A guide to camping with toddlers

If you had asked me how I enjoyed camping with a one-year-old and a three-year-old about two hours into the trip, I would have burst into tears and told you we were NEVER DOING IT AGAIN.

And we hadn’t even arrived at the campground yet …
We have not traveled much with our little brood. Not really at all, actually, unless you count overnights into “the city,” which is only an hour’s drive away. 
Before we had kids, Darling Husband and I traveled a decent amount, but we are not travel-hungry people. We are people who enjoy it for a day or two, and then just want to come home. We’re also the people who find a restaurant they like (Hi Rose’s) while traveling, and proceed to go back multiple times (rather than exploring new places). Yeah, we’re exciting people.
Since having D (who just turned three) and C (who just turned one), we always seem to find excuses not to travel. Mainly that the trips are too expensive (they are) and that both of us are working too much/weird hours (we are). But also because we dreaded the hassle. The packing. The unpacking. The coercing our somewhat rigid little people into new situations. Going into the city for overnights was a pain, so we couldn’t imagine doing more than that until they were older.
But then my dad decided to give us his 1990 tent trailer … 

… and we happily accepted it, got excited about it, started pinning camping tips and trailer makeovers, forked over too much money for registration, plates, safety inspection, and a hitch for the van, and began planning our first camping trip.
I can’t really describe our inaugural trip without saying “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 
But it was, and it was. 
So I’m going to try to break it down in a way that sums up what we did right, what we did wrong, and what we’ll definitely do differently the next time. Hopefully this info will someday help people who attempt to go camping with toddlers (God have mercy on your soul).
What went wrong:
  • It was 31C the first day. I’m a monster in the heat. I’m also not used to being outside this much. There is no air-conditioning when you’re camping, unless you’re the trailer NEXT-DOOR TO US that had air-conditioning. I was jealous and quite possibly psycho.
  • Darling Husband and I both got injured from setting up/taking down the trailer
  • It was madness trying to keep C and D from running into the dirt road directly in front of our campsite (which had a surprising amount of trucks, trailers, etc. cruising along at all times)
  • It took Darling Husband about 18 hours to set up the trailer, so I was wrangling the kids and taking them around the grounds for about 18 hours. In the insane heat. Alone. Did I mention I don’t do well in the heat?
  • D freaked out that he didn’t want to use the potty or the washroom, because he wanted to go “at home.” (But he eventually went)
  • C constantly ate stuff she found on the ground. And destroyed things. And cried and fussed. (So basically, just average stuff for her)
  • Darling Husband set up the awning without anchoring it to the ground, so a gust of wind sent the metal poles crashing into me … and my knee
  • We had packed SO MUCH STUFF, yet could never find anything. When we needed something outside the trailer, it was inside the trailer. When we needed something inside the trailer, it was still in the van. Nothing was accessible, ever.
  • Everyone got too hungry, all the time, despite having packed approximately 5,430 tons of food. Why? Because getting to the “food bin” was a pain in the butt, all the time, and we often got sidetracked trying to keep one or both children alive.
  • Darling Husband and I almost got divorced in the parking lot of a Best Western. (Long story, but we were both starving and had stopped here to get lunch on the way to the campground. After unbuckling the kids and trucking them inside, the front desk informs us that their restaurant is CLOSED on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We dragged everyone back to the car, rebuckled carseats, and then both promptly turned into the crazy hungry people in the Snickers commercials. Not a pretty moment for us.)
  • We forgot to pack steak spice. This sounds like a little thing, but damn, that was a disappointing steak!
  • Darling Husband didn’t think we needed the dining shelter (massive bug tent that surrounds the picnic table), so he didn’t set it up. Even though I begged him to. But he didn’t. You get the idea.
  • Massive amounts of bug-bites for all.
  • There were a lot of bugs in the pool. And Band-Aids. So many Band-Aids.
  • I tried to make friends with a woman in the pool, and she blew me off. (All I did was compliment her daughter’s Dora The Explorer bathing suit and tell her she should be friends with D, because Dora is his fave, and she looked at me like I was a perve!)
  • Darling Husband spent every dollar I had on firework. If I’d had more dollars, he would have bought more firewood. (I think buying it and using it was the highlight of the trip, for him.)
  • Did I mention how freaking hot it was?
  • Keeping the kids away from the campfire added six years to my life, and lots of grey hair. OMG FIRE, KEEP AWAY FROM IT, NOOOO.
  • D didn’t want to sleep “in da tway-ler” because he wanted to sleep “in da boo house” (our house is not blue, hmmm)
  • I was so tired by the time we got both kids asleep that I followed shortly thereafter, which was kind of a bummer considering JIFFYPOP!
  • The biotches at the next few campsites were all friends (all camping without their hubbies) and stayed up late yakking around their fire, which kept me awake, because I can’t just NOT LISTEN to a conversation. I’m nosy a journalist.
  • When you are camping, you feel perpetually grimy. I don’t do grimy well.
  • The store didn’t open until 10 a.m., and I spent approximately 90 minutes pushing the double stroller around the (steep! hilly!) campground in the drizzle while D asked me repeatedly if “da store is open now?” All because we wanted to buy a Yogi Bear souvenir. When the store finally opened, he burst into a tantrum because he had to pee, and we left without buying a damn thing.
  • Did I mention how muggy it was?
What we did right:
