Our first family camping trip was when our son was 3, our daughter only 18-months old. With them, our dog, and a borrowed tent we would soon learn was missing a few parts – we headed for the forest! More about that first overnight camping trip below, including why the whole family now loves camping despite a few hitches on the inaugural trip.
That first camping trip was met with much anticipation. We had just moved back to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where my wife and I lived before having kids. We wanted to show the kids how much fun it can be to spend the night outdoors surrounded by nature, so we headed to one of our favorite dispersed camping spots where we had camped several times before the kids were born. “I’m an Eagle Scout,” I told the kids, “so this should be easy.” It turns out, camping by yourself or with a bunch of other Boy Scouts is a bit easier than camping with a toddler and 3-year old!
Our first challenge was camping gear. Our movers had lost a box containing our tent and we hadn’t yet bought sleeping bags for the kids, so we borrowed from friends. It wasn’t until starting to assemble the tent an hour from home that I realized there were no stakes! The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared,” but I clearly was not. Normally, when I buy a new tent, I always take it out and do a test assembly at home to make sure all parts are included and that I understand how to set it up. And, of course, I always put the tent away correctly at the end of a trip for next time. But, in this case, we were simply rushed and forgot to check.
Thankfully, I was able to secure the rain fly to a few nearby bushes absent the stakes – thus redeeming my Eagle Scout stature, right? The kids spent probably 20 – 30 minutes just playing inside the tent, setting up their sleeping bags, and of course deciding who gets to sleep next to mom and our dog!
One of the reasons I choose this specific location was the perfect blend of campground conveniences and dispersed camping privacy. As you see above, it was right off an easy to access gravel road with a fire pit and even a concrete picnic table. A campground with vault toilet was just far enough away to not hear any noise but just close enough to drive the kids to the bathroom. Although we brought plenty of water, a spigot was available at the nearby campground if needed.
Once the fire died down to coals, everyone loved roasting hot dogs, then marshmallows and the resulting smores, and then fueling the fire again with more wood to stay warm as the August temperatures in the Colorado Rockies began to head south of 60 degrees even before sunset.
Next was bedtime. This had both my wife and me kind of nervous. Despite the fire’s allure, the kids didn’t find it warm enough to combat the temperatures now dropping close to 50 degrees, so getting them in the tent was easy. Getting them to finally go to sleep was a bit more difficult. Things started to finally wind down after we switched to a head-to-toe sleeping configuration.
For about an hour or two, my wife and I enjoyed this beautiful sunset followed by a peaceful view of clear skies with no light pollution that made hundreds if not thousands of stars visible.
And then one kid started crying…
Which woke up the other kid…
Which got the dog barking…
Which may have resulted in one of the adults shedding a tear too 🙂
Long story short, our daughter didn’t sleep hardly at all that night, and so neither did mom or dad.
Somehow, we gathered enough energy the next morning to hike about 3 miles up to this beautiful mountainside lake. My daughter rode in the Ergobaby carrier while our son alternated between proudly hiking himself and getting brief piggyback rides to recharge. Quite a different experience than last summer when I had hiked to the top of that flat top mountain myself and across the famous Devil’s Causeway.
Despite the challenges, everyone had a great time. And thus began our kid’s love for camping that eventually helped create this website.
My wife and I both loved to go backpacking and car camping and knew that the kids would get adjusted and become more self-sufficient on camping trips with age. But perhaps 18-months was a little bit early, at least for high altitude camping where the lows approach freezing even in the summer.
Recommendations for a Kid’s 1st Camping Trip
- Keep it simple. All you need is a quick overnighter with hot dogs and smores over the fire and an optional activity in the morning if things go well.
- Don’t veer too far from home. Just in case you forget something, someone gets sick, etc.
- Try to camp close to conveniences. Water and a toilet are key.
- Overdress in layers. In hindsight, our daughter was probably too cold that first night. We’ve since learned exactly what clothes are best to bring for the kids while camping.
- Have fun! Just don’t make it a Clark Griswold “Quest for Fun” meltdown.
A 3-Year Old’s Perspective, from Ethan
(told several years later)
My first camping trip was when I was 3 years old. We had just moved to Colorado and went to the Flat Tops.
I helped my dad unload all of the camping gear out of the car and then we set up the tent.
This was my first campfire. We brought firewood and stayed up past our bedtime roasting marshmallows. The next day we went on a hike to some beautiful mountain lake.
An 18-Month Old’s Perspective, from Chloe
(told several years later)
My first camping trip was when I was 18 months old. We had just moved to Colorado.
My brother and I helped my dad set up the tent. My brother was 3 years old then.
I was excited for my first campfire because my mom told me we would get to roast marshmallows! I had never eaten marshmallows before, but now they are my favorite!
My mom says that this is the only 15 minutes she remembers me sleeping. She says that I woke up many times crying very loudly all night long and then woke up for good about 1 hour before sunrise.