Monday, June 03, 2013

Family Camping Made Easy - Winning the Bedtime Battle

Last spring I wrote a series of stories on Family Camping Made Easy.  Judging by the popularity of these stories, I know that families are not only eager to get their kids out camping but to make it FUN.  Nobody wants to go camping if it isn't a pleasant experience for everybody involved.  Last year we managed to get out camping at least a couple weekends per month and enjoyed it so much that we are embarking on a Camping Project this summer to camp over 40 nights! To read about our Camping Project follow the link to my recent story.  

In last summer's Family Camping Series I tackled the following subjects related to Family Camping and I encourage you to revisit any that apply to your family:                                                                                 

Warm Sleepers are happy sleepers

This year, I would like to continue the series with an informative post on getting the munchkins to SLEEP at night.  We all know that if Mama's not happy, nobody's happy -  and it's true!  At least for this mom it sure is.  I value my sleep and that includes when I'm camping.  Accepting that I just might not get any sleep while camping isn't good enough for me.  There has to be a way to get the kids to sleep without having to drug them on kid's Benedryl or Gravol.  (although I confess we have resorted to that in the past and all I can say there is don't judge until you've had to try it.  If you've never had to try it - yay for you.  I move on.)

Smiles from well rested campers

So, without further preamble, here it is - my top tips for getting your children to go to sleep, stay asleep, and wake up rested.  Special thanks to all of the friends and followers on Facebook who responded with their suggestions as well.  Many have been added to the list below. And make sure you continue to the bottom of this post for some special scenarios from Nighttime criers to Camp Early birds. 

Winning the Bedtime Battle

One - Use peer pressure to your advantage

One of the great benefits to group camping is peer pressure.  If the other kids have all gone to bed, your child should eventually put 2+2 together and realize that maybe it's time they go to sleep as well.  Hopefully.   We saw this last year when one of my son's little friends didn't want to go to bed because she was scared to sleep in the tent by herself.  Dad finally just went to bed with her and cut campfire short.  The next night however, the same little girl told her dad that she didn't want him to come to bed with her.  She said, "Last night Noah went to bed by himself so I can too."  No fight, no battle.  Yay for positive peer pressure.

Campfire Memories

Two - Continue the same routine  that your child is used to at home

My son always gets a TV show before bed and I see no reason why we shouldn't be able to continue this tradition while camping.  I get the whole "technology doesn't belong in the campsite" thing - so don't leave comments condemning me below, but we run our son wild while camping.  We go for hikes, he's on his bike off and on all day long, we play in creeks and jump in mud holes, and he chases his friends around for hours.  One simply can not say that our son isn't getting his fill of nature, exercise, or outdoor play when we are camping.  He gets to watch maybe 30 minutes of a comforting familiar TV show before bed (out of an entire 12+ hours outside).  It puts him to sleep and we have no battle.

Alternately, as our son gets older, it gets easier and easier to give him books to read by himself while he falls asleep.  A 2 or 3 year old can't read too many books by himself but a 4 year old can certainly entertain him or herself with a few picture books before bed.  We read our son a couple of stories before bed and then leave him with a handful of books to read by himself.  He puts himself to sleep when he is tired of reading.  This is part of our routine at home and so it follows us camping.

If baths are a normal part of your bed time routine, it is still possible to continue this tradition while camping as well.  See photo below and read the story above from last summer on Bathing in the Woods for more info there. 

Bedtime Stories at Camp
Bedtime Bath (Photo:  G. Duncan)

Three - Develop a special camping bedtime routine

My friend and Author of A Little Campy  has this to say about their family bedtime routine:
We have kind of a bedtime ritual for camping. After s'mores and some time around the campfire, slowing down the pace, we all make our way into the tent & we usually have a shadow show. The kids love it & always ask to have 1 before we go to sleep. Sometimes they take turns making up stories to tell. My daughter's stories go on forever evolving into around 3 stories stuck together. Everyone is about asleep by the time she wraps it up;)
Tricia says that she gives her boys headlamps. "I send them to bed together and they have 15 minutes with lights on to get all the excitement out. Then lights go out, and they can have their headlamps to read or whatever until they fall asleep."

