The secret lies in planning ahead and relaxing once you're there.
Camping with mobile infants and toddlers is not easy; I'm not going to sugarcoat it. As a parent, you have to be utterly determined to get outdoors and enjoy the experience, while being prepared for the enormous amount of effort it requires -- but the end result makes it so worthwhile! You'll have great memories from a weekend unlike any other, and your kids will revel in the freedom, the wonders of the outdoors, and the nonstop company of their parents.
Having done many camping trips over the years with my own small children, I have learned a thing or two about how to make it go more smoothly. Here are my own thoughts, as well as others gathered from online discussions. Please note, my experience revolves around car camping, not canoe tripping or backpacking.
1. Pack the right clothes. Quantity doesn't matter so much as quality and having the right kind of gear. Staying dry is very important, so bring good raincoats, rain pants, and rubber boots. Pack warm clothes that can be layered, and practical close-toed shoes for hiking. Bring adequate sun and bug protection and swim gear. Pack a sleeping sack for babies and warm PJs so they stay warm at night.
2. Pack everything in separate boxes, according to categories. Use something like Rubbermaid containers or Action Packers, a good investment if you do this kind of thing regularly. If you have multiple kids, it makes it easier to pull out the 'rain gear' box or the 'toy' box, without having to rifle through individual backpacks.
3. Plan all meals in advance, and bring extra. Hanging out in a campground, there is a tendency to graze and snack more. I usually double the number of snacks I bring, just because I know we'll snack somewhat out of (happy) boredom. The more meal prep you can do in advance, the faster and more satisfying meals will be prepared.
4. Bring some entertainment. It's one thing to assume your kids will be entertained by nature's glories all around, but in reality they'll need other things to do, too. Pack shovels for digging holes (a must for my boys), beach toys, trucks for playing in the dirt, a soccer ball, frisbee, compact board games, a fresh set of books from the library, a nature identification guide and magnifying glass.
5. Plan for containment. If you have a crawling baby or a roaming toddler, you'll want to keep him or her contained for some periods of time. Bring a playpen along and set it up outside. Spread an old picnic blanket on the ground to designate a boundary and arrange it with toys. You could even bring a small inflatable wading pool and let him or her crawl around. (On hot days, fill it up or use a large Rubbermaid as a splash zone.) I always bring a carrier of some kind so the baby/toddler can hang out on my back while I cook in the campsite; it also allows us to go on longer hikes. Pack folding chairs if you have room; having a comfy place to sit encourages kids to settle down in front of a campfire, rather than running wildly around it.
6. Don't forget soap and towels. Kids get filthy while camping, and that's how it should be, but you'll want to scrub them before bed. One suggestion I like is to bring a small amount of laundry detergent so you can wash single articles of clothing as needed.
7. Learn how to "weather" the weather. Everyone wants sunshine on a camping trip, but that's not always the case. Have a list of emergency activities you can do if the weather takes a turn for the worse. On my family's week-long camping trip to Manitoulin Island, Ontario, it rained every day, so we went on excursions to all the little neighboring towns to see what we could find. We discovered a farmer's market, a fabulous used bookstore, a giant outdoor chess game, a chocolate factory, a community theatre putting on free productions. Be open to experiences and they will come.
8. Don't stress about the schedule. If you're used to putting kids to bed early, you may need to let go of that urge for a few nights. Now is not the time to work on sleep-training. Unless you have an exhausted baby who really needs to go to sleep and you can take the time to lie down with, let them enjoy an evening campfire, roasting marshmallows, looking at the stars, playing tag in the dark. Then all go to sleep together, snuggled up in the tent. As someone who never co-sleeps with my kids, some of my favorite memories come from those early mornings together in the tent, all waking up together and listening to the day begin.
How do you prepare for a camping trip with babies and small children?