We just booked a 9-day backcountry canoe trip in Algonquin Park this summer. 4 adults and 4 kids ages 2.5 – 7 years. When I tell people that we go backcountry camping with kids, I usually get a response of raised eyebrows with an undertone of either “that’s amazing!” or “you’re crazy!”, or maybe a little bit of both.
Given how surprised many people seem to be when I reiterate that yes, the kids are coming, I thought it would be worth sharing our experience. I am not an expert in all things camping, but I’ve done it enough to share strategies that can hopefully help make the difference between a positive experience and a disaster.
If you’re entertaining the idea of camping with kids, but haven’t quite mustered the energy to figure out how, here are my tips to help you take the leap and start camping with kids – whether you’re car camping or paddling into the backcountry.
1. Waiting until the kids are older isn’t always easier.
Most people hesitate to go camping with an infant. Yes, it’s not for everyone, but I’m here to say that it can be done – and you can even have a tonne of fun! Our daughter’s first camping trip was when she was 7 months old and we started slow with a long weekend car camping trip with a few other families. There is something to be said about power in numbers – so grab some friends with kids if you can!
We waited until our kids could walk before portaging (our daughter was 2.5 years old and I was 7 months pregnant… guess who was more problematic?!). Choosing friends to portage with can be more challenging than car camping. You don’t want to pick a family on a whim, but if you can find the right match, I highly recommend teaming up.
Starting them young has its benefits: they can’t move as far, they’re generally happy being wherever you are, and it gets them used to the idea of sleeping in a tent early. However, our car was packed to the gills with the “extras” like a Pack ‘n Play, upsized tent, diapers, and baby food. This was my version of “glamping”.
If you are delaying your trip simply because you think it will be too hard with an infant, it doesn’t have to be. With some planning and additional comforts, camping with an infant is totally manageable.
2. Adjust your sleep expectations.
Sleep will be disrupted, no matter what the age. If your kids are young, they may take longer to settle down because they’re in a new set-up. Older children may take longer to settle down because they’re hopped up on s’mores and in a new environment. But if you adjust your expectations, this really doesn’t have to be a deal breaker.
You may end up running on less sleep, but if you’re prepared with your favourite energy booster (coffee + creamed Forty Creek anyone?!) and an understanding that your normal routine will probably go out the window, everyone can still have a great time. Even if the kids don’t sleep, you can consider trading off hammock naps with your partner to catch up on some shut-eye.
Getting creative rather than frustrated is the key to success. And by lowering your expectations, you might be pleasantly surprised at how the trip turns out!
3. Embrace dirt.
Whether you’ve got comfort stations in a campground or a hand wash station hanging from a tree, camping will be a dirty affair. Sunscreen, bug spray, campfires, and sleeping on the ground typically bring a special layer of grime with them. Dirt isn’t the enemy, and the sooner you can let go of any idea of cleanliness, the sooner you will enjoy yourself (and the kids will have more fun too).
4. Don’t forego comfort.
Camping doesn’t have to be completely uncomfortable! I used to sleep directly on the ground, but that was a LONG time ago. That backcountry trip while pregnant? The only reason I did it was because I had the invested in the cushiest Thermarest that existed. Similarly, we bring camping chairs even when portaging because sitting around the campfire when the kids are all asleep is one of my favourite times of day – and I’m not going to spend it with a numb bum from sitting on a log.
Visualize how you will spend your days, and make sure you have the supplies you need to make them enjoyable. From food to drink, clothing to lounging. You don’t necessarily need a lot of “stuff”, but it’s worth thinking through your set-up to make sure you have an approach that will work for you, not against you.
When you’re planning to go portaging, you will be as comfortable as your gear allows you to be. That means having good quality rain gear, packs, and saving on weight where you can. Plan your gear wisely – ask around to see what you can borrow from friends. Toronto has camping equipment on lend from the Sharing Depot, or you can set up your own little version among family and friends if you won’t be travelling together.
5. Set roles and responsibilities ahead of time.
When we get to a campsite now, we’re like a well-oiled machine. We know what jobs there are to do, and who is going to do them. Talking about packing the car, setting up the tent, collecting firewood, building a fire, cooking food, etc., etc., with your adult trip-mates ahead of time will reduce confusion and conflict on the trip.
Similarly, talk with your partner about parenting styles while camping. Will you loosen some rules and schedules? How will parenting work be divided? Things like who will make sure lunch prep starts before the melt-downs do, bedtime routines, are marshmellows allowed after dinner and how many, etc. Getting clear on expectations and general decisions will help make it a happier experience for everyone involved.
6. Plan, plan, plan (but let the plans go out the window, too).
I might be bias because I’m a planner and spreadsheet obsessed. But a packing list and detailed menu are not items to cut corners on. Some of this comes with practice, I don’t think you can go into a camping trip “too prepared.” The caviat here is, don’t let your “plan” stress you out. Things will go wrong. Something won’t happen exactly the way you envisioned it. Roll with it and be flexible to avoid losing your sanity.
For those of you looking to plan a backcountry trip in Ontario, I highly recommend Jeff’s Maps – they’re full of fun tips, but also have the most accurate and extensive coverage of lakes and portages.
Camping is one of my all-time favourite ways to spend a family vacation – and the kids love it too. I like to think it will help them gain an appreciation for nature and give them important life skills while they’re at it.
I hope this helped give you confidence that you and your family can get out in nature this summer. Ontario parks are already booking up, and National Parks are offering free daytime access with the Park Pass. Grab some friends and make it happen. Camping is such an iconic part of living in Canada and will form some truly great memories for your family.
If there’s interest, I can turn this into a series with more specific details on what and how to pack for camping with kids. Comment below if you’d like to learn more!