How to Survive Camping With Kids Under 5

I was quite traumatised with my early experience of camping, so when my oldest son asked me to take him camping, my first thought was: no way! But then he begged and as most other parents, I then melted, gave in, and planned for a camping trip.

I booked the site, I was going to go camping with young kids, TWO of them. What have I done?

Then it completely changed my view. I was so pleasantly surprised by my first time camping with the little kids, I booked another trip…and another…and another..

We now camp with the kids all the time.

So I’m going to share with you some of my experience of what makes your next camping trip (or your first) easy and memorable.

Gear and Essentials

Good Family Tent

You need a good family tent because frankly, it is THE most important gear you’ll ever need for camping in a tent. Don’t skimp on this.

If you have a family of four, I would strongly suggest the 6-man tent. This allows enough room for your day packs (or night packs), or just some necessities you might like to keep in your tent. This could be things like thermos and formula for the baby, diaper and some extra clothes, or even a portable crib. It also allows enough room for those ‘horizontal sleeper’. Yes, my younger kid sleeps horizontally it’s so annoying.

If you are in the market for a new family tent, or you are upgrading from your 2-man tent you use to take everywhere ‘pre-kids’, please check out my post: The Best 6-Person Tent Reviews For Camping With Kids

I also strongly suggest you take an extra shelter or gazebo for the strong sun in the noon, or get the vestibule that comes with the tent to give you somewhere to rest during your down time with the kids.

What Should You Sleep On?

Personally, I like the self-inflatable sleeping pad like the super popular and comfortable Therm-a-rest Luxury Map Mattress. I actually have four of them – enough to fit the whole floor of the tent (Yes I went overboard but I’m not regretting it at all!).

This is because as I said, one of my kid sleeps horizontally and so I really need to make sure my sleeping area is enough. I like the self-inflatable sleeping pad because you don’t have to do anything to inflate it, just open the valve and let it run for ten minutes while you set up your other gear and that’s it. It’s also comfortable at night and should you be unlucky enough to get a small leak in it (super highly unlikely), it has the foam that would still allow you some comfort without touching the cold ground.

Tips: There are some cheaper option such as the Coleman Self-Inflating Camp Pad with Pillow and it would work well if you’re a back sleeper, but I prefer the thicker one since I’m a side sleeper. Otherwise, I tend to wake up with pins and needle sometime in the middle of the night and it is not nice.

Stretcher and Air Mattress

My husband is not a big fan of air mattress. It gets cold since it’s practically just air so it would take the surrounding temperature without much insulation. If you do get an air mattress, make sure you get some foam pad (like those ABC foam pad for the kids) underneath to provide you with more insulation and warmth.

If your kids are like mine, air mattress just won’t work because the moment it is inflated. Whohoo! trampoline! and Whooooosh, expect some leak somewhere – or some head bumping accident.

Stretcher is fine, but only if your kids can sleep in one spot without rolling everywhere. And some kids would and i envy their parents. My kids are just unable to stay in one spot, so stretcher doesn’t work for me. Not only that, if your kids are very young, sometimes they want to sleep next to you and the stretcher is not really made for that.

Kids sleeping bag is a must

Yes, give the kids their own sleeping bag. It’s smaller and so it has less risk of them losing themselves inside the sleeping bag. Also, it is smaller so less room for air and therefore, faster to warm up. You have to remember they don’t regulate their body temperature as good as adults would, so the kid-size sleeping bag is definitely needed.

Also, make sure when you buy them, you get them the temperature rating lower than you would expect the night to be. So even if you camp in the middle of summer, buy them something that would keep them comfortable up to 30 degree Fahrenheit. Check out something like Coleman 30 degree Youth sleeping bag.

Tips: Those cute disney frozen/cars pattern sleeping bags are generally made for indoor camping over at a friend’s place. So even though they’re cute, they won’t do for camping since they won’t be warm enough.

