Tent camping with kids

We’ve camped everywhere from the beach and the desert, to the mountains and everything in-between with our kids. Sleeping in a tent with little ones was a big departure from our former days as backpackers sans kiddos. Now with kids, we’ve tried lots of different options and we are sharing our experience, good and bad. There’s so many different factors that go into camping in a tent with kids such as professional organization guidelines, family preferences, child needs, and style of camping to name a few. For this reason, what we are sharing in this blog is not recommendations for what you should do, but rather a description of what WE do. Plus, what we do continues to evolve as our children grow and new equipment is developed in the ever expanding realm of outdoor gear.

Sleeping Bags

We’ve gone through a few options for sleeping bags with the kids over the years. We used down snow suits for years (tucking in the hood at night). We primarily used this option because there weren’t great options for little kids sleeping bags on the market when we had our first baby, and we already owned a few hand-me-down options. Some of the benefits we found using a snow suit included that the child could use the snow suit in camp after they woke up since they had the ability to walk around in it, it was warm, and it was multi-purpose for other cold weather activities like sled riding. We liked almost everything about this option with the exception of the hood that comes on most snow suits. We never had any issues with the hood since our kids are both back sleepers, but it wasn’t ideal. Thankfully we’ve now transitioned to a new option without a hood mentioned below.

We recently settled on the Morrison Outdoors Sleeping bags. They come in two sizes, the Little Mo (6-24 months) and the Big Mo (2-4 years) as well as two temperature options 20 degrees and 40 degrees. We opted for the 20 degree bags since we often backpack and camp at higher elevations with cooler temps. We like these bags because they don’t have a hood, are cozy yet pack down into a small stuff sack for backpacking, and are approved for safe sleep. An item to note, we noticed that our daughter didn’t like having her hands sealed in, so if you are on the fence with the temperature rating and your kids need to have access to use their hands (say to drink a water bottle at night), then the 40 degree bag would be a better choice since it has open-and-close cuffs whereas the 20 degree bag has sealed hands. Use code SOWEWENT10 to save 10%.

If it’s warmer weather, we just use traditional sleep slacks for the baby, and Marti uses a light blanket like she does in her bed at home. If the weather is going to be excessively hot, we will usually pick camping spots at higher elevations or the beach so we can comfortably sleep at night. We won’t camp if it’s going to be over 90 degrees because that’s not fun for anyone.

Base Layers

Even with cozy sleeping bags, we still use a solid set of base layers under the sleeping bags for all of us. A good base layer can help wick away any moisture at night. We always aim for base layers made of polyester, merino wool, or bamboo. We avoid cotton because it can hold moisture. Our favorite material is merino thermals because merino is soft. Our children also get extra wear out of their thermals under snow suits for sledding, or for chilly hikes. We like the Iksplor merino wool base layers. They are made in the USA, are UPF 50+, and they are comfy. Code SOWEWENT20 saves 20% on orders.

Sound machine

There’s nothing like good white noise to help kids AND parents 😉 fall asleep. We kept things simple for years by just using our cell phones with downloaded white noise from Amazon music which worked well enough backpacking. On trips where we exclusively car camped, we just brought our sound machine from home and ran it on a power station either in the tent or the van. Recently we purchased a travel-sized sound machine and we are blown away how much we like it! We honestly should have taken the plunge to buy it sooner and saved our cell phone batteries! It produces a much better white noise sound than a cell phone, and is still lightweight and easy to clip on the outside of our packs backpacking. Plus we are able to keep our phones handy outside of the the tent to snap pictures too! We even like that it can hang from the gear loft in the tent and everyone can benefit from it! It’s a great way to dull those little critter noises or wind at night that might normally keep us awake.

Marti standing up to turn on the travel sound machine

Books

Books have been critical for our kiddos to fall asleep camping. We read books every night at home before bed, so in order to keep the bedtime routine camping similar, we always bring books. We even bring one backpacking. Sure it adds weight, but it’s worth it’s weight in gold when the kids go to sleep on or near on-time in the backcountry. We usually try to pick smaller, light weight reads for backpacking if we can versus heavy board books, but there was a time when Marti was really into a board book so we brought that backpacking.

