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Camping with Toddlers

By Mary Kuffa

This article was originally published on July 31, 2018.

I think one of the beautiful things about Michigan is our state offers a wide variety of landscapes to visit. When you look beyond the orange construction barrels and potholes, you’ll see some beauty. You can visit the sand dunes in Silver Lake. The wineries in Traverse City. Drive the coast and stop at any beach and enjoy the Great Lakes. You can venture to the Upper Peninsula and visit waterfalls and endless green landscape. You can throw up a tent pretty much anywhere and enjoy the scenery that we as Michiganders, take for granted.

I didn’t grow up camping. The closest thing we got to camping was our annual visits to Disney World and we stayed at Fort Wilderness in one of the “cabins.” They are basically modular homes with log siding and a Disney spin to them. Besides the fact that there were trees and bugs, nothing justified calling that camping.

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When I got married, my husband (at the time) and I wanted to get our feet wet and try out camping. We started in a 2 person tent, then upgraded to a 6 person tent. The tent gig got old really fast (only took one rainy weekend to ruin it for us), so we upgraded to a used pop-up trailer. After one season of moldy canvas and no bathroom, it was time to move on to a travel trailer. I’ve been in love with camping ever since.

After my divorce, the thing I mourned the most was the absence of camping. I had dreams and visions of our son growing up fishing with dad on the lake, making s’mores over the fire before bed, bike rides around the campground, board games at the picnic table, and some cold beers after the kids went to bed. This was truly a happy place for me. Throw in some country music and you would have thought I was in Heaven. I decided to take the plunge and do the unexpected: I bought another camper. I wanted my son to have these memories, even if it was just with me. So, since it was just him and I, I made the choice to park it annually at a local campground called Thousand Trails where my son and I can visit it and camp whenever we want!

Some fellow camping mommy friends and I compiled a shortlist of things you should know before camping with a toddler:

  • Always make sure you have a cabinet and fridge stashed with easy food. I’ve found that if my son is eating, he’s quiet and sitting still. Just feed them. Who cares about a breakfast, lunch and dinner schedule? There is no schedule when you’re camping. “Here’s a bowl of chips.” “Sure, eat the marshmallows.” “Yeah, have another juice box.” “You want another popsicle? Okay!”
  • Load up at the dollar store: Bubbles, chalk, water guns, crayons, playdough, and cars. Spend $30, and make a basket of stuff for the kids to dig through, get dirty, lose and/or destroy. Kids gets bored and want to be entertained. I love my son, but I don’t want to spend 18 straight waking hours entertaining him. Here’s some playdough, go crazy kid. Drop it in the dirt, I don’t even care.
  • I have very OCD tendencies. I like things neat and tidy and I can’t stand a dirty and sticky kid. You will have to surrender. Your child will go to bed with dirty feet. They might have Kool-Aid stains on their face for an entire weekend. Their clothes are going to be disgusting at the end of the day. Throw in the white flag. Don’t micromanage their filth all day, or you’ll go crazy.
  • My sister, Rachael Kuffa, just ventured into the camping world this season. She has never camped before. Her kids are 1, 3, 5 & 6. I don’t know what she was thinking, but she did it and bought the trailer. So, I asked her what her tip would be for someone who wants to camp with toddlers and she said, “For the best time don’t bring them. If you have to bring them, stay home.”
  • My camping rule has always been NO ELECTRONICS! Besides adults having a cellphone nearby, keep the iPad, iPod, iPhone, kindles and everything else away! I actually had a young man that had camped with our group before approaching me and saying, “You want to know my favorite part about camping with you? Nobody had their cellphones. We all just had a good time!”
  • My friend, Julie Joy, actually lived in her 5th wheel for a period of time while transitioning between houses. Her children are 3 & 1. Her advice was to have toys specifically for the camper. That way they aren’t bored with toys they always play with at home. If you don’t have a bathtub, bring a big tote for the kids to bathe in! Also, she is a fan of the Lifetime Folding Picnic Table because it folds flat and is easy to store and transport! Also, bring alcohol!
  • Do the campground activities! Every campground should have an itinerary of activities for the weekend. They will make ice cream sundaes, have scavenger hunts, make t-shirts and play games. Don’t pass up golden opportunities to have your kids entertained by someone else for a few hours.
  • I asked my friend Kayla Blake what wisdom she could share since she camps often with her sons (4 and 1) and she said, “Camping with toddlers is so, so much work but at the end of the day the look on their faces when we tell them we’re going camping makes it all worth it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, in fact, it’s never perfect. But that’s what makes each trip so fun and different.”

So, to sum it up, camping with toddlers isn’t for everyone. However, I personally wouldn’t trade the dirty feet, Kool-Aid mustaches and memories for anything!

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