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18 Things I've Learned From Camping With Two Young Kids

It's never too early to set them on the mountain path.

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Taking your kids camping before they're 4 or 5 seems untenable to a lot of people: Wait until the kid can wear a little pack, you think.

Janet Manley

I get the hesitation to bundle up your cherished, hard-won baby and place them in the lap of the jungle. But clambering into a tent and sleeping in a space where your warm exhales all form a little cloud under the ceiling has always felt fundamental to me.

My partner and I have always been avid hikers. Encouragement from parents who took their young children into the wilderness got us out there at the three-month mark with kid number one. We already had a lot of gear, so upgrading to the family plan wasn’t too difficult — and actually made the experience pretty killer (so long, lightweight bedroll!).

Here's how to have an epic time camping with your tot-sized explorers.

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1. Get the biggest tent you can.

Janet Manley, rei.com

Ours is the REI Kingdom 8 — in upgrading from the Kingdom 6, our fiefdom gained a vestibule. During a recent clear and starlit night, we peeled back the fly from our half of the kingdom so that we looked up through netting at a canopy of trees splaying the ever-present glow of greater New York. The kids were enclosed in darkness, lulled to sleep by crickets, the soft percussion of trees blowing, and, later, the distant yowls of coyotes.

You heard it here: Get a big-ass tent. When you are wrestling your partner at the far end of 20 feet of telescopic pole you might wonder if you've overdone it, but trust me, this immense structure is essential for fitting all your cushy sleep gear.

Get it at REI for $529.

2. Speaking of sleep gear, treat yourself and your young heirs to elevated cots.

Janet Manley, amazon.com, walmart.com

Our first camping trip when Scout was 14 weeks old was a disaster. We set off to a quiet corner of the Catskills and pitched our two-person worm tent, nestling baby in a thick swaddle of blanket and positioning her on a yoga mat overlapping our Therm-a-Rests. Forty-five minutes later, Scout was screaming; it pretty much kept up all night. At 8 a.m., we did a quick hike then headed to a brewery for doors-open at 10.

We've come a long way, baby. Now, Scout, 2, and her brother, Japhy, 9 months, occupy their own room, each suspended on a comfy bed above the body-heat-leaching ground. Nearby, my husband and I sleep on adult cots pitched side by side like twin beds in a dorm room. Even better, we roll out our Therm-a-Rests on top of the cots for added cushioning. Scout sleeps on a kiddie cot in a sleeping bag; Japhy wears a sleeveless sleep sack in a Pack 'n Play. (Do you see now why I got the Kingdom 8?).

Get the adult cot for $37.66 and Therm-a-Rest for $59.98 at Jet. Get the child-sized cot for $23.98 on Amazon, and Angry Birds sleeping bag for $12.99 at Walmart.

3. A Pack 'n Play will double as your sanity corral.

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While you are pitching the tent, you can set the Pack 'n Play up on the forest floor and let your baby tramp about inside like a tiny cowboy without a horse. Anytime you need to fiddle with the fire, folding equipment, or bear traps, you can drop your kid into the play yard and not have to worry about them popping a clod of moss in their mouth.

Get the Pack 'n Play on Amazon in multiple colors from $71.09.

4. Get the right sleepwear for a cozy night’s slumber.

Janet Manley, amazon.com, patagonia.com

I’m pretty fanatical about baby sleepwear, and am really happy with Slumbersafe baby sleeping bags, which are sleeveless quilted sleep sacks and come in a variety of weights (winter to summer). I’ve had very little luck keeping a hat on my kids at night, but you can dress your kid in two layers of pajamas inside the sleep sack, and then you basically have a comforter wrapped around them.

It’s a bit of a splurge, but I love Patagonia’s baby-sized Capilene set. (If you’re in Australia, find some Bonds Wondersuits or leggings #hack.) Our rule of thumb is to bring two pairs of pajamas for a single-night trip, and three pairs for a longer camp.

