How-To: Camping With Kids
The first camping trip we took with a child was a few hours south of us. Since RM was only two months old and still sleeping in a bassinet in our bedroom, we were not sure how the adjustment to something new would be. We decided to spend the first night in a hotel. He slept in his changing table on the second bed in the room. Since this was how we planned on having him sleep this way in our tent, it was a great way to practice before we were in the desert wilderness trying it. Doing a practice run was really helpful to us, but it does not have to take place in a hotel, try mixing things up at home and trying your camping set up in the living room or backyard to see how they handle change. Luckily he did great! We used to spend a lot of our camping trips on BLM land where you could just show up to a space, set up camp and were good to go. While this is my absolute favorite way to camp (and I cannot wait to get back to it) I do know it comes with a lot of trial and error because someone else might have gotten to ‘your spot’ first. Since we wanted to set ourselves up for success, we reserved a site in a tent-only campsite. It was a whole new version of car camping for us, but we were out there and feeling great! I cannot tell you how powerful I felt In the desert, setting up a tent while breastfeeding. I was supermom! And then night fell. RM cried for what felt like forever. Jeff and I debated packing up and leaving multiple times, but one of us would keep convincing the other to stay, claiming
‘It would be worth it. We made it so far. We can’t turn back now. We want to be an adventure family. We have to stick it out.’
I felt terrible, and like a failure, and guilty that we were doing this to our kid who was miserable and also that everyone else in the campground had to listen to this baby cry. I am so grateful that there was a family in the site next to ours that was kind enough to take the time to come over and talk to us and tell us we were doing great. They encouraged us saying they didn’t mind the crying, and how cool it was that we were out there with such a small baby. Eventually we cried mercy and Jeff put RM in the car seat and drove until he fell asleep. I cannot tell you how relieved I was that he came back with a sleeping baby and a six-pack of local beer.
Waking up the next morning had us both relieved and excited. We all survived the night, RM stayed warm and we were ready to explore the hiking nearby. Life was good! There were many more setbacks that trip, and many victories, but the most important thing we learned was that we were capable, and that kids are resilient. Also - having gallon ziplock baggies for blowouts are always a good idea. RM was 2 months old and our life as an adventure family was just beginning.
In the subsequent camping trips after this one we mentally gathered many tips about how to make camping with babies a success. Keep in mind all of these tips worked well with RM but did not make camping with JR smooth sailing, although they did seem to help a bit. If your baby does not take well to camping in their first year, do not throw in the towel forever. JR is just beginning his third camping season and I think the most recent trip was the first one that I would describe as a success. Listen to your babies and be patient, you might have to wait for a “fun” trip for when they get old enough to love the dirt and freedom.
We have come a long way from tents, to backpacking, to trailer, and thankfully trending back to tent camping again. It is a process, keep going.
We tent camped with RM for his first two years before we even tried a trailer. JR was two years old before he ever camped in a tent, so we have done it both ways. Our trailer is not extravagant, as a pop up tent trailer it is more of an all-inclusive tent than anything else. Last weekend we took our first trip in tents with both boys and it was glorious. We mentally struggled getting over the hurdle of getting everything we would need for the weekend in a hatchback Subaru without the back up space of the trailer we usually haul behind us. It was a wake-up call to the amount of nonsense we have allowed to creep into our ‘unplugged’ weekends and it was shocking how far we were missing the mark. I recognize that JR was a nightmare for most of those trips because he was a colicky baby and also did not really like being outside until recently, but we had also been ‘camping’ in a way that was entirely unsatisfying to us too. I am so thankful to have gotten past that two year slump with celebration of JR's second birthday and the kick-off campout of the season!
So, what about these grand tips I have anyways? First and foremost a test set-up in the backyard or living room will be helpful to judge where you are at gear-wise. Most families we camp with opt for a big, tall tent and sleep on queen sized blow up mattresses and that seems to work well for them as long as it does not drop below 40* at night. Sleeping on top of a pillow of air can be extremely cold so prepare with extra pajama and blanket layers if that is the route you want to go! Pre-plan your sleeping set up with the baby so you can make sure it fits into your tent.
