Camping with Toddlers

A few weeks ago, I camped with my two year old son alone for the first time.  It was a very special trip for us.

I think  raising your children to love nature is one of the most important lessons we can give them.  Which leads me to camping.  Camping is so important – to fully immerse yourself in it is the best way to learn anything.  So we went camping together, just the two of us, for 5 days at Devil’s Lake State Park.

My two year old son, Liam, and me

I have many years of camping experience.  I have been camping with my family in Tennessee and all around Michigan, where I grew up.  Some of my best memories are in these trips, so I feel it’s wonderful to share these experiences with my son and teach him how to get dirty, how to play in a river, the fun of finding fish and swimming, throwing rocks and making big splashes, going on long hikes and cuddling up around a fire afterwards…

The following is a list and menu of what we will be making together in our five days.  I want to keep meals simple so we can play and/or be prepared for any 2 year old moments that may require more attention.  😉  We are also lactose intolerant and eat mostly vegan.  I have also learned from experience that cooking with children can be tricky, so keep it simple.  The easier cooking can be when you have children and are camping, the better (and saner) you will be.  And I have limited space.  So meals are easy and there are some repeats in ingredients.

::::::::Menu for camping with a small child::::::

Sun dinner: premade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and oranges

Mon: breakfast: granola and soymilk lunch: premade macaroni salad with “confetti” diced yellow, green, and red peppers, corn, and broccoli with olive oil/vinegar dressing snack: trail mix and raspberries  dinner: marinating tofu “steaks”, potatoes roasted on campfire, roasted asparagus dessert: smores!

Tues: breakfast: cereal with soymilk and grapes lunch: peanut butter and banana sandwiches, pretzels, sliced peppers snack: blueberries and almonds dinner: precooked spaghetti noodles with homemade vegan marinara sauce with garlic bread cooked over campfire (purchased vegan baguette from store, stuffed with garlic and earth balance vegan butter and parsley)

Wed: breakfast: granola and soymilk with blueberries lunch: leftover pasta salad snack: cliff bars and orangesdinner: tofu dogs roasted over fire, pickles, chips, and homemade potato salad dessert: smores!

Thurs: breakfast: cereal with soymilk and raspberries lunch: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, pickles, and leftover fruit before hitting the road

:::::::::::checklist of things to bring camping with a toddler::::::::::::

The “Duh” Essential Camping Items:



Extra Stakes



Sleeping bags

Mattress if you want


Stuffed Animals that child is fond of, it will ease any transition of falling asleep in a new place

Bedtime items to make it “special” and not scary

Books for bedtime

Broom to clear tent


Bungee Cords

Rope for hanging wet towels/clothes




Pots/Pans (buy them from a second hand store)


Dish soap/Sponge/Kitchen Towels

Toilet Paper

Paper plates, cups and plastic silverware (I am one of the greenest Moms you’ll find, but I am totally for paper plates with camping.  Time saver = sanity saver)

Paper Towels (see above comment)

Beach Towels and regular towels

Beach blanket(s)

Blanket for picnic table

Can opener

Bottle opener

Knives (wrapped in newspaper to keep them safe)

Cutting Board

Aluminum Foil for cooking

Garbage Bags for dirty laundry and trash

Plastic Bags

Water Jug for brushing teeth and clean drinking water

Water canteen for hiking and walking around

Bug spray

Adult and kid sized camping chairs

Mechanical Things

Cell Phone/Charger


Stereo with batteries

The Toddler Clothes: Pack a little extra because toddlers love mud puddles

sweat shirts/pants




Shoes with good traction

Extra pair of shoes

Sandals for showering

2 Swimsuits

Diapers/Wipes (if you’re still in them)

Swim diapers (if you need them)




Short Sleeved Shirts (at least one for every day)


The Adult Clothes List

Sweat shirt/pants



Short Sleeved Shirts/tank tops




Sandals (for shower)





Bathroom Essentials



Biodegradable soap in container



Sunscreen for Adults

Sunscreen for children


First aid kit with bandaids, tweezers, etc

Asprin/Pain Meds

Hand Sanitizer

Plastic Grocery bags for Diapers or accidents

Special Items/Activities for child:

Bring books about camping to ease them into the idea: Curious George Goes Camping is a good one

Bring a backpack for the kids when hiking or going on walks to collect special items around you – take the time to look at them, identify them, and say why they are special and essential in nature


Bring coloring books or activity books for your child to play with when you are doing things (like cursing under your breath when you’re trying to set up the tent!)

