Multi-night tent camping with small children: lessons learned

Becky, Kyra, and Verity as we tear down from our first camping experience in Ohio on 9/28/2021

Overview

The article below is one I was looking for before our first camping experience with kids and could not find. So I told myself after a few camping stays I would write this article. From Saturday, September 25 to Tuesday, September 28, 2021, the FIRE Travel Family had our first camping experience. We stayed 3 nights at the Streetsboro / Cleveland SE KOA near Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. From Friday, October 1, 2021, to Sunday, October 3 we also stayed two nights at the Houghton / Letchworth KOA near Letchworth State Park in New York. While camping at these locations we spent most of the day hiking in the nearby parks. We really used these locations for sleeping and showering. At the time Kyra was 5 years old and Verity was 2 years old. We mostly did a great job preparing, but we learned some valuable lessons. We also appreciate those who gave us advice as we prepared for this trip.

Lessons learned

  • The coldest we want the overnight temperature is 45 degrees (although 55 or above is preferred)
  • It works well to line sleeping bags with blankets, especially for the kids
  • Don’t take a blender
    • Fruit doesn’t stay frozen in the cooler, this was a waste of space that could have been better used
  • High quality sleeping bags are more important than a lot of blankets
  • Having a campsite in view of a playground is great so kids can play while adults setup and cook food
  • Buy an RV adapter plug (30 amp male to 15 amp female) for the typical campsite RV plug in to the normal power plug in (we were also able to borrow this at our first site with a $10 deposit)
  • Dish washing pans can be used for holding/cleaning dirty dishes and to set sandals or shoes in a tent inside overnight so they don’t get cold or disappear
  • Keep a Ziploc bag of ice in the cooler to use for drinks during the day if you are a person who likes to have cold drinks during the day
  • If the forecast calls for rain the day you are leaving do your best to pack and prep the night before
  • Campgrounds may have cool events for kids or adults, check their schedules and ask for details when you arrive
  • When packing up from a rainy day think about having the kids with food and activities in the dry car
  • When packing up on a rainy day pack a change and towel in a bag. Then use it, along with a warm shower, once everything is in the car so you don’t start the day dirty, wet and cold
  • Assuming camping sites have picnic tables you may not need camping chairs or a camping table.

Thoughts confirmed

  • High-quality sleeping bags are critically important for cold nights
  • Having a large tent with room dividers makes the experience more enjoyable
  • Focus on making sure you get a good night’s sleep; it makes everything easier
  • It is worth the extra money to get a lighted tent
    • Headlights are also a good investment, although phone flashlights can also be used
  • It is best to have a 50 foot outside extension cord and a large surge protector if you have multiple devices you want to plug in
  • Have a bucket or something else for overnight pee breaks so you don’t have to leave the tent
  • Bring a picnic table cloth to put down for cooking and eating
  • Make sure to get to your campsite early enough to be completely setup and settled in before it gets dark
  • Rain sucks, especially while packing up, that said it is completely managable with some preparation and thought
FIRE Travel Family - Ohio - Verity on Campground Slide - Financial Independence - Retire Early
Verity on the campground slide having fun on 9/26/2021 in Ohio

Background Information

Let’s start with some background. Becky and I have done overnight tent camping on multiple trips in both the United States and abroad while traveling/hiking. We used a two-person 3-season REI tent and typically had thin air mats and high-quality sleeping bags. All these items had to be ones that we could carry in our backpacks while hiking multi-day trails. With this setup, we have camped in areas that had the water freeze overnight and we still did not get cold. While abroad we did rustic camping along trails, meaning there were no water, electricity, or bathroom facilities. We also camped in the US while traveling in a vehicle so we could access a few more items and had some items like water and electricity. That said it had been over 7 years since either Brock or Becky had camped. Neither Kyra nor Verity had ever slept outside or in a tent before this. It was their first camping experience. Kyra is a seasoned traveler. However, Verity has only been on one trip which was cut short after only two and a half weeks due to COVID in Belize in 2020.

We reached FIRE (financial independence retire early) at an average couple age of 37, in 2021. We always thought our first post-retirement trip would be an international trip. Much of this was because our travel budget was created with developing countries and their lower costs in mind. Geo arbitrage (which basically means we use the US dollar and its strong relative value to most foreign currencies) was a core part of our budgeting. However, COVID did not work with us in this regard. With about 2 months to go before we left, we finally decided it would be a US trip for many reasons.

Story/Experience

To keep costs low we had two options (because staying at hotels exclusively was too expensive). The option nearly everyone told us to pick was to buy an RV. This would allow us to be comfortable and have all the stuff with us we wanted. The downsides to this were many for us. First, it was a huge outlay of capital and higher insurance, maintenance, gas, and other costs. It also meant less mobility and more to be responsible for. It also generally went against the minimalism tenant we have embraced. We believe that stuff = stress. On the upside, it would have been easier. But hey, why do what is easy? That isn’t how we roll!

