It seems that every outdoors enthusiast who has kids, has one goal: to get their kids to love the outdoors as much as they do. This is probably true not just for outdoors people but also sports fans, various athletes or anyone with a serious hobby. So it is not a surprise that I really hope my kids will love being outdoors, at least as much as I do. I have been waiting to take my daughter camping ever since she was born (maybe even before) and despite a less than perfect experience when she was 7 months old, I was not ready to give up. Camping with a toddler is controversial: some claim that it is the hardest phase to try it, since they are no longer young enough to just “be taken” and not old enough to be pro-active about the trip. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to camping with my toddler (2.5 years old, almost), thinking it would be a family adventure. But between the recent birth of our second child and my wife’s hesitation to try family camping again since that last attempt, I decided it was time for a solo father-daughter camping trip, and so it was.
First I had to decide the format, since a toddler is not really capable of much walking, public transportation access would be vital (we don’t own a car), it needed to be exciting and it had to be short with the ability to make a fast retreat if needed. Using Google maps and OS Maps online, I found several camping sites closer to train stations, giving me a few options around London: somewhere in the South Downs national park, or heading northwest to the Chilterns. I have been to the South Downs many times and I find the camping sites there a bit too groomed, with too much glamping and oriented to the yuppie London professionals, so the Chilterns it would be.
Some more digging in Google maps resulted in a great find: a train (which runs hourly from Marylebone) could take us to Saunderton, and from there we could walk 5 km up and down a few ridges to a semi organised campsite. On weekends, campsites around London require you stay for two nights; to avoid this I decided that we would go on a weekday afternoon, leaving nursery a little earlier and getting an evening and morning outdoors before heading home. Next it was just sorting the logistics, gear, tweaking the timing and just diving in.
I want to go over the whole process of going camping with a toddler, from planning to implementation. All the information below assumes that you are taking your child on your own, braving the mission by yourself (it is all so much much easier with a partner)…..
So let’s break down the process:
Planning a camping trip with a toddler – logistics, timings and tips
First of all, you need to remember that toddlers have the ability to focus for only very short periods of time, barely any patience, high need to test boundaries and no common sense (yet), so it all needs to be perfectly set. If you are a parent to a toddler you already know this, but it is particularly important in trip planning.
Some general tips
- Make sure the travel to and from the trip is short and interesting: mix several means of transport and keep it no longer than an hour and a half
- Have loads of snacks that you feel comfortable offering; avoid sugar as it will come back to haunt you with a vengeance
- Find one easy game for the traveling that the child hasn’t seen and take it out just before boredom takes over, avoiding the tantrum that would otherwise be just around the corner
- Pick a route with scenery, even if it takes a bit longer. An extra 5-10 minutes of travel with a view is better than a slightly shorter trip with no view
- Avoid the temptation to check your phone – your child is bound to do something you don’t approve of during that time
- If you are using public transportation, be respectful of others; they are not going on a trip with you and have no reason to enjoy your child singing loudly
Planning your trip
- Stay local, up to an hour and a half away
- Pick an organized camp site with toilets and an easy pitch location
- If possible, pick a site with animals/water/playground to keep your child interested (it is part of the appeal in encouraging them to get to the camp site)
- Aim for good weather, but be prepared for all weathers
- Have a very solid escape plan for any time (taxi phone number, train schedule etc)
- Make sure the way is interesting
- Keep the walk to and from the campsite short – less than an hour of walk for you
- Be prepared to carry your toddler the whole way
Timings and schedules
- As a whole, aim to have similar schedules as what they have at home, but be open to playing with it. Being outdoors is new and exciting and eating dinner at exactly the same time they do at home, for example, might not work out
- Plan for 2 half days or less – from the afternoon of day one to lunch time of day two. It is (probably) the first time your child is spending a significant amount of time outdoors and it will be exhausting for you (!)
- Have some flexibility in the return time, be prepared to stay longer (so have more food) or leave earlier than you planned
- It is up to you to set time frames and be as strict about them as you can, mainly with yourself, as your child will probably need some anchor
Gear for camping with a toddler
First, let me warn you: it won’t be light, and most definitely not lightweight. For this trip I probably carried more weight and gear than I did on my last CWT trip. I didn’t weigh my backpack but I estimate that it was between 15-20kg for what was about 22 hours!
