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:
-bug control
-thermometer & baby tylenol, along with first aid kid
-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


Car Trips That Won’t Drive You Crazy

Or at least, a little less crazy.

Camping in the Outer Banks!

Traveling with little ones sometimes spurs a sense of dread. No matter how exciting the destination or occasion, there’s always that tiny voice inside your head saying, “this is going to go terribly wrong.” Because, kids. It’s like a dentist visit, a trip to the DMV, cleaning your bathroom…it may not be the worst thing in the world, but lets just say it doesn’t spark excitement. If you’re anything like me, you mentally prepare for screams, vomit, and five million questions over and over again.

Kate and I are both military spouses, which often corresponds with living a good distance away from some (or all) of your family. We are actually pretty lucky, with 8 and 4 hour car rides respectfully. So if you are looking for tips on traveling with toddlers on a plane, you will not find that here. You are a braver mom than us and may the odds be ever in your favor! But car trips? We’ve pretty much got them figured out.

Grayson & Charlie headed to visit the grandparents

Things to Consider:

As parents, we know best what our kids need. We are still human, so we will inevitably forget something, but for the most part we have a handle on it. I know this, but still panic when it comes time to pack for a trip in a hurry. This leads to lack of organization (aka throwing random things in the van) and overpacking. Let’s start out with the most vital piece of advice: Think ahead.

1 week before trip: Start a list. Make a column for each family member. Starting writing down everything you can think you’ll need, and make it readily available throughout the week so you can add things (and also, take things away that you may not really need.) Consider where you are staying. A hotel, a family member’s house, a friend’s house? I know if I am staying with family I may feel a TAD more comfortable going through their pantry and linen closet, just saying! And in a hotel you will likely be confined to one room, so visualize your stay and think about what additions would make you and your family most comfortable. Also consider departure time and routes. The time of day may make a huge difference with traffic, so it may be worthwhile to leave a little earlier than planned.

2-3 days before: Knock out the laundry. I like to do ALL the laundry, so not only do I have all my options for packing, but when I come back there is no dirty laundry to get through. Check the weather forecast and set aside things from the clean laundry you may want to pack. Cross of unnecessary items you may have written on your packing list earlier in the week, see what you can size down on.

1 day before: Clean out the car. It’s always nice to start with a blank slate because you know it’s going to look like a war torn country by the time the trip is over. Pack bags for the kids and yourself, and even load up the car if you can. Charge electronics you’ll be taking. We now have a fancy van with built-in DVD players, but before that I would download kid shows and movies from Netflix to play on our iPad. The day I found out you could download and watch without WiFi was a GREAT day!

Day of trip: Review your list, prepare snacks, and think happy thoughts! Talk to your kids about where you are going, who you are visiting, and what they can expect to see along the way. After all, kids are Chatty Cathys and like feeling involved!

Addie & Ella’s first night in a hotel

What To Actually Pack and How To Pack It

Once you have a few mishaps under your belt, you get pretty good at predicting all kinds of car trip catastrophes (says the mom who has given her child a water bottle shower on the grassy lawn of a gas station). Here’s a few travel tips you MAY not have thought about doing:

  • Instead of having a stack of shirts, stack of pants, etc. in a suitcase, roll up complete outfits together. Especially for your kids. Shirt, pants, socks and all. Not only does this take the guesswork out of dressing them each day and having enough clothing items, but it means anyone around can dress them too.
  • Instead of a large bag or suitcase, give everyone their own small bag. That way if you have a mishap you don’t have to riffle through everyone’s stuff to find an extra pair of princess panties.
  • Have a designated storage tote for toys, and one for non-perishable snacks. And have that bad boy EASY TO ACCESS! You will need to reach for it approximately 800 times.
  • Have a storage tote just for shoes. This one may have some people shaking their heads, but I can’t tell you the number of times we cannot find shoes for one or both children. We don’t wear shoes in the car and we take them off at the front door. Having both kids’ shoes all in one place in the car makes it easy to get out and go, versus finding the one shoe my one year old tossed into deep space.
  • Make an emergency kit. Ours includes a thermometer, pain meds for us and the kids, allergy meds, dramamine, band aids, and a tourniquet. I also like to throw in baby powder, eye drops, and a makeup brush for the summer months because my kids cannot NOT get sand in their eyes. A clean makeup brush is the easiest to knock that stuff right out when a sandy child paw starts rubbing those baby blues.
  • If you are potty training or newly potty trained or just against stopping 5 times at rest stops- a travel potty. We bought this one that has an air freshener, doubles as a step stool, and closes up and it’s been a lifesaver for car trips and camping.
  • Bring a sound machine. If yours isn’t travel-worthy, then download a free app on your iPad or phone (see our recent blog post on our favorite apps for recommended options!) Using this during nap times in the car, hotel, or unfamiliar home can save the day.
  • A designated blanket or mat to sit on. We carry a packable Monkey Mat in the car with us to throw out at a park, use as a changing pad, or even as a picnic blanket in a hotel room. You never know where you might need a clean surface to sit, so this is an easy but extremely useful item to throw in!

Snacks, Snacks, AND MORE SNACKS!

Snacks will be your BEST FRIEND. And they don’t have to be pure garbage. I know I always splurged on car snacks as a kid. Peach rings, potato stix, sour gummy crawlers, soda after soda…good times. And while a treat here and there might be nice, the last thing you want strapped in a carseat for hours is a toddler hopped up on sugar. Remember in Jurassic Park when they tied the dinosaurs down? That’s what you’re stuck in a car with. So here are some of our favorite crowd-pleasers that are yummy and also fairly safe to eat in a carseat. (Definitely watch ALL carseat snacking closely and I highly recommended investing in a mirror to see your back-facing babes if you don’t have one already.)

We like to use Camelbak or Munchkin 360 cups for our kiddos and really stick to water and milk for simplicity (and to avoid mess.) We also find that bowls (or little mugs) with handles help for holding snacks. Vertical snack bags also work well for on the go. In fact, we even got some cute little reusable/machine-washable snack pouches at a Farmer’s Market one time!

Lunch in a hotel room

If nothing else, please takeaway these two things. One we already said: Plan ahead. The other is this: Don’t set your expectations too high. Things will go wrong, meltdowns will occur, and that’s okay. Hopefully planning ahead and being familiar with some things other moms do will be a card you can play when the time arises. If all else fails, you will have a great story to tell your future son or daughter-in-law! That’s something, right? Memories are made in the journey, so take it all in and enjoy the ride!

As always, if you have other tips, please share! We all need some new tricks every now and then.

XOXO, Elizabeth & Kate