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Car Camping with a Toddler

A little bit of background here....I am an avid backpacker and I also really enjoy car camping.  I also have a 2.5 year old son that I'd enjoy taking with me.  He's too young for backpacking but I have a strong desire to do a father son weekend tent camping trip at a local state park.  A few months ago, my whole family did a "dry run" for this.  All-in-all, it was a good experience.  However, the most difficult parts were nap time and bedtime. During the day, it was super hot, and the inside of the tent was scorching and really bright. I don't think the heat was the big deal, but it was more the brightness leading to his refusal to nap.  At bed time (around 7 PM), it was still a bit bright, but the night time issue was the noisy neighbors.  This led to him and me laying in the tent and he finally fell asleep at 1 AM.

Has anyone else struggled through the same issues tent camping with toddlers?  I'd love hear some stories and recommendations!

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5 Replies

Yep some of the same issues when my kids were that age.  We ended up giving up on nap time and just had them go to bed a little early.  There was so much to do around the campsite they never wanted to nap anyway!  Best way to get my kids to sleep while tent camping was to bring their normal bedding (if temperature allows), pillow, and stuffed animals to set on their air mattress or cot.  Then I would lay with them until they fell asleep before rejoining whomever was left at the campfire.  We never dealt with super noisy neighbors, but some who were a little loud and stayed up till midnight - 1am.  This didn't bother my kids, but once my kids are asleep they are out, some kids are not that way as I am sure you know.  Joke was on those camp neighbors though when my kids got up at the normal 6am loudly asking to pee on the trees again!

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My parents would take my sister and I earlier in the year or later, when cool evenings were far more likely. That allowed the tent to cool off before we went to bed. And we could stay up a bit later than we would have at home so, by bedtime, the combination of all that fresh air, the cool night air, and running around all day meant we had no problem being put into our sleeping bags. 

That was my plan with my kids, too, but they didn't enjoy camping and my wife has back issues that prevent her from sleeping on a mattress on the ground (well, back issues + a strong desire to never camp again lol).

That's my suggestion - go in cooler weather.

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.


I have a very vivid memory of the summer that we had just moved to Fairbanks, going camping for the first time in Alaska with our daughter, who was 2 at the time. Being a total newb to Alaska, the nearly 24 hours of sunlight didn't really occur to me until it was 2 am and I was reading a book by daylight and my daughter was running in circles in the tent and bouncing off of the air mattresses. Less than ideal for sure.

Eventually, we decided to go with a roof top tent that was not only a heavier canvas fabric, but also a dark, navy blue color. Additionally, the rain fly was black, which was an incredible help in creating a space with less light for sleeping. Another advantage we found with the roof top tent was that we would set it up towards the end of the day and it wouldn't sit in direct sunlight and get too hot.

Given that a roof top tent isn't feasible for everyone, we also made some trips to campgrounds that had a lot of tree cover (shade!). Folks in Alaska swore by melatonin for kids during the summer but that wasn't something we ever did. Also, we just abandoned nap time for the most part, although we did enjoy some quiet time reading in the hammock.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

Joining the chorus of abandoning normal nap times. We haven't had much of issues overnight, though we do let her stay up later than normal. Our state parks where we usually camp have quiet hours after 10pm, and the rangers do patrol to enforce it, so no noisy neighbors. Currently 2.75 y.o. but we started car camping around 9 months.

I will say, obviously you know your kid's and your own personal abilities best, but I'm a firm believer that in general small children are a LOT more capable than we give them credit for, and it's definitely possible to backpack with them in some capacity depending on personality, gumption, and gear. took their kid on her first backpacking overnight in Rainier at about that age, for example. Another family I know from Alaska uses a Burley trailer with the hip attachment to haul their toddler+gear behind them (they're not just for bikes). Of course, my wife and I aren't really backpackers ourselves so I can't actually speak from personal experience.

It might limit your selection of trails to be less rugged, at a slower pace, or having one person carry the kid in a carrier pack while the other parent hauls the gear, but age certainly doesn't seem like a limiter. Maybe you'd be pleasantly surprised if you tried!

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Seconding what @TomV said... years ago I saw a couple eight very difficult miles from a trailhead, him carrying all the gear and her carrying their infant! Of course, that is only feasible if the parents are up to the task.

I remember my son would become very.. grouchy... at that age without a nap. Skipping naps would not have worked! I recommend getting him used to napping despite the light at home. Just put him down on whatever you're using for his mattress when you camp, in your living room at home. You could even pitch the tent. After a few times, he'll probably adjust to it. Same with noise... if he's accustomed to staying in bed despite whatever noise there might be, he'll probably be fine camping. He just needs to know you expect him to stay in bed, and that you're just outside the tent, so he's safe.

It's all about setting expectations and training.