I went on my first real camping trip when I was 10 years old with my uncle and my dad. I had done a lot of hunting and fishing with dad, but never camping for a week. It was December and cold. We had to carry a lot of gear which is partially why I think my dad waited until I was 10-year-old so I could help. After all, I had been doing chores around our tobacco farm since I was six.
It was one of the most impactful memories of my life. Being out under the stars, hiking the trails, and cooking on the campfire. This was all great, but what is the right age to start this with your kids? I decided to ask my friend Dr. Cathy Cooper what she thought.
What is a good age to take a child camping?
" I recommend introducing children into the camping experience as early as infancy. The sights and sounds will stimulate their brains and curiosity. You will need to plan for amenities according to the age of the youngest child on the trip. Plan for temperature, teach safety, and limit toys as children will create their own fun. “~Dr. Cathy Cooper, Cooper Family Medical, Bradenton, Florida
A child's first anything is a significant milestone for both the parent and the child. It is an experience that strengthens that bond and creates memories that last a lifetime. That means the first time you take your child camping will be a trip you will cherish always.
Deciding on what gear and essentials you will need to bring for whatever age your child is and the experience and impact it will have on the child. You also need to consider what kind of camping you will be doing, what you need to bring along aside from the camping gear, and ways to prepare the kids for the experience if they are older.
How to decide where to camp with your kids.
Have shorter drive to the campsite, stay close to home in case of emergency, access to electricity, running water, showers, restroom, be near a store for for last minute items you may need or run out of and adequate cell phone service.
When you are camping with babies and small children, you will want to narrow down where you decide to camp for a while. For instance, long drives to the wilderness may be challenging when you have a little bundle of joy that needs to be fed and changed frequently or a little one who gets antsy in their car seat if they are strapped in too long.
You may also want to stay close to home in case anything pops up like an emergency where you need to reach civilization quickly, or the experience of sleeping outside may be too much for your little one, and you need to return home during the night. A child's first camping trip should be a happy one and not something they associate with negative feelings, so try not to push too far outside their comfort zone, or they may never want to camp again.
You may also want to adapt to the way you camp as well. While at one time you may have picked a location because it was secluded and off the beaten trail, you may want to steer the other way. Campgrounds are great places for families to start their outdoor experiences and meet other families. Campgrounds come with amenities that make camping easier on parents as well by having buildings and facilities like bathrooms and play areas.
Having easy access to resources like running water and electricity while getting your child acclimated to camping can be an excellent way to ease them into the wilderness. Kids are great at adapting, but routines are what parents need to help keep their children happy and healthy. It is essential to find the line between the two when taking a child out on a new adventure.
For the bold and experienced out there, you can try taking your children directly out into the wild. There are plenty of experienced campers who have done it and made it work. Sometimes starting young can be helpful. Babies only need a couple of things to stay occupied as Dr. Cooper stated, and as long as they have food and a warm place to sleep, there isn't much difference to them what is around them.
It may be that taking them right on a camping trip is the best way to acclimate them. Sleeping out in quiet under the stars and away from modern distractions can make all the difference. Of course, you will have to bring some extra supplies and maybe some extra tent linings for any accidents at night, but if you are willing to put in the work, a camping trip to the true outdoors isn't entirely impossible.
What to bring camping with kids?
When it comes to kids can camping, there is no such thing as packing too much. We have discussed before on keeping your pack size and the materials you bring camping to a manageable size, but this is the exception to that rule. If you think the baby bag you carry around with you for a park trip is bulky, you need to go bigger.
Think of absolutely anything you may need and be sure it is in the car before pulling off. Children are unpredictable, and so is nature. It is better to be prepared than stuck in the woods without enough diapers or a baby crying for the one toy you decided to leave behind.
What to bring when camping with a baby?
• Pack n’Play. Bringing a Pack n' Play camping will have two uses. The first is providing a safe play area for the baby in the campsite. A lot is going on, and the ground is pure dirt. You cannot leave the baby just on the ground and carrying them will make doing anything very hard. Placing them in the Pack n' Play lets them also observe everything around them safely always to see what's going on.
The second use is a safe and familiar place for them to sleep. Being around a lot of new and exciting things can make it hard for babies to relax and rest. Bringing a place, they know and are comfortable with will help them sleep during nap time and at night.
• Extra clothes. Any parent will tell you a baby's clothes will inevitably end up dirty. That is all the truer on a camping trip. Babies will find their way to get dirt on themselves or make a mess, and that is fine. That is why you bring extra clothes.
You will also want to be sure to have extra warm clothes as well. Even during the summer, you should pack additional layers for the baby. The nights and very early mornings in some places can get very cold, and although we might not notice or mind, it can be very chilly for a baby.
