When my kid was still a baby, my partner and I tried tent camping. Once. It did *not* go well, despite all those hot tips online for making camping ~so simple~ with your little angel. When they were an older baby (six-eight months), we went on a few camper van trips to see if we could still get out there like we did pre-baby….with a few more amenities.
The vans made camping with a little one significantly easier, but we realized the vans were unwieldy for getting around once we arrived somewhere. Plus, we had to take down/reassemble the camping part of the van anytime we wanted to drive anywhere. So we took the plunge and got a travel trailer to give us the flexibility to leave a camper behind and drive around in a normal car to trailheads or into town.
Our kid is now a toddler and we took our R-Pod 176 for its maiden voyage this weekend. Here’s what I learned.
Updated May 2022! Our second trip was a three-day, two-night stay in Carbondale, CO (campground review coming soon). I’ve updated this post with what we learned!
Please keep in mind this is based on my personal experience and I’m not a child safety or other expert, so take my advice at your own risk 🙂 If I’ve missed anything you’re worried about, let me know in the comments and I can help you brainstorm!
PS: I refer to my kid throughout the post as Toddler OB (Outdoor Beginner). “We” refers to my spouse and I.
How to pick your destination
Your First Time Out
Stay close to home! We went to a state park 20 minutes away from our house that was also very close to civilization. We were a ten-minute drive from a coffee shop (priorities) and not too far from home if we had to pull the plug altogether. AND we went for just one night.
Since we also didn’t have any experience towing a trailer, we picked a campground with pull-through sites (instead of back-in) that was easy to drive to and around. It was also so close that we could go scope it out ahead of time, which was an added bonus.
If you’re in the Denver metro area, Chatfield State Park is a great option! It’s right off the highway and the park itself is relatively flat with wide, mostly straight roads. The campground caters to RVs and even has a really toddler-friendly playground on the C Loop!
After Your Trial Run
I say go for it! I wasn’t quite comfortable with going totally off-grid yet, or with a full day of driving. We decided to go to Carbondale, CO (about a four hour drive from our house).
Carbondale was going to be less hot and a bit closer than our original destination (Fruita). It’s also centrally located with a bunch of activities around and we were still only about 10 minutes outside of a town. It also had the added bonus of being an area that would normally be a HUGE splurge if we were staying in a hotel or AirBnb. With the trailer, it suddenly became an affordable destination!
How to entertain a toddler on a long car ride
This 100 Animals Lift-the-Flap book turned out to be the MVP of the entire car ride. I had kept it stashed away since our last long trip (about three months earlier) and it kept Toddler OB entertained for 30 minutes or more at a time, which is totally unheard of for them. The flaps are kind of hard to open, but that ended up only keeping them more interested in the book.
Even if you don’t buy that exact book, we had a lot of luck with books that were interactive and new to Toddler OB (or at least hadn’t been played with in a long time).
When we did stop, we made sure to give them 15 minutes or so to stretch their legs and run around. I let them do basically whatever they wanted to do that was still safe. We stopped at a rest area with a huge grassy part that was perfect for running around and exploring.
The RV also made stopping for lunch way easier since there was no wait at a restaurant and we could just hop in the back and eat sandwiches. And speaking of food, we threw our snacking boundaries out the window and let them eat basically whenever, whatever so that we could keep driving.
Toddler bedtime and sleeping arrangements
If you don’t co-sleep, it can be tricky to figure out where to get kiddo down safely for the night. (No shame in co-sleeping, we just don’t. Do what works for your family!)
After looking at pretty much every floor plan available, we settled on a trailer with bunk beds in the front and our bed in the back (which converted from the dining area). My kid still fits in their Guava Lotus crib at home, so this was our first foray into a “real” bed for them.
We set them up in the bottom bunk and used the top bunk as our changing table/storage area. A bed rail served multiple purposes – we didn’t want them to accidentally roll out, but we also didn’t want them to be able to get out on their own and roam around in the middle of the night.
There are a bunch of different bed rails available, but we used this Munchkin one because it fit the opening of the bunk bed. The models from Regalo and Hiccapop are also well reviewed and less expensive. You can get the Munchkin one on Amazon, too, but it’s less expensive at Target (as of April 2022)!
Depending on the layout of your trailer, you may have windows or the door nearby that you need to block light from. We kept our kid up until it was dark out, but that was only around 7 p.m. in March. For summer, we wanted them to be able to fall asleep before sunset as well as not wake up at 6 am with sunrise!
An easy fix was getting short blackout curtains and a tension rod to put in front of the bed rail. This also had the added bonus of blocking out all the lights from the fridge and other electrical controls that lit up the inside of the trailer once the lights were out.
I found these blackout curtains on Amazon and Target had the best cheap tension rod option in a ton of lengths. I used a longer curtain from Target to hang curtains in front of where my spouse and I were sleeping too. FYI – curtains are apparently sold individually at Target, so buy two if you use that link! The Amazon curtains came as a pair.
