A few weeks ago, we went camping with some of our friends from high school, and their kids. While my kids are at an age where they don't need me constantly watching them, our friend's kids were all much younger and it made me remember just how challenging it can be to go on camping trips with toddlers.
The first time we took our daughter camping, she was about 15 months old, and at that stage where she didn't want to be held, and didn't want to hold my hand. She could walk perfectly fine, thank you very much, provided there were no obstacles in the way. Our camp site was littered with roots, big rocks and was on the edge of the lake, not exactly a safe place for a toddler to be left wandering on her own. The flies were insane that trip as well. To sum up, the trip was a huge stress-out for me, but that was because I wasn't prepared.
Here are some basic tips on having a successful camping trip with your little ones.
1. Pick a time when the bugs aren't bad if possible. Since most insect repellants aren't safe for babies, you'll spend a good deal of your time sweeping mosquitoes off your child, which pretty much means you have no time to enjoy the trip yourself. It's bad enough being stuck inside a tent when it's just adults, but being confined with a cranky baby? Not fun. Planning a trip for later in the summer usually means insect free days, and a far more pleasant trip for everyone.
2. Take lots of toys, preferably quiet ones. We made the mistake of not taking more than a few stuffed animals on that first trip, and to be honest, we don't take a lot of things for our kids even now. Our friends though, bring a huge bin of beach type toys, water guns and lawn type games. That bin saved our sanity more than once during the weekend. My own kids are perfectly happy with a camera, a few guide books and their bikes, but they had lots of fun joining in on a big water fight with the little ones. If you can avoid taking toys that make noise, your neighbours will thanks you. Travel size board games are perfect for older kids on rainy days.
3. Pack snacks that don't require preparation. Having things you can set out at a moment's notice is a great way to distract kids if they are being whiney. On our trip, all the kids would often hang out at one site, with one or two of the adults to watch them while the other parents went for ice or fire wood. When a three year old starts throwing a fit, often, a yummy snack will derail a complete tantrum long enough for their parent to take over. Healthy snacks are best, especially if you are camping with a group and don't want to hop your friends kids up on sugar just to get them to stop screaming. Also, for early mornings, if your kids are up but the rest of the group isn't, and you don't want to make breakfast until they all wake, having things like fruit cups, small boxes of cereal or yogurt can keep little ones happy and quiet.
4. Don't be too ambitious. Lets face it, when our kids are little, they are going to dictate a lot of what we do, and that doesn't change on a camping trip. You probably won't be doing that 10K hike with a three year old. You want your kids to grow up loving camping (at least I assume you do) and forcing them to do something they don't want to or aren't ready for, isn't the way to go about it. When it comes to hikes, swimming or canoe rides, be sure what you have planned isn't going to exhaust them, or bore them. For example, at Algonquin, two great options for hiking with little kids are the Spruce Bog Trail which is mostly flat and short enough that they won't lose interest, and the Logging Museum Trail, which has things for kids to explore and climb on, and is also short and easy. Some of the other short trails, like Peck Lake, should be avoided if you have a child at that age where they want to walk on their own, but aren't quite steady on their feet. Skinned knees, bruises and bumps on the head are no fun for anyone. We have been dying to do the Track and Tower Trail for years now, but we also know that attempting it with our kids when they aren't ready for it would just mean everyone would be miserable. Better to wait, or plan a getaway for adults only.
5. Start small. This is a pretty obvious one. For your first trip out, plan for a one or two night stay, and try to pick a park or campground close to home so if it gets to be too much, you can cut the trip short. It would suck to have driven five hours, for a week long trip, and on the second day, have to cut the trip short because of a sick child, or because your child panics about sleeping in the tent or on the ground. On our first trip, our daughter got up at six am and was only happy if she was banging on the mess kit with a spoon. She'd also gotten a fly bite in the corner of her eye and the whole side of her face was swollen up. Needless to say, our neighbours wouldn't have been happy about the noise, and we were worried about the swelling so we packed up and left. We'd only booked one night, so no money went to waste.
If anyone else has advise on camping with kids, or would like to share stories please leave a comment. Teaching our kids to love the outdoors, and creating those memories with them is a wonderful gift, it would be a shame to lose it because of a bad first experience.