I have a million tips for families who want to camp with their children but are nervous about how to pull off a successful trip. Bring someplace to put the baby. Pack lots of snacks. Book a site at a campground with either a beach or a playground to give the kids something to do. Scope out short, easy hikes. Avoid the holiday weekends. Choose a campground close to home. Bring glow sticks for night-time fun. Plan simple meals. Give each kid their own flashlight so they don’t wear out the batteries on yours. Bring toys and games. Make packing lists so you don’t forget anything.
But there’s one thing you can’t put on your list that will make all the difference. It’s your expectations.
Our camping roots go way back. My mom camped as a kid. My family camped while I was growing up. My husband camped with his mom as a teenager. We camped before kids and we’ve continued to camp after. My son’s first camping trip came before he was three months old; my daughter first went when she was five months.
Camping is just something we do. It’s part of our identity as a family and something we genuinely love to do together all summer long.
However, let’s just get this out of the way right now. While we enjoy camping, I will freely admit that camping with small children is exactly ZERO PERCENT RELAXING. I don’t say this to deter you, I really don’t. I say this because once you understand it and embrace it, you’ll be able to enjoy your time away a whole lot more.
Here’s the deal. For many parents, what are some of the most restful, enjoyable hours of the day?
The ones after the kids go to bed.
So it makes sense that when you think about camping, you think about the family activities you’ll do all day long, but you’ll really look forward to that quiet, relaxing time in the evening when you can sit around the campfire, roast marshmallows, talk, and just sit after a fun, exhausting day.
Friends, you can’t count on that happening.
Let’s say your child is a wonderful sleeper. When you take your wonderful sleeper camping, one of three things will happen:
- They will sleep wonderfully.
- They will have a hard time falling asleep because they’re in a new environment and their routine is disrupted.
- They will fight bedtime with all that is within them because there is WAY TOO MUCH FUN STUFF GOING ON TO WASTE TIME SLEEPING.
The odds are stacked against you.
I remember my turning point vividly. Our son was just over a year, and it was our first trip of the season. Since camping with an infant had gone so smoothly the previous summer, we expected the same that year with our easy, flexible toddler. But after the long, full day all I wanted was for him to go to sleep so I could sit by the fire, visit with friends, and unwind. However, he refused to sleep while we were still awake, and the child-free evening respite never came. My husband and I were frustrated beyond belief. So worn out and just wanting my little one to GO TO SLEEP SO I COULD RELAX ALREADY, I was prepared to quit camping for good. Maybe we would try again when he was older. It was no fun at all.
Until I adjusted my expectations. Once I stopped focusing on that quiet, relaxing evening that was clearly not happening I was able to live in the moment, embrace the fun, and stop waiting for the best part of the experience to come at the end of the day. I decided that the best part came all day long, not just when the kids were sleeping. I had to let go of how I defined camping, and our purpose for doing it.
Camping is work, it can be exhausting, and it’s non-stop with small children. They’re always falling over or eating rocks or wandering off or playing in mud or falling apart or asking for something.
So why do we do it?
Because we love it. Because our kids love it. Because it’s who we are. We’re building our legacy, making memories, strengthening our family traditions, and expanding our kids’ horizons. We’re making them flexible, adventurous little people with an enthusiasm for excitement and exploration.
We don’t always come home rested, but we come home rejuvenated. I’m so, so glad we didn’t quit four years ago. Some trips have gone more smoothly than others, but we have never, ever regretted a single trip. It’s who we are. It’s part of our identity. I’m glad we’ve just adjusted our expectations and embraced the experience for what it is.
Camping with small children is activity and adventure, not rest and relaxation.
As I read on a friend’s blog once: We’re not having fun, we’re making memories.
And that’s why we camp.