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Camping with 3 & Unders: A Survival Guide

Last summer, my husband got a wild hair about getting a camper. With him being an avid tent camper and huge fan of roughing it, and me not, I got on board pretty quickly. This would be like glamping! We decided a used pop-up camper was the way to go, just in case it wasn’t for us we could re-sell and not be out a huge investment. My husband searched daily and found one pretty quickly. Living the military life and having two little kids (and two dogs) doesn’t make it easy to travel, so our goal with the camper was to take little adventures and make the most of our time together, while traveling affordably. We brought it home, cleaned it out, and took inventory of everything we had and what we might need. We actually lucked out and got a lot of freebies thrown in with our camper, so we decided to be ambitious and take a trip right away!

Between last summer and now, we have learned a lot. I’ll admit, there have been days where I wonder WHY in the world we thought this was a good idea and I swear we aren’t taking another trip ANYTIME soon. But then, much more often, there are days where I just feel bliss, and soak up all the memories I possibly can, watching my kids experience things and creating ways to play that they never would have at home. Last week I rocked my youngest to sleep in a hammock under the last light of day, listening to crickets and birds, in the middle of a National Forest. Just take a second to appreciate how cool that sounds! We’ve seen lighthouses, mountains, and waterfalls all just in the past 9 months. Every single time we pack up, I am so so so thankful we took the trip, no matter what tiny struggles we may have had. So, if you are thinking of camping, in a tent or camper (we have done both with two babies!), here are my words of wisdom:

Start somewhere close. When we planned our first trip in the camper, we went an hour away from home. We tried to anticipate all the things that could go wrong and decided that worst case scenario, we could drive home at any hour of the day. We also chose to go to a KOA, which as new “campers” we learned stands for Kampgrounds of America. What is great about these is the amenities, and their consistency. Almost every KOA has the same amenities and they are AMAZING for kids. Bathrooms, showers, pools, little convenience stores, dog parks, and rentals, among other things. Since we were worried about keeping little ones entertained, a KOA sounded like a great first trip! We also watched several videos on YouTube to make sure we had everything our camper might need, like proper electrical hookups for example. When we planned our first tent camping trip, my oldest was 15 months old and I was 3 months pregnant, so we also decided a local-ish trip was the way to go and picked a National Forest campground near my parent’s house. Having home close by is a good safety net and stress reliever in my opinion!

Toss expectations out the window. Coming on strong with #2 on the list, I know, but let’s just get it out of the way. Parts of this are going to be challenging. While camping with kids, at some point you will STRUGGLE. When campgrounds are by a river or covered in huge boulders and you can see that spark in their tiny toddler eyes, your brain may short-circuit for a minute while you wrap your mind around how to keep your child from seriously injuring themselves. That’s okay. Just agree up front that you are going to be as “go with the flow” as possible. This is new, and new things come with a learning curve. Our first trip, we forgot coffee. This was DETREMENTAL! The second trip we remembered coffee but forgot cream and sugar. Better, but not ideal. We had a coffee curse! But now, just having completed our last trip this past week over spring break, packing and grocery shopping came relatively quick and easy. You WILL get the hang of it, it WILL be worth it, and your kids WILL have fun (and you will too.) Don’t stress over if they are eating enough fruit or if they get unbelievably dirty, or if you forget to pack a couple things. Treat it like the vacation that it is and try to make the best of what you’ve got! One thing that helps calm my nerves when going new places is to research the campgrounds and look for photos online of what to expect. I do this by using good ol’ Google and also by searching hashtags on Instagram, either of the campground name or park name. That way I can set expectations accordingly.

Pack familiar things. Nearly everything you are about to do is going to be different. One saving grace for me was bringing a travel high chair. When my youngest daughter was 9 months old, we went to the Outer Banks. She couldn’t walk, but MAN could she crawl. And if you haven’t been inside a pop-up, crawling is a little worrisome! So being able to strap her in her seat for snacks and meals, even to play with toys while we cooked dinner, was a lifesaver. Also be sure to pack favorite stuffed animals, blankets, or whatever comfort items you would usually pack for your kiddos, because camping does bring along unfamiliar places and noises! I suggest pack-n-plays or dock-a-tots for little ones so that they can nap/play easy. Monkey Mats also come in very handy for being able to play anywhere.

