestions? Let’s hear ‘em!
Leslie is an over-worked and unemployed mom to 2 boisterous sons. She used to work as an Outward Bound Instructor in Maine, a survey boat captain in Alaska and a conservation policy specialist in San Francisco.