Get the sleep sack on Amazon for $29.99+ and the Capeline PJs in multiple colors at Patagonia for $45.

5. Keep a cozy jacket handy for early morning games.

Janet Manley, patagonia.com, patagonia.com

My kids have worn the same size 6- to 12-month Synchilla fleece to death, which seems to be the point, if you ask Patagonia. Having outgrown her original jacket, my daughter now has a vintage-style Patagonia fleece that makes her look like a young Yvon Chouinard. It's lined and looks like it’s made out of alpaca wool and gets many compliments.

Get the Synchilla fleece for $59 and the Baby-X Retro jacket from $39 in multiple colors at Patagonia.

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6. Long pants are a simple and necessary defense against bugs.

rei.com

REI’s fleece pants are the right amount of stretch and thickness, and not especially prone to picking up burrs despite their fluffy fabric. I recommend long pants and long sleeves so you can spritz your kids with insect repellant without actually touching their skin. There are natural mosquito repellents available, but my family seems to have very tasty blood and get eaten alive if we don't use the Deet-filled variety. Tuck long pants into your kids’ socks as a physical barrier to ticks — and other nasties — in a bad year (we have pulled numerous ticks off our dog in 2017).

Get the fleece pants in purple or black at REI for $29.95. Get a kid-friendly natural mosquito repellant on Amazon for $8.88.

7. Why wear a headlamp when you can string up fairy lights?

amazon.com, amazon.com

I'm telling you, once you commit to being car campers, the possibilities are endless. I packed a string of fanciful battery-operated LED string lights on our most recent venture, because why not bring the proverbial table lamp too? If you are feeling the EDM a little harder, check out the Luminoodle rope lights, which can attach to your car with magnets or coil up into a lamp.

Get the string lights for $6.99 and the LED rope light for $19.99 on Amazon.

8. Keep the cleanup to a minimum with ready-to-eat food and a Jetboil.

Janet Manley, jet.com

Part of the fun of camping is taking the kids somewhere you can feed them cheese sticks for dinner and feel like you “cooked.” Most established campsites have a fire pit and/or barbecue stove, which gives you lots of options for dinner. We have a Jetboil and use it to reheat packets of ready-to-eat Indian dishes and boil water to pour over pre-cooked rice. The Jetboil pots come wrapped in a heat-retardant coozie so even grabby toddlers are pretty safe around the dinner table. Note we don’t pour the daal into the Jetboil — we place the entire silver sachet in, then peel it open after it gets hot. No cleaning up!

Get the Jetboil at Jet for $79.95. Get a pack of six meals at Walmart for $29.98.

9. That rusty cast-iron skillet will feel like it has come home on the campfire barbecue.

walmart.com

If you’re keen to show off your elemental fire-building skills, you can expand your meal options without getting too messy or taking too long. Hot dogs or veggie dogs are a quick treat on the barbecue (bring foil!), as are charred cheapo buns. We’ve also been known to bring a cast iron skillet and cook lazy tacos (your protein of choice and/or a simple stir-fry of peppers and onions, then tortillas exposed to a bit of fire). We bring lots of little plastic bowls so that we don’t have to constantly clean; the Munchkin bowls you no doubt already own are perfect.

Get a cast-iron skillet for $9.88 and a 16-piece set of Munchkin bowls for $9.24 at Walmart.

10. Bioluminescence is the biz — get yourself some glowsticks.

jet.com

I've never understood the appeal of disruptive fireworks held against the pure entertainment of a glowstick. For this reason, we pack several glowsticks for Scout to run around with, looking from a distance like a panicked nuclear scientist. At bedtime, you can hang them in the tent as a soft nightlight, then hide them under a blanket when you climb into bed and the Tommyknockers vibes get too real. In the daytime, I recommend nothing as much as bubbles.

Get a 25-pack of glowsticks for $14.99 and a four-pack of giant bubble wands for $17.90 at Jet.

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11. Magnetic tiles are the toys that clean themselves up.

