Worried about camping with your 4-year-old? You can do it! We’ll show you how.
Camping with a 4-year-old doesn’t have to be as scary as it might seem. Just remember to bring proper clothes, sunscreen, plenty of water, and plenty of activities to keep them entertained in the great outdoors. Lastly, make sure you pack along comfortable bedding and easy meals.
When it comes to camping with a 4-year-old, there is a lot to know. Continue on and you’ll find loads of safety tips, activities, and ways to make camping easier on you and your child.
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The Most Important Thing About Camping With a 4-Year-Old
The most important thing about camping with a 4-year-old is to have fun! Yes, there will be things you’ll need to do to prepare and to keep your kid safe and happy, but that’s not the point of the experience.
If that was the case, we just wouldn’t take small children camping. There would be no reason to. Yet, experiencing camping through the eyes of a child is an incredible thing. They learn so much about the world and discover new ways to enjoy the outdoors.
You get the chance to teach them all about what makes camping amazing. From campfires to nature walks, swimming, and much more, there are so many different things to introduce them to. After just a few trips, you’re sure to see that you’ve created a foundation for their own love of camping. That’s a love that can last an entire lifetime.
Staying Safe: Avoiding Bumps, Bruises, Bugs, and Owies
Safety is the most important aspect, always. It’s especially important to make sure your little one stays safe when you’re camping. Falls, scrapes, bruises, and bites can be more common when you’re spending all day outside.
These tips are to make sure your little one is perfectly safe on every camping trip:
Bring the Right Clothes
We all know clothes are important– but they are especially important outside. The right clothes can keep your child at the right temperature, help to avoid curious bugs, and provide some protection from scrapes and bruises.
Pack up clothing that suits the weather you’re expecting, as well as unexpected weather changes. That’s not to say you need to bring your child’s entire wardrobe. Just make sure to have a good coat and a few warmer outfits just in case. It’s always better to be prepared, just in case there is sudden rain or the nights get colder than you expect.
Keep Them Near
It’s always important to keep an eye on your child, but it’s especially important when you’re out in the wilderness. You never know when they might trip, fall, or run into an animal that doesn’t want to be their friend.
Even animals you thought were cute and cuddly really aren’t the best animals to approach. Down here in Texas we have armadillos that are used to humans at several campgrounds that get very close to you–these are not safe animals and should be avoided.
There are definitely more dangers in the woods than are in your backyard.
Make sure that either you or another reliable adult, have the child nearby at all times. Children are incredibly curious and can easily become distracted by a lizard or squirrel running by. No one wants to have to go searching for their child in the woods! It’s a truly terrifying thought.
This happened to me recently. I was camping with family and one of the kids (not 4 years old, but a few years older) took it upon himself to go look for firewood while others hadn’t gotten out of their tents yet. Amazingly, I stumbled on him half a mile or so away from camp while I was taking pictures in the mountains. The poor child was sobbing and totally lost.
This was a lesson to me to make sure everyone was accounted for. I don’t want to sound like you should be overprotective–but it’s just a good thing to keep an eye out for everyone.
Pack Some First Aid
Whether you have children with you or not, first aid is key to add to your packing list. No matter what age, anyone on the trip can end up getting scratched up. Things are just a bit rougher in the outdoors, but it’s all part of the experience. Luckily, the majority of injuries sustained while just camping aren’t serious.
Combine that with a 4-year-old’s ability to get into just about anything, and it’s all the more important to have a first aid kit handy. We all want to avoid boo-boos, but sometimes we just can’t stop them from happening. However, with a first aid kit, you can have your child up and playing again in no time at all.
Some things to look out for are tripping hazards: You’d be surprised how many injuries that are actually reported occur because of your tent! From 2010 to 2015, there were 500 cases of people being injured by the process of setting up, tripping over, or otherwise interacting with their tent (source).
From personal experience, those guylines can be hard to see in the dark. It’s not a bad idea to put some reflectors on the guylines to make them more obvious if you have a little one running around.
Temperature and Hydration
Your child’s temperature should be at a comfortable level. Camping can expose them to more extreme temperatures than they might experience, normally. Because of that, you’ll want to keep a closer eye on them and make sure they are protected from both the heat and the cold.
Part of that means understanding the symptoms for both heat exhaustion and hypothermia. The earlier you recognize these symptoms, the easier it will be to stop the problem and make sure your kid is taken care of.
When it comes to heat exhaustion, the Mayo Clinic website lists symptoms like excessive sweating, dizziness, nausea, clammy skin, fainting, fatigue, headaches, and more. The site also provides tips on what to do if you think your child might be suffering from heat exhaustion.