Other sleep considerations

Altitude

We select lower elevation trails for backpacking for a variety of reasons with kids, but one of the main reasons is the disruptions in sleep it causes for the kids (and us too). Everyone is different, and you should consult your pediatrician for your little ones, but we aim to stay below 10,000 feet for overnight camp spots because we noticed our kids sleep better if we do. We also try to spend a day or two acclimating before we hit the trail in higher altitude areas.

Practice

The more frequently we travel, the better our kids sleep camping. If you don’t camp frequently, consider doing a living room or backyard camp night to help familiarize the kids with the tent. This experience will also help gauge how camping will go. There’s an easy out if it doesn’t go well, versus your first tent experience being a 6 mile hike into the wilderness only to realize your child is terrified to sleep in a tent and you are stuck.

Tent & Layout

Most often we are sleeping in a 3-person backpacking tent as a family. When we were only a family of 3, we used either a 2-person or 3-person tent. The 2-person was tight, but we made it work. As a family of 4, we usually set the kids on the outside perimeter of the tent and we sleep head-to-toe in the middle. That way we can each quickly take care of one kiddo during the night if they wake up. Ash tends to Martha usually, and Margaux tends to Luke (since he is still nursing). Our kids don’t move much in their sleep, so we don’t have too much of an issue keeping everyone separate. Occasionally, Marti will kick in her sleep and that’s why we keep her separate from Luke.

As they get older and bigger, we plan to get a 4-person backpacking tent, but they are really hard to find and are usually sold out (for freestanding versions). Of note, we have found camping with little kids requires a free-standing tent because kids will push all over the walls and a non-freestanding tent will not withstand toddlers. We also camp in a lot of areas with granite ground, so pitching a freestanding tent on hard, rocky surfaces is much easier.

If we are car camping, we use a large 4-person tent that we can stand up in. This isn’t feasible for the backcountry since it weighs a ton, but we love being able to stand up completely if the kids need attention at night, to change clothes, or play inside if it rains.

Early to bed

We start the bedtime process much earlier camping. We settle the kids into the tent and lay with them reading (in Luke’s case, nursing), earlier than we would at home. We try to allow more lead time to settle in since it’s not their usual environment. We follow this rule for ourselves too. We often go to sleep shortly after the kids do. We never know how sleep will go even with the best of preparations. If we can get to sleep early with the kids, we set ourselves up for the best chance to get the most sleep!

Naps

Naps with a baby are pretty straight forward with nursing in the picture. We don’t do much different than at home. For toddlers, we pay attention to fatigue cues. If Martha shows signs of being tired, we will take her in the tent and read or tell her a story. We turn on the sound machine to mimic our normal sleep routine. If she falls asleep we do a nap, but we also won’t force it either. We encourage her to get plenty of activity hiking/around camp to help her get tired, but if she isn’t going with it, we let her skip her nap and do an earlier bedtime.

Nursing Tips

If you haven’t tried the side-lying position nursing, this is a great skill to learn for camping. We have found this is effective for getting our babies to nap or to sleep for the night.

Tent location

We pitch our tent in the shade, away from where we plan to hang out. We do this for a few reasons. First, we are usually in bear country, so eating right next to our tent is not recommended. Second, setting up our chairs to hang out right next to the tent will give the kids FOMO, and we’d probably wake them up talking. We keep them within eye/earshot, but not so close that a we would wake them up quietly talking. We pick shade to help reduce heat during daytime naps if it’s in the summer. We check for trees and limbs that look dead or damaged though before setting up the tent. We once had a tree fall on our tent during a storm years ago and thankfully no one was in it at the time.

Hopefully this helps paint a clearer picture of how we camp with little kids versus just the quick snippets on social media. If there’s anything we didn’t cover that you are curious about, please comment below.

2 Comments on “Tent camping with kids

  1. Hi – Thanks for all of the helpful information. I’m wondering what your sleeping pad situation is. We have two inflatable thermarest sleeping pads – for husband and I- and we have a three person tent. Thanks

    Like

    • In our 3-person tent we use 3 of the same
      Size sleeping pads to cover the floor evenly and completely. Some manufacturers also make large double sleeping pads (like
      big Agnes) that might interest you.

      Like

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