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Camping Chaos with Children – This Here Mama’s Plea for Help!

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I have finally done gone and did it.

Please excuse my lapse in grammar. I am evidently experiencing such deficiencies in most areas of my life, particularly in the “I Will NEVER do That Again with Young Children” camp.

Speaking of camp, that is precisely what I vowed I would never do again while my kids are toddlers. And yet in what can only be described as a fog, I recently found myself clicking the “reserve” button on our campground registration.

Now, let me explain. My husband and I are outdoor aficionados. Every year, we climb a 14er and go backpacking in Moab together. And every year, we leave the children at home with Grandma.

I have also been a member of a fantastic hiking group for moms – Colorado Mountain Mamas – since my firstborn was six weeks old so my kids know the outdoors.

Just not overnight.

There is a reason for this. When my daughter Hadley was 14 months old, Jamie and I thought it would be fun to take her camping. Fun in the I-want-to-put-a-bullet-through-my-head-by-the-end-of-the-trip kind of way.

Hadley has always been an adventurous kid and loves the outdoors. But there is a world of difference between day-tripping or spending the night in a nice cabin vs. roughing it.

First, there was the issue of a tent. We are accustomed to sleek back-country ones that take moments to assemble. But we somehow thought it was a good idea to buy a tent from Costco that is big enough to house a small army. Have you ever tried to assemble a miniature house while battling a screaming toddler? We learned very quickly that we will never be invited to assist in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
[photopress:campmom_1.jpg,full,pp_image] Second, there was the issue of stuff. Everywhere. In the trees, on the ground – it all ended up in Hadley’s mouth. Our campsite was on a slope so if she wasn’t tripping over every rock or stick, she was eating them or attempting to roll over in the fire pit.

Third, there was the issue of sleep. Or lack thereof. Even though it was July, the evenings were cold. That, coupled with uncomfortable sleeping quarters, led Hadley to wail all night long. Both nights. If our campground neighbors had a choice, I am sure they would have voted us off the island. Both nights.
[photopress:campfood.jpg,full,pp_image] But I am still disillusioned by the dream of happy campers snuggling by the fire cooking s’mores and hot dogs. Well, minus the fat-free hot dogs, which I made the mistake of buying last time around. Note to the wise: if your hot dog turns putrid grey when cooked and your kid has the reaction you see in the photo, something is very, very wrong.

It has been three years since that cursed trip. This time, I have taken a Strength in Numbers approach and invited my friend Tina, her husband Mark and two of Hadley’s bestestest friends Nolan and Rowan.

This is the same woman whose children have been known to throw massive tantrums about “hiking” a flat 1/4-mile loop.

Should be a banner weekend. 🙂

Have you camped with young children? What tips do you have for surviving and thriving?

Amber Johnson
Author: Amber Johnson

Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.

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  • comment avatar Eva June 2, 2008

    Amber, I feel your pain. I am not a camper and took my two young children once. The picture of Haddley with her scruffy hair about sums up our experience. 🙂

  • comment avatar smartmama June 2, 2008

    everytime I take mine about 2 hrs into it I think “I am a Sucker!!!!”

  • comment avatar Suzanne Bastien June 2, 2008

    I Love to camp with my kids, but I’ve learned to wait until they are old enough to talk in full sentences, use the porta-potty/latrine without crying about the smell (My 16 year old is still a bit fussy about this one, hence, she had to hold it from a trip downtown yesterday!) and sleep without waking up to wander around.

    I used to take them when they were little but, my hair is already gray enough, I don’t need more help camping at Longs Peak with toddlers.

    I applaud your adventurous spirit in taking little ones camping. I hope that you have time for tea and a bath everynight afterwards.

    My tips… Magnifying glasses, bug collecting kits (with the understanding that they kill nothing, and return it all to it’s environments), sunscreen (even if there is snow in the shade), drums, hot cocoa (milk NOT water, it’s richer), an extra blanket and a great book!

    Have a great week!

  • comment avatar Awesome Mom June 2, 2008

    You are a braver woman than I am! I have been wanting to go camping with the kids, but have been put off by all the issues you have talked about. Maybe in a few years we will be able to camp with the family.

  • comment avatar Guinevere Meadow June 2, 2008

    If anyone can do it, Amber, YOU can!!