So we choose Door #2 or the path less traveled. This meant we would take our minivan and tent camp for stays of 2 or more nights (weather permitting). When we couldn’t tent camp or were just passing through we would look for a low-end motel or hotel. Our goal here would be to pay less than $80 per night when we had hotels. Our hope was to tent camp for way more nights than we spent in hotels/motels. The hope was to bring the average per night costs more down around $50 to $60 across the whole trip. Our ultimate goal is to travel on less than $100 per day total in the United States.

So we had a plan but were faced with many questions like:

  • What type of tent to get? (How big, what seasonality, what weight)
  • How would we get a good night sleep?
  • How would we cook food? (it was way too expensive to eat out all the time)
  • What was important to take and what could be left home?
  • How much could we fit into one minivan and what would need to be left home?
  • How would the kids handle this?
  • How would all of Kyra’s homeschooling/worldschooling fit into all this?

Also in the back of Brock’s mind was one truly horrible tent experience. It was when Brock was hiking to Machu Picchu in 2006 on the Salkantay Inca Trail. At this point, he had no overnight trekking experience or gear. So he was completely dependent on the provider to give good tents and sleeping bags…this did not happen. Brock has never been so cold in his life. At one point overnight he emptied everything out of his bag on top of himself, it didn’t help. Brock slept for only a few minutes and was so happy when they came to him at 4 am with a hot beverage. Since then he has always made sure to have a good tent and sleeping bag, plus good other equipment. This story points to what should be an obvious point. The main use of the tent is for overnight shelter. If you don’t have a good night’s sleep in a tent you will not want to do it over and over again.

With all that in mind, our focus became how do we make sure we are having a good night’s sleep every time out. For us, this broke down into 3 main points:

  • Comfort
  • Warmth
  • Space
FIRE Travel Family - New York - Kyra and Verity Trick or Treating - Financial Independence - Retire Early
Kyra and Verity Trick or Treating as Park Rangers at our campground in New York on 10/2/2021

Comfort

Becky and the kids can sleep anywhere (and yes they all 3 sleep together when we travel). Air mattress, double bed, basically they make anything work. So this part was easy, we got a cheap queen air mattress. We did make a point of having the pump be battery operated in case we stayed at a campsite without an electrical hookup. We actually planned for all aspects of camping to be on battery when possible in case electrical hook-ups were not easy to come by. We choose not to buy a power cell for charging items.

For sleeping, Brock had some special requests/needs. While young he could do the inflatable 1-inch thick mats just fine. With age, waistline expansion, and back pain, he has come to the conclusion that no air mattress was going to make him feel comfortable. In fact, most made him feel horrible and sleep poorly to boot. So we had to get creative here. What we were able to figure out is that we could fit a twin mattress in the minivan. When it comes to traveling people have one or two luxuries they can afford. Somewhere they use space that others might not. For this trip this was Brock’s luxury, having an actual mattress for tent camping.

Two days before we left on the trip, Brock did an epic extreme mattress shopping experience before ultimately buying an 8-inch foam mattress for the trip for $300 plus tax. We had figured we could have gotten the 10-inch, but it was another few hundred and the 8-inch seemed like it would be a good night’s sleep. Brock tested it out the night we bought it and was very happy with the choice. In truth, he actually liked it even better than the king bed we had sold a few weeks back. He even found himself sleeping on his back more (typically he is a side sleeper).

After 5 nights we can say we hit the comfort area perfectly. Becky and the kids have enjoyed sleeping on the air mattress. Brock prefers sleeping on his twin foam mattress to any of the hotel beds he has slept on. We all took the box springs and frames out from under the bed before the trip. So sleeping low to the ground was not really an adjustment and has not been a problem. To protect the twin mattress we put both a thin liner on the bottom of it. We also put the plastic it came in under the bed to have a layer between the tent and the bed to keep the mattress from getting wet.

We also brought two camping chairs and one camping table. All pack down to a small size. None of them have been out of the minivan yet because the first two camping sites have had picnic tables. If this continues these could be items we would not have needed to bring. This could also be different if you want to sit around at campgrounds during the day. But we view them as mostly just lodging for the trip.

FIRE Travel Family - New York - Becky Taking Tent Down in the Rain - Financial Independence - Retire Early
Becky working to tear down the tent after a rainy night on 10/3/2021 in New York

Warmth

In regards to warmth, we were primarily concerned with the kids and Becky. They all tend to be colder in most environments. Kyra struggles the most with the cold of anyone in the family. Whereas Brock is not likely to get cold. We made sure we had some thicker sleepers/jammies for both kids and a comfortable, thicker sweatshirt for Becky. We also packed stocking caps and gloves for colder nights.

