How to Get a Decent Night's Sleep on a Camping Trip

This Summer, we bought a bigger tent and went camping with our two children. It's a big ritual in New York state. The public park sites fill up fast, and beyond enormous parks like the Adirondacks, there are so many smaller state parks (stocked with hundreds of tent and cabin sites). I'm not sure how people choose a family tent while still in the growing stages, but we bought a five-man for the two adults and two tiny kids, thinking we're unlikely to be taking it back country anytime soon. (Nor could we. The pack bag is giant.) We set the travel bar low and found a park 40 minutes from our house, just in case we needed to drive home in the middle of the night. The park had trails, bathrooms, loop roads, a creek, a fishing pond, and several playgrounds. Basically nature lite.

Weekend camp was, like most adventures with small children, a blast — with caveats. Because it was also a massive organizational effort resulting in late nights and little sleep. For two days, we lived outside. It rained a little, but the kids were not bothered. It was humid and hot, but they didn't care. There were plenty of deer flies and mosquitoes that went unnoticed (by them, not by me). Because there was stuff to do. Given the extra space and time, my 5-year-old mastered the art of two-wheeled bicycle riding. It was a pleasure to see her go from wobbly and afraid (yelling at me not to let go) to confidently pushing off down the road, swerving intentionally. She discovered the fun of marshmallow stick finding (and cooking and eating). The 2-year-old loved wandering around the campsite and quickly darting into the woods. She found all the dirt. The baby doll she carries everywhere found all the dirt, too. Our friends brought a dog, and she spent a fair amount of time playing in its crate. Once she actually fell asleep, long after dark, the 2-year-old slept soundly in a pack-in-play in our tent, despite the stifling humidity. We ate delicious camp food, many songs were sung, and plenty of 5-year-old jokes were told. What happens when you put two 5-year-old girls together around a campfire? Lots of potty joke songs.

Next time, I'll expect the dirt and the light sleep. I hope to be less shocked by the upfront work: I'm certain I spent about as much time planning and packing for the two-night, car-based event as I did camping. I borrowed a cooler and resurrected an old camp stove we hadn't used in about seven years. I went to buy special propane. I bought ice and marshmallows. Installed the bike rack on the car. Made lots of trips to the basement. Thought about how best to do coffee in camp (cold brew). Thought about what to eat and shopped accordingly. Realized we no longer had camping plates or cooking pots, so I packed the kidware and was glad we were going with friends. Then I went about loading the car and packing tons of toys, just in case. Since we were totally chicken about this first attempt, my daughter and I drove down alone the first night with our friends, and my husband and the toddler came down for the second night. Though I probably couldn't have gotten less sleep, even if she had come along for both. We let my daughter and her friend stay up, and they spent hours in the tent scaring each other, giggling and calling for reinforcements. Eventually I just lay down with them, and they fell asleep. I thought I might fall asleep but forgot that for the rest of the campground, the party had just begun. It was loud. I couldn't remember where I'd packed my earplugs. (Next time, they are getting taped to my sleeping bag.) A few hours later, the sun woke the girls up, and about the first thing my daughter did upon waking was burst into tears. She's not a morning person, and she's definitely less of one on little sleep. I happily took the girls down the road to the bathrooms and let them chatter loudly about toads while the partiers slept on.

Everyone explored, hiked, played, biked, and got covered in dirt. I thought I was used to dirt, but this level of dirt was shocking. Perhaps because my older daughter, in typical fashion, used the tent to execute quick wardrobe changes, thereby wearing all the clothes in her backpack in the space of one day — and soiling them all, too. The friend we joined at camp, who was a more experienced camper, had camp pants, the kind you wear every day and can convert into shorts. The dirt sticks to them less. Had I purchased a pair of camp pants for my child in preparation for this trip? Yes. They were dark blue and would have hid dirt very well, had she worn them. But they were well below her standards (brighter, softer, stripier, busier, etc). I couldn't even get her to try them on. So the camp pants, they came home clean. The overprepared parent loses again!

When we returned home on a Sunday afternoon, we could not avoid taking giant naps. Like most things, it's not quite as relaxing as camping with just adults, it's not quite as you remember it. Sitting around a campfire, sure. Sitting around a campfire with your offspring does not include the sitting part. And don't forget your earplugs. Maybe even a battery-powered noise machine.

We're going deeper into the woods in August, this time via canoe. So far, the trip has two spreadsheets, one for shared gear and one for food. I like to think that with more practice, the rigamarole of precamp stuff finding and packing gets easier. And as my campers get older, at least I'll have them tote stuff out to the car.