At the other end of the spectrum, hypothermia can become a problem while camping in colder climates. The CDC lists symptoms like sleepiness, slurred speech, and confusion among others. Catch it quickly enough, and all you’ll need is to get your little one warmed up and they’ll be okay.
Finally, hydration is incredibly important for a happy, healthy kid. Make sure that you have water available to them at all times, and help them to drink more when they are in hot climates or getting added exercise.
How much water do you actually need to take on a camping trip? Our article on how much water to bring while camping is a great place to find out. Check it out here!
Spring and summer are known are typically considered to be “camping season”, and for good reason! Most people prefer to camp in nice, sunny weather rather than braving the colder months outdoors.
However, with nice weather comes the risk of the sun. At an absolute minimum – sunburns are uncomfortable and annoying. It’s really better just to avoid the problems caused by too much sun and invest in a good sunscreen for your child. Bonus points if you opt for an effective sunscreen that is also good for the environment!
On top of that, make sure they have plenty of shade. Bring a nice, big umbrella if you’re planning to spend some time on the beach.
I actually spent a lot of time looking up ways to cool down while camping without electricity–many of these can be helpful if you’re out camping and you’re concerned about overheating.
If you’re uncertain which sunscreen choices are best for your child, the Environmental Working Group offers some great guidelines and sunscreen choices for children as well as the environment.
Campfires are another iconic aspect of camping. It’s just not the same when you have to camp without one!
That said, campfires can be quite dangerous for small children that don’t quite understand just how dangerous they can be. All it takes is a second to end up with a nasty burn.
Set boundaries with your child. Make sure they know how far away to stay from the fire, and keep a close eye on them when you have a fire going. Always help them with cooking over the fire so that they can stay at a safe distance. In some cases, it may also be worth considering a fence you can place around the fire pit.
Set Campground Boundaries
If you’re staying in a campground, there is often a clear boundary between the camping space and nature itself. In these cases, it can be easier to show your child where they should stay when you want them at the campsite.
However, when it comes to camping out in the wilderness, you may need to make your own boundary to ensure your child stays safe. Remember, 4-year-old children are forgetful! The more obvious you can make those boundaries, the better.
It’s also best to let your child know about the boundaries right away when you arrive at your camping location. That way, they know before they get distracted by all of the wonders of the outdoors.
We went camping with my 2-year old niece a couple of years back, and we were super lucky that the campsite had very clear boundaries. The entirety of the campsite was surrounded by rocks and after that was brush, lots of prickly pear (we live in Texas, after all), and probably lots of other plants we didn’t want her to be touching.
The rocks gave a clear boundary which she knew was “out-of-bounds” and helped her to stay put in the campsite.
Share Some Nature Lessons
There are so many things for a young child to learn about the outside world. One of the most important lessons they can learn when it comes to camping is how to stay safe.
Naturally, they may not understand everything they need to do for their own safety, but you can still get a few lessons across. You can talk to them about how to react to wild animals, and what to do if they see anything dangerous. Additionally, you can point out some plants to them and teach them which ones are safe and which aren’t.
In case you don’t know what plants are safe, it’s best to avoid touching plants in general if you don’t know what they are–especially any kind of vine. “Leaves of 3, let it be”
For a 4-year-old in particular, not everything you teach them will absorb right away. That said, you may be surprised to discover just how much they remember. It’s never too early to start teaching children about how to stay safe in nature.
Keeping Things Clean
To a certain extent, dirt is just going to happen when you’re on a camping trip. This is definitely a situation where you want to work smarter rather than harder to keep dirt from ending up in all the wrong places.
That means bringing extra clothes, plenty of wet wipes and maybe even a secluded area for mini-baths before bed. You should face the reality that your 4-year-old is going to end up covered in dirt and sand, but keeping that debris from ending up in your child’s bed or food is worthwhile. Nobody likes their sandwich actually filled with sand. *ba doom psh*
It definitely takes a weight off your mind if you bring clothes for your child that you don’t mind getting roughed up a bit, too.
Keeping Your 4-Year-Old Entertained
These days, children have so many options when it comes to entertainment. There are thousands of things to watch on TV, hundreds of video games to play and toys to enjoy.
While 4-year-olds may not be playing as many video games as older kids, there’s a decent chance they might miss their favorite movies and other home activities.
To avoid a serious boredom tantrum, you’ll need to make camping fun and exciting. Here are a few tips on doing keeping your tykes entertained.
