By Malia Jacobson
When it comes to family vacations, I’m all for keeping kids as well-rested as possible. After all, nobody wants to travel with a whiny, overtired child, right? But when your vacation destination is a campsite, things get a bit hairy.
Camping presents some unique sleep hurdles. For starters, here in the Northwestern US, the summer sun shines from around 5 a.m. to past 10 p.m. At home, you can block the rays from bedrooms, but that there’s virtually no way to block the brilliant sun from invading your tent. Or the 4 a.m. birdsongs, which are lovely — except when you want just 15 more minutes of precious shut-eye. Add stifling or chilling temperatures (depending on your locale), the close proximity of other (loud) campers, road noise and relatively minimal creature comforts, and it’s no wonder camping kids have trouble sleeping well.
I should know — I just returned from an island camping trip with two little campers who happen to be light sleepers. Our friends advised us to just “let them go until they crash,” but that’s not an option for us. Our oldest actually asks to be put to bed around the same time each night (and she goes from pleasantly sleepy to painfully overtired in a flash). As for our adventurous toddler, “going until she crashes” would entail traipsing into neighboring campsites, befriending strange dogs, upending the trashbag and pitching plates and cutlery into the campfire until WE finally crashed from exhaustion. We had to figure out a way to get them to bed at a decent hour, bellowing birds and brutally late sunsets be darned.
With some planning and some patience, we did. Yes, the process took a bit longer than our at-home bedtimes, but the fun we had on our trip was well worth it. So don’t let fear of sleepless nights keep you from wandering into the wilderness (or maybe a local well-equipped campground) with kids in tow. Camping is a memorable family experience no kid should miss. Here are a few ways to support healthy sleep so kids have energy for hiking, swimming, and s’mores eating.
Beat the heat — or find some heat
If nighttime temperatures at your destination run above 70 degrees F or below 50, kids may be too warm or cold to sleep comfortably. The ideal temperature for sleep is between 60 and 68 degrees, and bodies that are too hot or cold have trouble cycling through the phases of sleep.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, nights are cool even at the height of summer. A friend of mine swears by the family bed during camping trips to keep everyone toasty at night — one king-size air mattress, parents, kids, body heat and lots of blankets. During 45 degree nights in our tent, I kept my petite 2-year-old warm with footed fleece pajamas and a hooded sweatshirt layered on top. I didn't overdo the blankets — as she kicks them off anyway — but I did drape a large, lightweight blanket over her pack-and-play. The blanket helped insulate her “mini-bedroom” and had a nice side-effect of blocking some light, too.
You can always pile on more blankets when cold temps nip your toes, but stale warm air is harder to escape. On warm nights, sending kids to bed after a cool shower (or swimming session) can jump-start the body’s natural cooling process that helps initiate sleep. For a cool tent, keep it as dark as possible during the daylight hours. When the outside air begins to cool in the early evening, open your tent’s windows and doors to let the cool air in. Here, summer temperatures tend to peak around 5 p.m. and plummet after 6, making the hours between 6 and 9 p.m. ideal for tent-cooling breezes.
One reason camping is tough on sleep is that children rely so heavily on environmental cues (like light and temperature) to bring on relaxation and sleep, and inside a tent, the environment is tough to control. But sound is one environmental cue you can employ while camping. If you use a white noise machine or music player during your child’s bedtime routine, get some batteries and bring it along. White noise is like an invisible teddy bear for your child—it can comfort her and create a sense of familiarity when she’s sleeping in an unfamiliar spot and help drown out the loud late-night gabfest taking place two campsites over. If possible, try to choose a campsite away from main roads, bathrooms, campsite entrances, and other potentially loud gathering spots.
Put in for a transfer
After an action-packed outdoor day, your little one might conk out in the car, stroller, or carrier. Or you might purposely walk or drive a fidgety child to sleep. This could make for an ultra-easy bedtime — if you transfer him to bed without waking him, that is.
Timing matters: the best time to move him to his bed is 20-30 minutes after he begins snoozing. Too soon, and he may still be in a light sleep and prone to wake when moved. Too late, and he may be preparing to start a new sleep cycle, which also makes him more prone to wake (kids are notorious for waking at the 45-minute mark). You’re aiming for complete immobility and deep, even breathing — think rag-doll floppy sleep. Now, ease that slumbering kiddo into his sleeping bag. Slooooowly coax the tent zipper shut. Then prop your feet up for a well-earned moment of R&R, and a s’mores or three. You earned it.
Happy trails, campers! Do your kids sleep better or worse when camping? If you have tips for helping kids sleep well in the great outdoors, I’d love to hear them!
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published freelance writer who blogs about parenting and health at thewellrestedfamily.com, where this post originally appeared.