Venturing Beyond the Playpen: How to Take a Baby Camping

by Darren Bush on November 7, 2011 · 39 comments

in Travel & Leisure

The very idea of camping with infants causes the shivers in some parents, mostly those who have been taught that babies are fragile creatures who are not adaptable to any environment except a sterilized one.  The truth is that babies are remarkably hardy little souls, and with the proper attention to managing risk, you can take your kids just about anywhere, provided (and this is important) you have the right stuff: the food, the clothing, the shelter, and the brain to tie it all together.

Food

If your wife is breastfeeding, feeding a baby is fairly easy.  Breastfeeding is the ultimate in convenient packaging, and you don’t have to carry anything.  No sterilizing bottles, filtering water, mixing formula, etc.  That said, if your baby is bottle-fed, not to worry.  Just be very scrupulous about treating and filtering water, including that for washing little hands and faces.  Waterborne pathogens are a worry, as one of the biggest problems with a sick baby is dehydration, and that’s a symptom of most of the bugs you find in the wilderness. Giardia is the most common (at least in my area of the country) and causes intestinal distress.  You don’t want that.

Otherwise, my kids ate what we ate, just mashed up a little, and sometimes a little cereal if they were at the stage of eating the wallpaper-paste mix with the smiling baby on the box.  A little food mill will grind things finer if needed, but generally a fork mashes just fine.  Clean up with wipes and filtered water.

Outside of water, don’t worry too much.  A little dirt on the pacifier is actually good for them.  Let ‘em eat a little dirt.  You did, and you’re still alive to read this.  Sure, you’ll rinse it off, but don’t stop and boil water.  Use clean water you already filtered.

Clothing

Up to 20% of your heat is transferred from your head.  Since babies have a larger head to body ratio, they lose heat even faster in cold weather.  Headwear is important for babies.  Hoods are fine in addition to a beanie but they are no substitute as hoods do not fit close to the skin.  Keep those little fingers and toes covered.  They will get cold a lot faster than ours.  Dress them in layers, as you want to be able to adjust their clothing.  Remember that they’re not moving, so they’re not generating heat.

If it’s warm, babies need protection from overheating.  Loose fitting clothing that covers the body and some sort of shade is critical.  Keep them hydrated, and offer electrolytes if the weather becomes very hot and dry.  Pedialyte is great stuff to have along, and it has a subtle flavor that encourages even more drinking.

Babies can’t tell you when they’re too hot or too cold, so you have to watch them.  They tell you when they’re uncomfortable, so listen.

A lot of baby stuff is cotton, and cotton is often the last thing you want against a baby’s skin.  They lose heat quickly, and cotton holds its moisture and transfers heat away from the body ten to twenty times faster than bare wet skin.  Even in the summer, a wet onesie can chill a baby even when the temperature is 80 degrees.  Look for synthetics, or better yet, merino wool.  It has the added advantage of drying quickly, and it won’t get stinky like synthetics do.  If you have CDF (Catastrophic Diaper Failure), you get some water, wash things out, hang them over a spruce branch to dry, and dispose of the water as far from the water source as you can.  With cotton–expect it to take hours to dry at full sun. With merino, you can wring it out and it’ll be dry before you know it.

The Reality of Poop

As the book says, Everyone Poops.  If you’re backpacking, you’re going to introduce a lot of extra weight and hassle packing out disposable diapers.  You’ll need a diaper bag, and I don’t mean the standard sort.  You’ll need a dry bag, waterproof and easy to seal.  Don’t worry about keeping water out–worry about keeping human waste in.  River rafters are familiar with these sorts of things, as you always have to pack out all your waste regardless of age.  This is one reason I like canoeing with babies.  The diaper bag can be 30 liters and no one cares.

When your trip is over, dispose of your diapers the way you would at home.  Dump the chunky stuff in the toilet, wrap up the rest, and pitch it.  Some folks (mostly river rat dirtbags like me) find the closest dumpster and empty the boom box or groover or any of a number of euphemisms.  Better to find a sanitary dump (like where RVs clean out their mega-groovers).

Cloth diapers are environmental and all that, which is great, but the reality is that on a trip like this, you don’t want to spend all your time washing and drying and dealing with the waste water from laundering cloth diapers.

