Get the tents out of storage, shake out the sleeping bags and head for the campgrounds. Temperatures are on the rise and nature is calling. But before you load up the minivan and head for the great outdoors, Michelle Terry, MD, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, has some tips to keep you and your family safe and well while camping. When you’re camping with small children, Terry advises parents to follow the three P’s – planning, preparation and precaution.

Planning: Where to start?

Camping can be a lot of fun – setting up tents, roasting marshmallows by the fire, exploring nature – but a poorly planned camping trip can quickly turn into a nightmare.

Plan ahead based on your family’s experience and expectations. Find a campground that fits with your family’s comfort level and match the amenities of the campground with your family’s needs.

“Camping in a familiar area with quick access to extra supplies can take some of the stress out of your trip,” says Terry.

Plan for all types of weather. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, conditions can change quickly. “Families should prepare for temperatures ranging from the 40s to the 80s, and of course prepare for rain,” Terry advises.

Preparation: Time to pack

Proper packing is key to a successful camping trip. ”Practice packing supplies before you leave for the official camping trip,” says Terry. “School-aged children should be responsible for packing their own gear at home.” Just be sure to double check your child’s bag before heading out.

For a safe and fun camping trip, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that parents start with the essentials:

Shelter and bedding

  • Bedding, including a base layer, sleeping bags and extra blankets. Keep in mind that inflatable mattresses may not keep you as warm as yoga mats, closed-cell pads or self-inflating pads
  • Tent and plastic ground cloth

Clothing and skin protection

  • Lightweight, light-colored clothing, including long sleeves and pants
  • Wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses
  • Warm clothing for layering, like sweatshirts, coats and rain gear
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Extra set of clothes
  • Insect repellent containing DEET for skin
  • Permethrin insect repellent for clothing
  • Broad-spectrum sunscreen and lipscreen with SPF 15 or higher

Food and drinks

  • Healthy on-the-go snacks and other food
  • Water and other alcohol-free and sugar-free fluids
  • Insulated cooler – Food should be stored and consumed at the proper temperature. Bring a cooler, but plan on eating things that do not need refrigeration, like cereals, bagels, peanut butter, trail mix, pretzels, dried fruit, fresh fruit and vegetables.

Other necessities

  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Toothbrushes, toothpaste, eyeglasses, other toiletries and medicines
  • Life jackets, helmets, and other protective gear
  • First-aid kit
  • Compass or GPS
  • Map
  • Flashlights
  • Extra batteries
  • Medical records, including vaccinations; insect, food, plant, and other allergies; diseases and conditions; medicines, dosing schedules, and storage instructions; emergency contacts; and activities your doctor or nurse says to avoid

Precaution: Safety tips for the campsite

Camping comes with hazards – insects, wildlife, fires and food-related illness. To help prevent injury, be aware of your surroundings when you’re camping. Arrive at the campsite before twilight and take a tour of the grounds. If you’re camping with little ones, make sure the campsite is cleared of sharp rocks, matches, knives, glass or garbage left behind by other campers.

Debris can easily make its way into a child’s curious hands or mouth, says Terry. “Be on the constant look out for potential choking hazards – babies older than three months like to put things in their mouths.” Keep medicines, repellents, roasting sticks, the camp ax and other dangerous things you may have brought out of the reach of children during your trip. Also, be alert for plants that could cause skin irritation or a harmful reaction, like poison ivy.

Be sure to set boundaries for children. For example, “Do not pass this tree without mom or dad,” says Terry. Children should always be supervised, especially in the wilderness where there are steep hills, rocks, streams and lakes. “Consider bringing a portable play pen, a standing seat, or a back carrier. Set up the play area away from the fire pit, open water and the cooking area,” says Terry.

Camp fires are usually the staple of any camping trip, but parents should think safety first before lighting up the tinder. “No one should ever leave a camp fire unattended, and children should always be watched closely around fire. Also, make sure the fire is extinguished before everyone turns in for the night,” says Terry.

Lastly, never use fuel-burning equipment such as gas stoves, heaters, lanterns, and charcoal grills inside a tent, camper, or other enclosed shelter. It can cause dangerous levels of carbon monoxide to build up. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless and can cause death.

For first-time campers

If your family is new to camping, don’t panic. Week-long treks through the Cascades aren’t for everyone. Start small. “Practice camping at home: pitch a tent in the backyard or even inside your home,” says Terry.

Parents can also plan a day outing to help kids adjust to the idea of camping. “Try a family day outing at a park close to home. Spend a half-day or so and see how your kids react to extended outdoor excursions.”

How young is too young?

“E is for experience – experience as parents and as campers,” says Terry.

There are no official guidelines for determining whether a child is too young for camping, but Terry recommends that parents not take a baby camping when temperatures at night can drop below 50 degrees: “Babies lose heat more quickly than older children and adults. Early symptoms of hypothermia include: shivering; cold, pale, or blue-gray skin; decreased alertness.” High altitude is another concern. Don’t take babies above 2,500 feet elevation. It will be cold and a baby may have trouble breathing.

Sleeping arrangements are another consideration. “According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, co-sleeping is not officially sanctioned because of risk of sudden infant death syndrome,” Terry says. “Practically speaking, an infant should be old enough to sleep for a period of time in his or her own portable crib, without too many nighttime awakenings.”

Camping can be a great way to bond with the family, but parents should think about safety before heading for the campground this year. Remember the three 3 P’s – planning, preparation and precaution.


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If you’d like to arrange an interview with Dr. Terry, please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at