When my husband, Pablo, and I decided to start a family we knew there would be activities and hobbies that we would have to put on hold for awhile, but I think we both underestimated how much our lives would change. My pregnant daydreams were of a free-wheeling life with the slight modification of a baby strapped to my back and the occasional diaper change.
However, after our first daughter, Estela, was born we both quickly realized that some of our favorite activities, such as late nights at smoky jazz clubs, adventure traveling in foreign lands and spending weeks at a time in the backcountry were going to have to be temporarily sacrificed or enjoyed solo. We were only willing to push our baby’s comfort limits so far. Our priorities shifted and it became much more important to us to create a home-based rhythm shaped by her needs.
But giving up camping? Well, that was not an option. You see, camping is part of our rhythm; without it we get cranky. So, with the baby in the backseat and admittedly a lot of extra gear, shortly after our first daughter was born in the fall of 2008, we set out on our first camping trip as a family.
Since that first trip, we have done quite a bit of camping, rustic “cabin-ing” and even some backcountry excursions together. Though I am by no means an expert, I have a few kernels of wisdom that I thought I would share for how we have learned to make camping with a baby or toddler fun for everyone. After all, Autumn is the best season to live the high life in a tent!
Keep it Short
We keep our backcountry trips to less than 1.5 miles from where the car is parked and (for now at least) to no more than two nights. Most two-year-olds can walk for about a mile at a slow pace without having to be carried. With some inventive packing, everything can usually be carried to camp in one trip.
We usually pack one heavy backpack with gear that Pablo carries and a lighter one for me. We strap our youngest to my front in a baby carrier (the Baby Bjorn is great for this because she can face out and enjoy the view). Our oldest walks, albeit slowly! With very young babies, car camping is a great choice.
Be Prepared but not Paranoid
We always check the weather report before we depart and pack for a 10-15 degree margin of error in temperature, and we always assume it will rain. If you are unsure what to expect, leave some extra “just in case” items in the car. Autumn is a great time to try camping with children for the first time. The weather is generally mild, the mosquitoes have dissipated and the crayon-colored forest is the ultimate playground.
Things we never skimp on are food, water, layers and sturdy shoes for the girls. We do skimp on extra changes of clothes for ourselves. As long as we are prepared for the weather, we will be fine — a dirty and smelly fine — but fine all the same. My good friends always pack an extra set of clean clothes for everyone for the car ride home, which I think is a fantastic idea. A large jug of water and extra snacks for the return trip are a great idea of theirs too.
It may sound odd, but we don’t pack an extensive first aid-kit for short backcountry trips. Instead, we pick locations that are less than 30 minutes from a hospital and we pack the basics like band-aids, first aid spray, children’s Tylenol, a thermometer and itch relief. We keep a charged cell phone and a first-aid kit in the car waiting in case of a major emergency. With no packs, a mile can be hiked very quickly if professional medical help is needed. But do what makes you feel comfortable.
You Can’t Have Enough Ziploc Bags
Dirty diapers, muddy clothes, food scraps, rain protection…the possibilities are endless. I must admit that when it comes to camping, I put my eco-ethic aside and embrace disposable plastic in its most utilitarian form. However, a good supply of re-usable “wet bags” would probably work just as well.
Leave the Toys at Home and Bring the Marshmallows
Forget the toys. All of them. You won’t need them. Instead if you have the space, pack collapsible chairs (we love our CrazyCreeks) and a blanket or ground cloth to create a clean and cozy playspace. Learn some new campfire songs and refine your storytelling skills. Roast marshmallows together, collect insects, rocks and pinecones. A handful of marshmallows weighs far less than one board book.
Leave No Trace
It is never too early to teach children how to enjoy and use the outdoors in a respectful way. Children love to help out and a great activity for children is picking up litter in camp before and after the tent is erected.
Visit the Nature Center
If you are visiting a National Forest or Park, take the time to stop by the nature center and learn what kinds of flora and fauna you can expect to encounter during your trip. Children are often the best at spotting wildlife and “I Spy” is a great trail game. I love the waterproof pocket nature guides that are sold at nature centers and the coloring books and other educational items that can be enjoyed when we return home.
Most of all, don’t over-think it. Have fun and relax and your children will too.
Danielle Grabiel is a mama, environmental policy professional and law student. She currently lives in the Washington, DC metro area with her musician husband, Pablo. In 2012, Danielle and her family will be moving to Oregon to fulfil their dream of wrangling chickens and living off of salmon and berries. She blogs at mamamusicman.
Danielle appreciates the contribution of ideas to her article from Whitney Sweet who writes the blog.