There’s something magical about sleeping under the stars as a child. The unbounded imagination of a toddler runs wild while thinking about the galaxy. Engaging in pretend play with a pile of sticks or scavenger hunting for leaves or animal tracks is hard to top. This is of course except when considering the pure joy of smashing around inside a tent, hiding from mom and dad only to pop out the back entrance. The thought of arranging such an adventure may seem a bit overwhelming, but to ease your anxiety, we’ve come up with an essential guide for car camping with toddlers.

While camping is fun for all ages, camping with toddlers can be challenging. The kiddos are not quite ‘tuck-em into the carrier’ baby age anymore, but not quite tree climbing adventurers either. Activities such as hiking occur with tempered expectations due to frequent nap and potty stops along with short attention spans. The good news is, as with most things related to this curious age, with a little creativity and a little bit of practice, camping with toddlers is boatloads of fun. Our tips below along with our family camping checklist will help get you started.

Car camping tent 

At any budget, you can get a great car camping tent that will keep you protected from the elements. A 3-season tent will work for almost all campers (unless your first trip is in the snow, which we might not suggest). The person count (2/4/6 person sleeping room) is not standardized so pay attention to the floor area. You should aim for around 30 square feet/person. We have used a 6 person tent before, but currently opt for two three person tents for our family of 5. We like the storage at home and the fact that finding two smaller footprints is easier than finding one giant footprint to set up.

For the adults and the baby, we like the REI Quarter Dome 3. For the kids, we like the Marmot Limelite 3P.  Both are durable three-season tents that stand up to adverse weather conditions. The REI Quarter Dome 3 is a little smaller than the Marmot because it tapers at the feet, but it is still large enough for two adults, a baby, and some gear. The Limelite is lightweight and easy to set up, but pleasantly large for a 3 person tent. The Limelite also perfectly fits two of our 3.5-inch self-inflating sleeping pads that we highly recommend.

Camping with kids hack

For affordable gear, visit your local REI store and ask about the next garage sale. You need to be a member to participate, but membership is a no-brainer. The fee is $20.00 for a lifetime membership, you get 10% back on all purchases at the end of each year, and you get access to events like the garage sale where gear is sold at significantly discounted prices.

Once you have a tent, we suggest a trial run setting up the tent in your yard, living room, or basement (wherever you have space). Practicing sleeping or napping in the tent before you take things on the road is also a great idea.

Sleeping Pad vs Cot 

For your first (or 20th) camping adventure, you might not wish to sleep quite so close to mother earth. We don’t blame you, neither do we! In addition to comfort, sleeping pads create a layer of insulation keeping you warmer on cool nights. If your little one is still in a crib or just out of the crib, bring a pack-n-play. We use our Lotus Guava and love it for babies up to small toddlers. In addition to being easy to set up, it packs up into a backpack for easy transport.

We get plenty of use out of this pack and play

Not only for sleeping, but pull it outside the tent to contain our adventurous toddlers during fire set-up and meal prep. Don’t forget a small towel or tarp for under if you have a similar model.

Sleeping tips for the big kids

For adults and bigger kiddos, as mentioned earlier, we like the 3.5-inch self-inflating sleeping pads. They are super comfortable and don’t take up an unreasonable amount of space in the car or tent. But most importantly, they inflate themselves! You have enough to do. Push them right next to each other in the tent to keep little ones at arm’s length and yourself cozy and resting easy. We recently used them for the oldest boys when camping on a plywood floor and they were perfect! The boys also use them as wrestling mats, including child-sized body slams. They cushion the falls and hold up great.

Cooking Guide

Preparing for a long day of outdoor adventures, swimming, fishing, and running around in the sun your toddler will need something a bit more than a banana at breakfast or a hotdog or PB&J at dinner to fill their tummy (or maybe they won’t, because… toddlers).  Whatever your menu includes, the tips below hold fast including a few of our favorite camping meals. And of course, our days almost always end with s’mores, (bring extra wipes for quick post-marshmallow clean-up).

Camp Kitchen Tips

  • Coffee!: First things first, the coffee. After a good or not so good night camping with your toddler, you deserve a great cup of coffee. Instant coffee packs are easiest, for a car camping, I like to bring my stainless pour-over filter and boil water on our camp kitchen. Every camper has a luxury item, this is mine!
  • Pre-cook/chop/prep: To save yourself the time and stress of watching your toddler inch near the bright fire blaze or off into the woods while chopping veggies and shucking corn (also, bring that pack-n-play!), do as much of your chopping and prep work at home. Frozen meals in addition to being quick are great freezer packs for your cooler (think sloppy Joes, chili, meatballs, etc.).
  • Snacks: Bring extra snacks for kids and adults. Similar to your financial situation, however many snacks you bring (or money you make), your toddler will consume it. You will use them on hikes. You will accidentally burn an entire meal over the fire. You will miss a meal while stuck in the tent during a pop-up storm. You will eat the snacks because a hangry toddler is a friend to no one.

Aside from the tips above, we have a full post with a 3-day menu plan, including a checklist and links to the recipes.

Toddler camping toys 

Our boys could hunt for animal tracks and collect rocks and sticks for days on end without ever getting bored. Camping has endless built-in entertainment for toddlers. One of the things I love most about camping is how creative they become and how little they fight! Even so, when camping with young toddlers bring a few things to make entertaining easier. Below are a few examples from our packing list.

Big box of games – When it’s raining or if the weather is just not cooperating, we like to come prepared with options for inside the tent. These board games are age appropriate for older toddlers.

Corn hole – is it ever too young to get the kids hooked on this classic game? It’s funny how a game favorite for drunken tailgate parties before football games also captures the attention of toddlers. Google “toddlers are little drunk people”. Enjoy. Okay maybe I am being a child but I also wonder why my husband thinks fart jokes are as funny as our 6-year-old. We aren’t a high-brow family here.

Bubbles – A little extra soap being splashed onto dirt-covered hands is a welcome event for this mamma. We are on the crusade against plastic and especially single use plastic, but we make a few exceptions. We like these wands because inevitably the kids dump the bubble soap within 3 minutes of touching the bottle. With the wands they get a second chance, and third chance, and forth chance, etc. And on a lucky day these wands survive for a follow-up trip and can be refilled with a quick homemade bubble mix.

Small jar to catch and release fireflies – If your toddler hasn’t tuckered out before dark we love to chase and catch fireflies (fun bit: we have an ongoing debate on what these magic bugs are called… fireflies or lightning bugs, leave a comment to keep the debate alive!) You can support the FivePax cause and buy one of these handy craft jars from Amazon, but cleaning out a used jar from jelly works just as great.

Soccer ball, or whatever your favorite outdoor activity is back home.

Toddler lantern with stars – Remember the first time the kids learned how to climb up on the chair to turn the lights on and off? Yep. Kids. love. lights. Lights that create star patterns on the roof of the tent take things to another level.

Trucks, kids love trucks – We’d love to recommend one of those camping adventure kits that you find online. While they seem neat, our kids just like playing in the dirt and being able to extend the pretend play that they are comfortable with at home into the camp site is what has worked best. We also bring the same toys to the beach. We like green toys because they’re 100% recycled plastic.

Have you braved tent camping with your littles? And the big debate: Fireflies or Lightning Bugs? Leave us a comment below!