My husband and I just returned from a two-week, 3000-mile, 3-state camping road trip. It was an escape from the daily grind of offices and schedules but not from the ins and outs of having a 14-month old son. The logistics to simply get everyone and everything into the car and out of the driveway on day one took weeks of planning.
Below are 10 practical tips for road tripping and camping with a young toddler. For context, we drove north from Los Angeles through the eastern Sierra Mountains in California, then into Oregon via Crater Lake and Hood River, ending in Leavenworth, Washington. Our return trip was along the coast, visiting Portland, the amazing redwoods in Humbolt County, the Bay Area and then home. We had a 4-person REI tent and stayed in state or national camp sites for 1-3 nights at a time. Crater Lake and Leavenworth were the only places we booked in advance. Every few nights we stayed with friends or in a hotel for a night.
Flexibility over schedules.
Schedules may be an important part of your daily routine, but flexibility is key when you are traveling. For car trips, it is helpful to think ahead to typical naptimes and try to time them with long drives but also expect unpredictability. We planned to drive 4-5 hours a day. We would typically enjoy the campsite in the early morning, breakdown camp and pack the car during his first nap and then hit the road when he woke up, while one of us fed and played with him in the back seat until his next nap. When he woke from the second nap, we would take a long break for lunch, then finish the day’s driving. (Note: He typically naps twice a day but shifted to more frequent shorter naps when we were travelling.) Some days we would make multiple stops because we were passing a town or park we wanted to see or to calm him from a fussy spell. He always adjusted and so did we.
Tricks for the car.
Pack a small box of toys and books that can easily be reached from the front seat and passed back to your toddler. You can also easily bring the box in and out of the car to the camp site. A white noise sound machine is a useful sleep association to help drown out road noise, conversation and the radio in the car or noisy neighbors at campsites. Bring snacks, snacks, snacks. Having a favorite food or surprise treat on hand can help stretch through that last half hour of driving for the day.
Read sleep cues.
This is nature, and as unpredictable as it can be, so can you toddler’s reaction to it. They may be more or less tired than usual, but they will almost certainly surprise you in how much they love the novelty of being outside and being with you 24/7. This can make nap and bed time challenging, so the best bet is to forget the clock and read their signs. Let them sleep when they are tired and enjoy the outdoors together otherwise. For nap time at camp sites, we found that sleeping in the stroller worked best, as there was too much stimulation and light in a tent during the daytime.
Sleeping in a tent is awesome.
My favorite part of everyday was the first moments of morning when my son woke up and realized we were lying next to him. He would smile and start “talking,” then roll around to snuggle into our arms, something he never does at home. The corner of a tent is similar to a Pack ‘n Play, so instead of bringing anything bulky, we layered blankets as his bed. I pulled my sleeping mat up to the side of the blankets and put a bag at the remaining exposed end. The first couple nights were a struggle as he got used to his new surroundings, but after that, he would crawl into the corner and put himself to sleep.
Layering for night temperatures.
Even camping in the summer, night time can be chilly. Your options for keeping your child warm depend on their age (for example, no blankets recommended under 12 months) and how cold it is. We found that regular long-sleeved cotton pajamas with this wearable blanket worked well, and on the coldest nights (50 degrees Fahrenheit), he had thicker pajamas. It will stay about 10 degrees warmer in the tent than outside if you use the rain fly.
Invest in a hiking carrier.
There are excellent short nature trails and all levels of hikes in or near most state and national camp sites. A child hiking carrier is considerably more comfortable than everyday fabric carriers, but they are also an excellent place to park your little one around camp and can be used as a high chair at meal times. We used the Osprey Poco.
Snacking will make everyone’s life easier.
Similar to letting go of a schedule, eating times will likely be unpredictable. Your toddler may also have different preferences, particularly if you are in high altitudes or hot weather. Prepare snacks and always have them with you – on hikes, in an easy-to-reach place in the car – and let go of worrying about ruining the next meal. Depending on when you get camp set up or if there is unexpected traffic or if the fire will just not light, your meals will likely be unpredictable as well.
Keep food simple and the important things cold, like milk.
We traveled with one large and one small Yeti cooler that we would fill with ice every 1-2 days. We would grocery shop every 3-4 days and focus on breakfast and dinner, usually having lunch on the road. The large cooler went on the roof rack, but the small cooler stayed in an easy to reach place in the car with food for the day, primarily our son’s meals and snacks. At night, we kept it within arm’s reach in the tent vestibule so that we could grab his morning bottle from the warm snuggle of our sleeping bags.
Bring extras and multiples of everything.
Pacifiers, diaper, wipes, lovies, toys, clothes – you will continually lose and re-find the essentials during the controlled chaos that is setting up and breaking down camp with a toddler on the loose. Having extras tucked into the car doors, tent pockets and everyone’s bags is easier than continually trying to find where you last put them. And clothes will get dirty – that is part of the fun of camping! So bring extras, especially if you do not plan to do laundry.
Yes, camping is probably more dangerous than an average day at home. Camp sites may be near bodies of water, cliffs or dense forest. The ground can be covered with potential choking hazards and possibly litter. Camp fires can cause serious injury. These are all learning opportunities. Every time we set up camp, we showed our son where not to go and told him what was dangerous, and even at 14 months, we were surprised how much he understood. You still have to be vigilant and never let a little one out of your sight, but giving them room to explore is part of the joy of the experience.
Have fun out there!