10 Tips for Tenting with a Toddler

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Last summer, we shocked many people by taking our one-year-old on a family vacation camping for almost a month.  They wondered just how we managed everything and to be honest, we just kind of did whatever made sense at the time.  Everything worked out fine, but when we decided to spend even longer out in a tent this summer with our two-year-old, we knew we wanted to take what we learned from last year and tweak things a bit.

Since Gv was at a different stage of development this year, we realized that things would either be way more difficult or way easier.

After returning home, I'd say they were a little of both.  

Last year, we brought a pack-n-play to contain her during our campfire meal prep - so that we didn't have to chase her down or worry about her getting too close to the fire.  However, we knew there would be no such restraining our little explorer this go-around.

We were also able to hang out inside the tent a lot more last year.  Although she had been walking for a while, Gv wasn't tall enough to reach the tent zippers (as long as we moved them to the top of the doors) and therefore couldn't escape, even if she wanted to.  Definitely not the case this year.  When she wanted out, she just got going.

But in most respects, everything was much easier this year.  The containment issue didn't seem to matter so much because it was easier to communicate with her.  We established rules and, for the most part, she was able to follow them.  She was also able to do many things independently - we actually started to see her become a true member of our team who could help out with the myriad camping tasks.  Even though she'd been already helping us out quite a bit at home, we were surprised to have her help as much as she did in the middle of the forest and we're excited to think about how her responsibilities will continue to grow as she gets older.

In the meantime, we will continue to enjoy this stage in her life and build upon these ten great tips for tenting with a toddler:

1.  Play Tent

Even if your tenting style involves a multi-room cloth mansion, you'll want to pick up an inexpensive dome tent so that your little one has a space all her own.  

It doesn't have to be anything fancy, but make sure to get an actual tent (not what's labeled a "play tent" for kids and meant for indoors) so that things inside stay nice and dry your whole trip long.  Consider looking for one with a fair amount of mesh like this one, which will help keep things nice and cool throughout the day.

When we were just hanging around the campsite, we'd keep the door rolled back so that Gv could go in and out without having to constantly zip and unzip the thing, saving wear and tear on the tent.  Since we'd doused Gv in my homemade bug spray, keeping the door closed wasn't so much of a priority.

We kept some books and all her toys in there, as well as all of our clothes bags.  The tent ended up becoming our "closet" as well as Gv's playroom, which was an unexpected bonus.  It was great to use our regular tent only for sleeping - and as a result, kept things in there much cleaner, since we weren't going in or out throughout the day.

We taught Gv about our tent/shoe rule (see tip #2), so although the play space became a little dirtier than our "sleep tent," it still just needed a minor shake-out when it was time to pack up and leave.

2.  Establish Rules

You'll want to spend a fair amount of time at the outset establishing campground rules, both for your child's safety and to make things easier on yourself.

For safety, we taught Gv to sit on a certain stump when we had the fire going, to stay on the sand when she went to the creek by herself, and to freeze if we said "Car!" when she went up the path to where our car was parked.  (We were camping on the side of a gravel forest road, so while we only saw a handful of vehicles pass by each day, we wanted to make sure she would be safe if one happened by while she was up there.)

To make life easier on us, we taught Gv to always remove her shoes when entering a tent or our screen room (we put a tarp down on the ground in there so that we had a bit of clean "floor" to sit on, if we weren't interested in our chairs), to always put her shoes on if she was going outside, and to sit in her little camp chair whenever we were eating.

3.  Have Them Help

A two-year-old is pretty limited in how she can help with most camping chores, but if you take a moment to consider each activity, you can probably come up with some way for her to help.

Gv's biggest responsibilities were in collecting small sticks for kindling (although we usually still had to point them out to her so that she's find them), bringing us things we needed while cooking dinner (this was such a help on my knees, since I was usually crouched down cutting the vegetables for our meal), and scrubbing pots (she had the patience to really go to town on all sorts of baked-on crud way longer than I would have, so our pots got cleaner with her help).

