We haven't attempted anything too rugged yet only car camping in state parks, which has given the kids a good feel for tent camping. I think we might be ready to do some backwoods primitive camping, but we're no where near doing any backpack camping with the kids and probably won't be until Eli is old enough to carry his own stuff!
On the car ride home from our last camping excursion, Dennis and I compiled this list of tips for camping with your pre-schooler and/or toddler:
1. Have a practice campout in your backyard (or someone else's backyard) before you go-- camping comes with all sorts of noises: rustling of sleeping bags, tents unzipping, owls, crickets, footsteps, nuts dropping as well as sleeping with family members on the hard ground that your kid may or may not be used to. It's good to see how your child will handle this situation. It's better to try when you are at home and can escape by going inside instead of when you are at a campground and it's 3am and you're worried about your toddler screaming her head off and waking other campers.
2. Pick a park that has activities that the whole family will enjoy-- Entertaining your wee ones won't be so challenging if they have things to do that they enjoy. We try to pick locations that have good hiking for us and swimming for the kids. Playgrounds at the campgrounds are also a plus and so are fishing, canoe rentals, and ranger talks/activities.
3. Pick your campsite wisely-- Is it close to the bathrooms? Near water? Away from other campers so it's more quiet? Also, make sure that it is safe for your children: no steep drop offs, large pools of water, too close to a busy road.
4. Expect all schedules to be off-- As with all vacations, your child's schedule will be different than usual. Plan for an afternoon drive and plan to stay up late as it's really hard to go to sleep at 8pm in a tent when the sun is still beating down on you and other campers are having a good time. Even if you go to bed late, your toddler may still do laps inside the tent before she finally falls asleep.
5. Have kids help with camp chores -- It's never too early to teach your children how to set up camp. There are plenty of jobs around the camp site that your kids can help with: gathering kindling for the fire, unloading the car and washing dishes are good ways for the little ones to help. Our rule when we camp is to leave the camp site cleaner than we found it so everyone must pick up at least 5 pieces of trash before we leave.
6. Bring a complete first-aid kit-- Make sure that it includes extra band-aids, allergy medicine, ibuprofen, and anti-itch ointment as well as sunscreen and bugspray. It's amazing how many tumbles little ones take when there are random rocks and tree roots thrown into their path.
7. Dress your kids in layers-- It can get kind of cold some mornings when you're sleeping in your tent even in the middle of July. Bring long pants, long-sleeve shirts, sweatshirts and even hats and mittens (if it's early or late in the season) for unpredicatable weather. Also, bring several extra items of clothing to prepare for accidents (potty-training toddler, leaky diapers, falling in mud, etc.).8. Encourage your kids to look for little details-- One of the things that Dennis and I love about hiking with our kids is their ability to see things that we would have hurriedly walked right past. We love that it takes an hour to walk 1/3 of a mile and delight in their excitement over gigantic mushrooms, blackberries, big black bugs, croaking bullfrogs, and "crazy" water.
9. When it comes to packing toys, less is more-- I strongly encourage you to leave the children's toys at home. There is so much to do out in the wilderness if you give them the opportunity to discover all that there is to do. We usually bring a soccer ball and that's it (though we always kick ourselves for forgetting sand toys). Teach your kids new games or songs or make up new ones. On our last camping trip, the sun was at the perfect angle the we could see perfect shadows of ourselves. We had an impromtu dance off complete with head stomping and everything. And my husband always jumps at the chance for a rousing game of "shoe kick".
**If you want tips on camping with a baby, I am not the one to ask. We took Eli camping once when he was a baby, but I was 7 months pregnant with Sadie and peeing every 2 hours and it was almost impossible to sneak out of the tent without waking Eli. And we didn't go camping at all when Sadie was a baby because she was a really hard baby and the thought of camping with her just made me sick with anxiety. The thought of going anywhere when Sadie was a baby made me sick with anxiety!