10 Dad Pro Tips for Camping With Kids

By Mark and Shanti Hodges
KEEN Ambassador Shanti Hodges and her husband Mark live in Portland, OR with their 3-year-old son Mason River. They founded Hike it Baby, a non-profit movement dedicated to getting families into nature with their newborn to school age kids. Hike it Baby is in 260 cities and has over 120,000 families getting on trails together.

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Shanti: The power of the papa is amazing. In my own life my Dad was often the source of adventure and freedom for me. While my mom was super cool, my Dad often gave me a bit longer leash so I could roam a little more and test boundaries in my day-to-day life. My dad also was the one who took me fishing, camping and rafting. He encouraged me to mountain bike and play football. He swam next to me when I tried to swim across the lake (it was super far so there was no way it was happening) and he gave me mad props even when I gave up and turned around.

So when my son was about a year and a half old and my husband announced that he had decided it was time to take Mason on a father-son camp trip, my response was a chuckle followed by a smug, “yeah, right.” While Mark has been a hands on dad from day one (and actually changed Mason’s first diaper as I lay recovering in my hospital bed) at that point in our life he had yet to have spent a night alone with our son. “No, I’m serious. I’m going to take Mason camping for a few days. It will be good for us.” 

As the day grew closer Mark packed up and while I nervously fluttered about him like a moth battering around a bright light. “Are you sure you have enough wipes? How many diapers are you taking? He has a cough, so make sure you have warm clothes.” Admittedly, I was nervous. To make matters worse, the weather was not looking good and we had a weekend of massive rain headed our direction. Mark’s plan was to do an overnight car camping trip in the Olympic National Park, one of the rainiest places you can camp in the Northwest during a wet week. “How many days will you be gone?” I asked him, starting to think that I should join them. “Three or four days. We’ll see,” he said vaguely.

On one hand as an exhausted Mom who was craving a childless few days, I was excited about the hall pass I would have with them gone. But the Mom-devil on my shoulder kept poking me and saying things like, “Really, you’re going to let him take your baby out into the woods alone?” As they pulled away I said to myself, “They’ll be back tomorrow.”

I was wrong. Four days later they came back with many stories and the dirtiest clothes I think I’ve ever seen my child in. I was impressed they made it that long.

This Father’s Day I thought it would be fun to pay tribute to adventure papas and offer up a road map for Dads wanting to get out there with little ones through interviewing Mark about going camping with a kiddo.

MarkThe first overnight, car camping trip I did with Mason was a four day three night trip to Olympic National Park. I had previously planned to camp in the Hoh River Valley and day hike up the Hoh River Trail, but a tree fell across the road so we had to make other plans on the fly. I knew Shanti might be worried because we were unable to call her for a while due to this change in plans. But I also knew she would understand once we did get back into cell range to explain.

The change in plans actually turned out to be a good thing because we ended up camping right next to Sol Duc Hotsprings, which made the trip a lot more comfy and enjoyable for both Mason and I. Of course it was the first substantial rain of the season in mid-October, so it was super nice to go hang out at the hotsprings rather than a soaked camp. 

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Daddy Lesson #1:  When you’re traveling with a toddler think about the weather
Camping with kids is no fun when you’re wet and cold, without any other options. Think about what’s around your campground and if you can find reprieve from weather, be it a restaurant or some other kind of space you can get a hot meal and get dry. Video games or a football game are a bonus.

Daddy Lesson #2: When setting a toddler or kid down, think about what’s around them
When we first arrived at Sol Duc Campground I geared up Mason in a one-piece rain suit, but had trouble getting boots on him. Giving up, I set him down and started to unload.

By the time I turned around with the first load of gear, he was smack dab in the middle of the fire pit already covered in large, black charcoal stains from head-to-toe. I dropped the gear and went over to make sure there wasn’t anything to nasty in the fire pit. It looked okay. He was contained, occupied, and having fun, so I just let him play with the burnt sticks. He was going to get dirty anyway and mom wasn’t around, so I just let him be while, I set up camp.

Daddy Lesson #3: Men may not “need” hot showers, but dang are they nice. Thanks for the excuse baby!
The Hot Springs was just a short walk away with showers and a nice shallow, warm pool for kids, which we went and enjoyed for a long time after we set up on day one. For the next couple of days our schedule was simple: Hikes for half the day and soaked in the Hot Springs the second half.

Daddy Lesson #4: Keep it simple
I try to keep it simple and don’t like bringing a ton of stuff. The less stuff you have to mess with the better in my opinion. I try to just bring the basics. That said I always end up bringing too much stuff, especially clothes. I usually bring more clothes than I need, which isn’t a big deal when your car camping, but I always end up wearing the same stuff everyday. More is good when the weather is cold, but if you can bring less, try. I could definitely thin out my clothes packing.  An article that I have found to be very helpful for thinning out my clothing is by Andrew Skurka.

Daddy Lesson #5 Toys, toys and more toys
At first I didn’t want to bring toys and stuff like that, but Mommy insisted, which turned out to be a good call. She had forced a couple of Mason’s favorite toys at the time on me and then stacked up a few books. Book can be a great way to keep a toddler busy, but also provide familiarity when in a strange place. Pick books you often read to them. They will read the same book over numerous times, so it’s quality, not quantity in stuff you want to have with you.

Daddy Lesson #6: Moms make better meals camping
I can bring less stuff, which means less work when I roll solo. But with a kid and especially a toddler, this doesn’t go over so well. I quickly realized on this trip that Mason and I usually don’t eat as well when mom’s not around. Also as much as I hate to admit it, it’s definitely more difficult doing trips by yourself with a toddler. Pre-prepared food is a good idea because a hangry (hungry angry) toddler is no fun. I’ll admit when it comes to meals, that’s when I realize that I prefer trips when we are all together. But I would rather do a trip with just Mason and I, than not go at all.

Daddy Lesson #7: Just do it!
A toddler’s needs aren’t much different than yours. They want to be hydrated, well fed, warm, dry, and rested. Organization is key. I find it helpful to use packing cubes to keep clothes and clear storage bins that are labeled. Two brands of packing cubes we use are Eagle Creek and Deuter. I also like to use pet food containers such as the Vittles Vault which are affordable, waterproof, and vermit proof.

Daddy Lesson #8: Explore more
Just because you have a toddler in tow doesn’t mean you have to go down the most well trodden path. A lot of families just check-in to the first RV park because they are nervous to explore with a toddler. Put the time in to do a little research about the area you are headed to before you go so you know the options that are out there, leave early so you have plenty of daylight to make smart decisions and look for places with other families around. This is often an indicator of a good camp area.

Daddy Lesson #9: Kids are cute
Don’t be afraid to use your cute kid to get a little help when you’re solo. People are often really impressed when they see a parent camping solo with a kid and will be more than likely happy to help out with whatever you need, whether it’s watching him for a second while you dash off to the bathroom or just giving you batteries when your headlamp dies. Kids are a great icebreaker and they encourage immediate community. Take a walk around the campground with your kiddo and you will notice how many more people will smile and say hi versus when you were just a dude alone.

Daddy Lesson #10 Repeat it often
Once you get out there on your first camp trip with your little one don’t make that a one-time occurrence. Plan some regular solo trips with your little guy or gal. Start small with something close to home if you are feeling nervous. There’s no shame in deciding it’s not going to work out if your kid wakes up screaming bloody murder and yelling for Mommy at 2am. Going home is not defeat. It’s just a “better luck next time” scenario. Remember, practice make perfect.

Happy Father’s Day and we hope to see you all out there on the trail this year!

Cover photo via Walter Peyton Edwards. Body photos from Ashley D. Scheider Photography.