  • We set up the kids’ beds as exact replicas of their beds at home. For D, this was especially important, since he is sensitive to change and likes things to be a certain (i.e. USUAL) way. We used his usual bedsheets, blankets, stuffed animals, water cup — even the exact books he’d had in his bed at home. We also put up the bedrail, which he doesn’t use at home anymore, but we didn’t want him falling out of the (very high) trailer bed. He was reluctant to go to bed, but once he got in and saw how familiar it looked, he settled very quickly. We were shocked (and pleased).
  • We collapsed the kitchen table and set up C’s playard on it. She’s pretty used to sleeping in her playard (naps at other people’s houses, etc.) so she was fine with this. It was the only place in the entire trailer that it would have fit, but it worked out well. She had her own little bed, and she fell asleep instantly. Win!
  • We picked a campground with a lot of kid-friendly activities. For our first-ever camping trip with the kids, we picked a Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park that was a little over two hours from our house. They had a massive playground that included big wooden structures to climb on (a train, a tractor), a pool that included a tiny kiddie pool and a splash centre, and one of those awesome giant jumping pillows. D was in heaven! Apparently during the “high season” (which started a few days after our trip), they also have bumper boats just for toddlers, mini-golf, sports, and organized activities with counselors. Definitely a great place to camp with kids.
  • We got a campsite close to everything. This was luck on our part, but it worked out well. We were right across from the pool and the jumping pillow, and basically right across from the playground, too. We still had to take turns staying with the kids, but it made it easy to wave each other over to “relieve us” when we needed to switch places. Of course, this lot also meant there was zero privacy (we’re used to treed lots from our single-people camping days). But convenience trumps privacy, especially when you have two toddlers.
  • We packed a travel potty. D spent most of the time walking to the public washrooms with me or Darling Husband (since our tent trailer was the only one at the campground that didn’t have its own bathroom doesn’t have a bathroom). But I was glad we’d packed a stand-alone potty to keep in the trailer. Before we put D to bed, we explained he could crawl down in the middle of the night and use it to pee if he had to go. We both totally assumed he would probably have an accident or freak out and cry for us to help him, since it was an unfamiliar place. But we woke up in the morning and — lo and behold — there was pee in the potty. He hadn’t even woken us up when he went. Good job, kid!
  • We baby-proofed the trailer. Since D and C were going to be alone in the trailer at night, while Darling Husband and I sat around the campfire, we wanted to make sure it was D-proof — since he’s known for being, uh, curious. We didn’t hook up the indoor stove at all, and just used a portable BBQ outside on the picnic table. We stuck outlet-covers in all of the outlets, and I’d packed all of the sharp knives, matches, lighters, scissors, etc. in a plastic tub that stayed in the van. All of the medicine and first aid supplies stayed in a separate bag, also tucked away in the van. I don’t think he did any exploring when he was supposed to be in bed, but you never know with D!
  • We kept the sunscreen handy. I don’t think I’ve ever put so much sunscreen on little people in my life! You don’t realize how little time you spend outside until you’re spending basically every minute outside. Luckily, the sunscreen was not something that was ever hard to locate.
  • We packed those multi-packs of sugary cereal. I think eating two bowls of Froot Loops was the highlight of the trip for me, since we only ever buy boring cereal at home. What a treat to eat those brightly-coloured little hoops again, mmmmm. (Oh, and D calls Frosted Flakes “Tiger food” which is adorbs, obvi.)
What we’ll do different next time:
  • We will spread out a tarp below the door of the trailer. All of the experienced campers did these at their sites, and it looked really convenient. Walk out, step on something clean, put your shoes on, etc.
  • We will organize all of the crap. It felt like the picnic table was constantly covered in crap. Food containers, dishes, toys, sun hats, random crap, etc. I want to be able to have a few heavy-duty plastic bins near the trailer that we can use for storage. 
  • We will set up the goddamn dining shelter. I don’t care if we don’t see a single bug when we arrive, Darling Husband. It’s going UP! Mama needs a shaded, bug-free spot to sit and eat, please. And it would be pretty nice to have a contained spot for the kids to run around, without constantly fearing they are running into the road.
  • We will pack a smaller “food bin” so it can stay in the trailer. I don’t think we necessary had too much food (well, yeah, we did) but what I didn’t like was not being able to access it. The damn food bin literally lived in the minivan, and we did not, so … yeah. Being able to have all of the food together (i.e. mini-fridge and tub of dry goods) all together will make it much easier to get everyone fed. Eating out of a van is just wrong.
  • We will pack a larger clothesline. Do you know how many wet towels, bathing suits, clothes, and swim diapers that are generated by a family of four? We would just LOOK at the pool, and suddenly there was a pile of wet, drippy clothes. Next time, we’re building a clothesline as far as the eye can see.
So as you can see, our first camping experience with the kids was … a lot of things. Exhausting. Frustrating. Dirty. Stressful. Kind of terrible at times.
But it was also fun. 
And a new experience. 
And kind of awesome at times.

I came home ready to light the trailer on fire, but we’re already planning our next trip, so that should tell you something. (I’m not me when I’m hungry, and Instagram does a great job of reminding me that there WERE really great moments, too.)
Happy Trails!

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