I wrote the bulk of this post a while back after our first family camping trip to Glacier National Park. I thought I'd share it here since some of you might be wondering if you can camp with your toddler and have fun at the same time. Folks: It's possible! (You may not get much sleep, but it's possible!) The trip in question happened with L was about 14 months old and we've since taken her camping about a half a dozen times so I still agree with all of my advice here. I'm mostly talking about backpacking here, but most of this also related to just car camping and day hikes.
So in case you want to get outdoors with your little one this summer, here are a few lessons that we learned while camping—and backpacking!—with our toddler.
Be prepared—but be flexible. Be sure to pack the right gear—a comfortable hiking backpack that you've used before (we borrowed a Kelty version similar to this one from a friend and it was GREAT), tent, sleeping bags, pads, layers of clothing and shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty, sunscreen, and bug spray, etc. But at the same time, embrace a little flexibility in your day. On the days we hiked, we had a destination in mind, but we allowed plenty of time to get there. Which meant that when there was the chance to stop and pick a quart of fresh huckleberries, we went ahead and did that.
Plan hikes around nap times. We always tried to let L run around for 2 hours in the morning before putting her into the hiking backpack to ensure that she’d be ready for a nap. She generally slept for about an hour in the pack, and then was content to sit and look at trees (and pull my hair) while she snacked. The longest hike we did with her in the backpack was 7 miles. We stopped halfway for a break and she definitely needed to run around once we reached our camping spot, but overall she was happy.
Pack easy to eat snacks. Pieces of peanut butter sandwich, pieces of rolls, jumbo raisins, snack bars, crackers, and foraged berries were our go-to snacks while in the hiking backpack. And lots of water!
Prep meals ahead. Camping stoves scare me and I know that they can be fickle, so we tried to keep L far away from the stove when we were cooking—the bright red burner is way interesting to a small person. And for meals, we bagged up portions of oatmeal for breakfast and relied on packaged foods—like mac and cheese—for dinner. This is not the time to show off your backcountry cooking skills!
Be brave. It's possible to do the things you love with a kid along for the ride, but you sort of need to be brave enough to attempt it. Spending a night in a tent with a 14 month old was a completely daunting proposition and it did take nearly an hour to get her to sleep both nights we were camping. (We do not co-sleep in normal life.) When we had to drive long 2-3 hour stretches, I feared screaming fits. But when we timed the first part of the ride with a nap, she was then content to read her books, play with her toys, and have a snack. Snacks are key!
Explore with your kid. When was the last time you sat on the edge of a lake and threw stones into the water over and over? L loved to do this simple activity at the many lakes we visited in Glacier Park and it was completely enjoyable right up to the point at which she started stuffing them into her mouth…The best part of camping with a small child is that the simplest things are really fun for them. Let them climb back and forth (and back and forth) over a log. See how long they can be entertained by trying to get your mosquito net off of your head. Let them “help” pump water. Play a tame game of slip and slide on the sleeping bags. Let them pull everything out of your backpack and then put it back in together. We packed one book for bedtime, but otherwise, we didn’t bring any toys for our two days in the back country.
Camping with an active small child will likely not allow the leisurely reading of books or long swims in a lake. And it might be nearly impossible to back country camp for more than 2 or 3 days because both adults can’t carry a full load of gear—one has to carry the baby! (Not to mention the dirty diapers...) But, if our experience is any indication, hiking is super fun for the whole family and getting to wake up on the shores of a remote glacial lake is more than worth the energy output.
So if you're thinking about taking your toddler camping, hiking or backpacking this summer, I say do it!