There are all sorts of reasons to take your son or daughter camping: kids who spend time outdoors are physically and emotionally healthier, sleep better, and have more self-confidence, among other benefits. Plus, family camping trips offer a great opportunity to bond with your child and develop lasting memories. But making the leap from your comfortable home to an overnight adventure in the great outdoors can be intimidating — and the longer you put it off, the more intimidating it becomes.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get kids of all ages to love sleeping outside. My husband and I are former outdoor guides who spent years leading inexperienced children and adults in the wilderness, and we took our daughter camping for the first time when she was just five weeks old. Many of our friends have similar backgrounds and taking their kids camping is a regular part of their lives as well. How did we do it without too much stress? Here are seven tips for easing kids into the outdoors.
Start Close to Home
One of the best ways to spark a young kid’s interest in camping is by setting up a tent in the backyard or living room. Sleep in it. Get dressed in it. Practice feeding and changing your baby in it. Simulate everything you’ll do in the woods before you ever even pack the car. If the tent is indoors, you can make it even more fun by using a free white-noise app on your phone or tablet to play sounds that mimic what you’ll hear outdoors: a bubbling brook, chirping crickets, or the crackle of a campfire.
Camp Early and Often
Kids are like sponges, and if you expose them to sleeping outside when they’re young, it won’t be weird and jarring when they’re older. The earlier you start, the better. With the proper equipment and preparation, parents can go camping with babies as young as a few months old ⏤ just make sure to have a sleep plan ready and pack extra clothes. Remember, the goal is simply to spend time outside and begin the acclimation process. If being in nature is normalized when children are little, they’ll be less likely to complain or get bored later on. Instead, they’ll look forward to getting dirty, seeing her dad’s wild ungroomed hair, and skipping rocks in the river.
Make Camping Part of Your Life
If pitching a tent, cooking on a camp stove, and starting a fire is second nature to you, it’ll be far less stressful when you do it with a little one in tow. And the more stressful a trip into the woods is for mom and dad, the more likely kids will be turned off from going in the future. Don’t stop camping just because your wife is pregnant ⏤ buy a better camping mattress instead ⏤ and keep your wilderness skills sharp, even it means building fires in the backyard.
Let Go of Expectations
Sleeping outside often means that the nighttime schedule you’ve so carefully developed at home will be disrupted. Go with the flow, even if that means more nighttime feedings, napping in a backpack, or letting your little one sleep in the car seat. If your toddler misses a nap or their bedtime, it’s not the end of the world. That said, understand that potty training may go out the window when hitting the trail. Bring extra diapers, don’t get discouraged, and consider letting your kid pee right on the ground.
Let Them Get Dirty
Does your toddler want to play in the mud? Let her. Is a bath part of your nighttime routine? Skip it. Research shows that being exposed to dirt helps kids develop stronger immune systems anyway, and sleeping for a few nights with dirt behind their ears won’t hurt anyone.
Avoid Busy Campgrounds
Camping in the off-season or during the work week — or searching for the lesser-visited corners of national and state forests — can pay dividends, especially if you have a baby who will likely cry at night. Not having to worry about waking up neighboring campers relieves a ton of stress and means you can focus on your own family and camping experience.
Simplify Your Trips
If you use cloth diapers at home, go for disposables at camp. If your kid has a room full of toys, consider leaving them behind in favor of rocks and sticks and sand. Toys are overrated when you’ve got the whole natural world at hand. That said, you know your kid best. If they’re going to wake up at 5 a.m. and refuse to go back to sleep, don’t hesitate to bring along a book, toy, or game (that is not rocks) to keep them entertained. And if their favorite blanket or doll will make sleeping easier, pack it.