Photo: iStock

It had been a few years since our last car camping trip when my partner and I decided to take our toddler and her older brother for a post-Labor Day weekend getaway. While we were far from camping novices, we were definitely toddler camping first-timers. If you’re wondering how it all works with wee ones in the woods, here’s my experience.

Let me start by admitting that I completely overlooked one of the tenants of toddlerhood before our first trip: practice, practice, practice. Before dentist visits or doctor’s appointments or first days of school, I was always on top of the practice principle. But for some reason I neglected prepping our toddler for this one. Setting up a tent in the living room or backyard would have done the trick, but luckily, things worked out in the end.

Imagine her surprise when we pulled into our spot, surrounded by looming Douglas fir trees and thorny blackberry bushes, and told her this is where we were staying for the night. I could see the wheels turning as she looked from the picnic table to the fire pit then back to me. Pitching the tent was clearly in order, so we got to work. As far as she was concerned oversized family tents were as exciting to put up as they were to play in.

Turns out, so was the parked car. Sitting in the driver’s seat of the family truck, turning dials and pushing buttons that were normally off limits, was a freedom she had only dreamed of. But hey, at least we could get lunch ready! In fact, most of the toys I had packed to keep her entertained at the campsite never made it out of the bag. With so much new stuff to do, she didn’t need old favorites. (Side note, toddler camping chairs are almost as cool as exploring cars and tents.)

After lunch I experienced my first Elsa moment of the trip—you know, one where you have to let it go. I hadn’t thought too much about diaper changes. When the first one came I realized two things. First: I was oh so glad we weren’t potty training. Second: there are no good campsite diaper changing spots. It’s either the picnic table where you eat, the tent where you sleep or the far away campsite restrooms that are barely a step up from the forest floor. And let’s be honest, that’s a trek no one wants to make in the late night hours, flashlight or not. (Recommendation: the back of the car is likely your best option if you have a minivan or something similar.)

This was followed by another important realization. Bears live in the woods. So our diaper went straight to the bear-proof trash can because I’m pretty sure bears are attracted to smells of all kinds.

Lunched, changed and ready to go, we set out to explore the area. This is the easy part of camping with tots because there’s so much to do. At most campgrounds, you'll find all sorts of short hikes, beach walks, nature scavenger hunts and spots for kids to scooter. For our two-year-old, keeping it simple worked best. We threw rocks into the ocean, flew kites on the beach and let her wear herself out on the trails (no backpack needed). Before I knew it, we had missed her nap time and were headed into dinner.

One unexpected camping bonus? Kids power down when the sun does. So it was still pretty early when I pulled out the PJs and realized I was flying blind—without bedtime routine basics. No bath. No books. No rocking chair. No white noise machine. In an effort to make like Steve Winwood, I rolled with it. Picture it: me trying to calmly recite Goodnight Moon from memory while my overtired toddler bounced off the tent walls. It was as exhausting as it sounds. But eventually we all got some rest.

Bottom line, camping with toddlers may require a little extra prep and planning, but it’s totally worth it. If a camping trip is in your future, here’s a short list of must-pack items to help:

  • diapers (more than you think)
  • wipes, wipes, and more wipes
  • spare socks and shoes, plus extra clothes
  • gear for any weather—sunscreen, hat, fleece, rain gear, etc.
  • sleeping bag (wearable sleeping bags are amazing)
  • collapsible toddler chair

—Allison Sutcliffe

Allison Sutcliffe is a writer, educator, and mom of three. When she’s not wrangling kids, you’ll find her hiking, baking or (dreaming about) enjoying a quiet cup of coffee. She is the Seattle City Editor at Red Tricycle. Read more by Allison here.