Going Wild: Experiencing the Outdoors with Your Child
Camping and young children can be a daunting combination for many parents. Having the right information for camping with little ones can help families embark on a wonderful exploration of the great outdoors.
What to Expect
Enjoying the outdoors with a child of any age can be a tricky endeavor. Toddlers are as unpredictable as the weather, and babies require an excess of daily supplies. Adding camping to the routine can be complicated and overwhelming. Yet with a few simple preparations, your family can enjoy a day—or a week—in the woods with your young one.
If you haven’t already introduced your child to Mother Nature, now is the time to visit your local library and pick up picture books and videos on bugs, plants, and animals.
Discuss the particulars of your adventure with your toddler. Will there be a long car ride? Where will she sleep? What will you do if it rains? Sometimes the outdoors can be scary for a child; explaining all the things she may see and experience now, before embarking on your trip, will help her deal with any situation that may occur.
Before departing, familiarize your child with items you are taking on your trip. If you will be tenting (car camping with a tent is a great way to start), set up camp in the backyard and practice with your family. Pretending you are already out in the woods is a fun way to introduce your child to the idea of camping while simultaneously giving you a chance to test your gear.
Many first-time family campers fall into the trap of setting their expectations too high. Remember that you are mixing Mother Nature and children: an equation that invariably yields unpredictable results. Be ready for anything and try to keep your expectations realistic.
There is a wealth of educational resources to help you get ready for that first trip. Visit Powell’s Books for a list of outdoor reading material for your young one. A variety of learning tools for children of all ages are also available at
Establish an easy-to-understand set of ground rules for outdoor safety. You’ll need to be meticulous in looking after your child in the wilderness. One turned head can result in an emergency drive to the nearest hospital after your precious one samples berries off an unrecognized bush. Teaching your toddler to be safe now may prevent the unthinkable from happening later. And if the unthinkable does happen, be prepared to meet the emergency head-on. Before taking a wilderness trip, learn basic first aid. Many community colleges teach first aid courses at reasonable rates. Your local American Red Cross office also offers a variety of first aid classes.
In addition to your at-home family first aid kit, prepare an outdoor first aid kit. Go over the kit with your toddler and explain what each item does. Your child’s knowledge of what is in the family medicine bag may help her feel more comfortable should you need any of the contents to treat her in an emergency. Family Camping Gear suggests a list of items to include in your kit. There are several online resources for outdoor first aid and children’s wilderness safety; About.com has several pages of information, and for pre-packaged outdoor family first aid kits, visit Altrec.
Car camping is a wonderful way to spend your first outdoor adventure. You can pack for any situation without the hassle of lugging items in and out of your campsite.
Have your toddler pick out several favorite toys and snacks for the car, and a separate smaller group of toys for your tent (in case you’re faced with inclement weather). When packing clothes, err on the side of excess. Pack items you can layer, with lots of onesies for your youngest camper and undershirts for your toddler. You should only need a couple of heavier items for outer layers and for sleeping—change the clothes closest to your little one’s skin and reuse the outer layers. Don’t forget to include sunscreen and an insect repellent that’s gentle on your child’s skin.
Camping and diapers are a daunting combination for many parents. Here are a few easy solutions to the dreaded diaper dilemma.
- If you are using cloth diapers, boil them with a little soap over a fire; hang them to dry, and use them again.
- If you use disposable diapers, dig a pit (just as you would for an outdoor latrine), clean off the diapers, bury the waste, and let the diapers dry before stowing them in a garbage bag.
- If you are camping with a potty-trained child or toddler-in-training, bring along your training potty. You can set it up just outside your tent for late night use.
Sleeping in the woods can be difficult for children. Create a comfortable environment by replicating your family’s at-home sleeping conditions. Bring along bedding that smells like home and a favorite stuffed animal or pillow. And if you are camping with a baby, bring along a play yard, port-a-crib or baby bed. You can also cut down a camping mat to the same size as your baby’s crib mattress and fit it with an old crib sheet, positioning your baby’s bed between you and your partner so your child won’t roll out in her sleep.
Baby backpacks and hiking strollers are two essentials for family camping. If you are traveling with a child under the age of two, you’ll need to look for a front-facing carrier (young babies don’t have the head control to safely ride in backpacks). For toddlers, look for a backpack that fits you well across the shoulders and hips (with padded straps and belt for you and a comfortable carrying seat for your child). When shopping for an off-road stroller, look for a three-point harness, a strong lap belt, bike tires (or other sturdy material), brakes, and a reclining backrest. If you plan to do a lot of camping, consider one of the new convertible baby backpack/stroller combinations; they are purportedly lightweight and durable. Be sure to visit REI, Kelty, InStep, BABYBJÖRN, and Graco Baby for products that can help make camping easier, more enjoyable, and safer for your family.
Ready, Set, Camp!
When it comes to any new experience, remember that your excitement is infectious—if you love camping and the outdoors, chances are your child will too. But there are those youngsters with whom camping may not immediately agree. Simple star maps; bug, bird, and plant identification booklets; supplies for nature projects; and so on, are all great items to bring along to engage a reluctant camper.
A fun project for exciting a reticent camper is creating a camping scrapbook. Pack tracing paper, disposable cameras, and crayons. Collect fallen leaves and flowers for plant rubbings (be careful not to disturb native or protected species). Let your toddler experiment with taking pictures and add the developed photos to your special book. Gather small items from your trip, such as pine needles, shells, and campground brochures, and keep a daily camping log. After you return home, your child will enjoy reminiscing with you about her experiences.
Location can be everything for that first-time outing. When looking for a good spot to car camp, hunt out parks where campsites are spaced widely apart with some privacy from main roads. Traffic can become problematic for inquisitive toddlers and babies trying to nap. Many larger parks have a special area just for tenting, which makes for a quieter camping experience.
A good resource for outdoor recreation is The Great Outdoor Recreation Pages. Be sure to also check your local bookstore for regional camping books and information.
Exploring the great outdoors with even the youngest child instills a respect for the world around him, and provides a valuable foundation on which to build not just love for the natural world, but respect for all other living things. Starting early will put you and your family on track for a long and fun-filled outdoor relationship together. And remember that children are inherently intuitive—your excitement and love of the natural world are contagious. Going wild with your child can open a completely new world for you both. Happy Camping!
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