Pack all the regular gear:
- Tent – a roomy two person tent is vital, as it is a great attraction for the child. My daughter sat in ours for an hour playing cards at some point, while I watched the hawks hunting outside
- Sleeping bags and pads – I took an adult bag and pad for my daughter (and for me, of course), no need to buy new stuff for one trip
- Cooking gear – make sure to include eating utensils for both of you and a big enough pot for a very hungry toddler. A gas stove is best for a quick cooking process
- Camp chairs – another bonus attraction that will get your toddler to sit long enough to eat dinner and breakfast, and will help you relax a bit
- Hygiene gear – tooth brushes and pastes, toilet paper and alcohol gel, a comb and hair ties (for the long haired ones), and the extra for a potty trained toddler: a small towel and soap to clean any accidents that may happen
- Warm jackets – it can be a fleece too, just something for a cooler spring evening
- Lots of water – have a specific water vessel for your child to make sure dehydration is not another problem to deal with
That is about it for the regular camping gear. As this is about taking a toddler camping, there are extra things you might need and I chose to take:
- Lots of spare clothes for your child – toilet accidents or leaky nappies can happen and you might as well be ready for them
- Bedtime books – if your child has a bedtime routine, try and mimic it as closely as you can, for us it meant a couple of books
- Pyjamas – also helps getting your child into the night time mind set
- Extra footwear – I also took boots just in case the trail was muddy, otherwise it was just regular shoes
- Backpack for your child – I wanted my daughter to have some independence and to learn about the responsibility of carrying some of her stuff. I ended carrying it most of the time, but she at least tried
As you can see, this list is missing anything for me and that is no accident; I chose to pack nothing for me since a one nighter doesn’t require much of anything. I did pack some earbuds for late night podcasts and a charging brick for my phone – that was it.
Last, on food: pack loads of food, mainly snacks and food that you know for a fact your child will eat; adding arguments about food to the mix is a recipe for disaster. I packed a mix of snacks (about 8 different kinds), simple pasta and tomato sauce for dinner and left over (home made) pizza for breakfast. I was hoping to be able to get eggs for breakfast as the campsite we stayed at had chickens, but no luck.
A few words about camp time
Remember that this is the real novelty for your toddler, so I would recommend focusing most of your time on this. Set camp in a place you know your child can roam freely and let her go: this might be the first real taste of freedom she has. Allow enough time to set up camp, roam around, explore the area and the new confidence from the experience while keeping it all in control to have a normal bed time. Make sure food is made safely away from your child (obviously, but camp cooking is decidedly more dangerous than your kitchen so just keep that in mind) and aim for a nice evening with just the two of you. This is great bonding time with a child, using nature as a connecting point.
If you are camping in summer or if your child is not used to lots of light, be prepared for a later bed time than usual. My daughter is usually asleep by 7:45pm with the help of black out blinds in her room, but when camping in late May in England, it is light until 9pm or later. I found myself managing to get an exhausted child to sleep only after many extra walks outside and multiple stories… at 9:30pm, so be prepared.
We ended up camping at Home Farm campsite. The place is just on a ridge near a place called “The City” which is a village in reality – funny thing there. It was nice, but pretty pricey for what was on offer. The usual range of caravans and camper vans were there, along with a whole section closed for “glamping” in canvas teepees. There was only one more tent in the area we were in and we had a whole field to ourselves for running around. The place had showers (which we didn’t try), toilets, a sink area and many taps to get water from. All and all it was nice, but I’m not sure it was worth the £21.50 for a night (I know! but those are the London area prices).
A few words about our walk
We had a very short walk, by my standards, but I wanted to make sure I kept the distance short and to give it plenty of time in case my daughter decided to try and walk the whole way. At just under 5km it would be an easy 50-60 minute walk for me, but I was ready for up to 2 hours on the trail. The walk had a mix of simple grassy open trails that my daughter enjoyed running along on day one (and fought against on the way back), some field crossings, road walking and the usual walk next to a high fence or between fields that is so common in the country side.
My daughter probably walked about half a km each day (on the way to and on the way from the campsite) and ended up on my shoulders the rest of the time. The combination of a heavy pack and a heavy toddler meant I was walking with about 30+ kg on my back – and it was tiring. I was prepared for such a walk, though, and getting my daughter to sit comfortably on my shoulders with the backpack was easy, it created almost a chair for her. If you are not prepared to carry your child most of the walk, aim for a shorter walk than we had; you already know that most toddlers rarely walk much, and it is the same in the outdoors.
Even without walking much, my daughter needed breaks and I aimed to have those near grazing animals, which were the main attraction of the trip: sheep, horses, cows, chicken, deer – we saw so many of them. It made the trip much more enjoyable and we could discuss the animals after observing them, so this is very highly recommended, especially for city kids.
Should you take your toddler camping?
To put it simply? Yes.
There were so many great things in our trip that I can only hope that every outdoors loving parent will enjoy it at least once with their child. It might require a bit more preparation than a standard trip, either with kids or in a family capacity, but a solo child and parent trip is great. I do recommend waiting until your child is potty trained for convenience, but take your child out when she is young and before being too complicated by mindsets about what is expected of her.
Plan a simple, local trip with your child and you can also go solo camping with a toddler.