We used a small backpackers 3-man tent (it is what we had) and used the same sleeping pad and mummy bag set-up we had before kids for me and Jeff. We put RM in the middle of us in a portable changing table so we did not have to worry about rolling over onto him in the middle of the night.We layered him well with base layers (surprisingly, they make these for tiny babies! Check REI, Columbia or Sierra Trading Post, they can be pricey so try to do it out of season to catch the best sales) then fleece footy pajamas a size up from what he was in at the time, then ski socks on his hands and feet, a hat with ear coverings and then a warm bunting as his “sleeping bag”. You will find most of our pictures make it look like we are sponsored by Columbia, but in reality that brand just fits us well and we had an outlet close enough to our home to be dangerous; there are plenty of other brands that would do a great job! All of those were layers that he wore, then we layered him with blankets on top of him to tuck him in. Since I was breastfeeding him, most nights he would end up in my sleeping bag at some point so I could feed him throughout the night. With my mummy bag set up it was pretty uncomfortable for me, I would totally recommend a double sleeping bag if I could do that part again.
During the day, providing a shaded place for baby to play is essential. Before they demand freedom, a Pack-n-Play with a fitted sheet on top and a few toys inside is a great way to keep baby clean, contained and in the shade. As they get bigger, laying out a blanket with toys under a tree is a great option. Bringing bubbles and a select few outdoor shovels and buckets can allow kiddos to have all the fun they can imagine in nature. Keep it simple, there are a ton of great toys provided by nature. Once they start running around on their own you are going to want to make sure they have light up shoes so you can see them easily and quickly at night. Glow sticks and headlamps are also good ways for them to have fun after dark without realizing you are using those things to keep your eye on them from the campfire!
Tips for your first trip as a new family with young kiddos: 1. You can do this. If you stick it out, you won’t regret it!
2. If you aren’t the driver, be prepared to sit in the back with the baby for some portion of the trip. You might miss out on some of the sights, but a calm baby takes precedence over a mountain view. I just missed the whole drive through Arches National Park in favor of singing the ABC’s to my youngest.
3. Start small. Keep it close to home, know where a grocery store and hospital/E.R. are nearby. We did only 1 night stays until we figured out a rhythm.
4. There is no such thing as over prepared. If you can chose a camping place/area you are familiar with that would be the best place to start. Not an option? There is so much info online you will be able to map out a great trip anyways. Google Earth was one of go-to research tools.
5. You will overpack. And you will still miss something. We once left town without diapers. Not kidding. Luckily most gas stations carry the essentials (even if they are crazy over priced). It takes time (and we start over every year) but you will get your gear and your packing list dialed in.
6. The smaller they are when you start camping, the less they will realize they are doing something unusual. If they have a strict routine/nap schedule figure out ways to plan your days around that. When he was very small, R was great at napping in the car and baby carrier during hikes. We made sure we were either driving or hiking during nap times. We would pack food and rest/stretch mid-hike for me and baby.
7. All babies are different. RM was a champ right from the start. JR, not so much. Do what you need to do to make it fun for you and the littles.
8. Expect a lot of dirty days and new bruises when you get home. On you and the baby. They will be exploring their world, and it’s not covered in carpet. Try not to fight the dirt, it comes with being an outdoor family. Never forget: this world comes pretty standard with washing machines and clothes perpetually on super sale.
9. It’s all a learning process. We once had it all go wrong on a camping trip to the point that we were in our tent, eating out of tin to-go containers, rain pouring down, with water rising up to us and a baby sleeping between us quiet cry-laughing about how funny this memory would be to look back on. Looking back, that was one of the biggest learning trips we ever took. Always look for that silver lining.
10. Pack for one day more than you are going, and two socks per day for each kid. It can be a bit cumbersome, but when needed I was always glad to have the extras.
Don't Forget: This is supposed to be fun. Embrace the mess and chaos, and take lots of pictures!