Gv really enjoyed helping.  I think that even at this young age, kids want to feel valued and be a contributing member of the family.

4.  Diversion Tactics

There will be times when something you're doing around camp is just too exciting for your toddler to ignore, but you have to keep her away.  For me, this was most often when I was cutting up raw meat on the cutting board perched on my lap.  I wasn't terribly worried about the danger factor for Gv while I did this, but I usually wasn't in the mood for anything (or anyone) that would pester me in the process.

G came up with the best game for times like this:  Touch Tree.  He started by taking her over to "touch tree" with him, then he chased her around the tree a few times.  Once she got the hang of the game, we could just yell "touch tree" at any random time and she'd trot off to touch and circle a specific trunk all by herself.

This game was even great to play on our many hikes, if we noticed her interest beginning to flag:

Double Points!

5.  Start Them Hiking on Their Own

Sure, it will take you an hour to go half a mile, but hopefully your hikes aren't all about speed and great distances at this point in life, anyway.  The point of a trip like this is to experience things as a family, so until your little one gets a little older, the 16-mile day hikes will probably be put on hold.

But you'd be surprised at how far a toddler can hike alone - even over huge boulders and other rough terrain.  We even gave Gv her own hiking pole (a normal one like this, just not extended) and taught her how to use it to help her navigate around big rocks and scree.

She also had her own backpack, which we'd fill with all our snacks (things like homemade trail mix and Clif bars).  I'll be honest, it weighed a decent amount.  But we wanted her to get used to carrying a daypack of her own, especially since we'll want her to at least carry her own water in the future.

She loved it, and got to the point where she could hike over a mile on her own (even on difficult trails) before needing G to carry her in the backpack:

Lots of hiking means guaranteed nap time!

6.  Consider Clothing Carefully

The first thing to realize when packing clothes for a trip like this is that everything will get dirty.  And most likely wet.  And probably not have a chance to ever fully dry out, so you'll feel you need a washing miracle to get the mold out when you return home.

But you know what?  It all gets clean.  Even the ground-in dirt from Gv's frolics in the mud came out.  There were only two items from the trip that I couldn't get the mold stains out of, and they were both G's.  A pair of shorts and a t-shirt from one of our first nights up there - when he was stuck out in the rain putting our dinner supplies back in the car - that never had a chance to fully dry out the rest of the trip, despite the fact that we hung them on the line every day.

Something else to consider when packing up at home is to include a specific outfit to put on your toddler just while hiking.  We all have two sets of "hiking clothes" (in case one set gets soaked on a trail).  These are thin, long-sleeved shirts and pants, tall socks, specific shoes, and hats.  While it might be cooler to hike in tank tops and shorts, we've found that it's smarter to keep our bodies lightly covered as much as possible, which keeps us better protected from sun, bugs, and branches on the trail. 

7.  Expect Rain

At some point in your travels, you will probably encounter a rainstorm or two.  While this can alter the activity plans of any type of trip, it especially dampens the mood of a camping experience, since you're so limited on where to escape all the wetness.

However, if you anticipate running into this situation and prepare for it, the added moisture doesn't have to ruin your day.

One option is to embrace the rain and just have fun playing in all the puddles, mud, and drip-drip-drips that fall from whatever tents or tarps you have overhead.  Throw on a bathing suit or junky clothes and some water shoes and splash, stomp and squish around for plenty of giggles (as long as it's safe - don't do it if lightning is crashing down all around you!)

Another option is to just have a tent day - but this possibility depends on your toddler's personality.  Gv can easily hang out and read books for hours, but even our little bookworm can get a little stir crazy if the rains last all day.  In this case, it's best to...

Head out for some offbeat explorations.  Sure, it can be a little frustrating to be in the middle of nature's playground and not be able to do all the things you'd like, but with a little creativity, there are plenty of places to play and explore that are indoors (and don't have to cost a cent!).