Portable Loo is a good thing

If your kids are both still in diapers, you may not really need to worry about this one. But if one of them (or both of them) are out of diapers or toilet training, then you would really need this one. It’s also good for yourself if you need to go in the middle of the night and you can’t be bothered walking more than a few steps to the bathroom. This is why those vestibule or those pop up toilet tent is quite good to have.

Personally, I wouldn’t go for the expensive porta-potti, only because I generally go to campgrounds that has good toilet and bathroom amenities. I don’t like the idea of having to maintain it, care for it, clean it. This is especially true since I only have the need of it for middle of the night thing, not during the day.

So my preference is the Reliance Products Luggable Loo Portable 5 Gallon Toilet, just very simple bucket. Just put cat litter in it during the night time. In the afternoon, put plastic bag in it and you can use it as rubbish bin. Perfect!

Portable Picnic Table

That table was so useful
That table was so useful

This is not a luxury. This is essential!

When I went camping with the kids the first time around, I forgot to bring this because I assume the campground would have some picnic table. Of course it was doable, but it was hard to cook or prepare food, and something was definitely missing.

A picnic table is great for preparing food, putting your camp stove (I have just a one-burner butane gas stove) to cook on, and to eat on. Somehow cooking on the ground becomes an invitation for the kids to hover around making me anxious at them getting too close to the fire.

Check out my post: Best Portable Picnic Table for Camping with Kids

Pegs and Laundry Detergent

You may always remember this, but this is something that I always forget. So I’m putting it here in case you’re like me. Kids get dirty, kids get wet, kids go swimming, kids go to the beach… or kids get food on their clothes and even though you know they’ll dirty the next set of clothes within 5 minutes, you’ve just GOT to change them.

So then a campground that has laundry facility is high on my list. But buying a one-time-use laundry powder for $1.50 is not going to cut it – so don’t forget to bring your laundry detergent. And once you’ve washed your clothes, pegs would be good if you want to make use of those campground clothesline rather than the coin dryer. It’s better for the environment too!

Extra tips: Sometimes, tent guy line can double up as clothesline for the kids’ swimmers and baby clothes.

Laundry Basket or Collapsible Box

When you need to go to the shower, or to the pool, it’ll be easier to carry the whole family’s stuff in one basket or box. Not to mention, when you have wet towel and clothes after a day at the beach, it’s great to just have one box (I have a collapsible one) to carry it around.

You can also use this box to organise your kids’ toys or gear inside the tent. While on the road, you can chuck all your ‘road toys’ into it, and put the box in between the two car seats (I have two kids), and they can just take things and put things back in the box as much as they like.

It is so versatile, worth a mention.

Insulated Coffee Cup

I have a thermos. Basically, I use a whistling kettle to boil water in my one-burner butane stove, and then once I finish with it, I pour it into a 1 litre thermos so it stays hot until when I want to use it.

As you know, with kids, the timing is not always right. You can’t always sit down and have your morning coffee anytime you want because the time always coincides with one of them wanting to go to the toilet, or throwing a tantrum for no reason.

So it’s a good idea with the thermos, until every time I find a time to finally pour that hot water into a cup, the kids play up…again.

So my coffee gets cold. ARGH!

My solution is, to make the coffee in an insulated cups. It’s easier to find that millisecond free time to sip some coffee out of the insulated coffee cup – than to find 5 minutes to drink a coffee out of a cup. It’s great when the coffee is hot.

(I know…it’s a no brainer to have the insulated coffee cups. I don’t know why I thought thermos was a better idea at the start)

Extra Gear that is borderline luxurious – but still essential

Waterproof Sleeping bag liner or some cot sheet

Waterproof sleeping bag liner, or you can use the normal Waterproof bed sheet is great to put inside your kids’ sleeping bag. This is especially true if your kid is toilet training or occasionally wet the bed.

My kid normally doesn’t wet the bed, but when we went on our last camping trip. He did.

