Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Real advice for camping with a toddler

This past weekend I had the privilege of taking my 21-month-old son camping for the first time. I'm happy to say it was a complete success. Robby slept and napped in the tent, stayed a comfortable distance away from the fire pit and was just a generally happy kid. The fresh air definitely agreed with him!

As our departure date approached, I started to worry about what we were in for. So I naturally did what all parents do nowadays -- I Googled it. I found plenty of posts about camping with a toddler, but I have to say that most of the advice was pretty useless. One common tip was, "Be cheerful." I don't know about you, but I think that's about the dumbest piece of advice you could ever give someone. Of course you should be cheerful. Having a positive attitude is helpful in life all the time -- not just when you're camping. I was looking for practical answers about camping with an almost-2-year-old, such as: Do I need to bring a pack-and-play? Will my son nap? Will he put his hand in the fire? Am I totally crazy to even try this? Since I had those questions, I figured others might as well. So below are my 15 practical tips for camping with a toddler:

1. Skip the pack-and-play. Everyone that I talked to about camping with a toddler asked me if I was going to bring a pack-and-play. My instinct told me my son would sleep in the tent with us, but because so many people mentioned the baby cage, I felt swayed. In the end the pack-and-play didn't fit in our car (it's a Honda Fit), so we skipped it. And I'm glad we did. Robby slept fine in the tent, which is just big enough for two adults and a toddler. We did get Robby a youth sleeping bag, which should last him until he's 6 or 7, but he just slept on top of it and generally flopped around during the night.

2. Pick the right location. We camped at a campground in Stowe, Vt., which is remote, but not too remote. We had access to hot-water showers, but still had plenty of privacy at our campsite. We also were in driving distance of great hiking and civilization, like family-friendly restaurants. Having the ability to be on our own in the wilderness, while still not totally roughing it was a good choice for us.
Robby stays dry in the leanto during an afternoon rain storm.

3. Plan for rain. I've been camping enough times to know that no matter how good your tent is, it will leak in the rain. So this time I wised up and opted for the campsite with a leanto, or a wooden structure with a raised floor and roof that kept us high and dry. We had a very rainy Saturday afternoon/evening and without that leanto we would have been driving home in a miserable panic. If the campsite you're staying at doesn't offer leantos (or Yurts), there are ways to set up a pretty rainproof set of tarps over your tent. Just make sure you have a boyscout with you. Also, pick a campground that has access to rainy-day activities. We took a tour of the local Ben & Jerry's factory and did a wine tasting. Robby enjoyed the former and not the latter, of course.

4. Bring just three. I hate bringing lots of toys to places. So I brought three toys, three stuffed animals and three books for Robby. That was plenty. In fact, I could probably cut the toys down to one: Bubbles. Boy did that come in handy on the rainy day. We hung out in the leanto and blew bubbles. It was great fun.

5. Introduce the tent early. One of the reasons I think Robby successfully slept in the tent is that we set it up a few days in advance and let him scope it out. By the time we got to the campsite it was old hat.

6. Rent a bike. Stowe has a wonderful bike path along the river. We were able to rent a bike with a trailer for Robby and had a merry time cruising along. It was one of the highlights of our trip. We have bikes at home, but strapping them to the car would have added extra stress. If you can afford the extra cash to rent, do it. It's one less thing to worry about.

7. Bring a hiking backpack. This one's pretty obvious. For as long as physically possible, hike with your child in a backpack/carrier. That way there's less crankiness and tired legs on the little one.

8. Bring peanut butter and jelly for lunch. It's not fancy, but if fills you up and gives you the energy to go on with your day. It also travels very well.

9. Put boots on over footed pjs at night. This way your kid's pjs don't get ruined by all the dirt.

10. Give it time. It took Robby an extra 30 minutes to settle down for nap/bed. We did our normal routine of books and songs in the tent and then it took him that extra time to actually close his eyes.

11. Bring a battery-powered sound machine. This is one thing I didn't think of, but wished I had. Campgrounds are loud! I didn't realize this pre-baby, probably because I was the loud one whooping it up at 10:30 at night. That wind down time probably would have been cut in half had we had a sound machine to drown out the din of the people around us.

12. Pancake mix in a jug. My husband and I discovered this trick on our last camping trip. Buy Bisquick Shake 'n Pour pancake mix. You add water directly to the jug, shake it up, and pour. The alternative is bringing the mix and a bowl to mix it in. That's a lot of stuff to clean. The jug is so much more convenient!

13. Wipes. Every parent know this, but wipes are amazing. I don't know how I camped without wipes before.
The family gathers around the fire.

14. Have a fire. I was so nervous about having a fire at our campsite. I assumed toddler + fire = disaster. But it wasn't a disaster at all. My son sat and stared at the fire just like my husband and I. There is just something primal about a fire that even toddlers understand.

15. Nap as a family. I don't know about you, but in my house, when it's nap time, it's time for mommy and daddy to get stuff done. But when we camped, we all napped together in the tent. It was great because we were all actually rested and happy at the same time when we woke up. As I said to my husband, "This nap was worth this entire trip."