Toddlers & Fires & Bears? Oh My! Weekend Camping with Littles


Camping with little kids requires double the effort and is undeniably louder than when my husband and I camped alone, but the literal breath of fresh air and uninterrupted family time makes it worth it EVERY SINGLE TIME. Because my husband and I both work outside of the home full-time, it can be hard to get away. So we are working on mastering the art of the weekend camping trip. Here is some of my best advice for camping with little kids. 

Manage your expectations.

Camping with kids is not the same as camping with adults. We have traded long challenging hikes in the forest for endless loops of wagon rides through the campground and grilled steak dinners for roasted hot dogs. Sometimes we miss pre-kid camping, but passing on our love for camping and watching our boys explore the great outdoors pulls at my heartstrings. And I realize that someday, I will reminisce about these days too. I try my best to keep it simple, roll with the punches, and embrace the chaos. 

Make peace with the fact that camping with kids is a dirty business.  

I’m not the first ABQ Mom Contributor to experience this phenomenon. The layer of dirt covering my children by the end of a camping trip is a badge of their explorations and discoveries. 

I try to remind myself that just making the effort to get out and camp and give my family the gift of nature is already a win. A nice warm bath and washing machine awaits us once we are home! While we’re camping, I keep a pack of wipes handy to keep little faces and fingers (relatively) clean, use sanitizer before meals, and for the most part, I let all other attempts at cleaning the children slide. 

Our first goal with camping with kids is to keep the tiny humans alive.

We always bring a solid first aid kit to be prepared for minor cuts, scrapes, and burns. We make sure everyone stays hydrated in the New Mexico heat. We try not to plan activities that require a lot of effort in the heat of the day, and we bring hats and sunscreen. 

Toddlers & Fires & Bears? Oh my! Weekend Camping with LittlesI love cooking with my kids, so my children learned the concept of “HOT” very early. Before lighting a campfire, I always have the “HOT” talk with them. Once the fire is going, I hold their hands up near the fire so that they can feel the heat from a safe distance and remind them “NO TOUCH!”. We keep the area around the fire clear to avoid any accidental trips and falls close to the fire.  

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Campsites usually have information about how to keep safe from wild animals, and they will have warnings if bears are active in the area. We always store food in a closed bin when we’re not actively cooking or eating. We lock food away in a place separate from where we are sleeping. We’re also sure to throw trash away before turning in for the night. 

Location, Location, Location

For a quick weekend camping trip, we pick a location nearby. We prefer a spot that we can get to in a two hour drive or less, which gives us just enough time to load up, drive, and still have some daylight when we arrive at our destination.  

List, List, List

I am a serial lister. So, for a weekend camping trip, step one is always LIST, LIST, LIST!  I make at least two different lists, one for food and one for gear. This helps minimize the “Oops! I forgot the ___”.  Inevitably, we still almost always forget something. I try to improvise as best I can. There have been camping trips where we’ve mixed salad in a dish bin or flipped pancakes with a fork instead of a spatula. If worse comes to worse, an emergency trip to a gas station will usually suffice. 

Stage Your Gear

Getting out the door is the biggest hurdle to our weekend family camping trips. We try to prepare as much as possible throughout the week. We “stage” our camping gear in our garage. When we add an item to the pile, we cross it off the list. Friday after work, we can throw the pile of gear into the car and we’re off!  

The Camping Box

This is a lifesaver, and worth a blog all its own (stay tuned!). My favorite camping hack is to keep our small camping essentials and camping kitchen gear in a large clear bin.  

Divide and Conquer!

My husband and I split campsite setup/take down duties and kid patrol. Until kids are big enough to really be helpful, we’ve found that it is best to distract them. Bonus if little kids are completely out of the way of the setter-upper-er. 

My husband and I usually trade off: he sets up the tent and I’ll tag in to set up cots and beds. He sets up the camp kitchen and table and then I’ll tag in to set up the camp stove and unload the camping box.  

Always set up the tent first! We’ve had more than one camping trip where it started raining moments after setting up our tent and we were very, very happy to have a dry place to play games and crack open a juice box (and an adult beverage for the grown-ups).  

There are so many camping activities to keep the little ones distracted during setup and busy during the trip!

If there are trees, hammocks are the BEST!

We love to take our kids on a wagon/bike ride to explore the campground. Short, toddler-speed hikes are also a fantastic way to explore. 

The more the merrier! We love camping with friends.

Toddlers & Fires & Bears? Oh my! Weekend Camping with LittlesWe love to do a campsite scavenger hunt: how many different plants can you find? Do you see any animals? 

If there is a lake, swimming is a must, and throwing rocks into a stream or lake is also a very solid activity.  

The kids can also help set up a “play tent”. We have a super-easy-to-set-up 2 person backpacking tent that we like to bring along. We toss a few toys in, and it makes for a great distraction and a great “kid space” throughout the camping trip. 

Day trips are a great opportunity to sightsee and give stubborn toddlers a car nap. 

We leave exhausted and inspired.

Something about spending time together outside is so satisfying. It’s hard work, but camping tired is my favorite kind of tired. We like to return early on Sunday to give ourselves time to unpack, clean up, and recover a bit. The fresh air, the teamwork, and the memory-making always brings my family closer and keeps us going back for more. 

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ABQ Mom, its executive team, other contributors to the site, its sponsors or partners, or any organizations the aforementioned might be affiliated with.