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We bring a random clump of magnetic tiles on every trip even though our kids are years off being able to build the elaborate castles and locomotives pictured on the box. Instead, they use them to make patterns on the floor, or simple ranch houses, or to bang together as a DIY percussion instrument.

Get them on Amazon for $29.98.

12. Doodle your way through rainholds with a waterproof writing pad.

rei.com

I stumbled on these outdoor journals during a recent trip to REI and I honestly think they would be great even at home, where all our best artworks are constantly absorbing apple juice spills. You can color, scribble, or take notes on nature using crayons, pastels, or pencils, and rain won't spoil the fun.

Get it at REI for $6.

13. Campsites are the best potty-training sites.

amazon.com

As Moana once said of nature, “Fish pee in you...ALL DAY!” Our travel potty comes with plastic bags, but the beauty of setting off into the hinterland is that you can just prop it over some dirt and save storing up bags of pee. I’m honestly a bit jealous that Scout has a nicer experience peeing on a campsite than I do — those portaloos are a beast. The potty can also be propped on an adult-sized toilets, but I personally couldn’t get Scout to contemplate going potty over the bowels of hell.

Get the travel potty on Amazon for $15.99.

14. Bring an anxious-parent contingency kit (which I know I don’t have to tell you).

rei.com

Make sure you bring a basic medical kit with extra bandages and antiseptic. I would also recommend bringing a small bottle of children's painkillers, if your kids have a taste for grape. In all honesty, despite the rock-strewn campsites, fire pits, and prickles, the worst health risk we’ve faced is a couple of mosquito bites, which present somewhat alarmingly on tender little legs.

Get the Ultralight medical kit at REI for $28.95.

15. Clean water water is the gift that keeps on keeping (you alive).

jet.com, rei.com

Virtually every aspect of #camplife can be enhanced by a silly amount of water — washing hands, cleaning bowls, drinking after hauling your children up mountains in their cushy backpacks — which is why we pack a collapsible water tank. However much water you think you’ll need, double it.

While you’re in the mood to bask in renewable water usage (if, say, you're using the campsite pump that pulls from a natural spring), try out a solar shower. You can get them as cheap as $10, but we’ve found that a slightly sturdier model is easier to tote around and hoist up into a tree when you’ve got tiny people circling your ankles. (Be honest, you’re all covered in pee, and you couldn’t be bothered to hike all the way to the actual waterfall because you ran out of snacks.)

Get the collapsible water tank at Jet for $10.99 and the solar shower at REI for $32.95.

16. Pack in what you packed out.

Janet Manley, amazon.com

There is something simple and pure about hauling your offspring up above treeline on your back as they pull your hair and kick your ribs. Our Kelty papoose has been one of the greatest investments we’ve made since having kids. It’s gone up to five thousand feet and hauled my daughter around pumpkin patches and supermarkets. She can fall asleep, wake up and sing for a bit, then doze off again without my breaking stride. If you go the model up, you can get a sunshade and larger pack compartment.

Now that we have two crazy tots, we are going to invest in a second Kelty. Until then, number two rides in our beloved Ergo — as a frontpack rider until recently (nurse and hike, no problem), when I started swinging him around to the back.

Get the Kelty child carrier at Jet for $189.99 and the Ergo carrier on Amazon for $179.

17. And don't forget a pack for doggo.

Janet Manley

Our dog wears a pack also for two reasons: 1) he drinks too much water, so we make him carry some of his own, and 2) the handle lets us help him up any boulders that are too large for his stumpy legs, carrying him like a handbag.

Get it at REI for $79.

18. And make sure you have a large blanket to wrap around the lot of you sitting around the fire.

amazon.com

We use a Pendleton swaddle blanket we were given as a baby present as a floor layer, change table, bedtime swaddle, pillow, you name it. Pendleton's signature National Park blankets cost a tidy $239. While pricey, we've found the quality such that we fully expect to pass it down to the kids when they venture out on their own.

Get a full-sized Glacier National Park blanket on Amazon for $239.

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