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Your Guide to Camping with Small Kids

By: Zenovia Stephens + Save to a List

Presented by Eddie Bauer

I experienced my first tent campout when I went away to Camp Pinewood for two weeks during the summer break of my 6th-grade school year. Of all the activities we did, packing our bags and crossing to the other side of the lake for a night in the "wild" is what I loved and remember most. Making a huge bonfire, banana boats, and singing camp songs will forever go down as one of the best nights ever!

As an outdoor loving momma, it's only natural that I'd want to create similar outdoor memories with my family. While we do a lot, a key component to our adventures is making them our own and not being locked into a box of how things "should" look. One day we'll go big and explore national parks as a family, but now and always, the most important thing is to simply be outside as a family. With that thought in mind, my family embraces all camping styles and employs whichever one fits our current mood.

If you're thinking about camping with your family and not sure where to start, I've put together a few tips to get you started and on your way!

Playing cornhole as a family | Photo: Zenovia Stephens

Get the kids involved

When we started flirting with the idea of family camping, we made sure to get input from our son on what he envisioned. Hearing his perspective helped us plan in a realistic way that worked for our family and kept us from doing too much too soon. Kids as young as 3 may be able to communicate what they do and don't like. Take some time to pick their little brains and let them know their input matters. As our family has grown, we've continued this practice, and our boys love being involved in the planning.

Games with waterproof playing cards

Decide on camp style

While some may disagree, there are quite a few styles of camping. If your family isn't ready to jump into tent camping in the woods, there's no shame in choosing a different type of camp setup.

If I'm 100% honest, our family camping journey has been progressive, and I love sharing how far we've come to others. Our first camping trip was in the comfort of my son's bedroom, and you know who planned it? He did!

We learned during those early conversations that he was afraid to try camping outside, so we started in the place that felt best for him. We eventually graduated to backyard camping, where we go on the majority of our camping adventures. Hitting up the backyard was the perfect segway as it provides all the comforts of home readily available when needed. Knowing this helped ease our kids into the idea of doing more.

A family-friendly backyard setup

Suppose your kids are ready to sleep outside but aren't into the idea of leaving said amenities behind. In that case, Glamping may be an excellent option for your family or even cabin camping. Both provide amenities that allow you to connect to nature without totally roughing it. For families with small kids, choosing one of these options could be the difference between raising kids that love the outdoors vs. ones that hate it.

Amp up the excitement

Staying up late playing new games is just one way to make a night of camping even more fun. Whether in a cabin, tent, or RV, we always bring at least one new game to help entertain the kids. These also come in handy when the weather is saying "stay in." Bikes, skates, and scooters are also great for exploring campgrounds, meeting other families, and the budget-conscious.

Playing games with an Eddie Bauer tumbling tower

Packing

It may be tempting to bring all of your belongings, but try not to overdo it. Packing only the necessities keeps things simple and the load light. It makes trips with kids so much easier, and there's less worry of leaving something behind when it's time to go.

If your family is on the larger side, like mine, and you're tent camping, make sure your tent is big enough for everyone to be comfortable. There's nothing worse than having to be on top of others while camping. We love our bell tent, which has a nice, open feel and gives us plenty of space for sleeping and our belongings.

Essential packing list (for all camp styles)

First aid kit

Bug spray

Lanterns/Flashlights

Lighter

Fire Starter/ wood

Cooler

Water

Baby wipes

Wipeable picnic blanket

Skewers

Food/Snacks

Games

Trash bags

Eddie Bauer waterproof playing cards

Routines are key

Are your kids use to a specific routine at home? If so, you must stick to it as much as possible. Kids thrive when they know what to expect, and while camping may be new, they'll find comfort in the things that are just like home. Keeping a similar routine can reduce stress and anxiety for both kids and parents, making for a smoother, more enjoyable trip.

Leave the electronics at home

Besides cameras and a Bluetooth speaker, we try not to use electronics much when camping. Help your kids connect to what's happening around them by leaving tablets and video games at home. They'll be so much more inclined to play and explore when you do. I understand this isn't always feasible, or maybe you just don't want to do it. In both cases, a few apps that help keep the focus on being outdoors can be downloaded before your trip. We like Seek for looking up plants, trees, and animals and SkyView for looking up constellations. Remember, it's about flexibility, not perfection, so if you having and using electronics is what makes your camping trip better, do what works for you!

Try an outdoor activity

There's no shortage of outdoor activities, and camping is a great time to incorporate a few or a lot. Removing electronics from the equation tends to free up a lot of time. This is a great chance to really create lasting family memories through outdoor activities. Most campgrounds will provide access to at least hiking trails, but some even have boat rentals, beaches, and piers for fishing. Get out, explore and let your kids discover the best parts of being outside!

Make food fun

This is another time to get input from the kids. Letting them help plan foods they consider "fun" means they won't have a problem eating. While my kids are content with roasting hot dogs, others may enjoy foil packets with their favorite veggies and meat cooked over the open fire. If you're new to camping, it may not be the best time to try new foods (remember those routines). You want to make sure your kids will actually eat so they're energized for the activities. Whatever you decide, keep the kids in mind, make the ordinary interesting, and they'll be happy campers.

S'mores make a delicious camping treat

Don't forget to bring ingredients for smores. They make every camp out better! Something fun I like to do is play around with different cookies, flavored marshmallows, and types of chocolate. It keeps the kids on their toes and excited to see how many smores variations we can come up with.

Whether you're excited about the smores, sleeping in a tent, or trying new outdoor activities, remember to keep things fun. If you keep fun as the focus, you'll have a successful and memorable experience!

When you're ready to venture beyond your backyard

We're aiming for Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the future. Check out this list I put together of family-friendly adventures in the Smokies.

Not ready for a National Park adventure just yet? Stick to your kids' comfort levels as long as you want! And when you're ready to try out a new spot, here's a list of family adventures near you.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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