Greta says, "our bedtime routine is to go for a walk or bike ride, eat a snack, wash up, read books by flashlight and lights out. sometimes I put on a movie and within 15 minutes my kids are asleep."

Lights are a comfort in a tent (Photo:  G. Duncan)

Four - Let the kids stay up until you all go to bed together

I have to confess that this is not one of my favourite tips on this list.  Adult "alone time" is VERY important to my husband and I.  We look forward to our son going to bed so that we can enjoy some down time where we don't have to play Mom and Dad.  If that makes us bad parents, then I guess we're bad parents.  However, I don't speak for everybody and I know this to be very successful and popular with a lot of families. 

Michelle says, "There's no rush for bed time at night. Hanging out at the campfire together is FUN!  Why should the kids be excluded?  All go to bed and wake together."

Kathy says, "unfortunately the only thing that seems to work for our family is for all of us to go to bed at the same time - which has major drawbacks but seems to be the only thing that works for us."

In the end, you do what ya gotta do for your own family without judgement towards what works for other families.  Letting my son stay up late wouldn't work for us because he always gets up at the same time.  He wouldn't sleep in longer in the morning if we let him stay up to enjoy the stars and campfire.  Therefore we'd just have a very grumpy boy the next day.  If however, this works for your family and creates a no-battle bedtime situation - go for it!

Mom and daughter enjoying the campfire together (Photo:  G. Duncan)

Five - Cuddle your kids to sleep and stay in the tent until they are out

This one differs from number four in that you put the kids to bed at their normal bed time and while you do go to bed with them, you generally come out of the tent once the kids are asleep.  (hopefully not two hours later)

The biggest problem with this one though is that many parents find themselves so tired, they end up falling asleep with the kids and never escaping.  (Perhaps not such a bad thing though if you are really that tired.)

Many families also find that to make things fair, they have to take turns on "tent duty," with mom going down early one night and then dad taking his turn the next.  If you are ok with this and don't mind missing campfire time with your spouse, this can work quite well.  Personally, I wouldn't enjoy camping if I didn't get to share the evenings with my husband so we don't practice this approach to bedtime.

Honest words from parents on the subject:
  • Getting our small boy to go to sleep in a tent is a challenge, but so far we've solved it by letting him cuddle up to daddy - which is hard on daddy's adult camping experience since he usually falls asleep too.
  • I just have to accept that in order for camping to be a success for my kids, it is not going to be the same as when I camped pre-kids.
  • I  usually stay with the kids until at least one of the three has fallen asleep. Given all the activity, and fresh air, that takes place camping, that usually doesn't take very long.
Do what ya gotta do for this to eventually happen! (Photo:  G. Duncan)

Six - Take a Pajama Walk, Hike, or Bike ride

Out cold!
If your youngest child isn't quite ready for bed yet, try putting him or her in pajamas, and then go for a short walk around the campground.  Make sure teeth are brushed before you head out and hopefully they will be ready to flop into their sleeping bags as soon as you get back to camp.  If you have a Chariot at your disposal, put your child to sleep while pushing them around the campground.  Then transfer them into the tent when they are out.  This always worked for my son when he was little.  10 minutes in his Chariot and he was out like a light.  

Michelle also has this to say:
Child carriers are great till the age of 4 at least. I will be bringing mine camping again this year and we'll go for a walk as needed to help bring on the sleep/naps.
Some families might also want to consider taking a pajama car ride.  Most kids pass out when they are in the car so if you are really desperate, pile into the car and take off for a short drive around the countryside.  Just make sure you can get back into the campground and that you won't be locked out past a set time.

Going for a Walk and Ready for Bed

Seven -  Stagger bedtimes and split the kids up

Parents of multiple kids will tell you that you can't put them down at the same time in a small tent or trailer if they aren't used to sharing a bedroom at home.  Stagger bed times, put up a barrier between the kids, use two tents, or even set up a second bed in the back of your vehicle - whatever you have to do to split the kids up!  One of my friends regularly puts her youngest to sleep in his car seat in their truck until he's asleep and she can transfer him into the trailer.  You eventually figure something out because otherwise the only option is to accept that you won't sleep while camping. 

