Camping With Young Kids – Frugal Folly?

My wife & I have two young kids, age three and four. One family activity we’d like to get into is camping. As in sleeping in a tent, campfire, cook your own food on a Coleman camping stove. Of course, not everyone likes camping, but I think it’s a lot of fun.

Camping is much more affordable than staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. That said, camping isn’t necessarily all that cheap. We were fortunate to get most of our camping gear as hand-me-downs, but we are still buying a few items. If you have to buy all the equipment new, it would be fairly expensive. Camping site fees are not that cheap either.

Last fall, we went camping one night at Darlington (a bit east of Toronto) as an “experiment” just to see what it would be like with the kids. It was close enough that if things went too far downhill, we could easily bail and go home. As it turns out, it was a lot of fun.

So far this year, we camped one night at Glen Rouge, which is right inside Toronto (Kingston Road at the border of Scarborough and Pickering) and will be doing a weekend trip to Awenda (two hours from Toronto) in August. I wasn’t that impressed by Glen Rouge and would rather drive the extra 20 minutes to Darlington in the future.

I had hoped to go camping more frequently this summer, but after the Glen Rouge trip, it was apparent that maybe we aren’t ready for regular camping trips.

The kids had fun, but just because they are having fun doesn’t mean they were well behaved. 🙂 Camping is a lot of work – you have to bring the shelter, food, cooking utensils and doing everything yourself. Having everyone in close quarters can take a bit of getting used to. Add a couple of young kids to the mixture and it can be quite a challenge.

I’m hopeful that as the kids get a bit older, it will be a bit easier to do a proper camping trip and we can go more often.

In the meantime, one option is to just do day trips to local parks. This doesn’t work that well for Toronto, but we were recently in Northern Ontario and spent part of a day at Fairbanks Provincial Park . It is a beautiful park and has a great beach which is perfect for swimming. There are canoes you can borrow and a few trails to explore. We checked out the campsites and there are a lot of nice private sites.

If you can do a day trip to a park, then you get enjoy some of the good things about camping, but there is a lot less hassle.

Have you tried camping with young kids? Was it fun or a disaster?  Got any tips for me?

30 replies on “Camping With Young Kids – Frugal Folly?”

Camping with kids is quite simple:

1) Drop kids off at sleep over camp with councillors and such
2) Go to a hotel and enjoy the company of my wife.

Simple, isn’t it?

Mrs. SPF grew up camping with her family and I did some family camping as well. Camping is something Mrs. SPF wants us to do a lot more of (aside from the 4 nights we spend @ the annual music festival we attend) – starting next summer when lil’ SPF won’t even be a year old yet. We’ll see how it goes …

I suggest you look into getting to more places away from the GTA. There are a lot of good campgrounds east of Toronto to look into.

You’ll love Awenda! We took our kids camping a lot when they were under 10 and we found it a lot easier (and more fun) if we went with another family with kids. If both families arrive at the same time, one person can keep an eye on the kids (who are happy to see each other and play with each other) while 3 people can set up camp. Even if you just take turns looking after each others’ kids so one set of parents can set up their camp and the other theirs (taking turns), it helps.

Do the camping for the fun of it, not to save money. If you camp to save money, you’ll be thinking: “Camping is a lot of work – you have to bring the shelter, food, cooking utensils and doing everything yourself. ”

If you camp for fun, you’ll be thinking: “We get to set up a tent, and sleep in sleeping bags and cook out over the fire – this is fun!”

As for being frugal…all those expenses for camping equipment and nightly fees for a couple weeks costs less than staying in a hotel and eating out for just one week. And the next year, you already have your equipment.

If it seems all too much…camp out in your backyard the first time. You get the tent and sleeping bag, but the convenience of everything in your house.

My wife and I camp every year at Moyie Lake (, which is just outside of Cranbrook. It takes us just over 3 hours to get there from Lethbridge.

We’ve been every year since our daughter was born (she was just 10 weeks old the first time we took her camping). Last year was as struggle, she got car sick on the way there which made the trip unpleasant. We had to bring so much stuff with us that we spent more time packing and unpacking than anything.

Luckily, we’ve tagged along with my in-laws who have a trailer. Our daughter slept inside with them and we used the tent.

Camping is definitely not cheap but we will continue to make it a yearly tradition since it’s a lot of fun if you find a spot you really enjoy. Adding young kids to the mix is definitely a challenge. We just have one, I can’t imagine how you did it with two.

@SPF – I think the key is to take it slow. You’re right – east of TO, there are lots of good places. Over time, we’ll check some of them out.

@Echo – That place looks pretty good. Good point about the amount of “stuff”. There really is a lot. We don’t have a large vehicle, so I’m planning to buy a roof bag which should help quite a bit.