Bring along layers. Packing clothing for you and your kids is a little tough, because while you want to pack light for a tight space like a tent or camper, you also want to have enough clothing. When we went camping in the mountains this past October it was our first time “dry-camping.” That means that while our camper has hookups for electricity and water, we camped on a campground without. That also means no heat or AC. The first day we were in t-shirts and long pants, loving the fall weather. The last night, we experienced 60+ MPH gusts which shook our entire soft top camper, I was convinced a huge tree was going to crush us, and the wind chill was in the teens. Sleeping under lantern light and no heat with a 2 year old and 10 month old. Insane right?! But we made it and we agree it was our best trip ever. It’s funny how challenging or uncomfortable things sometimes form the fondest memories. Make sure to pack layers, rain jackets, etc for any possible weather. And a FEW duplicate clothing items, because kids.

Keep toys simple. Time to go back to basics! Staple toys for us, no matter the destination, include a bucket and a shovel. I also have recently started including a little Tupperware container for temporary critter observation (lol). For my youngest, I like to throw in a few toys from home that keep her entertained: something to read, something that makes noise, something to chew on, and something to stack/build. At the age they are now (3 and 16 months), I include play-doh and crayons/paper for some crafting, and the iPad in case the weather is bad and we need to watch a movie until the rain passes. The iPad also doubles as a sound machine for daytime naps! When selecting what to pack to keep kiddos entertained, try to find the balance between pushing them to be creative and explore their surroundings, and you staying sane. Remember why you want to take them camping in the first place and try to be creative yourself, and make the most of your time in the wild as a family. Play can be ANYTHING.

Push yourself. Also during that aforementioned mountain trip, we arrived to our campsite at 1:30am, set up in the dark, and went to sleep around 3am. We then woke up at 5am to make a 30 minute drive and see the sunrise on Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. Hiking up that short trail to the summit with nature completely silent around us and being alone on top of a mountain watching a new day?! Oh man. We ALL did it with smiles on our faces and it was a breathtaking experience. I’ll never forget. Camping is adventure, so make sure you bring your adventurous side. See the sights, eat the food, make the drive. We hiked to see a lighthouse and sweated through our clothes. We tent camped by a river and were eaten alive by bugs. We snuggled in one bed as freezing wind shook our surroundings. These are the stories we write together, as a family. The good laughs and fond memories come from experiences that stand apart from all the rest.

Some of our must-take prodcuts:
Cutter All Family wipes are amazing, and probably worked the best for us! We snagged these Para’kito wrist bands and clip for the babies from Walmart. They are baby safe (all natural ingredients/essential oils) and work well as a back-up, but wouldn’t recommend them being your only insect repellent. We also use Thermacell repellants and citronella candles around the campsite if it’s really bad. Coppertone Water Babies works best for us, we love the whipped sunscreen, but Babyganics makes great products too.

My packing list for the kids:
-sunscreen
-bug control
-thermometer & baby tylenol, along with first aid kid
-hats
-For warmer months: light jacket or rain jacket, for colder months: layered clothing up to a heavy jacket
-basic toys
-iPad (sound machine or a bad weather day)
-diapers, wipes, potty
-plastic grocery bags for dirty diapers, wet clothes, etc.
-towels & baby shampoo
-kid-safe antibacterial hand sanitizer or antibacterial wipes
-pillows & stuffed animal
-bedtime story
-baby carrier (I bring my Tula and my WildBird sling)
-bathing suit, water shoes, and foldable pool for warmer months
-Monkey Mat

-water cups

Remember, camping doesn’t have to be roughing it. One of the reasons we got a camper was to ultimately save cost on vacations. Many theme parks, national landmarks, and other attractions have designated camping areas (even Disney!) where you can stay and sight-see. We haven’t been able to do this yet, but it’s on our bucket list. Since getting our camper, we have slowly added upgrades to make traveling further more attainable, such as a composting toilet, outdoor canopy, and gated fence for our dogs (and kids, lol). We love dreaming up all the places we will go!

Feeling on top of the world. Sunrise in October on Mt. Mitchell. Elevation 6,684ft. The highest peak east of the Mississippi River.


Now, start planning your adventure! Feel free to comment if you want to know anymore about our camp life!

XOXO, Elizabeth

1 thought on “Camping with 3 & Unders: A Survival Guide”

  1. Keep up with taking your kids on camping trips, even though not “roughing it”. It is because of my dad that I grew to love the outdoors. My parents continued that trek when my brother came along by taking us canoeing and tent camping.

    The earliest photos, before I can remember, prove that my brother and I thoroughly enjoyed the time. My earliest camping memory includes books and coloring books for days that were not so great to be outside.

    You are correct to not worry about little things that you forgot to pack. I remember one time we forgot to pack utensils. We searched for forked green sticks and whittled them into points with a jack knife. The mishap of forgetting turned into a new little adventure for a couple of young kids.

    I look forward to reading more about your camping trips!

    Liked by 1 person

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