Car Camping with a Toddler


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I started this post as a draft in May of last year and it has been sitting in my drafts folder since then. At that time I thought I’d impart what little wisdom I had with car camping with a baby, two whole camping trips, but never got around to writing my thoughts down. Since life is different now and I have a toddler I’ve opted to tailor this towards our current experiences with car camping, that with a toddler. Needless to say they are vastly different and yet still share similar qualities.

My first tidbit of advice is going to be find yourself a lot of Patience. You’re going to need it.

So far our experiences of camping with a toddler have been one experience of very early toddlerhood at about 13 months, and two camping excursions in toddlerhood at around 17 months old. For us, they have been vastly different because that first experience involved a non-walking toddler. The last two have involved a very active and exploratory toddler who wanted to walk everywhere.

  • Divide and Conquer
    With a very active toddler that isn’t easily to corral, you can pretty much guarantee that one parent is going to be doing the bulk of the setting up and taking down while the other is going to be the one to do a lot of the toddler wrangling. Sure, the toddler wrangling parent can help out here and there if the toddler is behaving in an appropriate manner (not shoving leafs, sticks and debris in mouth; not running into the road; not throwing a tantrum; etc…) but those appropriate manners might buy you a few minutes to help the other parent set up one side of the tent or to grab something out of the truck. Currently it seems that Chris is the main camp setter-upper-taker-downer. I help when needed but mostly I wrangle the toddler. Sure, this definitely makes getting camp set up and taken down take a lot longer than it used to, but remember the motto of parenthood: This too shall pass.

  • Gear
    A lot of the gear is similar to what I wrote about in Tips for Hiking with a Baby just because camping and hiking gear go hand-in-hand. One bit of gear that we had to figure out once Forest was eating table food was where he would eat at camp. During our trip to Martin Dies State Park back in October he was still able to hang out in his walker and utilize that as a place for eating. Without a walker we had to come up with another idea. Chris found this foldable highchair that has worked perfectly for us. It is easy to stash in the truck and the tray is easy to clean.

    Aside from that I wouldn’t say there’s much other gear that’s completely unique for toddlers to get other than a small camping chair. We learned that last month at SFA State Park when he wanted to sit in our chairs. On our way to the state park most recently we stopped by Academy and picked up a little camp chair just for him. He only sat it in a few times but it came in handy for those rare occasions he wanted to chill out for a few minutes.

    We still take our Pack-and-Play for bedtime and he comes into bed with us after his middle of the night wakeup. We upgraded our air mattress to a king size and that makes all the difference!

    Of course you’ll need all your typical toddler gear: plenty of toys, a stroller or hiking backpack, diapers and all associated accessories, etc. Something we will probably bring on our next trip is an iPad. We have a hand-me-down first gen iPad so I’m not sure what apps will really work. I’ve tried putting some apps for myself on there but most haven’t worked with the iOS that it currently operates on and the iOS isn’t upgradeable. But Forest seems to be switching to an early rising schedule these days (pre-dawn, pre-birds waking!) that doesn’t behoove getting outside of the tent at that hour. We made due with a bit of distraction with our phones or by having him play with the lamp and some toys, but it was a pretty tedious 45 minutes before dawn. I think an iPad with some games or videos might be beneficial to kill that time before the sun rises (and to appease our camping neighbors with a quiet toddler!). We’re not ones to let him watch the iPad or our phones generally, but I think this is an instance to break it out!

  • Keeping Them Busy
    Any parent of a toddler knows they are easily distracted but also have an incredible memory. If you show them one thing they are apt to want to repeat that action over and over again, no matter how banal it is to you. It’s exciting! and fun! and new! to them. Walk up and down the campground road and show them all of the unique campsites. Take them to a nature center if there’s one where you are camping. Look at leaves and sticks or scope out the natural area around the campsite. Look up and point out the skyscape, the trees in the canopy, planes or birds flying overhead. Let them explore the area around them.

  • Adjust Expectations
    Above all else, along with patience, adjust your expectations! Forest really enjoys being outside and it can be difficult to get him to switch tasks right now. There’s a lot of fit throwing (which is frustrating but hilariously adorable at the same time!) and defiance as that’s part of the learning experience of toddlers. But, you can still have a good time camping and doing things outdoors with toddlers if you are willing to be flexible and go with the flow.

We have at least one more camping trip scheduled for spring but we anticipate going at least another time after that I would suppose. We’d tossed around the idea to go on a short backpacking trip, too, but we need to upgrade some gear for that. I desperately need a new backpack and we need a three person tent. Maybe that’ll be my next how-to post…backpacking with a toddler! HAH!

Do you have any advice for camping with toddlers? If so, please share!

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