From previous trips, we had three high-quality camping bags. We decided that Brock would use the older one when needed. Becky and the kids would zip the other two together to sleep in. Becky sleeps in the middle and the kids fit beside her. This actually worked well and mostly kept the kids close to her overnight. We have two kids who move in bed a ton. Kyra often is completely out of the bed overnight. Verity also moves around a lot, although she is less likely to fall completely out of the bed.

Our first night of camping put our preparations to the test with overnight lows of around 48 to 50 degrees. While sleeping bags do a great job with warmth overall, they are initially cold to the touch. After some experimentation, Becky lined the bottom of the sleeping bag with one blanket and put another on the top. When she did that Kyra was much more comfortable and warm. What we found on the cold nights is that the kids stayed close and slept very well with this setup.

We used all the blankets we had brought, around six in total (plus the kid’s small ones). Neither Becky nor Brock used their Under Armour base layer 1 clothing. Kyra used her stocking cap on the fourth night (got down to the high 40’s). No one has used gloves yet. While this has all worked well we have decided that we would prefer to only camp when the overnight temperature was over 45 degrees. This could vary for others and it is important to note that our tent is really more a summer tent than a 3 or 4-season tent. We went with this tent because we also could see using it in very hot places and wanted one that allowed for air movement. If people had a more sealed-up tent they could likely stay in even colder temps, if they wanted.

Space

It is truly weird how tent capacity is measured. It is how many average-sized adults could sleep in sleeping bags in a tent packed like sardines. While this makes sense for 1 or 2-person tents this is not something families or large groups are likely to do. So for instance you are just about never going to see 10 people sleeping in a 10-person tent.

We knew right away we wanted a tent that allowed us to have two sleeping areas as well as a common area. We looked at tents that were small (6-person tents) and huge (up to 16-person tents). What we pretty quickly realized is that we wanted a tent that was around “10 to 12 people”. We preferred one that would be able to have 2 queen mattresses on each end and a common area of about the same size in the middle. A future post can go fully into all the research we did but we ended up buying a CORE 12 Person Lighted Instant Cabin Tent which is 18’ x 10’. This tent was also nice because it had room dividers so we were able to get the 3-room setup we were looking for.

We also knew that we wanted the space to be physically comfortable and part of this included having it be well lighted for the kids. While this cost around $70 extra by the end of the first night before lights were out we knew it had been well worth the money. It is possible this could have been done in other ways. However, having the lights built right in and with several settings (including night light mode) was so easy to use.

So other comfort items include that we brought a 50 foot outside extension cord so that we could have electricity to charge phones and other devices at night. We brought a bucket for overnight pee breaks so that we didn’t have to walk all the way to the bathroom (only Brock has used this). We also put down a blanket in the common area to make the space more appealing to walk or sit on. It also protects the feet if there is debris under the tent. Doing this also made walking around warmer on colder nights. We choose not to buy some special awning or rain shelter for outside the tent.

FIRE Travel Family - Ohio - Tent Setup First Time - Financial Independence - Retire Early
Our CORE tent all set up at our first family camping experience on 9/25/2021 in Ohio

Food and Drink

Another important thing to understand is food and drink. An important warning to cover, NEVER store food or drink in your tent. No snacks, drinks, fruit, anything. We even take the extra snacks out of our day hiking bag each night. The reason is that this can bring in animals. We had friends who stored bananas in their tent and had a raccoon join them in the middle of a stormy night much to their dismay. Not only is this potentially dangerous, but it also can destroy your tent.

With that out of the way let’s talk about how we view this. If you are slightly overwhelmed with this being your first camping experience and having kids then make the food prep easy by going out for food or having pizza delivered. Do not feel like you have to tackle everything at once. In general, this is good advice when traveling with kids, learn in increments. We take the view that this is all a learning experience and we want to get better each time. This attitude has served us very well. For us, we have a two-burner stove that uses propane that we use to cook on trips. Our personal preference is not to leave the campground once we have it set up at night. Additionally, buying groceries and cooking is much more economical than eating out. It is easy to blow your budget on restaurant meals. This also allows us to cook healthier meals than we can typically buy while traveling.

So there are many benefits, but a drawback is that it does take some effort. The worst time is always the first time you cook because you have to locate each item you need. A smart item Becky decided to bring for this trip was a picnic table cloth. It has come in handy while using picnic tables provided at the tent sites. We have also used the divide and conquer method here. Brock has taken the kids to the playground or elsewhere, while Becky cooks. It is much more difficult to cook a meal with the kids sitting around waiting or even when they are trying to be helpful. If playgrounds are not an option, a walk, going to look for animals, getting ice, or just about anything else could also get the same result. We also always have a lot of ready-to-eat snacks with us to keep the kids from getting too hungry while waiting for meals or while on hikes.