I love Alyssa of the Kid Project's words:
Having three kids, ages 3, 5 and 6 sometimes we have to get creative. No matter how tired they are, they will still start a disco dance party in the tent if left to their own devices. We stagger sleeping times...putting the youngest to bed first, etc. We've also tried setting up our backpacks as "walls" so they cannot see each other.
Abbie says, "We put their sleeping bags on opposite sides of the tent with parents in the middle so there is less direct contact!"

Raechel says, "We always try to get them to go to sleep separately.  An absolute must!   My husband and I  sleep with one kid on each end of the trailer."

Greta says, "We separate the kids to get them to sleep (ie. opposite sides of the camper), then move them together when we go to bed."

Sleeping in the back of the truck with my son when he was a baby

Camping with multiple tents can be a great way to split kids up.  (Photo:  B. Rosa)

Eight - Learn to relax!

Perhaps these wise words from the author of Family on a Bike say it best:
Sometimes just have a glass of wine and let them giggle, chat or fight themselves to sleep!
Holly says, "We expect that our kids will talk & laugh, and be silly while they fall asleep, but that's part of the fun!" 

And Amanda says, "When we go on vacation, or the kids have a sleepover at their grandparent's house, or we go camping, it's a special treat that they get to sleep in the same room, or even the same bed! Because it's an exceptional night to begin with, we usually let them stay up a little bit past their bed time. Bonus - they're more tired and ready for sleep. And we try to remember that it's exceptional. So, if they chat for a bit, or read each other stories - it's fine! Our rule for the kids is that they need to stay in bed (on backs or bums). Our rule for us is to remember they'll fall asleep when they're tired and wake up when they wake up."
I'm not always so good at this one but wise words from fellow parents.

Not quite ready for bed!

Nine - Tire the kids out before bed

This may have been the most popular answer when I polled readers for tips and I love Greta's answer:
The main thing is to play them long and hard all day so they are so tired they can't keep their eyes open even if they want to ;)  
Shannon says, "We make sure we take the kids for a long hike during the day, do a campfire song and finish with a story! This helps my kiddos go to bed."

Kathy says, "Wear the kids out, make sure they get plenty of running around/play time before bed.  If you drive out after work, set up tent and then go straight to bed, the kids will not want to settle."

I can't agree more with this one.  Tired kids are sleepy kids.  End of story.

Nothing wrong with a game of Pajama Soccer before bed

Ten - Make mornings a big deal

No matter how poorly I sleep, I always look forward to breakfast because I know that there will be hot coffee, pancakes, sausages and bacon.  We always turn breakfast into a feast when camping and sometimes this alone gets me through the dark night if I get a  bad sleep.

I also recommend choosing a sunny campsite that will get the first rays of the morning sun.  This way your spirits will be rejuvenated even if you don't sleep well. 

Yay for Breakfast!

Special Scenarios - The Camp Crier

Some extra advise from parents just like you for those special little kids who won't stop crying at 2am:
  • For the night time criers we bring along a battery powered white noise machine and put it on each night. Kids seem to sleep more deeply.
  • Never go for just one night.  The first night anywhere is always the hardest to get kids settled, so if you only ever camp for one night, you never get to the good nights. 
  • I always bring Tylenol/Oragel because if my kids are up crying ALL night, then something is usually wrong (ie. new teeth, etc.)

Perhaps Kathy says it best: 
It happens, and there's not a lot you can do about it. I've tried to comfort, read stories, and gone for walks in the middle of the night, but, the more camping you do the better this is likely to get. And keep in mind that if your kids aren't great sleepers at home, they probably won't be camping either, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go.  Choose more secluded spots, or camp next to hard sided trailers where the people are less likely to hear you.  Or figure, too bad, you are doing the best you can, and at least you are out there teaching your children to love the outdoors and not sitting at home.
Sometimes this is all you can do.

Special Scenarios - The Camp Early Bird

Do you have a child who wakes up at 5 or 6am every morning?  I've been there and it's not easy or fun.  But there are a few things you can do to help make the most of a less than ideal situation.

