Camping with young kids is difficult. There’s no sugarcoating it. You’ll have an absolute ball at times, and at other times you’ll be pulling your hair out and wishing you’d stayed home. It’s just how it is. Toddlers are often challenging at home, and it can be even more difficult when you are camping with them. On the flip side, it can be truly amazing too, so don’t rule it out.
We did a fair bit of travelling with Oliver when he was a baby, and managed fairly well. Now though, hes nearly three years old (and we have another one to look after!), and things have changed completely. If you’d like to know what it means to travel and camp with a toddler, you’ve come to an honest and realistic source of information.
It’s not intended to put you off camping with young kids, but it will prepare you for the huge challenge that you are about to experience! You’ll also leave with a heap of ways to make camping with toddlers easier.
3 months away with a toddler
We left Perth in May 2018 for 3 months of travelling up through the Pilbara, Kimberley and Northern Territory After a couple of days on the road, I was really wondering whether we had made the right decision, or if my precious long service leave would have been better spent when Oliver was a little bit older. 9 years of hard work to get 3 months off, and I felt like it was not being used very well. Every little thing was a battle.
Oliver travelled fairly well, and would do 600 – 900km a day with a bit of screen time towards the end, but at camp he did everything you didn’t want him to, and it never stopped. Even on our down days (which we had a lot of) life was often a struggle. We were travelling in our Soft Floor Camper trailer, and Isuzu Dmax.
If you want to read the in depth trip report, you can check it out here – 3 months up north with a toddler and camper trailer.
By the time he went to bed we were often too tired to relax and enjoy ourselves, and then we’d get up (early!) the next morning and do it all again. For me, it was a big shock. In a normal week, I would be at work/travelling to work/working on the blog at home anywhere from 50 – 70 hours a week, and would only spend a maximum of 2 – 3 hours a day (on week days) with Oliver.
When we did shorter trips prior to this, we’d have others with us, which greatly helped to entertain Oliver, and as a result we had more downtime to enjoy ourselves. On this 3 month trip though, it was a game changer. No one else to help, but my wife.
To make things even harder, we found out Sarah was expecting another baby (finally!) 2 days before departure, meaning she was often sick and had little energy to keep up with Oliver.
No one specifically said to us that we were mad going on a 3 month trip with a 4WD, camper trailer and 20 month old toddler, but I’m sure a few of them thought it. It’s no small task, and we were aware of that to an extent, but there were times where we wished we’d delayed the trip a bit.
What’s it like travelling with a toddler?
It’s hard travelling with a toddler. There are no other way to describe it. One of you has to be with them every minute of the day, except when they are asleep. They have tantrums, they get upset over nothing, they want to run away from your camp site and they have no understanding or sense of safety. There’s no breaks to be had during the day; you palm the toddler from one person to another, or in many cases both share the work to make it bearable!
There is a transition period, where you have to settle into a routine. For some people who’ve not done much camping or travelling, this can take 6 weeks or so. I expected little to no transition period as we’d camped a lot in the past with Oliver. I was shocked, to be honest – being with him 24/7 to start with was quite a learning curve!
Now, don’t call me a pessimist, especially if you’ve never camped with a toddler before. We had an amazing time. A truly unbelievable time, but, if I’m honest, it would have been so much more relaxing without Oliver around. That said, I’d not change it for the world.
Beyond that, Oliver would have been just as much work at home, with only one person to entertain and occupy, so what’s the difference?
35 ways to make camping with a toddler easier
Enough of the doom and gloom. There are lots of ways you can make camping with a toddler easier, and we are here to point them out:
Accept that its going to be a challenge
There’s no other way to describe it. Toddlers are hard work at home, and just as hard (or harder) when camping. Sometimes they don’t settle into long car drives, or appreciate sitting around while you look at various attractions, and its hard work to occupy them, to keep them happy and healthy. You won’t get to do everything you want all the time, and you have to suck it up and move on.
