Aside from having a kid in the first place, camping with toddlers is probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Here are some tips for surviving your first night under canvas!
I’ve been planning to take our two-year-old son camping all summer, but kept bottling it at the last minute. We camped in our garden as a family a couple of months ago, but it’s far from the same thing. We knew that night that if all hell broke loose – like a torrential downpour or toddler meltdown – we could all just head back indoors and forget the whole idea.
It’s different on a campsite, of course. Very different. No matter what happens, you’re in it for the long haul. All night. And there’s no escape!
But the weather’s been so good this summer that I eventually ran out of excuses not to try camping with toddlers, so I recruited a mate with an older son, packed our little three-man tent, an inflatable mattress and a sackload of snacks and distractions into the boot of my car, then headed for Karma Farm campsite in Cambridgeshire.
Pick the right campsite
Karma Farm is an eco-campsite near the village of Isleham in the East Anglian Fen. It’s set amongst trees that are full of wildlife, with cows roaming the surrounding fields. There’s a birdwatching hide, a games barn for kids, loads of pre-cut firewood you can burn in the supplied fire pits, and a weird but wonderful rule that bans recorded music but encourages live music – so pack your guitar, bongos, or any other you can play!
Karma Farm is miles away from main roads – and miles away from anything, to be fair – so you can let your kids roam around the site confident they’ll be perfectly safe. The toilets and showers are rustic to say the least, but that’s part of Karma Farm’s appeal. It feels like you’re properly cut-off and surrounded by nature.
Wait for good weather
Because you really don’t want to get wet and miserable if you don’t have to. By the ridiculously high standards of summer 2018 we actually had a slightly crappy weekend of weather, with a couple of light showers and a fairly strong breeze, but for the most part it was warm and dry. Not only did that mean we didn’t get cold, it also meant the whole trip stayed mercifully mud-free.
Of course, with Britain being Britain, if you wait around for perfect weather you’ll probably never go on any outdoor adventures; but it’s worth setting aside a couple of weekends then going for it when the conditions look kindest.
Pack plenty of food
Pork pies, crisps, chocolate, cheese butties, burgers, sausages, oranges, apples, bananas, juice, milk (in a flask, to keep it cool), biscuits, banana cake, cereal bars – that’s just a few things I remember from my pre-camping shopping list. We covered every base, because a hungry toddler is an unhappy toddler, so we went armed with snacks as solutions to every possible food problem.
Get a big tent
It doesn’t need to be massive or monstrous, just big enough that you can move around without trampling on each other’s heads or waking each other up in the night. And if possible, get one with a small porch you can drag things like food and camping chairs into so they don’t get drenched or blown away if the weather turns nasty. If you’re camping near your car that isn’t such a massive issue, but for pure convenience you want a tent big enough to store your gear without having to sleep on top of it (or each other). A tent with blackout material is also a great idea – although usually much more expensive – because it means you won’t be woken up by a summer sunrise in the early hours of the morning.
Camping with toddlers is much like every other day you spend with toddlers – the most important thing is making sure they don’t get bored. We packed everything from footballs and balance bikes to head torches and mini aeroplanes to make sure we held off boredom before it had chance to kick in. We probably needn’t have bothered, because the boys were so happy charging around the woods they hardly noticed all the gadgets we’d brought.
Make your tent comfy
A good blow-up bed is a must, and I usually pack a back-up just in case. Can you imagine spending a night on a hard, cold tent floor with a restless toddler for company? Me neither, so go prepared. I also packed pillows, duvets and every other bit of big warm bedding I could squeeze into the car to make sure we stayed warm and toasty all night.
Build a campfire
Not all campsites let you do this – in fact a lot of them don’t – but from my newly-acquired experience of camping with toddlers, it seems they’re absolutely fascinated by campfires. Karma Farm has loads of old fire pits you can drag up to your pitch, then burn away happily until the curfew at 11pm. Sonny helped me build the fire, then sat on a big log and watched transfixed as the flames started kicking up. The only problem is we forgot the marshmallows!
Don’t set a bedtime
When we camped in our garden in June we tried to put Sonny to bed around his normal bedtime at 7.30pm, which was a huge mistake. Nothing about his bedtime routine that night was normal and as a result he couldn’t understand why we were zipping him into a weird canvas prison when the sun was still up and the birds were still singing. He was soon back out of the tent and it took us a couple of hours to get him back in!
At Karma Farm I simply let Sonny race around with the other campsite kids until he burned himself out and, for one of the first times in his life, he actually asked if he could go to bed. So he brushed his teeth, tucked himself up in bed, then drifted off to sleep while we sat outside drinking whiskey by the campfire. The perfect night!
Embrace the dirt
Because I had no idea what to expect, I packed almost a whole suitcase of clothes for myself and Sonny to cope with every eventuality – for just one night! Waterproofs, warm layers, pyjamas, shorts, trousers, hats, gloves, trainers, flip-flops – not to mention towels, wash bags, first aid kits and everything else I could think of. Then we both came home dirty and stinking the next day, wearing the exact same clothes we’d left in. We never even thought about getting changed, even when we went to bed, because we were too busy having a good time!
Don’t linger too long
It was drizzling and grey when we woke up at 6am, so there was no chance of firing up our gas grill to sizzle some sausages. We dropped the tents, packed the car, and headed back home for a hot bath and a cooked breakfast. We could have stayed and tried to tough it out until lunchtime as we’d previously planned, but we’re a bit soft and didn’t fancy getting wet!
Camping with toddlers – how scary is it?
Before we set off I was excited but slightly terrified, and now I just can’t wait to go camping with Sonny again. It was one of the best father-son trips we’ve ever had, and a brilliant thing to do with other parents and kids. Camping with toddlers is definitely scary, but it’s also bloody brilliant. Like every day with young kids you’ll have your ups and downs, but when it’s all over you’ll only remember the good bits!