Be sure to bundle them up before bed or keep extra blankets handy. If you are spending the night in a tent with little insulation, please take the proper precautions to keep the baby warm.
• First aid kits. This may seem obvious for any camping trip but be sure things in the kit will work for babies like baby aspirin and child-sized bandages. Also, bring extra of anything in there, especially if the baby can walk or crawl.
• Clamp-on Booster seat. Having a booster seat provides a safe place for the baby to sit so they aren't confined to the Pack n' Play the entire trip. This will work great on picnic tables, making feeding the baby easier and keeping them in view when everyone is sitting down or preparing dinner.
• Toddler backpack and/or infant wrap. Having one of these is a great help for taking the little one hiking. It keeps them safe the entire time. It will also make carrying and toddlers easier when they get tired of walking in the middle of a trail.
Having one of these will also keep them close to you in case anything unexpected happens like a wild animal appears on the path gets a bit precarious. You will also have both hands free, which is excellent for your own safety while hiking.
• Hydration pack. We have discussed before the importance of staying hydrated while hiking and camping. This goes all the more for our little ones. They may not be doing as much walking or moving around as we are, but they need water just as much as we do when out in nature.
Having a wearable hydration pack while out and about on your camping trip is a great way to ensure you always have something to drink handy for them and yourself.
I also asked Dr. Cooper another question.
How do you start camping with kids?
“You can even start with setting up camp in your living room or backyard. The camping experience will lead to healthy bonding between siblings and parents and will positively impact the overall health of a family." Dr. Cooper
Kids thrive off routine, especially when they are very young. New experiences and environments can cause stress and anxiety for them. Here are a few ways you can ease children and babies into camping ahead of time. Some suggestions below will work better than others and may require the child to be a little older, but each will help your little camper get ready for the great outdoors.
• Start camping at home. You can camp anywhere. That includes your house and backyard. This is a fun way to help children get into the idea of camping without having to do all the driving. If you have a backyard, you can start there.
Have them watch you set up the whole thing, and if they can help, have them do so. No backyard? Then camp in your living room or play area. All you need is a tent, even a blanket tent, and a floor. They will have a ton of fun, and you will too.
• Playing nature sounds. Sounds are one of the first things babies will be able to identify. Even in the womb, babies begin to discern noises around them and recognize their parents' voices. Sounds have a significant impact on babies and toddlers; if you do not live in an area where the sounds of nature like crickets and birds chirping are normal, then put on a playlist or video with them. Playing the sounds will help normalize them to the baby, and they will be more comfortable with them when camping.
• Practice camping. Doing this is great for toddlers and little children. Playing pretend and having them help you with some activities related to camping at home will get them familiar with the experience outdoors. This will ensure they can focus in a safe environment and aren't overstimulated when trying to teach them at the campsite. Do things like building fake fires or having a fire pit than real ones, going over fire safety, and staying away from campfires.
Have them help you collect firewood at home, set up camp in their play area, and treat it like a bit of a camping trip. Doing these things at home will help the real thing seem less strange and give them a frame of reference and what to do and how to act.
• Get them used to the dark. This one may be tough, and you may end up still having to use a small lamp or tiny LED while camping, but it can't hurt to try. The woods are a very dark place at night, and that can be scary for some children from the city filled with light pollution. Helping them adjust at home may help them when they are at a campsite at night.
Like any activity involving children and babies, there are risks. They can fall and get hurt; they can put something in their mouth they shouldn't, they can touch something they shouldn't. All these things are true at a campsite as well as at home.
However, as long as you remain vigilant and continue to be the great parent you are, these risks won't be an issue. Most of the time, the worst thing to happen to children will camp is a little poison ivy, but that happens to any camper at some point and is easily treated.
We all want to share the things we hold precious in our lives with our kids. We want to include them in our favorite things and have them enjoy what we enjoy. However, we also want them to be safe and make sure nothing happens to them. Both these urges are understandable and valid, so taking them camping can be somewhat of a struggle.
Doing so at a young age means you have to trust yourself to be a great parent and know that you can prepare for this. Before the modern era, people raised their children successfully in less-than-ideal conditions. If they hadn't, we would not be here, AND they didn't have any of the advancements we do now.
So, the right age depends on you. When you feel safe and comfortable taking your kid out there, then do it. For some, it can be when they are a few weeks, others it may take a few years. That is ok. Parenting doesn't have to be the same for everyone. Just remember to enjoy it with them and make memories.
I hope this helps you make your child’s first camping experience grow into a love for nature and all of God’s creation.
All the best,
P.S. Thank you, Dr. Cooper, for your valuable insight!