In some ways, its harder travelling with a toddler than being at home and in others its easier. Just know that it won’t always be sunshine and lollipops! If you have high expectations (in that a toddler won’t change your travel style), you will feel deflated when they aren’t met.
If you have never camped with a baby or toddler before, head away for a night or two to start off with. Know that it will be a steep learning curve, and that you might not have the most amazing trip away first time. Like everything though, you’ll get the hang of it in due time and soon be able to head away for longer, and ensuring everyone has a great trip away.
Take it slow
Prior to children, we had no problem moving camp every day, or driving longer distances, and filling our days up with adventure. Once you’ve got a toddler, you have no choice but to slow down. Everything takes longer, and you’ll be exhausted and have a cranky toddler if you try and keep up a fast pace.
Go with other children
Nothing is as entertaining as company from other toddlers. If you have friends with similar age kids, head away together on a camping trip. The kids will entertain each other, share each others toys (or learn about sharing!) and have a great time. It’s a lot less work with more children and adults, as there are more eyes to watch, and more going on to keep the kids entertained.
Bring a bike
Young toddlers will spend hours riding trikes, bikes and the anything with wheels around. They are light weight, and can easily be strapped to your trailer or vehicle out of the way, and are a great way to keep your young ones occupied.
Eat before it gets dark or too late
Cooking when camping is more difficult than when you are at home just by its very nature. Don’t make it harder by trying to do it in the dark when your toddler is hungry, tired and difficult to see more than a few metres away. An early dinner allows you to relax around a fire, or go for a walk before bed without rushing and struggling! Try and stick to the same routine; if they go to bed at 7PM, eat well before that so they are ready to go down at their usual time.
Enjoy the moments
Despite some frustrating times, there’s nothing better than sharing a great afternoon with your kid on the beach, or teaching them new skills on the road. You will have some amazing moments that make the trip completely worth it.
I often liken camping with a toddler to a bit of a roller coaster ride. You have less uneventful times, and many more highs and lows. There are times often where you regret going camping, and other times where you think its all worth it for a few special moments with your family. Try and keep an open and balanced perspective! I also think that good moments with a toddler get valued much more because of this new found perspective.
Plan ahead but not too much
It’s good to have a bit of a plan, with some knowledge of what you can do, and can’t. Making your mind up on the spot with a toddler hanging off you isn’t always the easiest plan of action. Know what places and activities are going to suit having a toddler with you. For example, Dundee Beach is a truly amazing place in the NT, but with a toddler there isn’t much to do, and we would skip it next time.
Going on from above, you need to be flexible. Drives may take longer than planned, or you might all be too tired to do what you had planned. That’s fine – there’s always tomorrow. Don’t hold yourself to cement plans, as it will only lead to disappointment.
Have a plan for night wake ups
Toddlers will wake up when you are camping. They might be scared, cold, hot, uncomfortable or in some instances upset over seemingly nothing. You need a plan for how you are going to deal with this. If others are around you, do your best to keep things quiet, but know that if you’ve done your best people also need to be understanding. We often pick camp sites that are away from others (as we prefer this anyway), but it works well if you have a bad night.
Know where your gear is, and have it accessible for night time wake ups. In the past, it wasn’t unusual for us to be pushing a pram around a camp site late at night trying to get young kids back to sleep!
Give them a light
Toddlers love lights. Whether its a little lantern, torch or head torch, they will love it. Its a novelty, and allows them to navigate their way around at night without tripping over and hurting themselves. Tent guy ropes are a guaranteed way to make your toddler face plant the floor if they can’t see what they are doing! Ask me how, I dare you!
These days, you can get a heap of light options for very little, and they usually come with rechargeable batteries that can be done off a USB port. Easy days.
Snack boxes and food
Taking a few minutes each day to prepare some snacks for your toddlers will pay for itself many, many times over. When they start to grumble, a good snack box filled with nutritious snacks will buy you some time. This is important in the last couple of hours of a long days driving, or they’ve had enough of the tourist attraction you’ve gone to see.