    Last year, Damselfly and I took our families on a weekend camping trip. Both our boys were under a year old.

    It was a challenge.

    We’re going to try again next January (prime camping season here in Florida) when they will both be over two.

    We’ll see how it goes.

  • comment avatar Lauren June 2, 2008

    I hear you…my family wants me to camp this summer…I openly laughed out loud when I read your, “put-a-bullet-through-your-head” comment…that kind of sums it up for me. But, my boys all went on the Father/Son campout this year and loved it and want to share a special experience like that with me. Aren’t I so, so lucky?

  • comment avatar Ana June 2, 2008

    If anyone can do it Amy can!! lol But I feel you there is only so far you can push kids! And we Mamas know our kids limits.

    Awwwww look at young Hadley! She is adorable.

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson June 2, 2008

    Adorable? She looks like CRAP! Just look at that nappy hair. I thought it captured the moment…perfectly. 🙂

  • comment avatar FFG June 2, 2008

    You are scaring me about our trip to the Grand Canyon this summer. Actually, I have decided that I’ll just hand them over to my mom who will be staying in their RV. I am pretty sure she wants to remember what it was like to raise 5 kids. 🙂

  • comment avatar Richelle F June 2, 2008

    Our first camping trip our son was about 14 months old. He wasn’t walking yet, though, so he just sat in the dirt sucking on rocks and sticks. 🙂 We have a big 8 man tent, so we brought his pack-n-play to sleep in, but it was so cold, he kept waking up. So he slept in our bed. I didn’t get much sleep, but it still wasn’t too bad. Maybe because we only went one night. You can survive anything for one night, can’t you?
    We actually went camping last week with a bunch of our friends. There were 3 babies under 6 months, and about 10 toddler/preschoolers. Again, our son slept with us (the pack-n-play did work the last time we went last year) and was up at the crack of dawn, but again, it was only one night, so survivable.
    I think your kids are old enough they will have fun just being out in the outdoors. Just make sure they are extra careful around the fire.
    Good luck!

  • comment avatar Shannon June 2, 2008

    Oh man…We were just debating whether or not to take our 3 year old and 9 month old camping this summer…Maybe we’ll opt for a cabin trip instead…

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson June 2, 2008

    Richelle – I think one night is key. Which is why you have to wonder why we’re doing two nights again? Hmmmm….

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson June 2, 2008

    Oh, and Shannon? I think you know what my vote would be for camping vs. a cabin with little ones. 🙂

  • comment avatar cheryl June 2, 2008

    Every year, about 70 of us get together at a random lake in California. There are infants, toddlers, children, teenagers, parents, grandparents, and the great-grandparents. Here is some advice from my aunt (with children the same ages as mine) that I was going to copy and paste her words, but there were too many. You can read about it at this URL:

    We camp with babies and toddlers all the time! It can be done if you are prepared. Honest!

  • comment avatar cheryl June 2, 2008

    Every year, 70 of us get together to camp. Infants, toddlers, children, teens, parents, grandparents, and the great-grandparents. It’s been going on for 36 years (37?). My aunt did a post about it almost 2 years ago about how to camp with small children. You can read about it here:

    I would have copied and pasted the whole thing, but it was too long. It’s full of good info!

    We love to camp with our kids –even when they are babies and toddlers. If you are prepared, you will have fun! 🙂

  • comment avatar Lizzy June 2, 2008

    1. Leave all phantom dreams of enjoying this trip behind you. That way you won’t get grumpy when the kids suck any possiblity of adult fun or conversation from your life.
    2. This is all about the kids, if not they will make you miseable until it is all about them.
    3. Bring a porta-potty and keep it in or right outside the tent for late night or emergency bathroom breaks.
    4. Bring the following: glowsticks, pipe cleaners, watercolors and paint brushes, washeable markers, bubbles, and packaging tape. They can only have the glowsticks at night if they have taken a nap (or been quiet for an hour) during the day. Make matching buddy bracelets and other goofy things with the pipe cleaners. Water color the rocks in your camp ground. Rap the packaging tape around their wrist with the sticky side up and have them stick flowers, grass, and feathers on it to make a nature bracelet. ETC… (this should see you safely through one day)
    5. Bring a portable DVD player and lots of Nick Jr. DVDs for emergency situations.
    6. Tattoo your arms with the phrase, “Never again.” so that you don’t repeat this mistake.