Check Out Junior Ranger Programs
Junior Ranger programs are ideal for providing guided entertainment with a side of education. These programs can also make kids feel like they are part of something as they work towards earning badges, learning with the help of booklets and more.
For junior ranger programs specifically, 4-year-old children can participate but may not understand it as well as older kids. That said, there are also more general park-led activities they are sure to enjoy. Many parks often invite campers to go on guided tours, nature walks, star watching sessions, and sometimes even do some crafts!
As an example, a state park near us has a discovery center where kids can listen to recordings of outdoor animals, examine rubber feces replications of wild animals, handle snakeskins (currently not in use). Every park is different, but you’d be surprised how much is available to make a park family friendly.
Bring Outdoor-Friendly Toys
It’s nearly impossible to take a 4-year-old anywhere without toys, and trying to camp without toys is a quick way to end up with a bored, cranky child. That said, you might not want to get your child’s regular toys all dirty by taking them on a trip.
This is the perfect time to invest in some “camping toys”. You can get things like mini camping sets, some of which even come with toy campfires for children to play with instead of being drawn to the real fire, bug catching sets for little explorers and dump trucks when you want to keep it simple.
Outdoor games are also a great way to keep your kid entertained. Simple games like ring toss and cornhole can be perfect for relaxing afternoons.
Teach Them About Nature
I’ve discussed some nature lessons before, but for the focus of safety.
You can also spend some time teaching your child about different plants and animals for the sake of education and entertainment. Small children are endlessly curious when it comes to learning about the world.
You can even take them out to watch birds and animals while you teach them. It’s a great way to help children discover what’s in the world around them. There are so many interesting animals out there.
We kept our distance, but on one camping trip we discovered an ant trail from some huge ants (I think they were carpenter ants? I can’t remember)– it was such a fun opportunity to get on their level and explore from a distance.
Go On Short Hikes Or Nature Walks
Camping is all about nature, so there’s no reason not to help your child to enjoy it too. There are so many things to love about it, from green plants to interesting animals and a whole lot of peace.
Taking your child for a walk is a great way to explore the wilderness and show them just what makes camping such a worthwhile activity. Just make sure to keep it pretty short and stick to the clear trails. Children don’t often have as much stamina for hikes as adults do.
My other niece is a pro at making it seem like the end of the world if she has to walk more than 10 minutes.
Find ways to keep it interesting. You can even play I Spy or similar games while you’re on the path. If you can, bring along a small stroller (if your nature trail allows it) or be prepared to carry your child part of the way when they get sick of walking.
Head To a Play Area
If you’re staying in a campground, there’s a decent chance there might be a playground somewhere in the area for children to enjoy. Often, these are found at National Parks and other larger campgrounds. When your child needs to blow off some steam, this is a fantastic way to do it.
Typically, the playgrounds you find while camping won’t be large, but they’ll be enough to give your child some entertainment. You can even go back every day if it’s something your child really enjoys. Just bring along a book or enjoy the atmosphere while your kid plays.
Bring Along Easy Activities
Keeping your child entertained can often fit into the concept of keeping them safe. If they’re engaged in a safe activity, there’s less of a chance they may decide to explore the woods on their own, irritate a dangerous animal, or something worse.
Consequently, it’s well worth your time to make sure you have a number of activities prepared to keep them entertained and happy.
Perfect Age-Appropriate Activities
Having several activities in mind is a great way to keep small children from getting bored. If you have experience with 4-year-olds, you’ll probably be aware that they don’t exactly want to sit around and relax all day like adults might.
Instead, consider doing some of these activities together:
- Play some card or board games. This is an easy go-to when you’re just not in a mindset to make up other fun games. Pick up something like Color Go Fish, Candyland, or even some story cards to really get the creativity flowing!
- Make things with Play Dough. Play Dough is another great go-to. It can be done inside or outside, but don’t forget that it can be messy! This might be a good time to bring the Play Dough you don’t mind throwing away afterward, as it might end up filled with sticks, leaves and dirt.
- Watch animals. The wilderness is a fantastic place to spend time around animals your child might not usually get to see. It also provides the perfect opportunity to teach them how to be safe around animals.
- Go for a swim. If you’re camping near water, swimming is a great way to pass the time. It cools you down and can give adults a chance to relax while the kids splash and play.
- Play pretend. This is probably the least expensive of these options. You really don’t need anything! Just find out what kind of pretend your child wants to play, and dive into the world of make-believe together.
Do Crafts Together
Kids love arts and crafts time. It’s messy, it’s fun and it allows them to engage their creativity. Additionally, these activities can often be a low-cost way to have fun wherever you are. It’s just a matter of finding the crafts your 4-year-old loves most.