Bring an IKEA high chair
The IKEA high chair was a bit of an unexpected item that we fell in love with very quickly. Initially, we brought it purely for Oliver to feed in, but it can be used for plenty of other uses too. Once they strapped in, they can’t go anywhere, which means as long as they are happy you can turn the eyes off in the back of your head. Books, toys, drawings and limited screen time (when necessary) make for a much easier time.
We found the high chair fantastic when we are setting camp up, or trying to cut firewood, or simply relax around the fire for a few minutes. The IKEA chair in particular is cheap, simple to assemble, light weight and you can literally high pressure clean it if you want!
Get used to changing clothes
Toddlers get filthy, and you’ll be frequently changing their clothes. Tee shirts and shorts are guaranteed to be used, and at that age they are so small that you can afford to take extra. Don’t take light coloured clothes either, or they will soon be dark coloured clothes!
The other thing worth mentioning is camping often involves temperatures that you might not get at home. Sleeps during the day can be very warm in the tent, and at night time it can be too warm to dress them up before bed, but freezing in the wee hours of the night. You will have to regularly change clothes, and its not always due to them getting filthy!
Bug spray, deterrent and sunscreen
You’ll only forget the mosquito spray once, I promise. Once your toddler has been hammered by a few mosquito’s, it will be the first thing you put in for your next camping trip. There are lots of bug sprays and deterrents. Take a few, and make sure they are ready to go. Sunscreen and hats are super important too, as your toddlers will be out in the sun a lot and a burnt toddler isn’t fun for anyone.
Think about where you stay
One thing that we really struggled with was Caravan Parks. We much prefer to camp out in the bush, or at station stays, or National Parks. Places where you can allow your kids to have a bit more freedom without cars rolling by that are likely to squish your little ones, or other peoples camp sites that they can wander to within 30 seconds of you turning your back.
When you have a 100 x 100 metre patch to yourself, you can let the toddlers explore, run around and do their thing without too much concern. You don’t get that luxury in a caravan park. On the flip side, without an amazing camping setup you also don’t have the luxuries of hot showers, flushing toilets, washing machines and the rest that comes with a nice Caravan Park. Pick your poison, or have the best of both worlds with an amazing off grid camping setup.
Bring a comprehensive first aid kit
Accidents happen, and when you are camping its not uncommon. Kids will get bitten, burnt and fall over. Asides from the usual gear in your first aid kits, make sure you have pain relief (Panadol and Nurofen are our choice so you can alternate), antihistamine, mosquito bite relief (calamine lotion or bite cream), burn cream and plenty of bandaids/disinfectant. When your toddler is up in the middle of the night screaming about an itchty bite on their hand, you are very, very appreciative of a good first aid kit!.
Take some (or all!) pre-cooked meals
On our 3 month trip up north, we took about 35 partially, or completely ready pre-cooked meals. This was one of the best decisions we made, as at the end of a long, tiring day you could have a tasty, healthy meal ready in under 10 minutes. We took a freezer with us, but also use Vacuum sealing as a way to make life much easier
Some of it was as simple as marinated chicken, or we took pre cooked soup, pasta sauces and spaghetti bolognese. It takes 5 minutes to cook some pasta up and warm the sauces up, and you are set.
Accept they are going to get filthy
No matter how clean you are, or how clean you want your child to get, they are going to get filthy. This is not just their clothes, but their little bodies. You can try and stop it, but you will eventually give in. I promise. Kids love playing outdoors, and a result of this is they always get dirty. A wipe down at the end of the day, or a quiet bath/shower (if you have the water) is all they need to be happy.
Their clothes, their faces, their hands and feet will get gross, and that’s a good thing. As long as they are having fun!
Make sure you have good, and appropriate lighting
Adults can get away with some pretty average lighting when camping. That soon changes when you have young kids around. When you are changing a poopy nappy in the middle of the night, you want to be sure you can see well! We have a huge variety of camping lights that serve different purposes.