  • comment avatar Lizzy June 2, 2008

    Aw, crud, I just commented with a list of all my camping secrets and it didn’t go through. And now I’m too mad to write them again. Maybe I will come back tomorrow and try again.


  • comment avatar cheryl June 2, 2008

    Hey, sorry for the double comments. It wasn’t showing up, and obviously, I have no patience. 😉

  • comment avatar Anna Maria Junus June 2, 2008

    Brave, brave woman.

    The first time I took my oldest camping (she was a toddler who was used to hotel rooms while on vacation) she crawled into the tent looked around and said in disgust “Is this our room?”

    I’m with her.

  • comment avatar Lori June 2, 2008

    It’s so funny. Hubby and I were just talking about doing this for the first time with our preschoolers.

    After reading this post and the comments, I may have to tell him,


  • comment avatar Tina June 2, 2008

    Camping is not hiking Amber! Last year my kids actually liked to camp and we love “camping” in the backyard. I have not tried an actual hike in over a year. Who knows they might have developed a taste for it, altho I’m not holding my breath!

    Great camping tips Lizzy! I love the glowstick idea. Perfect for my spastic 3 & 4 year olds who don’t sit still for a single minute.

  • comment avatar Stephanie June 2, 2008

    I too have delusions of camping snuggly and happily with my little 14-month old and three-year-old, staring up at the stars (through the mesh netting of our easily constructed tent). These illusions are quickly smashed with crying, boredom and no sleep.
    I think camping with kids is like pregnancy–you forget after each experience and think, ‘Hey, it won’t be so bad.’ Then reality sets in, and so does back pain and lack of sleep.

  • comment avatar A mom in the burbs June 2, 2008

    Camping. Yep. We live in Colorado, we should do it.

    I asked the DH if we were gonna try it this year, and he (an avid outdoorsy guy) cringed and said, maybe next year (when The Toddler Tornado is older). I’m pretty sure our 6 year-old (today!) would wander off. She gets lost at the museum where those nice guards bring her back, as well as every other family outing. The stress of worrying about her, in addtion to the 9 year-old who won’t squat behind a bush, and the toddler and the campfire. AND no cell phone service?



    I think we may try a backyard campout this year and wait until the kids are older…like in college, or at least until the 6 year-old has the survival manual memorized…

  • comment avatar Anonymous June 3, 2008

    No, we have not yet been camping with our kids. My parents took us when I was about 12 and I have always wanted to go with my children. I am working on my husband who loves hotels. I think the closest we will get… camping in the back yard this summer.

    I wish you well. You can do it!

  • comment avatar elasticwaistbandlady June 3, 2008

    I watched Rocky Horror Picture Show with some of my kids. It doesn’t get any “campier” than that!

    Houston has bugs….really, really terrifying bugs. The only thing stopping them from devouring us whole is the nice brick walls of our home. I don’t want to sleep outside and make it easier for them to eliminate us.

  • comment avatar Joy Opp June 3, 2008

    two words: Pop-up Camper!

    We go for two nights to a week at a time now! And we have six trips planned this summer! But we have a very mellow, rugged, and outdoor-savy kid who can sit on a rock playing with dinosaurs for hours while I read my book and dad fishes. We got lucky!

  • comment avatar PJ June 3, 2008

    We camp with our kids, they LOVE to camp. It’s work, and the laundry after is the worst. Great memories are made, so it’s worth it.

    It was a lot harder when they were toddlers. We’d sick them in a portable crib, but that only works for awhile.

  • comment avatar yvonne June 3, 2008

    When Heidi was about 11 months old we took her camping to Wheeler Peak. (Actually my MIL and FIL went, too–they got the motor home, we got the tent????) Actually, it was a pretty fun experience. She slept in our sleeping bag in the tent with us. Maybe Heidi has bad memories because she absolutely HATED Girls Camp and the whole “camping” experience when she was a teenager. (But there were plenty of people to help keep her entertained–that’s the trick!!!)

    Hope you have a wonderful time.

  • comment avatar Heidi June 3, 2008

    We don’t camp. We go to hotels and hang out around the pool for holidays.