Here are a few suggestions from parents just like you and me:
  • Take a walk together and enjoy watching the sun come up together, listen to the birds, and savor the quiet - even if it is at 5:30am.
  • Bring books to read or play in the tent until camp starts to wake up.
  • Get up, take the camera and kids for a hike to watch the sunrise. That way at least one parent gets a good sleep. Swap it up for the next night.
  • My husband will often get up with him and take our son canoeing to watch the sunrise, if that's an option. If its really cold (we are tent campers) they sometime go for a drive.  
  • I would keep the iPod with a few stories on it so my son could listen to those or music. 
  • We keep the portable DVD player in the tent and let our son watch a movie quietly until it's warm enough to go outside. 

She's happy and it beats walking around the campground at 5am in bear country! (Photo:  G. Duncan)

Additional Inspiration

My friend Melissa with Adventure Tykes has also written a story about sleeping and camping.  Check out her story, Confronting Bedtime Intimidations While Camping,  for more information on the following:
  • Staying warm at night
  • Night time safety
  • Special camping gear for a good night's sleep
  • Further tips on how to get the kids to go to sleep

Getting creative about camping naps
Thanks everybody for your input in this story and for all the great suggestions that helped build this compilation of ideas.   All comments and other suggestions of a respectful nature are welcome below.


  1. Great post. We have done almost all of these at one time or another. I usually cuddle with Evan for a while and then leave him to go to sleep. He gets to stay up later than normal but still has to go to bed early (or he'll be a bear the next day). We have a solar system on our trailer so we often used a white noise machine and we brought baby monitors for times when the campfire was farther away. It gave us that extra security that he was safe, sound and asleep!

    1. Thanks Merry. The baby monitors are a great idea! What kind of solar system do you have and how does it work? I've been wondering about one.

  2. Awesome post chalked full of very useful info. My family has tried camping with our very young children twice and both times I wouldn't call successful. We are going to try a week again this summer in Jasper. Will be trying your tips.

    1. Thanks Bonnie. Let me know how it goes and email me if you have other specific questions or challenges.

  3. I agree with keeping up routine. We try to keep things the same when we are away from home and it really helps.

  4. All great tips- especially the "stick it out" one. I have an almost-5-year-old who has been camping since she was 4 weeks old and an 8-month-old. We also keep the routines the same (minus the technology- we have a no technology in camp rule). Also, repetition works. My older child is a fantastic camper because she has done it so much. I have also been known to make laps around the campground at midnight with a baby in an Ergo. One thing we sometimes us- children's melatonin and chamomile. We are not frequent users of it but sometimes older children just can't wind down and they will end up waking up when the younger child does (aka 6am). That's a recipe for an insanely cranky older child who doesn't want to hike/bike/etc. the next day. So yeah. Children's melatonin. When you're desperate, it WORKS.

    P.S. I am also a fan of the "adult time around the campfire". We have been doing it since our oldest was a baby. It doesn't even phase her anymore.

  5. Great tips and super-cute photos!!

  6. Great tips! I'm hoping we can try camping at least once this summer. I've admittedly been too nervous. I haven't been camping in years, so I'm not even sure what I'd do with my kids, let alone myself. Love the picture of M and K in the tub!

    1. I could probably do a whole series on M and K in the tub and get tons of traffic to my camping stories, lol. Everybody loves that shot!!

  7. Wow, what a great post! It's not the kids who have problems sleeping when we camp.. it's me! Sigh.

    1. I'm the same Julie. Maybe that will be my next post - how do get mom to sleep. ;)

  8. Great post Tanya! Will definitely try out some of your tips. My kids usually pass out from hiking all day. It's either really easy or really hard. Our first experience camping with our 6 month old son was AWFUL but we didn't let us deter from camping again. Each time we learn something new. I wish we had alone adult time after the kids fall asleep but we are usually even more tired than they are! LOL!

    1. Agree, my son is always pretty tired too and begging to go to bed. And yes, I'm always just as tired as he is.

  9. Thank you so much! First camping trip with a disaster this year, so very timely and great ideas to try next time!

  10. We haven't camped a ton, but we enjoy it. But... Following up on your comment above... How do you get mom to sleep? My biggest problem is waking up with an aching back. Also, if someone rolls into you, is it okay to push them until they get out of your space, even if you risk both of you being awake instead of just one?

    1. lol, I sleep dreadfully in a tent so we bought a trailer. Now I sleep better camping than I do at home. I'm afraid I don't have many suggestions for you. I'm too old personally to sleep on the ground anymore.