High powered head lamps are fantastic for around camp, but absolutely useless inside a tent as they are just too bright, especially when you point them at your children!
For interior lighting, we use a small LED strip light, or a little lantern/solar light. You don’t want hugely bright lights inside, but being able to see enough is imperative. Struggling because you have a bad light will wreck your experience once it gets dark!
Take them exploring
Toddler’s aren’t often interested in amazing scenery, or incredible tourist attractions. They are usually content just going for a walk around the camp site, or through the bush. We spend a lot of time walking around, just exploring new areas with Oliver, as he loves to see what’s about. What you think is amazing is likely not going to be the same as your toddler!
Take a good bathing tub
When Sarah brought home a big, flexible tub from Bunnings, I laughed. ‘Where are we going to fit that?’! As it turns out, it was one of the best things we took up north. Not only was it $5, but it was great for packing things into, and it was used a lot. It’s plenty big enough to bath a toddler in, and it makes a great spot to splash and swim too.
When the weather is warm, we’d often fill it with a bit of cooler water, and Oliver would spend hours with his toys in the bath, splashing around (and filling it with grass and other muck!) while we relaxed.
Keep them safe
Camping in an unfamiliar environment brings a new set of risks each time. Whilst I don’t believe in being a helicopter parent, you have a responsibility to ensure your toddler is safe. This means watching them like a hawk near water, ensuring they don’t interact with animals that they shouldn’t be (big ants, crocodiles and nasty birds) and in general know where they are at all times.
If your child loves to run, camping near water is not a good idea. Consider how close other vehicles are going to get to your camp site, and make sure your toddler knows where they can and cannot go to! Manage the risks appropriately.
Entertaining toys and a ball or two
Be very selective of the toys that you take. Toddlers are happy playing with the most random things around the place, and you don’t need thousands of toys to entertain them. Sticks and stones are highly entertaining, as is all the camping equipment. Oliver loves to steal our chairs, so we are left trying to squeeze into a tiny kids one.
He also loves cars and trucks, and combine that with a bit of dirt and he’s happy to play for hours.
You can’t go wrong with a couple of balls too. If they can roll it, kick it, throw it or just sit on it, you’ll be very grateful.
When travelling in a car, have a heap of toys, books and entertaining items that they can play with. They will all inevitable end up on the floor, and once they do, pass the next one through until there’s nothing left. We leave screen time until the very last minute and only use it when driving on long trips.
Let them sleep, and well
Sleep is imperative for toddlers, especially when you are travelling with them. There’s a pretty good chance they will be more active than they would be at home, and their bodies need time to recovery and rest. The more sleep they get, the better, and you’ll be glad of a break!
Sometimes its almost impossible to get them to sleep in your tent/camper trailer/van, so a drive is a good idea. We try and plan our days so around 11 – 1PM we are in driving for 30 minutes or more. Oliver will fall asleep very quickly during these hours if he’s been busy running around. If you are going to sleep them in a tent, a battery powered fan is absolutely gold, and makes warm naps possible.
Pre-load videos that they love for when things get tough
At Esperance a few months ago, I spent 45 minutes at the top of a giant hill trying to download a video for Oliver to watch in the coming days. It was windy, cold and the download time kept going from 40 minutes to 10 hours despite my best efforts to stand on the car, throw the phone in the air, position it in every angle possible and jump up and down. Oliver had come down with a terrible bug, and was pretty much bed ridden for 3 days and we were running out of ways to entertain him.
We had videos already, but nothing he wanted to watch, and it was getting dire. Take the time before each camping trip to download some video’s that they love, and keep them for when things get tough.
Prams make for great emergency sleep options
If you can fit a pram in, often they are useful for walks, but they are super handy when you can’t get your toddler to sleep. Simply strap them in, and go for a walk and many will fall asleep quickly. When you can’t get your toddler to sleep, you’ll try anything and a pram is usually a great option.