Keeping Them Occupied

An infant is happy in the bottom of a canoe in their little infant PFD.  The rocking motion is soothing for a lot of them, and ours usually fell asleep quickly.   For toddlers, an old car seat isn’t a bad thing to use…just don’t strap them in.  I used a leash connecting my babies to my wrist, so if we dumped I could reel them in.  It never happened, but I was prepared anyway.

In camp, a canoe is a natural playpen.  If you’re hiking, a large tarp staked out (not just laid out) provides a clean place for everyone to manage baby duties.  It’s actually a lot easier to camp with babies before they’re mobile.

Bringing a couple of teething toys is fine if they’re teething, but keep them clean and in a ziplock when they’re not gnawing on them.  Again, common sense.

A few odds and ends: Sleeping with babies is easy. Zip together a couple of bags and baby goes between you.  I know some people are freaked out about rolling over and crushing junior.  Never heard of it happening.  If you feel uncomfortable doing that, you’re probably not cut out for this. Wait until they get a little older. Baby backpacks are considerably better than they were 20 years ago.  They actually hold a baby comfortably and fit on you comfortably.  Invest in a good one.  I prefer Kelty as they’re relatively inexpensive and well-made, but there are many other choices.  One feature I think is critical is a free-standing mode so you can put the baby in the backpack on the ground and hoist her up.
Just use common sense. Babies lived outside for a few million years and survived just fine.  A dingo won’t eat your baby.  You’ll enjoy sharing a beautiful thing with your infant.  I don’t think they’re unaware of it.  My kids can’t remember not being outside because they started almost as soon as they left the womb.

Have you ever taken your baby camping? Share your tips with us in the comments!

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael Moore November 7, 2011 at 9:01 pm

We’ve taken our kids camping since they were little. When we had just one, we were still able to do real roughin’ it camping. No pit toilets or designated sites or anything.

Now that we’ve got 3 (all mobile) we need safer more organized places. Now we look for places with big fields, trails and nearby parking.

Besides a couple of annual family trips, I do backyard camping with my boys a couple times each summer. They love just getting to play and sleep in the tent, even if it’s not by some epic canyon or river or anything.

2 beth been there November 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm

“If your wife is breastfeeding, feeding a baby is fairly easy. Breastfeeding is the ultimate in convenient packaging, and you don’t have to carry anything.”
You’ve got to be kidding. Easy for whom? Try leaning against the wall of a tent for support with a twenty pound head tugging on your boob. Not only will your ‘convenient packaging” have a back and neck ache, she’ll be screaming at you things like, “You owe me,” and “I hope you’re happy.” If it’s your first baby, OK, you are both novices. But after that, at least bring something for the nursing mother of your child to sit comfortably in while you sleep all night. And better bring plenty of nutirtionous food for the nursing mother- producing milk requires more calories per day than pregnancy.
My advice, if you are really itching to experience the out of doors, go for a hike, get a hotel room and wait with the tent til the kids are done nursing.

3 Darren November 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Beth, you’re right…I didn’t suggest it was easy physically…but easy in terms of not having to deal with bottles, formula, sterilization, etc. Lots of extra food for Mom…totally. Our experience was different, but then, everyone’s experience is different…if it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it.

My wife just told me “She’s right, Darren.” But she’s still glad we did it.

4 Annecy November 7, 2011 at 11:12 pm

While I am not a parent I have been on backcountry adventures with friends who do take their very little ones with. I think it is fun and wish more of my lady friends would do it! I did find some compostable diapers at the co-op here in my local area. You can bury those! I will certainly be sharing this with some of my new momma friends.

5 caleb November 8, 2011 at 12:06 am

We took my 6 month old camper camping this summer. The camper part was largely for my wife (her first attempt at tent camping did not go so well). It was actually easier than staying in a hotel with her. Kuddo loves being outside, just like dad and grandad.

I’m not spending $300 on a baby backpack to use for 2 years, so I’m sticking to backpacking with the guys or scout troop, and for hiking, she can either stay with someone or we can stick to the green trails that work with the stroller :)

6 jessica November 8, 2011 at 12:06 am

I loved camping with my son when he was a baby! Diapers are kind of a pain but they are a hassle at home too.
Breastfeeding while camping went well for me, during the day I usually used a baby sling to carry him and could feed him at any time and for night feeding I would lay on my side and feed him that way. I can’t even imagine having to deal with mixing formula and cleaning bottles in a camping situation, that would be a total pain!