Luckily, the campground I stayed at had laundry facilities, so I could just put the sleeping bag in the wash, and air dried it during the day. Actually, I forgot to bring pegs (I know), so I actually ended up spreading the sleeping bag on my portable picnic table during the day, and it dried out quite quickly.

But I could’ve saved myself all that trouble if I had some waterproof bed sheet inside his sleeping bag at night.

A Good Skillet (12″) – Non stick

Cooking on skillet in portable table

I really like a good non-stick skillet. I like the 12″ one (and make sure it’s deep) because I can cook one-pot meal that serve the whole family in one go. (In the picture above, it’s stovetop lasagne). In the morning, you can use this pan to cook pancake without having to worry about sticking. This makes me a professional breakfast chef – without necessarily having any cooking skill at all.

If you have a two burner stove, 10″ size is probably better since a 12″ is just a tad bit too large.

Let’s Talk About Food

Here are some tips that I’d like to share with you regarding the food that you bring camping. Normally, my camping trips are on the shorter side (weekend of three day trips), but of course you can apply these tips on longer camping trips too.

Load up on healthy snacks

I’m talking about blueberries, strawberries punnets, fruits and fruit chips. Nuts and trail mix would be good too. If you have the time, you can pre-make some granola bars and bring some for the kids for on the road or for those after-swim time in the campground.

The kids are going to spend loads of energy in the camp ground they’ll definitely need the fuel to keep them going all day. The idea is to keep them going as much as possible during the day, in the hope that they will crash (super) early as soon as the sun goes down – and not make a peep until the next day when some bird wakes you up – possibly before the sun is up.

Plan your meal but also be realistic

Plan easy to make meals and make sure it’s simple such as a stovetop one-pot lasagne or spaghetti. Make sure it doesn’t take longer than 30 minutes to make it since you really won’t have that much time with kids around.

You can even plan for some day-out and eat-out time so don’t be forced into thinking that you would have to cook every meal in the camp ground – this is especially true if your campground is kinda close to civilisation. This is also why I choose campground that is not in the middle of nowhere – since in that case you would definitely need to plan for all your meals.

Plan meals which don’t need refrigeration if you can. It can be as simple as long life milk and cereal for breakfast, or tuna/canned chicken sandwich for lunch. For dinner, it could be pasta with store bought pasta sauce – you can even add canned ham if you like.

Lastly, I made the mistake of trying to cook something (albeit simple) just before we are supposed to pack up an leave. Yup, that was quite stressful since nothing was packed by the time we were supposed to leave and we ended up leaving about an hour and a half later than planned. So my advise is, to plan for meals that don’t require any stove on your last day. Take-out is fine too.

Tips for On the Road

Roof rack and waterproof luggage is great

I have a small car and the first time we went camping we literally sat squashed in between all the gear. The tent, the sleeping bag, the extra foam, it all adds up. I could’ve saved some space by forgoing lots of ‘luxury’ things such as my own pillow, but I didn’t particularly want to.

So my solution was to get a roof rack installed in my car. It’s great!

And once you have a roof rack installed, you could always get Waterproof Rooftop Cargo Bag – I prefer this rather than the hard-case capsule because I don’t want it to be a permanent structure over my car.

Break up the trip

I find that my kids threshold is around two hours before they turn into little monsters. So it’s always good to find parks with some playground that is on the way. Stop for an hour or so after a maximum of two hours on the road, and that would keep your kids sane – and therefore keep you sane.

Lego, travel toys, colouring books, they can only be good for so long so always plan for that short stop if it’s going to take more than 2 hours to get to your campground.

Of course, if your kids still nap during the day, it’s always good to try and plan your car trip when your driving coincide with their sleeping.

Final Thought

Just give it a try! Take the kids camping even if they are a terrible-two and a threenager. In fact, I find it quite easy to relax with the kids when they’re out in the great outdoor. If you’re still not convinced, have a look at my post How Camping With Kids Solve All Your Parenting Issues

Have a good trip!


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