This last trip, we checked out local thrift stores, spent time at the library, had a scavenger hunt around WalMart, and laughed as Gv amused herself in a backcountry consignment store:

We even stayed dry one day by just driving around in the car, checking out neighboring towns and wandering down tiny back roads, just to see where they went.  And happening upon a small-town toy store is always sure to provide plenty of entertainment:

8.  Toys & Activities

We've found that Gv is perfectly happy playing with rocks and other treasures that she collects out in the wilderness, but we made sure to bring a few of her favorite playthings from home, as well.  Besides sticks and rocks, some of these toys included classic thrifty favorites like a zippered pencil case and cloth shopping bag (to gather collections in), a headlamp (which we've got out there camping, anyway), an old cell phone (for all those calls to Grammy and Papa), and clothes (like Daddy's wood-gathering gloves):

We also brought Gv's photo album, dry erase board & markers, and notebook & pen (to "journal" her adventures in).  I made sure she had plenty of our household scrap paper (we reuse any paper that's still blank on one side), a coloring book, and crayons & colored pencils as well as a couple of her favorite "babies."

She enjoyed her collapsible tunnel:

and plenty of bubbles:

but probably her favorite toy was her little pretend camera:

But even more than those items, we made sure to bring plenty of her favorite type of "toy," books.  I filled the largest waterproof shopping bag we had with about 50 books, which we kept in the "sleep tent" (although I removed about five to keep in her play tent) and then had a smaller bag in the car with about ten others.  Besides choosing some of Gv's favorite stories (like One Was Johnny, Llama Llama Red Pajama, From Head to Toe, Boo to a Goose, and The Napping House), I brought along lots of outdoor books like Bugs, Beetles & Butterflies, Over in the Meadow, Animal Tracks, 10 Little Ladybugs, and Raindrop Plop.  Many of these selections were new to Gv and she'd start every day by requesting previous titles before asking for the "new one" of the day.

Having a "new" book (meaning one she hadn't heard before) for each day was a great tactic, along with bringing all those books about bugs and animals and the outdoors.  She would get so tickled to see things like dragonflies and butterflies out in the open, then run to get her books so she could find the matches on the pages.

Besides bringing along things to keep her occupied and taking her on plenty of hikes for fun, we also made sure to do a couple of activities just for Gv.  Things like playing in a waterfall:

The creek at our campsite:

And spending an evening romping around a local playground:

Sometimes it's fun for daddies to have an excuse to be a kid, too:

9.  Potty

We brought along Gv's little Ikea potty, just in case.  She'd been using it pretty regularly at home, but we weren't trying to force the issue and weren't even sure she'd want to use it since we were out of our household routine.

She ended up requesting it on the drive up (we found some shade in a private place for her to hang out at), but continued to also want to use it every morning when she first woke up (even though she wakes up dry, we stuck our shower curtain liner underneath us when we slept, just in case).  This was the main reason we kept the giant bag of books in the "sleep tent."  Our morning ritual became a big reading session on the potty, which kind of killed two birds with one stone.

During the day, we kept the potty outside the tent.  She ended up really starting to use it pretty often on her own when we were hanging around the campsite, which surprised us.  That is, when she wasn't going off into the woods to "go in the mud, like Mommy" {grin}.  

10.  Food

We've always been big on just feeding Gv whatever we're eating, no matter how un-kid like it might be and this didn't change just because we were camping.  Besides whatever meals we happened to be eating (standard campfire fare, although plenty of lentils, quinoa and millet figured into the mix, as well), I'd brought up some of our favorite snacks (like sweet potato crackerschia crackershomemade granola, homemade trail mix and protein bites) and made sure we had organic cheese sticks on hand for a treat and these and these for our mid-hike refueling breaks.

So, if you're thinking about heading out for a big trip (or even a weekend getaway) in a tent with your toddler, consider these tips to make your camping experience great (and remember Backcountry Bob's Law:  That fun camping memories are always composed of crazy "problem" experiences!)

Have you ever taking a little one camping with you?  Do you have any other great tips, or funny stories to share about your experience?  I'd love to hear!  Leave a comment here or email me at lisahealy (at) outlook (dot) com.  

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