Whether you’re camping or backpacking, setting up camp can be a daunting task. When you add kids to the mix (especially young ones), the task can turn downright overwhelming! Maybe you have a wicked-fast crawler who is enamored with the fire pit or a pint-sized adventurer who wants to explore the unknown in the forest nearby (and seems to think they can do so alone).
Either way, having a few strategies to keep them occupied during camp set-up, meal prep, and general downtime can be a sanity saver! Here we’ve listed some tips, tricks, and activities to help engage your young ones. We’ve also included some printables you can take along with you on your next car-camping or backpacking adventure. The best part? The majority of the ideas on this list require no materials you don’t already have on hand (or can find around camp).
Let Them Help
One thing to keep in mind is that even young kiddos can help around camp. My 7-year-old loves to help set up the tent (and in a few more years and about 6 more inches of height, he will likely be able to do it himself). There’s something about finding the right poles and using the mallet to hammer in the stakes. My 4-year-old prefers to search for kindling and will collect any fallen, dry sticks he can find. They love to help! Here are some jobs that kids can help with around camp:
- Helping Unload the Car or Packs: Camping requires a lot of “stuff”. Kiddos can help to unload the lighter gear and take it to the picnic tables or a designated spot.
- Aiding in Tent Set-Up: This could include clearing a spot for the tent (removing rocks and twigs), keeping the ground tarp straight, sorting the poles, hammering in the stakes, etc.
- Collect Kindling or Fuel for the Campfire: Anything that deals with building fires seems to be a favorite for kids. Have them gather small, dry twigs from the ground for kindling, and downed, dry branches that are no thicker than their wrist for fuel. For more information on building fires safely, check out the Leave No Trace Website.
- Sweep Out the Tent: Many kiddos enjoy using a mini-broom and dustpan to sweep out the tent (even when it has just been set up). My youngest would sit in the tent for an impressive amount of time, attacking every fleck of dirt he could find with the broom. As a bonus, this aids in the development of fine-motor skills.
Life can get a little more nerve-wracking once a baby can crawl well (or even roll well). They are now able to reach choking hazards and dangerous materials with ease. Here are some options for containing your curious little one while you get your campsite in order:
- Babywear: You would be amazed at what can be done with a baby on your front or back! This frees your hands to set up the tent or meal prep, and your baby gets a view of what’s happening around them.
- Consider a Pack ‘n Play: If you’re car camping and happen to have the room, a Pack ‘n Play can make camping with babies much easier. Not only can they be used for bedtime and naps, they can also be used to contain your little one while you set up camp, prepare meals, build the fire, etc.
- Use a Portable Seat or Stroller: There are a variety of portable seats for babies that work well for camping (such as this one from Baby Delight). They can help contain your baby while also doubling as a high-chair and a safe place for them to sit around the campfire. If you are planning to bring a stroller along, this can also be used to secure your baby when needed.
Photo Credit: Anthony Johnson
Fun Activities to Keep Them Busy
Whether it’s during campsite set-up, meal prep, or downtime when the adults are looking for a little relaxation, finding ways to keep kids busy can buy you some time to focus on the task at hand. Here are some fun activities you can use to occupy the littles and add a little extra fun to your next camping adventure:
Campsite Scavenger Hunt
My kids LOVE scavenger hunts, especially ones that involve nature. I love them because it hones their observation skills and increases their awareness of the world around them. We often take this outdoor scavenger hunt card game with us while camping to have our boys search for the items on the cards while we set up or cook.
We also love the good old-fashioned worksheets where the kids can mark off their findings as they go. That’s why we have created this printable option for you to use on your next camping adventure. The pictures make it possible for non-readers to participate as well!
Create a Map of Your Campsite
Give your kiddos a piece of paper and writing utensils and have them map out the campsite as you set it up. You can take it a step further for older kids and have them add labels and a compass rose to show direction.
Counting and Collection Games
Having kids count things is an easy way to occupy their time. Have them count all the different types of trees they find around your campsite (you can have the older ones identify them as a bonus activity). Challenge kiddos to collect as many pinecones as possible. The first to reach 50 (or any other number you choose) gets to be dubbed the Pinecone King/Queen/Master for the rest of the camping trip. You can also have your kids collect natural items around your site. For example, ask them to find leaves, rocks, twigs, etc. of different colors or sizes.
Test Their Observation Skills
Bring along some observational tools (such as a magnifying glass, pocket microscope, or binoculars) and send the kids around the campsite to search for bugs, cool rocks, signs of wildlife, or anything “weird” you don’t find around your home.
Camp Kitchen Pretend Play
If your kids love making “food” from natural materials (like flower stew or mud pies), have them make pretend camp food. We’ve made this fun “recipe card” printable for you to use to help stoke their imagination. We included a blank recipe card for you (or your kids) to come up with your own delicious campsite recipe.
Who doesn’t love creating a good treasure map? While you set up camp, have your kiddo hide some “natural treasure” (such as a pretty rock or gnarled twig that catches their eye) and create a treasure map for you to use to find the treasure. Challenge them to include drawings of your camp set-up on their map to help you find your way.
Setting up Camp with Kiddos in Tow Doesn’t Have to be Overwhelming
We hope these tips and activities will take some of the stress out of setting up your campsite, preparing meals, and relaxing around camp. Do you have other strategies you use to keep kids occupied and having fun? Let us know in the comments below!
Cover Photo Credit: Elise Giordano
Rebecca is a transplant Coloradoan living in Virginia with her husband (Derek) and their two boys. She’s a teacher turned freelance writer/ homeschool mom working towards exploring as much of the east coast as possible before the next move takes her family elsewhere. You can follow her family hiking, kayaking, SUPing, geocaching, camping, and all things outdoor adventuring on Instagram @frazzlednaturemom .