Before I became a parent, I thought taking a baby camping would be no big deal. After all, where I live in Colorado, it’s common to see kids less than a year old bopping along the trail in a backpack, being towed in sleds behind their parents’ cross-country skis, and even bouncing down rivers in inflatable rafts. Plus, my husband and I are former wilderness guides with years of experience taking kids into the backcountry. So when a group of our friends began planning a weekend camping trip around the time our daughter was five-weeks-old, we gamely agreed to join them.
Fast forward to the morning of the trip. The car was packed. Our friends were en route. Theoretically, we were ready to go too, but I was paralyzed with fear. I sat on the couch holding our seven-pound daughter, combing the internet for advice on how to keep her warm on a night that threatened to drop into the 30s, or whether her tiny lungs could handle the oxygen-thin air of Colorado’s mountains.
A couple of hours later, after talking to our pediatrician, midwife, and friends who had taken their infants camping, we hit the road. I won’t claim it was a totally stress-free weekend, but as one friend put it: a sleepless night under the stars is better than a sleepless night at home. Plus, getting that first trip under our belts set us up for more camping trips in the future — which meant more opportunities to bond as a family around the campfire, introduce our daughter to the natural world, and cement friendships with other families.
Ready to take your baby camping? Here’s what we learned:
Camping often means being farther from medical care, so make sure your kid is healthy, hydrated, and eating normally before you go. Bringing a basic first-aid kit with infant Tylenol is also a good idea, as is knowing where the closest hospital is and having someone in your group who knows infant and child CPR. And if your baby is teething or going through a growth spurt, consider postponing your trip — that stuff is hard enough at home.
Take a practice lap
Before you take your little one on a wilderness backpacking trip or to a national park that’s six hours away, figure things out closer to home. A weekend of car camping within an hour or two’s drive is a perfect way to ease into your new camping routine.
Plan your nighttime strategy
One of the toughest parts about caring for an infant — in any environment — is making sure everyone gets some sleep. Chilly nights and a lack of electricity add another dimension to the challenge. So plan your strategy in advance: Even if your baby sleeps in a bassinet or crib at home, a pillow or pad made specifically for infants and placed next to your own sleeping pad is a great choice for tent camping. Letting your baby sleep in a Pack ’n Play works too if you own a big enough tent. And don’t forget a battery-operated nightlight and headlamp to keep an eye on your little one and rock those nighttime changings.
Bring extra disposable diapers
Don’t even try to deal with cloth diapers on your first camping trip. Load up on disposables instead, and make sure to pack extra trash bags. For short hikes away from camp, I brought a compact diaper bag and pad to stuff into my backpack. For hanging around camp, I packed a cheap fishing tackle box with tons of diapers and wipes, and brought a full-size changing pad, which can double as a capping surface in a pinch. (A friend who brought her five-month-old camping let her baby sleep on the changing pad and swears by it.)
If nights are as cold as they are here in Colorado, keeping your baby warm and safe is a priority. An extra large swaddle with a warm blanket underneath can keep a baby comfortable; for kids who are past the swaddling stage, several layers of clothing and a fleece bunting should keep her cozy, along with a hat and mittens. (For performance outdoor outfits that won’t break the bank, Patagonia’s new Worn Wear site sells used infant and child clothing.)
If you live in a warmer climate, bring plenty of lightweight clothes to keep your baby’s skin protected. Bug spray isn’t recommended for infants younger than two-months-old, and sunscreen is a no-go until they’re at least six months, so covering up with onesies, hats and socks is essential. A mosquito net that goes over a car seat is also a great idea, as is a tarp or other shelter for shade.
Splurge if you can…
If your pre-baby camping style was minimalist — sleeping on the ground, cooking on a backpacking stove, and cramming into a tiny tent—it’s time to move on up in the world. A family-sized car camping tent, a double-burner propane stove for heating up bottles, or even a special high chair can make camping with a baby more enjoyable for everyone. And don’t skimp on a camp chair for mom — nursing a baby while sitting on the ground or at a picnic table is no fun.
…But don’t let a lack of fancy gear keep you home
As one friend told me, all you really need for a breastfed baby are boobs, diapers, and something to keep them warm and safe at night. Everything else is just extra.
Remember that kids are resilient
Given how much time we spend indoors when we first bring a baby home, taking them to a new environment — especially one as unpredictable as the great outdoors — can feel intimidating. But parents have been carrying their kids on trails and sleeping outside with them for thousands of years, and babies are tougher than we give them credit for. When we took our five-week-old camping for the first time, she was not only unfazed — she absolutely loved being wrapped up in blankets and cuddled by the campfire. Now if she’s fussy before bed, we simply bring her outside. As one friend likes to say, kids were made to be in nature. All we have to do is let them.