In regards to drinks on this trip, we borrowed a 5-gallon water holder with a spout you can use to fill drinks (Thanks Thad!). This has been great because it means we can get water whenever we want throughout the day. This helps us all to stay better hydrated. Additionally, we keep a Ziploc bag of ice separate in the cooler. This bag is used for drinks which has been a great new trick we started on this trip to have cold drinks on hot days. We also wrap our Nalgene bottles with hand towels to keep the ice in them longer when on hikes. We brought a blender because we make fruit/vegetable shakes at home each day. We have used it once, it was probably our biggest packing mistake.

Homeschooling / Worldschooling

Camping has not really affected how we are worldschooling (homeschooling while traveling the world). The tougher challenge is really finding the time to get the work done and have focus with Kyra. We find that we like to do her workbooks in the morning while we are making breakfast or packing to go. She has done her workbooks while sitting on the bed, on a picnic table, or in the car. The biggest thing is making sure she has enough focus to be able to keep moving forward.

The truly cool part about worldschooling Kyra is that the world is her mental playground. We let each hour bring the lesson to us as we experience the world. Sometimes it is animals or plants. Other times it is how things are made or done. Often it is concepts like gravity. The variance she is getting is amazing. Also letting her bring the questions helps her to feel like part of the process. I will go more into this in another post, but the important point for this post is that where you stay shouldn’t really affect how you homeschool. However, it can enhance the list of things you can teach your child. Also being at campsites has been great for our kids to socialize and play with other children.

Summary

Overall our experience was a great one. Despite the colder temperature on the first night, the kids slept like rocks. It probably helps that they were exhausted from a long day of hiking and activities. The second and third nights were much warmer and Brock didn’t even use his sleeping bag on nights two and three. Becky slept as well as you can between two kids and Brock slept well. At our second stay, the first night was in the high 40’s overnight again, and the second night was warmer. The second night of that stay it started raining at 4:30 am, which did wake up both Becky and Brock (but not the kids).

After staying in some hotels, Brock prefers sleeping in a tent. This is likely due to the quality of his twin foam mattress in the tent and the lack of hotel smells. Becky likes the tent camping better assuming the bathrooms are close (they were not at our second stay). The kids are both excited for our next camping experience. At our second stay, we hit their Halloween weekend, despite it being the first weekend of October. So we were able to take part in their trick or treating and candy hunt in the dark. Becky and the kids also did a bingo night at this campground.

FIRE Travel Family - Ohio - Kids on Jump Pad - Financial Independence - Retire Early
Verity & Kyra having fun on the Jump Pad in Ohio on 9/28/2021

Every family, adult, and kid will have their own items that are important. Before you go camping it is best to have a conversation to make sure all the big issues are covered. That said we made sure to focus on the most important items and not worry about preparing for every contingency. We felt like the best thing to do was have the essentials and then adjust whatever was needed based on our actual needs. We were also greatly limited by space given that we were on a cross-country trip in the minivan. In a way, this required more focus and likely helped us to make better decisions.

Once you get comfortable with the basics up your game. Think about having a night where you look at the stars, play games, or do other activities. Both us and our kids love tent camping together. We highly recommend doing this as it is truly a different experience than being in a hotel or hotel on wheels (RV). With a little planning and a willingness to learn and improve we think any family could find this to be a great option!

Written By: Brock Waterman & Becky Waterman

Written: 9/27/2021 and 10/4/2021 (mostly)
Posted: 10/5/2021

3 thoughts on “Multi-night tent camping with small children: lessons learned

  1. Betty Schambow

    Hi Becky, Brock & family,
    Thank you for sharing your travel experiences with us. I think of you and your family’s adventures often and wonder how it is going. I know you are well prepared and everything is working out for having a great time. Creating those wonderful family times is so important. Your camping experiences bring back fond memories of tent camping with my family in the 1960s. We had many of the same learning experiences, but it was all worth it in spending quality family time together. Keeping warm and comfortable at night is so important for a good night’s sleep. Zipping sleeping bags together and extra blankets always worked well for happy kids the next day. Explore nature in the world around you is a dream come true for the kids. What could be better?
    Sending lots of love <3 & stay safe.
    Betty

    Reply
    1. Becky Waterman

      Hi Betty,

      Glad it brings back fond memories. We are loving the trip and weather has been pretty good until the last couple of days. Due to weather and the forecast for the next week our plans could change again.

      Becky

      Reply
  2. ~beverly

    Sounds like a great adventure and learning experience. Bella and I did a cross country trip when she was 9 for a few months. Bought a very inexpensive pop-up which was a step up from a tent, but barely. I can relate to many of your comments. Hope the weather cooperates so you can do more camping than hotelling! Love and hugs to you all!

    Reply

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