7 Beat Attitude - Failed Remixer November 8, 2011 at 4:52 am

Take them along by all means. But don’t make them pitch their own tent, that’s just cruel.

8 dennis November 8, 2011 at 6:11 am

Having taken kids of all ages camping all I can say about taking babies is don’t. My experience is that until they are older toddlers it really was not an enjoyable experience.

9 Jesse November 8, 2011 at 7:41 am

Darren, another great article! Your insights are spot on and you have a keen wit! We love getting outdoors with our son and I agree that people oughtn’t worry over babies as much as they do. There is a fine line between being prepared and worrying yourself into the corner. I marvel that people can be so hesitant to take little ones outdoors. How do they think we got where we are? We certainly didn’t just awaken into a world with climate controlled buildings and heated blankets. Kids are tougher than we often give them credit for. I have to remind myself of this when my 6 year old goes sprinting down the trail, catches a root, and goes ass over tea-kettle onto the ground, only to get up and laugh it off.

Thanks for another great article!

10 Russ Davis November 8, 2011 at 7:42 am

I took my then 7-month old son on a one-niter, car camping. I bought a wheeled tough box and basically loaded it to the gills with toys, blankets, extra clothes, etc. I brought a 5-gallon water cooler, and a separate lunch cooler with all of his bottles of breast milk. That’s the great thing about car camping – the ability to pack the kitchen sink. Backpacking? I’ll wait until he can walk and carry some of his own load.

11 John Sifferman November 8, 2011 at 8:18 am

We’ve taken our son hiking dozens of times and camping a few times now (he’s 1). His first backpacking trip was when he was five months old. It was January in Maine – cold and snowy. My wife carried the baby in a Kelty baby carrier, and I carried the gear. You’re absolutely right – if you (over) prepare ahead of time, there’s very little to be worried about. It just means Dad will have to play pack-mule for the whole trip.

12 Daren Redekopp November 8, 2011 at 8:38 am

I think it may be time for us to try this once more. Thanks for the inspiration.

13 Fritz November 8, 2011 at 10:04 am

Had never even thought about trying this before. But it’s a great idea. Lot of info on how to do it too.

14 Joe November 8, 2011 at 10:06 am

I’ve been going to the BWCA with my father in law for over a decade. We decided to wait until the kids were 3 and potty trained before we took them along. If you want to take them earlier, more power to ya. But remember the SUNSCREEN! There was one year we saw a young family that had their infant laying on some kind of sling rigged up in their canoe and no shade on the baby. It was as red as a lobster and later we could hear it crying from across the lake because it was so uncomfortable.

15 Tom November 8, 2011 at 11:57 am

Totally agree with the article, especially about how easy it is to canoe trip with kids. My wife had no problem breastfeeding wherever we were. When canoeing it only slowed us down a bit, as I would still paddle while she nursed.

My biggest fear was always really messy spoon feeding in bear country. Everything/everyone always ends up covered in food. So much stuff to go in the bear bag. We also tried compostable G-Diapers in the backcountry and they worked well.

Ours are 3 and 5 now. They have no problems on most trips in the backcountry. If they are comfortable and entertained they have fun.

16 Kevin November 8, 2011 at 11:58 am

mountain lions?

17 DaveW November 8, 2011 at 12:12 pm

We’ve camped (car camping) with our boys since they were less than one, and my wife and her sisters were camping with their parents since they were less than one as well.

It’s not a big problem, and it gives the kids a great appreciation for being outdoors and exploring, especially with cousins.

Two tips:
1. Practice. Do a couple of nights in the back yard so that dark-anxiety and/or tent-anxiety can be alleviated. Our oldest, at a very young age, freaked out in the middle of the night in a dark tent in unfamiliar surroundings. We did a couple of nights in the back yard with our youngest and he was great.

2. Go with (compatible) family/friends. We camp with my sister- and brother-in-law and our kids cousins, and besides having playmates for the kids, the extra sets of eyes make observation and supervision much easier.

18 DaveW November 8, 2011 at 12:17 pm

@caleb – The baby backpack rocks! Look for one online – eBay, Kijiji, etc. Ours is from Mountain Equipment Co-op (the Canadian REI) and we’ve used it for both our boys for over 5 years now. It’s still mint despite many, many trips and we’ll sell it online next summer. Super comfy to carry, and comfy for the kids, too. Ours slept for hours in it.