Give them jobs, not just as things to “help” with, but things to really help with.  They are an equal and valued member of the family – they can and should help.  Let them clear the table, collect sticks, set up the tee-pee for the fire, let them unroll the tent, set up their own sleeping bag and pillow.  Or give them their own sized items, like a flashlight and magnifying glass perfect size for their smaller hands so they can explore the area around them

Mason jars to catch fireflies or caterpillars




Simple maps to teach them directions and what a map looks like

Walkie talkies are fun and it can be a fun activity when you are doing something and they are “hiding” in the tent.

Flashlights are also good for shadow play and late night walks to the bathroom

Play I Spy

Find Footprints

Play a camping ABC game – find things that begin with the letter (S is for sleeping bag, U is for Under the Stars)

Connect the dots with constellations

Thoughts before you go:

Liam pretending to camp in the living room

Reeeaaaallllly talk up camping.  Set up the tent in the backyard and sleep in it!  Read books!  Talk about all the fun you’ll have before you go!  Smores, finding bugs and mud puddles, – make it something that they look forward to!

For your first few trips, select a campsite that has activities that match their interests.  Many state parks have lakes, playgrounds, or trails that make it fun and easy.  Also, select a site at the campground that is smart – not too close to the store with busy traffic day and night, not too close to the river so you don’t have panic attacks while you’re setting up the tent by yourself and wondering where your toddler  might be, not too far away from the bathroom because you will be walking with them every time you or they need to go.

Avoid bringing toys or activities that are hard to clean up… a puzzle would be silly.  Also, try to avoid things that distract them from the beauty around them.  I don’t believe in bringing mini-dvd players when you are camping – there is FAR too much to explore!

Give them time to be bored – they will discover more!

Yes, I just said let them be bored, but don’t be an idiot.  When you have to be busy setting up the tent or doing something where you are occupied and more importantly can’t keep the best eye on them have things that they can do.   Coloring books, new game, etc.

Use your trip as a time to get closer with each other… there’s no tv, computer, bills to pay, house to clean, or video games so you have to talk and play games with each other.  You can connect.  Pay attention to the little moments.  Feel lucky for this time.

Make it a teaching trip – one that teaches responsibility, helps the family, and is magical.  There are so many beautiful and amazing experiences you can share as a family.  It’s also a trip where you have to do a lot, but they can also help .  Let them pack a backpack before you leave for a hike.  My son could pack more than Diana Ross… Help your kids understand that whatever they pack (snack, animals, books, toys, rocks, dolls, flashlights, maps, etc) they are responsible for…Because Lord knows we do not need to bring every horse and ball that we own.  You will not carry it, no matter how tired or heavy it is.  They will learn a lot faster that way.  They will also learn what is helpful to bring.

Remember, sometimes camping is hard.  If it’s raining the whole time or your baby is screaming and waking up the whole campground…whatever…don’t let it get you down.  Finish your trip (even if that means packing up in a thunderstorm at 3am), and go home.  Build up and remember the truly amazing moments.  Try again. It’s worth it.

Pump it Up

When you get home, print out any pictures you took during the trip and make a little book of your adventure together that you can read before bedtime or before your next camping trip.  You can make it together with the pictures that you took, the leaves that you found, maybe even a few samples of sand or dirt!  Don’t forget to write stories.  You could write about your process of camping – first we get to the campsite (wow, how nice!), then we set up the tent, etc.  or you can write about what you did (caught fireflies, swam, smores, etc) This will keep the “fun” of camping in their heads.  It will also be a great keepsake 🙂

The Result:

We stayed for all five days!

We went horseback riding, had picnics, made campfires every night, heard raindrops on the tent as we fell asleep, built sandcastles and smores, swam at the beach, and left with beautiful memories.

Liam's first hike!

Building sandcastles

Liam didn’t stop running the whole time, and it was great!  He learned how to build a fire, collect the right sticks for roasting marshmallows,  how to climb and hike, and perfected his technique of getting completely soaked in the mud.  He helped me make sandwiches for our picnic, clear the table and trash, and kept our site clean.  I am so proud of him and so happy that we could go!  I can’t wait for our trip later this summer when we go to the Point Beach State Park in beautiful Door County!

*Pictures by Mallory, Fitzgerald Photography*