If you have to bring baby stuff as well, that would get pretty crazy. 🙂 We are at a point where we don’t have to bring much extra stuff for the kids other than clothes etc. No more diapers, playpens, a million toys…

@Tracey – Glad to hear the vote of confidence for Awenda. Great tip about camping with other people. In fact, we are going to Awenda with two other families that each have two kids the same ages as ours. Should be fun.

@David – We considered camping in the backyard, but we’re afraid of the raccoons. 🙂

@Echo – Yes, CT has everything. Mountain Equipment Coop is another place where you can spend as much as you want on camping stuff.

We are actually looking at a buying a pop-up camper to use for our family, probably starting next year. We went last year when we just had our son, who was one at the time, and it was fun. We’re not going to get out this year because of the new one-month old, but we think moving forward it could be a lot of fun for our family.

If you’re looking to save money, camping in upstate New York or Michigan is the way to go. Camping fees in state parks are half of what they are in the provincial parks in Ontario.

I would love to go camping but my hubby is like a hothouse flower, he requires a certain temperature and humidity or he wilts.

I can’t imagine what an unpleasant time I would have camping with him in a tent in the woods, with bugs and so on. He would be totally miserable.

I’m another story… but camping in a campground with a bunch of people seems really self defeating, I don’t want to see anyone on my camping trip, just some woods.

This comment was emailed from Mortgage Jake:

Great post. Having just had a kid I look forward to algonquin trips, but from talking w friends who have them, seems 7 or up is the ideal age to get them into that heavy-duty camping.

Mountain equipment co-op has an online gear swap ad space you could check good quality used camping gear out at!

When our kids were small, we went car camping, mostly at provincial parks. We did find it a challenge cramming all the gear in the car, and sleeping on the ground was less fun as time went on.

We ended up buying a popup trailer, and thats made the experience much more fun. You can keep most of the gear you need in the trailer, and bring just food clothes and sleeping bags in the van. Our first pup had two double beds and a dinette that turns into a single, Ibought for $600 used. Our second, that had a queen size bed, was more, about $3000, but it was much newer. Sure a lot of money, but if they alternative is renting a cottage or staying in a motel, its not so bad over time.

You can get much of what you need used, or watch for sales, CT often sells things at half price.

We have had some fantastic experiences in Ontario parks, and created some memories for a lifetime.

@Money Beagle & @James – Yes, we’ll certainly consider a pop-up sometime in the future. For now, we will just use tents and see how it goes.

@Peter – Thanks for the tip.

@Rachelle – Leave your hubby at home. 😉

This comment was emailed by Beth

Loved this post as it brings back memories — actually current ones as well. Young kids have a great time camping, for the parents, it’s hard. My kids are now 10, 14 and 15, the eldest is now working as a camp counsellor.

For every summer for the past … can’t recall years, we’ve been going to Voyageur Park in Ontario. It’s a measly 45 minutes from home but as you say if you need to bail (which we did one year when the youngest got strep) it’s a breeze. You get to know the camp ground, and each year you discover something new.

Advice? Don’t take too much, don’t stay too long (with young kids), assign them small tasks that keep them busy while setting up and even later in the day. We always told our kids that it’s a “family” camping trip, not a Mom and Dad set up and do all the work camping trip. It’s a breeze now that they can set up their own tents and take care of a lot of stuff themselves. We still cook, but we now have dishwashers and such. AND we are preparing them for when they find like minded friends who like camping. It’s a great activity for kids, keeps them off the streets, and fills them with self worth and the feeling they can do it themselves.

Thank you for all the information and I hope I gave you some tips. Remember one thing, when kids are young, they don’t really remember everything as they grow. So, short hops and trips are great. When they turn 7+, that’s when the real fun begins.

I camped often with my children and now started with my grandchildren. My children are grown and have their own families and take them camping. For all my grandchildren the annual canoe camping trip is the hilite of the summer and unlike all there playmates they aren’t squimish about snakes, bugs, spiders and all the things that go bump in the night. Practising no trace camping also instills an enviromental awareness that carries over into their city life.

I love taking the kids to a picnic or day trip but camping will have to wait a few more years.

I have fond memories of camping with friends in the Adirondacks and White Mountains. Will to fun to do it with the kids when they are a wee bit older.

My boyfriend and I go camping every year, but this year we haven’t got organized enough to make a reservation.

Camping IS a lot of work, come to think of it. My least favourite part is washing dirty camp dishes with cold water and no dishgloves (haha, I guess I’m a bit of a princess that way).

I enjoy camping with my family. We don’t allow video games or MP3 players. We talk, hike, swim and play card/board games together. It removes much of the daily ratrace and allows us to just be together, doing things together.