    Now that you know this, can we still be friends?


  • comment avatar Wendi June 3, 2008

    I am with Heidi.
    I do not camp.
    I am not “outdoorsy”.
    My idea of roughing it is staying in a cheap hotel with low thread count sheets and no pool.
    I have shared too much haven’t I?
    Please don’t ban me from your blog!
    I really like it here!

  • comment avatar Sketchy June 3, 2008

    I’ve camped every year with my kids since I’ve had them. The only year we’ve had a problem was when my oldest was a colicky 2 month old. That was not the best idea we’ve ever had.

    The best thing that I’ve tried is if they stay in their sleeping bags they can have a small flashlight to play with at night. Sure they stay up later playing with them, but so what? They’re on vacation they can sleep in in the morning. And when the lights stop moving around in the tent you know they are asleep and you go and gather up the flashlights and save them for the next night.

    PS: I love the nature bracelet idea, I’m going to make my kids do that this year and my youngest is 6. I don’t care if they think it’s silly. I want those photos!

  • comment avatar SJ June 3, 2008

    We took the plunge and went camping this past weekend with my two boys, who had never experienced camping before. We had a great time! I was really nervous about it but they really did impress me overall. I think you can do it 🙂

  • comment avatar Jody June 4, 2008

    My parent’s used to camp with me and my younger sister all the time! BUT – they only did the tent thing one time when I was a baby. They bought a hard-sided, self-contained camper (i.e. cabin on wheels!) and said that it made all the difference in the world!
    I’ve yet to try the camping thing with my young kids, but I will definitely look into either borrowing or renting a camper trailer for the big event! Good luck – and hey, at least the experience will make for some good blogging material! 😉

  • comment avatar diana/sunshine June 4, 2008

    you can do it! and so can hadley. the more you do it, the easier it gets.

    we took both of our kids camping when they were quite young, and for the most part, it worked find. there was the one time that we ended up sleeping in the cab of the truck because my son was crying so much and we were trying to be considerate to all of our neghbors. but besides that, it was something that we all adapted to and learned to love to do as a family.

    hope it goes well and you ALL have a great time.

  • comment avatar Allie June 5, 2008

    You are officially my hero, living at the top of my idol worship list of crazy mommies who do crazy things! How awesome are you? Now while the trip may not have been fun at the time, just look at the warm fuzzie memories you have taken from it …..

    My idea of roughing it would be in a swanky fifth wheeler with a toilet and shower in it, that or a 3 star hotel or better. And here I wonder where my daughter has picked up her divaness from ……

  • comment avatar mattsmom June 6, 2008

    Well…I hope you trip is going well.

    We camped with our first when he was just 8 weeks old…in Idaho…is snowed…I wanted to go home. It got better after that. I was never a big fan of the whole tent, squat behind a bush toilet thing…but our entire family camps multiple times each year…so I felt stuck.


    *Pack several pairs of pjs for the kiddos. My kids WILL NOT stay in their sleeping bags or blankets…so I make them wear them! They often go to bed in at least three pairs of pjs layered.

    *Glow sticks make FABULOUS night lights! A MUST have around here. No night light=no sleep.

    *Bring MORE blankets than you think you will need. It will be worth it!

    * The more often you camp with your kids the better they do with it.

    * remember that kids eat things…more than likely it won’t kill them. My 14 month old daughter eats dirt and bugs in the back yard … I can’t seem to stop her no matter where we are…so I am not too concerned if she finds a stick to drool on.

    Memories created on these trips are SO WORTH IT!

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  • comment avatar Heidi Ahrens July 5, 2008

    Well, I am sorry you did not like your first experience. I wonder how your other trip went. I on the other hand love to travel outdoor with my child ( two year old now). Of course, I had to change my ways from traveling solo and light. I also learned a whole bunch like you can bring a two burner stove and a mosquito tent when car camping ; when backpacking forget about being clean and bring food everyone will love and travel near water.

  • comment avatar Dan August 9, 2010

    We’ll I think camping with children in not that bad after all… maybe it’s just a matter of planning the right camp for children. Of course, if we are planning a camping with children we have to consider their interest too. Why don’t you try camping along the beach one time? I think it will pacify your children perfectly. When I was a kid I love beach camping with my parents.