Great Crafts For 4-Year-Olds While Camping
The good news is that 4-year-olds aren’t too picky when it comes to enjoying crafts. They love to explore and put things together in new ways. Consequently, it’s hard to fail when looking for crafts to do with them. Most importantly, choose crafts that they can enjoy safely.
Here are just a few ideas for crafts that 4-year-olds will enjoy:
- Painting. with brushes, fingers, toilet paper rolls, cotton balls, and more. Just make sure to get non-toxic paint that can wash out of their clothes easily.
- Plate animals. With some paper plates, colors, scissors and glue you can make a wide variety of different animals. Just make sure that you help them with the scissors to keep them safe.
- Popsicle stick crafts. With a few popsicle sticks, children can create their own designs on paper. They can glue sticks to the paper to make a house, or glue sticks together for a more 3D design. For a hot day camping, reusing popsicle sticks that you used earlier can make this a lesson in recycling while you’re at it.
- Decorated rocks. With a little paint, you and your child can make the rocks you find look much more beautiful! Be careful about this, though, some parks are natural areas and frown on decorating the local landscape
- Cardboard tube binoculars. Just by saving up some toilet paper tubes, adding some glue and yarn, your child can have their very own binoculars. This craft is a perfect one for little adventurers who want to see the world.
It’s a good idea to hang around during these activities so that the plates don’t get blown into the forest..
Go On a Scavenger Hunt
Having a scavenger hunt can be a fun activity for around the campsite or while you’re on a nature walk. If you’re using it to entertain multiple children, you can even turn it into a competition with some inexpensive prizes for the winners! I like super high fives as prizes.
On top of that, you can make your own scavenger hunt for free, print off some pre-made sheets, or pick up some scavenger hunt cards like those offered by gofindit. This game is a little different from most scavenger hunts because it uses adjectives that children can apply to various objects or plants in the area.
Stories are great for practicing vocabulary and developing creativity. On top of that, they are a form of entertainment that is absolutely free. You can even tell stories that change every time, keeping things from getting mundane and boring.
Here are just a few kinds of stories you can tell together:
- Improvize nature stories. Tell stories together using what you see around you. Is there a ladybug? Make up a story about a ladybug! Keep looking for new items, plants, and animals to keep the story flowing.
- Circle stories. Take turns adding to a story while sitting in a circle. Each person can add a sentence or two, helping the story to move along. With each person adding something different, it’s sure to get interesting!
- Spooky stories. If you know your kid can handle a few lightly spooky campfire stories, they can be a fun experience for around the campfire! Just make sure you don’t make them too scary, or your kid might keep you up all night.
Some of my favorite memories as a child were listening to my dad tell stories while we were out in nature. There’s an added mysticism when you’re around a campfire and under the stars.
Do Some Geocaching
If you’re a fan of geocaching, there’s really no reason not to bring along your child. They probably won’t understand the technology involved, but they’re sure to enjoy finding some treasure! You can even pretend you’re looking for treasure that was hidden by pirates.
This is one of those great ways to keep your kid interested while ensuring they get some good exercise. Bring along some interesting items to add to the caches. There’s no doubt your kid will love it. I mean… I’m a grown adult, and I’ve had a ton of fun finding geocaches.
Fishing can be fun for both you and your child. For a 4-year-old, you can also opt to just give them a toy fishing rod and let them pretend they are fishing right along with you. For some children, this is an activity that can be enjoyed for hours on end.
While you’re fishing, you can also entertain a small child by putting a fish in a bucket with plenty of water from the river, lake or other water source you’re fishing in. They’re sure to enjoy watching the fish swim around for a while. Just don’t leave it in there too long! Fish need to get home in time for dinner too.
Watch The Stars
What better time is there to enjoy the simple things than when you’re camping? Take some time in the evening to look at the stars with your child. You can show them some of the cool constellations or watch for shooting stars together.
This is also a great time to teach them a little bit about space. You can make up stories about astronauts or aliens, or just relax and listen to the sounds of the woods.
Keeping Your Kid Comfortable and Happy
If your child isn’t sleeping or eating well, or are generally uncomfortable, everyone is going to have a bad time. Making sure their essential needs are met will keep them happy, and the way you go about it can help you to avoid too much stress while still getting things handled.
Make Meal Prep Easy
Planning and making meals your child will love can get complicated enough when you’re at home. There’s really no reason to make it harder than it needs to be when you’re already out in the wilderness.
Keep it simple when it comes to cooking while you’re camping. Don’t be ashamed to make use of those convenient campfire-cooked hot dogs, sausages and more.