Getting acclimated to a different bed
The bunk bed was standard twin length, so it wasn’t hard to find a fitted sheet in a fun color to start making their bed feel like home. I also piled in all their favorite blankets and let them bring unlimited stuffed animals, especially because the bed was still huge for them and there was no way they would run out of space.
I printed out some photos from other trips to help them feel at home, but ended up running out of time to hang them up. I put them up after our trip and Toddler OB got really excited to see them, but they weren’t a necessity.
We also ran out of time to sleep in the trailer when it was just parked in our driveway. Instead, we helped Toddler OB acclimate and get familiar with the bed by playing in the bed whenever they wanted to check out the trailer (which was often!).
We also got a tip from our kid’s occupational therapist that a calendar can help them understand what to expect. My partner drew a picture of the trailer on the day we were going camping and every day we’d point to “trailer day” and talk about sleeping in the trailer that day.
Toddler OB a little uncertain about the curtains on their first night in the trailer. But they were so tired after skipping a nap and running around all evening that they went right down anyway! By the time we went on our second trip, they were asking us to put the curtains down and go away.
Our trailer had a propane-powered heater and electricity, so climate control wasn’t an issue. We also could have plugged in the white noise machine right by their bed, but we forgot to bring it. They ended up sleeping just fine through the night without it, even with the door right next to where they slept (my partner had to escape for a midnight bathroom run).
What about naps?
The blackout curtain set-up for got them through nap time while my partner and I napped or hung out in our bed area. Toddler OB quickly figured out how to open up their own curtains, so having a curtain in front of our bed helped keep them from wanting to party with us.
The only drawback of all the curtains is that it blocks airflow (ie air conditioning) a bit. Our kid didn’t care, but it was a little toasty for us.
How to safely feed a toddler in a trailer
The Hiccapop Omniboost Travel Booster Seat continues to work really well for pretty much any travel experience. The same went for the trailer.
Our first trip it was a bit too cold to have breakfast outside, so we attempted to fit the Hiccapop into the dinette. Ideally, we would have had somewhere to strap it in or fasten it to, but since that wasn’t an option, I just scooted the trailer’s dining table as close as possible to Toddler OB.
We did have to make sure one of us was directly supervising/making sure they didn’t tip over. This didn’t feel overwhelming to me because I didn’t have to do as much close supervision/constant holding as I did when they were crawling/rolling/not really able to control their body or understand risk as when they were a baby on the van trips.
I didn’t look into proper high chairs since the only place to put one would have been at the end of the table. This would have gotten in the way of the kitchen area, plus we wouldn’t have been able to slide in and out of the dinette seating without also moving the high chair. It just seemed like too much of a hassle.
It was much warmer for our second trip, so we just set the Hiccapop up on the ground and set up our camping chairs next to it. The Hiccapop chair folds up really small and is nice and light, which made it perfect for breaking down and stowing in the camper. The tray is a little annoying to take on/off, but I love everything else about the chair (including that it’s machine washable).
Having a refrigerator and a microwave made actual food preparation a breeze. We also ate out a lot for dinner, to be honest! That meant late bedtimes but we were fine with that.
How to keep toddlers occupied during trailer set-up/tear-down
It’s not as fun, but basically one person keeps the kid entertained/away from danger while the other does the trailer set-up and tear-down. If you’re the only adult, consider a pack-and-play or some kind of enclosed area for them to safely play while you set up.
I originally hoped Toddler OB would hang out in their car seat with some Goldfish while both adults set up the trailer, but they were antsy to get out and explore so that didn’t pan out (the snacks did generally help keep them occupied though).
I was able to involve Toddler OB with a few of the chores so that they felt like they were still helping, which made a big difference!
Toddler-friendly chores included putting the stabilizer pads back in their bag (or taking them out); helping to push the up/down button on the jack; “helping” plug in the trailer by holding the cord; putting the level in different spots to see where the bubble went; and putting the wheel chocks in their bin or taking them out (after an adult safely removed them from the trailer, same for the stabilizer pads).
Between getting them involved, having snacks available, and a toy at the ready, it worked out much better than I thought it would.The second time we went out, they were also much more with the program of helping us out *and* we were quicker with tear down/set up.
Overall first impressions
Trailer camping was WAY easier than tent camping and also more convenient than a van. Overall, we had an absolute blast and I still felt like we were spending time in the outdoors despite all the conveniences we had (electricity, heat, etc).
I was also really pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to modify the regular bed into a toddler-friendly bed.
I think constantly talking about sleeping in the trailer and building up Trailer Day as a really excited outing helped Toddler OB go with the flow once we were out there. Our first multi-night trip, we did have to talk a bit more about the trailer being our home and that it was okay to miss our house. Overall, they were still getting familiar with the trailer and understanding it was also home, but we all still had a blast!