Camping with kids: how to have a totally relaxing family camping trip (and other myths)

Camping with kids: kids camping
Camping with kids can be fun – honestly, we're not joking... (Image credit: Getty Images)

Poet and activist Maya Angelou once famously said: "Hope for the best, be prepared for the worst." This could easily apply to camping with kids.

The best that you're hoping for is a transformative experience that sees your little ones embrace life outdoors. They'll burn off so much energy on activities like the family hike, the treasure hunt and the nature spotting mission that they conk out at night and wake up with plenty of energy to go again the next day. And all of this in glorious sunshine, of course.

When it comes to planning a camping trip, the worst that you're preparing for is torrential rain putting pay to any serious outdoor adventure, as well as the potential for bored, grumpy, cold, tired and hungry children cooped up in the tent. Of course, you've prepared for this, so the chances of the children getting bored, grumpy, cold, tired or hungry are manageable, but it's going to take all your ingenuity to keep it that way.

Nobody ever said family camping holidays were easy. From packing and setting up camp, to keeping the kids entertained and constantly fed, it can, at times, feel like a lot of work. However, camping with kids can also be great fun, and not just in a type-2 fun, nice to look back on, I've forgotten about the immense pain kind of way. Trips into the great outdoors can result in the most positive of long-lasting family memories, and leave a wonderful legacy in the form of stories that will be told around future camp fires, by your kids to their own little adventurers. 

So, before you embark on your next family camping trip, we explain how to have a stress-free family camping holiday, with seven essential tips to help you make the most of your time away.

At some point you may also need to think about camping with teenagers – but that's a different story...

Meet the expert

David Mellor
David Mellor

David lives in North Wales, where the mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia) National Park provide the perfect playground for him and his young family. He's passionate about sharing his outdoor skills with others, particularly his children.

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1. Go easy on yourself

  • No trip is going to be perfect, so don't be hard on yourself when it isn't
  • Manage expectations by not hyping the trip up too much

best 4-person tents: family camp

Try not to hype up the trip too much (Image credit: Getty)

Not everything will run to plan on a family camping trip. It never does. Sometimes nothing at all will go as expected. Learning to roll with the punches can help you survive unforeseen incidents and bad luck moments. Don’t build every trip up too much in your head, or in the children’s imagination. Promise a realistic amount of fun and adventure, then try and deliver more if the winds of fate are blowing in your favor. 

2. Be flexible

  • Don't be precious about the routines you follow at home

Camping with kids

Spending time together is one of the best things about camping with kids. (Image credit: Getty)

Camping should be an escape, for the children and well as you. Usual home routines will have to be bent and adapted as excited kids look forward to later nights and more treats. Staying up beyond bedtime is part of the thrill of camping as a kid, and it’s good to use this extra time in the evening as a family to sit around the campfire, look at stars, search for nocturnal animals, read together, share stories or play board games. You’ll have spent more quality time together, and by the time the kids do hit the sack they will be exhausted. It’s a win-win. 

3. Be prepared

  • Bring plenty of camping themed toys and games to keep the kids entertained

When camping with kids, take plenty of toys to keep them entertained. We don’t mean action figures or teddies (although there’s no harm in letting little ones take their favorite soft toy from home along for the adventure), and we certainly don’t mean screens. We’re referring to camping toys – flashlights in particular can be used for all sorts of entertainment, from spotting nocturnal wildlife to making shadow puppets on the side of the tent, and illuminating faces during fireside ghost stories. Make sure each child has their own torch, or you’ll only end up with more squabbling. 

Other fun items include compasses and, for older children, small penknives for whittling sticks. Other toys, such as little sailing boats for sailing along streams, can be made from sticks and leaves.

A camping trip is a great time to teach your kids how to play cards or play a board game. These are particularly good go-tos if it's raining buckets outside, as they still allow for a sociable experience.

Looking for more ideas to keep them occupied? Check out our 11 camping tips for kids.

4. Expect lots of dirty laundry

  • Bring biodegradable detergent and pegs so that you can wash clothes at a campsite's facilities
  • If you need a DIY option, a dry bag and an object to agitate your clothes' fibers will do the trick

camping with kids: laundry hanging

Don't forget the pegs! (Image credit: Getty Images)

Kids being kids, they will make it their holiday aim to sully every last piece of clothing that you’ve carefully and neatly packed for them. Don’t despair. A heck of a lot of campgrounds now have laundry facilities onsite. So, by including a small amount of detergent in your camping checklist, you can avoid the whining of the child who can’t find any clean clothes as they toss each and every item you’ve packed for them around the tent in horror. 

Even if there are no official facilities, there are other ways to wash clothes while camping, you'll just need a dry bag, some biodegradable soap, something to agitate your clothing's fibers, some pegs and some water.

5. Embrace the rain and use your imagination

  • Too much time cooped up in a tent will lead to boredom and frustration
  • Research rainy day options prior to your trip
  • You can also pack your waterproofs and get out into it!

Rainy days can result in some families hunkering down together in the tent. While this may seem like a good option, often it’s not. If the wet weather has set in for the day (or week), no amount of singing or tent games will stave off the boredom and frustration. When you're camping with kids, that’s when things turn ugly, and no family tent in the history of family tents will feel big enough. 

If you do your research before you depart, you can easily create a shortlist of viable local points of interest to visit should you be hit by a spell of inclement weather. There might be caves nearby, or historical buildings to explore. Outdoor adventure centres usually offer a plethora of bad-weather options, including climbing walls. 

But also, remember it’s only a bit of cloud juice – pack your waterproof jackets and get outside regardless of the weather. Go make a den or explore a forest – make it fun and when you get back and climb into warm dry clothes, you’ll feel a whole lot better.  

6. Dealing with accidents

  • Set clear boundaries, rules and expectations from day one to minimize the opportunities for accidents to happen
  • Take a first aid kit and know where your nearest A&E is

Camping with kids

There are plenty of fun things you can try when camping with kids. (Image credit: Getty)

Accidents will happen. Kids will trip over tent pegs and, while outdoor cooking and campfires can be amazing fun, no one is immune from all spills and sparks. However, by setting clear boundaries and rules from day one, you can minimize the likelihood of anything like this happening.  Nothing reduces stress like knowing that you’ve already planned how to contain a situation. So, ensure that you pack an emergency first aid kit capable of dealing with all likely trips and spills, and also familiarize yourself with the location of the nearest accident and emergency department. Hopefully, nothing happens.  But, if it does, you’ll be fully prepared.

7. Grab some me time

  • Be sure to take a pause every once in a while to ensure you stay at your best

Family camping trips may be 99 percent dominated by the little ones, but that’s not to say that you can’t reward yourself with moments of peace at certain points in the day or evening. Sit back and enjoy those moments when the kids are entertaining themselves; those dirty plates can wait a while. If you’re on the go 24 hours a day, you won’t be at your best. Remember this is a family camping HOLIDAY so treat it as such. At the end of the day, when they’re fast asleep in their sleeping bags and there’s still life in the campfire, pour yourself and your partner a drink, kick back and contemplate the outdoor life. 

David Mellor

An award-winning outdoor blogger and Ordnance Survey #GetOutside champion, David is most often found hiking, scrambling and skiing in the mountains, paddling on lakes, and wild camping with his wife and two young children. As a full-time English teacher, he weaves his love for the outdoors into his professional life by encouraging young people to explore, and once led a group of 32 teenagers on a month-long trip to Tanzania, an expedition that included climbing Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro.

With contributions from