How to Go Camping with Preschoolers

toddler on a blue camping mat

Camping with preschoolers and toddlers is a fun and rewarding way to spend quality family time.  If you are planning on bringing a young child on your next camping trip, here are some tips on special preschooler camping activities, toddler camping gear – and a downloadable exclusive comprehensive camping with kids packing list.

Tips for Camping with Preschoolers

Preschoolers are busy, active children.  Never content to just sit down and enjoy the peace and quiet – they demand action, fun, and hands-on activities.  Camping is the perfect opportunity to engage your young children in nature walks, family cooking, story-telling, and snuggles!  Through camping, you can introduce children to the wonders of nature and instill a sense of wonder for our environment.  If you plan ahead, you’ll have no problem enjoying every minute of your family camping trip!

First Things First — Backyard Camping

practice camping in backyard

If your preschooler has never camped before, its a great idea to do a practice ‘camping trip’ at home in the backyard.  Set up your tent (and this is a great time to make sure you’ve got all the poles, stakes, and ties that you need!) and have your preschooler give you a hand setting up the sleeping bags, pillows, mattress (if you are using one) and blankets.

On the night of the practice camping run, try to keep your schedule as close to how it will be while camping.  Do you plan to go to bed at the same time, or will you put your child to bed earlier while you sit around the campfire?  If you are planning to put your child to bed early – make sure that you go through your normal bedtime routine – teeth brushing, stories, hugs and kisses.  Then let them know you’ll be right outside the tent.

Setting Up the Campsite

setting up a tent

Once you arrive at your designated campsite, it may be temping for little ones to want to run off and play.  Its understandable, especially if it was a long car ride to the campground!  But regardless, its not safe for little children to run unsupervised around the campground – especially if your attention is focused on getting the campsite set up.

Instead, ask your preschooler to help set up!  This sets the tone for your camping trip where family helps each other work together.  Preschoolers can help unload light items from the car, they can help clear small rocks and twigs from the ground for your tent, and they might even be able to help set up the tent (although, at some point you may realize they aren’t helping as much as they are hindering!).  Be sure to attach some ribbon and glow sticks to any tent stakes and lines.  Its very easy to trip – especially in the dark.

Campsite Ground Rules for Preschoolers

Its important to remind preschoolers about campsite safety and your ground rules.  You may want to walk the campsite with your child to demonstrate how far they are allowed to roam.  In addition, point out any poisonous plants, mushrooms, or berries that you notice and remind all children that they should not eat anything they find before checking with an adult.

One of the most dangerous spots at your campsite (besides the campfire pit) will be your cooking area.  Even children who are careful about not touching the stove in the kitchen at home can get excited and potentially get burned by propane, hot liquids, and sharp knives.

Camping Essentials for Kids

little boy sleeping in a tent

The most important element to a successful camping trip is a warm and dry sleeping area.  There is nothing worse than being cold and miserable all night in the wilderness!  You can ensure a good sleeping experience by bringing an air mattress (don’t forget electric air pump!), cots, sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets.

Check the weather ahead of time and if there is even the slightest chance of rain – make sure you’ve got appropriate rain gear – including extra shoes and socks.  Its also very nice to have an extra shelter (one of those pop-up tents) so that your family has a place to hang out in bad weather.

Other preschooler camping gear that is nice to have (but not strictly necessary) are:

  • kid-sized camp chairs
  • kid-size plates, cups, and utensils
  • portable child toilet (especially if you don’t want to make late night runs to the community bathrooms)

We have a complete packing list for your camping trip for download at the end of this article.

Camping Activities for Kids

little boy playing on a camping mat at a campsite

Keeping kids busy during your camping trip is going to be essential for your own sanity!  Bring some toys (that you don’t mind getting dirty), playing cards, games, and fun outdoor activities like bubbles, balls, bikes, and books.  In addition, having a few planned activities will help to make your camping trip even more memorable!  Some great preschooler camping activities are:

  • Nature walks (bring binoculars)
  • Cooking hot dogs over the campfire
  • Making s’mores and telling campfire stories
  • Playing card games
  • Looking at stars (there are cell phone apps that will identify constellations)
  • Making camp meals together
  • Leaf painting
  • Rock painting
  • Chores like kindling gathering
  • Set out a camping mat to play with toys on
  • Buckets and rocks — hours of fun – add a little water and its even more messy and fabulous!

We always bring an outdoor plastic camping mat and set it up as a safe-play spot.  Our rule is “no toys off the mat” – which keeps small toys from getting lost.  Its also nice to have this ‘home base’ for your preschooler – a clean, dry spot they they can just hang out.

Tips and Hints for Camping with Preschoolers

Here are a few of our tried and true tips for having a successful camping trip with young children.

  • A bigger tent makes life easier.  If a tent is called a 4-man tent — it means that 4 sleeping bags can fit inside.  I don’t know about you, but I always have a ton of other gear besides my sleeping bag to cram in my tent!  With children, you’ll have even MORE.  So – splurge for a larger tent, and if you can find one that you like that has room dividers — you just went from camping to GLAMPING!
  • Bring extra socks and underpants – for some reason, preschoolers just go through these so quickly.
  • Bring favorite nighttime blankets, stuffed animals, and a battery powered night light.

Do you have tips for camping with preschoolers?  We’d love to hear!  Please drop us a note in the comments section at the end of this blog post.

Camping with Kids Checklist

packing list for family tent camping trip

Download Mountain Mat’s Essential Camping Checklist – Page 1 is general camping gear, Page 2 is specifically for Camping Kids!

Camping with Preschoolers Packing List

Mountain Mat USA

Jennifer Hillberg is the Founder and Creator of Mountain Mat, LLC, the USA’s first 100% recycled plastic, reversible, outdoor recreation mat. As an avid outdoor recreationalist, Jennifer has hiked and camped in some of the world’s most remote places alongside her husband and three children. Learn more about The Mountain Mat Story.

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