Take a carry backpack
Toddlers will get tired quickly on longer walks, and if you are hiking nothing compares to a backpack that you can throw them in to give them a rest. We used ours a lot in the Northern Territory and Kimberley, and wouldn’t have been able to see so many amazing places without one. It also allows them to sleep while you slog your way through the hike.
Make sure you have a camp site ready for you
There’s nothing worse than driving around with a screaming toddler in the back after a long drive on a Friday afternoon, trying to find a camp site. Believe me, I’ve done it (and heard about it from Sarah for weeks after!). We are far more cautious these days with picking camp sites, and will either book something or be extremely confident that a site is going to be available when we arrive.
The struggle is just too much to deal with, so we avoid it all together. This means caravan parks, farm stays or DBCA sites that you can lock dates in prior to leaving your home.
Crocs are the best type of shoes
We found that the croc style shoes are the best, by far. You can wash them easily, let them run through mud and puddles, or over rocks knowing they have enough protection, but aren’t going to wreck their shoes. Ollie is on his third set now (larger each time), and we find them super versatile. No socks, no laces and they are cheap!
Check the weather
Before you commit to a camping trip, take 5 minutes to look at the weather. If its going to rain, hail and thunder for the entire duration it might be worth reconsidering the camping trip. A bit of rain can be fun when camping, and even a lot can be too, but if you aren’t well set up and it rains a lot, it can cause a lot of issues.
Things will go wrong
No matter how good you are, things will go wrong. There will be tantrums, poo explosions, nights they end up in your bed, struggles to get them to sleep and the list goes on. Its just part of travelling with a toddler! You will hate it at times, you will not mind it at others and you’ll love it occasionally too.
Find awesome playgrounds
Toddlers love playgrounds. When travelling around Australia, you will come across some amazing play grounds. Take the time to find them, and stop at them. 30 minutes at an awesome playground gives you a break, and your toddler will love you for it.
If we can, we will stop at playground’s for lunch, or for a break during a long drive.
Realise and accept you’ll miss amazing times and experiences
Sarah and I had the most amazing 5 week trip through the Kimberley in 2015, prior to having kids. We spent hours sitting and relaxing, watching the incredible array of bird life, reading a book or just soaking up the amazing locations.
You won’t get a lot of that with a toddler; someone has to be constantly with them, and you will miss out on some amazing memories. The thing that sucks the most is that you are right there, ready go go, and yet you can’t do it. You go to so much effort to get to amazing places and to have them snatched away by a toddler who decides he’s had enough for the day is not something anyone enjoys.
At Mataranka’s bitter springs, we could have spent all day floating around, enjoying the warm water and exploring the crystal clear creeks, but Oliver decided he didn’t want to swim, or hang around, so we had a quick dip and moved on. Such is life.
The Yellow Water boat cruise at Kakadu National Park was amazing, but trying to keep a toddler in his seat, and entertained on a small boat for that long made for a challenge! When you pay $180 to do the tour, you want to get good value from it!
Add in animal experiences
If there’s one thing that makes camping with toddlers a lot more memorable, its picking places where there is a lot of wildlife. Toddlers love animals, and if you can camp near kangaroo’s, birds, cattle, sheep or what ever it may be, they will have a ball. Farm stays in particular are amazing for this, especially if they get to see the natural workings of a farm.
Oliver has seen more animals already than a lot of Australian’s would have, and he loves nothing more than watching and spending time with them. There’s a great camp site in Margaret River with a friendly Donkey that walks from camp to camp, and the young kids love it.
Get a great setup
The easier your camping setup is, the better your time will be. If you are struggling to setup and pack away canvas, whilst trying to stop your kids running off to croc infested rivers, or busy roads, you won’t enjoy yourself. Your 4WD, and trailer needs to be setup in a way that makes camping easy!
Just do it!
I hope I haven’t put you off travelling with a toddler. Yes, its hard, but the rewards are unbelievable if you stick with it, and no matter how much it sucks in the moment, you’ll always look back with a smile and be grateful you went camping with a toddler!