Kids Need Almost Nothing to be Happy – The Truth About Camping With Toddlers


We did it.  We survived tent camping with three small children and a crazy dog.  We finished off our summer by packing the whole family and plenty of gear into our van, driving thirty minutes away (nice and close, just in case we had to abandon ship), and made a 30’ circle of dirt our home for a weekend.

My husband and I decided not to take our young children on a vacation they won’t remember and we’d spend stressed out, so we went the cheap route – camping. Three days with bad reception for $50?  Count me in!  

Upon arrival, it took approximately 10 minutes for my blood pressure to rise as we unpacked and 3 kids went running in 3 dangerous directions. But, we survived, and even though it was stressful and I couldn’t wait to get home to a hot shower, we plan to go again.  

Want to know the #1 lesson I learned?

Kids need almost nothing to be happy.

That’s the beauty of having three toddlers. They’re so little, and need so little to be happy. They played in dirt all weekend, and didn’t complain of boredom. They used their imaginations! Yes, of course they cried for the usual reasons of hurt feelings, or someone hit someone else, but they would have done that at home. Yes, they did things that were dangerous and frustrating and we yelled, but we would have done that at home too.  At least camping was a change of scenery. I will savor the memory of this camping trip for a long time as we jump into the school year.

Since we plan to go again, we decided to make a list of what to bring next time:

Patience. We set our expectations VERY low for this trip and knew it would be stressful, which helped us stay a bit calmer.  I’m sure I could always use more patience though. 

Friends. Last year we camped with two other families and it was awesome. Extra parent eyes, lots of kids to play together, unfamiliar toys, and if anyone forgot something, someone else had it. This year we were on our own.

More caffeine.  Because kids’ sleeping patterns can be very volatile in a tent in the woods.  When they make a peep you will leap out of bed to quiet them for fear they wake up the entire campground.

A cardboard box.  My youngest spent more time in the neighboring campsite than our own, mainly because they had a cardboard box he could play with.  Who needs toys when you have a box to race your cars through, climb on, lay in, and eventually crush?!

Sand toys, 2 trucks, and a few art supplies.  Those are all the toys you need if you have that box with you.  The art supplies will help provide a calmer activity when needed.

Paper plates.  We tried to be environmentally conscious by using our own plates and bringing a wash bin and soap.  We never had time to wash dishes. Next time I’ll just bring paper plates and burn them in the fire.

Hot dogs.  Next time, we’ll just eat hot dogs for each dinner, or other food we can cook on a stick over the fire.  We tried making tin foil fire packets, but the tin foil disintegrated and we lost a lot of chicken legs that night (may they rest in peace). 

Fun snacks.  Marshmallows are a must.  My kids don’t care about the rest of the s’more. We also brought a firepit popcorn popper and the kids LOVED it.  

Other miscellaneous tips:

Get a site near the bathrooms.  Toddlers don’t always give you fair warning, especially when they’re distracted.  If you have anyone potty training, bring your potty seat for emergency situations.  It was a life-saver for us last year at 5am.

Sleep during nap time. You will be tired from all the fresh air, evenings might not go as planned, and you might run out of coffee. Nap with the kids if you can!

Fire pits are a NO for small children. Even if you are not always stoking a fire, steer them away from the fire pit so they learn immediately that it’s an off-limits area. 

Choose a campground with a playground, pool, or another fun activity area.  The kids (and you) will need a change of scenery from just your campsite.  Last year we went geo-caching and that was a blast.

Set your expectations low. They are toddlers, and their goal in life is to test their limits. Remember – Kids need almost nothing to be happy.  Leave the electronics at home, let them play in the dirt, let them dig worms and count trees, and help them foster those imaginations!  


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Jolene grew up in Luxemburg, WI. After going to college in Stevens Point and working for a year in the Milwaukee area, she moved to De Pere, WI to get married, start a family, and pursue her career. Both the youngest of six, Jolene and her husband always wanted a big family. After struggling to get pregnant, their family was jump-started by having identical twin girls, Eden and Ellie, who are now 5. Then came Jude, who will be 3 in August, and they just welcomed James, Baby #4, in June. Both she and her husband work, and Jolene owns her own company,, planning large scale entertainment events across the country. Because she has to travel for work, Jolene has used a breast pump while flying, driving, walking and talking, and has the war stories to prove it. Her keys to success (aka survival) are the members of her support system, starting with her husband and extended family, and ending with good coffee and a sense of humor.