It also gives my wife and I a chance to teach them things about caring for nature, the spirit of adventure, the challenges of long swims or difficult hikes. The costs isn’t the cheapest thing in the world, but the price has always been worth it. Even camping in a major hail storm resulted in some great memories as we pitched in to help other campers around us recover their tents.

Darlington. 🙂 My parents stay there whenever they visit us (we’re in Oshawa). My mom was taken aback by all the skunks- did you guys see many skunks? We were a little taken aback by the noise of the highway when we camped there ourselves. My husband and I are thinking of camping at Sandbanks this year and certainly next. We haven’t been yet but apparently the beach is amazing for toddlers as it is extremely shallow for quite a long ways out. It also isn’t too far.

That’s for the post. Some great ideas/advice for camping with kids from readers.

We just got back from our trip to Presqu’ile with our three boys, 3, 7, and 9, and I swore I would never go again. The three-year old is two and a half handfuls. The problem was that we were trying to do the same things and the same set up as we did before having kids. You just can’t do that. They aren’t quite old enough that they can be assigned their own tasks, but this is a great suggestion for when they’re older.

Anyway, we’re going to try it again, at least one more time this summer, but we’re simplifying things a great deal. No more cooking there, at least with fire or stove. Foods will be all (more or less) prepared and refrigerated. Sandwiches, cold salads, peanut butter and jam, etc., and raw veggies (grape tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, etc.). This eliminates much of the food prep and clean up work.

Also, we always set up a screen house. No more. More insect repellent. More eating on the beach (fewer mosquitoes). This eliminates more of the setup work.

We’re hoping this will work better, especially with the three-year-old.

We took our oldest to Bon Echo PP for the first time when he was 6 months old. Our second was all of 3 months when we went to Algonquin (just Canisbay Lake car camping). Every year we went camping for a couple of weekends and at least one 5-7 day trip each year. Again, just “car camping”, but we have been to Sleeping Giant (Thunder Bay) and to Charleston Lake PP and many parks in between.

For us, the destination is the experience, not saving money (although that was part of the benefit). My list of “tips for success” would be:

(1) Don’t buy your core camping equipment (tents, bags) at Canadian Tire. The product is cheap, does not keep you dry or warm if you get damp. We paid $300 for our first tent in 1987 and we still use that tent for the boys. Our current gear (2 tents, dining shelter, bags, stove) represent an investment of over $1,500 over the last 24 years, worth every penny on a rainy day.

(2) Be ready for any weather. There were many rainy days over the years where we had to hunker down and having the right gear (see point #1) makes it a dry experience.

(3) In the early years we also invited my wife’s niece to come along as a “babysitter” to ride herd on the boys when we had to cook and take care of the campsite. She got to experience the outdoors, we enjoyed having her around.

(4) Pick the right place to go. Awenda is a great choice, but high on the list (for a young family) would be Bon Echo, Fairbank, Arrowhead, and most of the Algonquin campgrounds along the Hwy 60 corridor. Bonus there is that there are a number of diversions (Visitor Center, etc) for those rainy or “I’m bored” days. We are also very partial to Bruce Peninsula, but when the young ones are a bit older.

All the camping accoutrements and equipment are not that cheap initially, unless you get them used, but over time they amortize nicely. It goes from semi-frugal to quite frugal. We don’t camp as much as we used when the boys were in Cub Scouts, but are now looking at a small travel trailer for a little more comfort.

@Marianne – We didn’t see any skunks the time we went. I should clarify that I think it’s a good campground in the context that it’s a short drive from Toronto. We got there in 50 minutes which I thought was pretty good. It certainly isn’t as good as a lot of other parks.

I’ve heard Sandbanks is excellent, but you have to book way in advance. We should look into it for next year.

@Bob – That’s a funny comment. Little boys are just trouble. 😉

I agree with less cooking. When we went recently, we made some kraft dinner ahead of time so we just had to warm it up on the stove. Much easier.

What was the problem with the screen house? I was thinking of getting one. Did the kids not want to stay in it?

@Gary – Thanks for the advice. A babysitter would be great.

@101 Centavos – Yes, over time the equipment becomes very cheap.

Gary N, I agree with you about the equipment, even though a lot of our equipment does come from CT.

Mike, the screen shelter was just another piece of equipment that I needed to set up, along with everything else, since my wife would be occupied with entertaining the boys. The three year-old went in and out of it so often that the bugs were free to come in at any time. Since we aren’t planning to do any more cooking there, meals can be done anywhere, even right at the beach.

Trying to remember to pack everything I need especially for a wilderness camping trip is difficult so I prepared a list of things I might need. I couls send you my list as .pdf file or similar lists are available on the Internet. Doesn’t seem any way to attach a file to this reply

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