Camping with a toddler is a joyful challenge that is worth the effort
Last year, I wrote about camping with my newborn son, Ian, when he was just 16 days old. While taking a fragile baby into nature for the first time was a novel experience, to my surprise camping with a newborn wasn’t as difficult as I expected.
“But just wait,” many readers warned me. “When he’s a toddler, things are going to be a lot harder.”
In the blink of an eye, Ian has grown into a running, jabbering little explorer, and I’m happy to report that he’s spent much of his young life in the woods.
It hasn’t always been easy, but the rewards totally outweigh the difficulties, and my wife and I have never regretted bringing him on our outdoor adventures.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned this year about camping with a toddler.
Tents are awesome
Tents are fantastic entertainment centers. You can build a nest of air mats and sleeping bags and let toddlers romper-room it up.
There’s a period when tents also double as Pack ’n Plays, and the adults can relax while the kids are corralled inside. Then kids learn about zippers and you’re back to watching them like a hawk.
While most tents are cramped for adults, toddlers adore kid-sized spaces. Time in a tent is usually accompanied by shrieks of laughter, and whenever Ian naps among the dappled light and billowy fabric, he wakes up in the best mood.
At night, we hang battery-powered lights to give our tent magical properties, and use fake candles made with flickering LEDs as nightlights. Both have been a huge hit.
The challenges are different
Toddlers are going to get filthy. It’s just going to happen. The sooner you can accept that, the sooner you’ll relax and have a good time. Wet wipes are your friend, but they only go so far.
Keeping track of toddlers is a thankless job regardless of where you spend your weekends.
When we camp, we spend about as much time stopping Ian from hurting himself as we do at home, but the dangers are different.
My big fear is that he’s going to trip (which he does a lot) while carrying a stick (which he also does a lot) and poke out his eye. Amanda’s top fear is that he will fall into a campfire.
There’s no getting around this, you have to keep a close eye on toddlers. But it’s not very different from stopping them from snatching knives from the dishwasher or shoving things into power outlets.
For many parents, their biggest fear is that kids will eat something poisonous.
In my experience, campground staff do a pretty good job of clearing berries and mushrooms that may contain toxins, but this is another area where it’s very important to pay close attention — especially when camping in the wilderness.
Kids eat dirt. And that’s OK
Speaking of what kids eat, there is a period when tasting things is a big part of how toddlers explore. I’ve spent entire camping trips pulling leaves and sticks out of Ian’s mouth.
My pediatrician friends tell me not to fret when this happens. The human body can handle a little dirt, they say. And there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that early exposure to forest litter will help build his immune system and prevent allergies later in life.
By contrast, here are some things that Ian has recently put in his mouth around Seattle: a puzzle piece he found in the Goodwill parking lot, someone’s cigarette butt, a kitchen sponge that he licked from top to bottom, and (worst of all) coins.
When I camp, I try to remind myself that I’d rather have him nibbling on pine needles any day of the week.
Warmth at night still a priority
Toddlers love to squirm when they sleep.
Keeping Ian warm on chilly nights has been difficult because he wiggles out of his sleeping bag, gets cold and wakes up crying.
Recently, we figured out that we could simply put him to bed wearing his snowsuit. Once he’s bundled, he doesn’t even need a sleeping bag, and can twist around and sleep wherever he wants.
On our last trip I found him near the bottom of our tent, comfortably snoozing away by our feet.
A new perspective
It’s endlessly amusing to watch Ian’s face light up when he explores the great outdoors. He’s already learned to freeze and listen when he hears creatures rustling in the underbrush.
Being so close to the ground, he’s less interested in sweeping vistas and more into what’s happening at the macro level. In turn, this has changed the way I get to experience nature.
It’s not about big goals like summiting a peak anymore. Finding a caterpillar is reason enough to spend 15 minutes admiring how it ripples when it walks.
The other week, Ian spotted a water strider in a streambed, and he completely lost his mind.
I was reminded that skating on the surface of the water is pretty remarkable when you stop to think about it. And when was the last time I slowed down long enough to really examine an insect?
Thanks to my toddler, I get to witness nature’s tiny miracles through his eyes. When I see something common like a water strider, it’s like I’m seeing it again for the first time.