You might just find out that hot dogs are more versatile than you might think. Learn all about different hot dog sides and recipes at our article on the subject here.
A few other meal ideas that your 4-year-old is sure to love include:
- Campfire nachos
- Scrambled eggs
- Potato boats
- Breakfast burritos
If you plan to make anything that requires much prep, try to get as much prep handled before the trip as you can. When you’re in the woods, trying to keep an eye on an excited 4-year-old as you cook, you’ll be glad you did!
We wrote a post talking about some tips to get out the door sooner, and we go into more detail on how to make camping happen here.
Focus On Bedding
A well-slept 4-year-old is a happy 4-year-old. Consequently, you’ll want to make sure they have a comfortable bed to sleep in. If they can’t sleep, the whole family is going to pay the price for it.
Whatever kind of bedding you’re planning on using, make sure that you test it out at home to make sure it’s something your kid is happy with. It’s also a good idea to have some backup pillows, blankets or other soft items in case their bedding turns out to be too hard or too cold.
One great way to test out your setup is to go pitch the tent in the backyard and give everything a spin. This may be just as much fun as camping at the campground.
Comfort is so important for the entire family. Our article on ways to make camping more comfortable is great for everyone, and especially useful for keeping kids cozy. Take a look at it here.
We have been using a portable folding camp bed for our child, recently, and it’s way more comfortable than what I sleep on while camping, but it has worked great for our toddler to sleep on (if a bit bulky). You can see it here on Amazon.
If you’re planning on doing any walking when you’re on your camping trip, it’s worthwhile to bring a stroller. This is something that you may be able to feel out, based on your knowledge of your own child, but it never hurts to be prepared.
A run-of-the-mill stroller probably won’t handle most trails near campgrounds. There are those fancy shmancy strollers that have the bike tires for more rugged terrain.
Hopefully, at 4 years old your child is getting used to walking outdoors and exploring! But it’s good to know the limits of your child (and yourself).
Some children get bored after just a few minutes of walking around, while others are perfectly happy to trot along for long periods of time. If you know you’ll be walking more than your kid can handle, it’s best to be prepared with a convenient set of wheels.
Another fun option is to bring your child a bike, when possible. This is especially helpful if you’re just walking around the paved campground streets.
Have Backup Plans
You never know when the weather might decide to step in and cause you to have to cancel your outdoor activities. Otherwise, you might find that your child just isn’t interested in the activities you originally had planned. There are many cases in which a “plan B” is needed!
Come up with some ideas for indoor activities that will keep your child entertained, or just backup plans that will suit their needs when they don’t want to go on a hike or join a ranger program. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to keep your little camper happy!
If you are ever caught in a thunderstorm, there are some things you can do to be as safe as possible. Check out our guide here to learn what can be done.
Maintain Their Routine
Younger children thrive on a routine. Making sure that mealtimes, naps, and bedtimes are kept as normal as possible will help to keep your child happy. Additionally, you won’t have to end up trying to enforce regular bedtimes when you get home after a few days of letting them stay up too late.
Really, it’ll help to save you a whole lot of headache. Think about when your child normally would normally wake up, take naps and go to bed and try to plan your trip so that your fun doesn’t end up clashing with those times too much.
As a parent, this sounds impossible–and in a way it is–but it’s good to do your best and forgive yourself if you can’t do it perfectly. There’s a lot that’s harder to control while you’re camping but if you make an effort it can make a big difference.
Indulge, But Not Too Much!
Camping is undoubtedly a time for relaxation, fun, and treats we might not normally have – like s’mores! If you’re okay with your child having a bit of extra sugar, there’s no reason not to share the food fun with them.
To balance out the unhealthy sweets, you can also bring plenty of healthier ones. Fruits of all kinds are wonderful for camping. They’re delicious, sweet, and you can even use them to make your own tradition to replace the sugar-filled, decadent and undeniably delicious, standard camping treats.
Your backyard is the ideal location to practice before truly heading out into the woods. While you’re out there, you’ll be able to get a better idea of what your child will be like out in the actual wilderness.
Just a few things to consider include:
- Are they listening? If you ask them to help, wait, or stay put, do they follow your guidelines?
- Can they sleep? For many children, sleeping in a new place can be quite spooky. Are they able to sleep well in a tent? Is their bedding comfortable enough?
- Are they eating well? Try out some regular camping foods and see how they react. Do they like hot dogs, or are they begging to go back inside to eat something that requires more cooking?
- Do they seem happy? Are they having fun, or getting bored? Will you need to invest in some more outdoor toys and activities?