If you loved spending time in the great outdoors before the kids came, but feel you need to wait until they get older before introducing them to the joys of camping, think again. A little preparation on your part can ensure that your toddler’s first wilderness experience is one that will have him hooked on outdoor adventure, too.
Look for a campsite that’s not too far away from home, so your toddler won’t be bored and frustrated by a long car ride before you get there. Pick a location that’s relatively close to civilization, or at least has a good camp store on site so you can grab extra diapers, sunscreen or marshmallows should you run short of these necessities. Bring his potty seat and find a campground with flush toilets or bring his potty chair, so he isn’t scared by more rustic pit toilets.
Take everything but the kitchen sink — camping with a toddler is no time to travel light. Pack plenty of clothing for all types of weather, since you never know when the temperature will suddenly rise or drop unexpectedly. Rain gear is a must, including toddler-sized rain boots and a slicker. Bring several clothing outfits per day in case your little one gets wet or muddy or has some other accident that might necessitate a quick change. Don’t forget sun block, baby-safe bug repellent, baby wipes and lots and lots of diapers, if your little guy’s still using them. Stock a first aid kit with bandages, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic wipes, whatever you use to take his temperature, an instant cold compress and children’s pain reliever such as liquid acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Show your child the dangerous things he must avoid, such as poison ivy, sharp rocks, and of course the fire pit, but do not expect him to remember – keep him within arm’s reach when anything dangerous is near. Otherwise give him more freedom, but never let him out of your sight. Tell him he must keep several feet away from the fire at all times — mark out a boundary with rocks or sticks — so he doesn’t trip and fall in. Keep an eye on other potentially dangerous items such as lanterns, cooking equipment, and even the sharp rims on opened tin cans or the serrated edge of a box of aluminum foil. Warn your tot not to wander off into the woods alone, and watch him at all times to make sure he doesn’t. Familiarize yourself with the hazards and wildlife at a particular campground – ask the ranger or read the website. Label his clothes and shoes with your cell phone number, though, in case an emergency does happen.
Plan a menu of toddler-friendly camping favorites. Let your little guy watch — but not touch — while you roast hotdogs over the fire, then slice them into thin strips before serving to reduce the risk of choking. Alternatively, you could wrap finely chopped meat and veggies in aluminum foil to make “hobo bundles”. Place these in the coals of your fire pit to cook, then remove them and let them sit until the foil is no longer hot to the touch. Check the bundles to make sure they’re cool enough that they won’t burn your toddler, then let him open one up by himself and eat his dinner straight out of the package. Roast a marshmallow for his dessert, or make it extra-special by sandwiching it between two graham cracker squares with a piece of milk chocolate to make it into a s’more.
Have fun with your kiddo. Share your enthusiasm for the wilderness by taking him for a walk in the woods or along the lake shore. Blow bubbles, look at interesting rocks and bugs under a magnifying glass, squirt each other with water pistols. Give him a glow stick and a kid-sized flashlight once it gets dark — these are not only fun to play with, but will also help ease any fears on those long, scary nighttime hikes to the bathroom. Bring along picture books to share on rainy days or at bedtime. Look for stories about nature and wildlife, or stories about camping such as Margret and H.A. Rey’s “Curious George Goes Camping” or Stan and Jan Berenstain’s “The Bear Scouts”.