The timing of when a child is ready for a tent of their own is going to be different for every family and every child. Children mature at very different rates so its important to be realistic about where your child is in terms of independence and self-directness and how comfortable you are as a parent to let them “go” in this new way.
The first consideration is for the safety of the child. To tent by themselves, they must be able to exit a tent at night without assistance and know how to get help from parents, if needed. They must be sufficiently aware not to leave the camp area and knowledgeable about potential hazards around the campsite such as roads, water, and cliffs. Finally, they need to be mature enough to know not to do things like starting a campfire, lighting a stove, or cooking a meal without adult supervision if you’re still in your tent and asleep.
Consider how independent the child is. They need to be able to handle their routine “maintenance” within the tent: getting dressed, laying out their sleeping bag, operating a flashlight or headlamp, and other routine tasks. How responsible are they about doing these things? Do they need adult supervision to behave properly within a camping framework?
Finally, examine your own comfort level with having them in a separate tent. If you lie awake all night wondering if your kid is okay in their own tent, it doesn’t contribute to a pleasant camping experience for you.
A great trial run is a “kids only” backyard campout. This creates an environment where both the child and the parent can get used to the idea of being in separate tents.
For my boys, they got their own tents when they moved from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts at the end of fifth grade. Now they typically tent on their own—and as with many things about parenting, it’s both satisfaction and sadness to see them mature past needing their dad quite so much.
Critical Considerations for Children
Having sufficient room in a tent is one of the biggest considerations in choosing the right one for a child. It seems counterintuitive that a smaller human would require more room than an adult, but they move more in general, wiggle more while sleeping, and spread out to occupy more space, so keep that in mind when choosing a tent. Having room to undress/dress and get into a sleeping bag comfortably will contribute to their satisfaction at tenting.
Kids are rough on gear, so choose a tent that can stand up to their abuse. Zippers should operate smoothly and be of high quality. Look for reinforced stitching, especially at pole attachment points and around the zippers.
Choose a tent that features an easy setup. Complex pole designs, steps to do in exacting order, and long sleeves that tent poles run through are much harder for children to use. Look for a tent that has a simple pole design and has a body that clips to the poles.
Take the time to practice with the tent beforehand, where you and your child can learn how to smoothly set up the tent without the pressure of being in an unfamiliar location, having an audience of other kids, or having the sun quickly setting.
Kids can have a blast setting up a tent in the living room or back yard, so it’s worth keeping in mind that the tent may not only be used in a campsite. Picking a tent with fun features such as gear pockets, big windows, and lots of doors contributes to your child’s pleasure in it.
Tent Care for Kids
Along with the pleasure of using a tent comes the responsibility to care for it. For example, I stressed two main tent care rules with my kids: no shoes in the tent and proper preparation for storing it at the end of a trip. Wearing shoes in the tent tracks in all kinds of mud and ground litter. Stepping on the fabric of the tent can work small particles of dirt, rock, and sand into the tent, causing damage to the tent itself and reducing its water resistance.
At the end of the trip, help your child make sure the tent is dry and aired out: set it up in the backyard or hang it up over the shower curtain until it is completely dry. This keeps it from mildewing or smelling funky.
Another good tent care tip for kids is to keep food out of the tent, even when not in bear country. This reduces messes and lessens its attractiveness to insects, rodents, and bears.