Tent camping with a toddler: the right gear

Remember when I sketched out our summer adventure plans, and going camping was high on our list? Well, we’ve been having trouble getting started. We decided to start with a test night in the backyard and haven’t even managed to do that. I just couldn’t get beyond the knowledge that we’d all have a terrible night sleep, with our toddler crashing into us and numerous checks to make sure she wasn’t smothered by pillows or bedding. Finally, after reading reviews of happy camping families who set up pack ‘n’ plays in their tents, I realized what the problem was: our tent is too small!

My parents gave me our 2-3 person Sierra Designs Lookout CD tent 15 years ago as a high school graduation present. Adam and I have camped the heck out of that tent, from our first road trip to Ontario and Manitoba, to our honeymoon in Jasper National Park (where it snowed!), to a dozen Boundary Waters and Superior Hiking Trail trips, and to Olympic National Park in Washington and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. After all that it’s still in perfect condition, minus a dotting of smashed mosquito and a couple of bent tent stakes.

Our Sierra Designs Lookout CD tent on a Boundary Waters trip.

So last weekend we piled in the car and went to REI. (REI has treated us well on returns even years after the warranty has expired, so we like to start there.) The store was bustling with anniversary sale shoppers, but a salesperson talked us through the options and became so excited about one that he took us to a meeting room space to set it up. As one who hates to read instruction manuals, having a pro show me how to set it up was a blessing. The tent (the REI Half Dome 4 person) went up quickly and after few test lies by my 6’2” husband, we felt confident that the tent had enough room for years to come. (We don’t actually envision setting up a pack ‘n’ play in the tent, but with the extra space we’ll be able to spread out and sleep well.)

I was expecting to see great advances in tent technology after 15 years, but things hadn’t changed too much. Both the REI Half Dome and the old Sierra Designs tent have light aluminum poles, the ability to hang gear from the inside top of the tent, side mesh pockets, and fitted footprints. The biggest difference is the new tent is lighter (our 15-month-old was able to lift it), and the tent body has more mesh (we’re hoping this means it’s cooler in the summer). Also, due to the bigger size, the new tent is taller, so it’s possible to sit up! After changing clothes partially hunched over for years this is amazing.

With the 20% off from the anniversary sale, we were sold. I’d read some reviews online beforehand to feel good enough about the purchase, and later learned from a Consumer Reports-reading; spreadsheet-making friend that he’d bought the same tent and it was highly rated. (Don’t you love those friends?)

So now we are ready! We just need the right storm- and obligation-free night to give it a test run. Stay tuned!

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  1. This is a long shot! I’m looking to replace my Lookout CD. Would you be interested in selling your used tent? Please shoot me a note, if so.



  1. […] a stickler for things like that. (Gotta have the tent up in case it rains!) Kelly and I unpacked my brand new REI Half Dome four-person tent and I promptly broke it. There’s a slightly tricky bit with the poles, and I was all […]

  2. […] 6. Tent Camping with a Toddler: The Right Gear […]