I often get a bit over eager to experience life with my 2.5 year old son. I’ll begin making elaborate plans for going to a baseball game or heading to a theme park. My wife will then, ever so gentle as to not completely deflate me, remind me he is still only 2.5. I recently determined one cool week this May that the boy was old enough to head out on his first adventure with dad – into the woods for camping. Before my wife could try and step in to deliver a dose of reality, I proclaimed it was a done deal and the boy and I were going. Camping with a toddler? You can do that.
Prepare For 2 Year Old Camping
I grew up in the Boy Scouts and feel like I know the ropes when it comes to camping. As the minimum age to join the scouts was 6 or 7, toddlers however weren’t a part of any past trips. I loaded up my car with the usual camping utilities of tarp, tent, and torch then thought of the needs of a toddler in the woods. Keeping routine as much as possible was the goal – so bed time meant some kind of bath, an iPad for sound machine, stuffed bear and blanket, and a bottle of baby lotion. We packed 4-5 board books for story time — conveniently a necessity for any camping trip — and I introduced the little guy to a sleeping bag. With some fire starters and extra blankets, I was confidant with a clear weather forecast we had what we needed to survive the night.
Another thought provoking topic was how to feed a 2 year old in the woods. Much to the chagrin of my health conscious wife, I went the junk food route. Beanie weanies, pretzels, a mason jar of milk, eggs and cereal would cover us for the night. A bag of chips for dad and a few gallons of water for drinking, washing, and cooking rounded out our rations for the evening. As we finished up packing, the boy was well aware something exciting was happening but could not place what this new experience was going to entail.
Mom looked on with a bit of unease as she snapped our picture in front of the loaded car and made me promise I wouldn’t let any bears snatch our blonde headed, and somewhat now unsure himself, little boy. We told mom and baby sister good bye and with our packed SUV headed out to the prospective campsite.
Prince William National Forest
Here in Northern Virginia, the land is a constant concrete jungle of sprawling suburbia. Much to my surprise and ignorance, the Prince William National Forest as a literal oasis away from the strip malls and condominiums not 30 minutes from my house. For a $7 entrance fee and $20 campsite fee, you can drive 4 miles through the aptly named scenic drive road to Oak Ridge Campground. Within 20 minutes of leaving Interstate 95, you pick any available camp site and immediately feel as if you could be 200 miles from the nearest prefabricated subdivision.
The Park Rangers were thrilled to learn it was my son’s first time camping and each presented him with an honorary park ranger badge and showed off their intriguing, rugged Park Ranger SUVs. We checked out the visitor center, met the campground host who proudly offered us 5 pieces of their freshly cut and heat treated oak firewood, and picked an open campsite close to the bathroom building and water spicket, a decision later proving crucial.
My son loves going into the woods behind our house and loves nothing more than going outside. By the time I got him out of his car seat and let him roam our campsite, the boy was over the moon. I set him up with a snack on the picnic table and began unloading the car and setting up the tent. Having patience and understanding to let your toddler “help” in everything you do will make it all go much smoother.
A few activities turned out to be pure gold for the little guy and myself. I never knew the joys of collecting firewood until my arms were full with every piece I could manage, and my son was in tow with a single stick following in my footsteps. Not a single fellow camper watched us pass without an “awe” or “how cute”. The second I thought we had enough wood, the boy was off again headed to his favorite stick hunting grounds behind our site.
Starting the fire was the greatest thing he’d ever seen followed by tears when I wouldn’t let him get close and set a boundary around the fire he couldn’t pass, marked with a line in the dirt. There were too many trips and stumbles to count while walking through the woods with his excited skips and runs around tree roots; though every time he popped back up as if nothing had happened. Washing hands in the water spicket close to our site had to be done 12 times an hour so he could play with the hand pump that made it work. I was worried we’d be bored at a campsite with only a fire to entertain us, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Dinner on the camp stove was equally entertaining and exciting and before I knew it regular bath and bedtime was upon us. A “bird bath”, as my mom called it, with a bucket of water and baby wipes gave the boy’s hands and face a quick wash. Pajamas and books in the tent with a flashlight made the routine seem familiar and we were singing songs in our usual fashion to get him calmed down. He didn’t like when I left the tent, but I put a flashlight in overhead netting as a night light and calmed him down with my voice outside of the tent every few minutes until he drifted off to sleep. I was left with a campfire and ice cold coca-cola to keep me company for another few hours as I thought about how great the day had gone.
After a full night’s sleep it was time to eat breakfast and pack up, culminating with my son telling me “no go home. Camp one more time.” I told him there’d be plenty of adventures in the future and that mom needed to see with her own eyes we’d not only survived, but could return men who’d conquered the campsite.
With preparation, the right mindset, getting your toddler excited, and taking along a few extra sets of clothes, camping with a toddler can not only be okay, but can be a fantastic experience. The beauty of camping with a little one? There’s no schedule. There’s no opening or closing time, no place to be, no lines to stand in. You’re on your own time and can do whatever you choose. Check the weather, go when it’s cool but not cold, and enjoy the woods with your kid. It’s the best thing I’ve done with my son yet, and only got me more excited for the years and experiences to come.
Would you go camping with your toddler?