19 Pete November 8, 2011 at 12:25 pm

We took all three of ours car camping in the California mountains or deserts when they were infants and it was a blast. Yeah it’s a little extra work and yeah baby gets a little dirty face but so what. For us it was either take them with or don’t go at all. #2 son was very particular about taking a warm bottle. If it wasn’t warm, he wouldn’t take it, no way no how. So, rather than get up at 2 am feeding time to start the stove and heat the water in sub-freexing temperatures, I placed a pre-mixed bottle (formula) and slept with it stuck in my armpit all night long for a low-tech field expedient bottle warmer. Worked like a charm. Nice warm bottle and happy 2 am baby. Great memories.

20 Soon-to-be Newbie Mama November 8, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Some great advice and ideas here. We want to be the kind of parents who continue our outdoor activities like hiking and camping, even with a baby. We’ve been scoffed at by our less active family members who insist that we’ll have to change our ways and wait until the kid is much older to do those kinds of things. Thanks for helping to empower us new parents.

21 Darren November 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm

@Pete — awesome idea. They also make those instant heaters when you slide the bottle into a sleeve and hit a little button for heat.

@Kevin — what about ‘em? :-)

Lots of great feedback.

Oh…AWESOME book for this: Cradle to Canoe by Rolf and Debra Kraiker. Great pictures too.

22 dave November 8, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Tom, put the baby in the bear bag before you hang the bag for the night. Problem solved.

23 Larin Sherman November 8, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Car camping worked for us and by the time the kids were 10 and two, they were pros. We had five wonderful years going six weeks out into the western U.S. into state and national parks and those memories are treasures for all of us. Scouts just made things easier for us as leaders and parents and now that they are grown, they can handle camping rough, hostels, and high end resorts because they have done it all. Now we are back to just us and one day, should I be so lucky, the grandkids. Go out, a short distance, overplan, and over pack and see what happens.

24 Adriane Stare November 8, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Awesome article! I’d like to chime in on the cloth diapering bit, though – if you are packing everything out, what is the difference between disposing of everything at in the trash once you get home or just simply doing a load of cloth diaper laundry? If you aren’t tossing diapers as you go, disposables are no more convenient in this instance. You’ll have to wash all your stuff anyway when you get home, so what’s doing another load? Depending on the length of the trip and access to trash along the way, I’d definitely still go for cloth!

25 david at the beach November 9, 2011 at 5:53 am

when my girls were babies,we took them camping quite often. the trick for us was a baby bike trailer! i had to modify it just a bit ,adding second pull bar but it allows the baby to ride in comfort, it pulls easy on almost all terrain. imagine if you will a baby sized rickshaw with fat tires,a safe spot for the baby ,and the ability to use the pull bars to set up a net platform to carry a good bit of the weight of supplies. i pulled, my wife followed the baby, and girls slept a good bit of the time ,and no one had a back ache from hualing a baby on one side and a pack on the other .one additional feature– baby bike trailers have safety neeting all around, that serves as additional protection from insects,always an un thought of danger to small children .

26 etcwarrionr November 9, 2011 at 9:36 am

Over the Columbus Day weekend, we took our 9-month old car camping and had a lot of fun. As others have mentioned car camping enables you to pack a lot. While unnecessary, we found that our pack-and-play was nice to have because it served well for naps and for the few times we couldn’t provide close supervision (pitching tent, setting up meals, etc.).

We also have one of the Kelty carriers and really like it a lot. Buy one barely used for cheap on Craigslist. The older ones are open underneath your kid and make for good (albeit unstable) high chairs. The newer models are closed under the kid, which helps to catch falling shoes, bibs, pacifiers, and other things you might regret loosing, but they also catch food spills and crumbs. They work better than strollers in lots of urban hiking situations too. Getting around the New York or Washington DC subway systems with strollers is no fun at all, but very easy with a carrier.

The only disadvantage to car camping is that you might be close to other campers and they might not appreciate it when your baby wakes up hungry at 2am and communicates it the only way he can. With that in mind, I’d suggest that you either go backcountry camping or otherwise hold off on car camping until you have a solid bedtime routine (don’t forget to pack that special book, blanket, toy, or whatever) and baby that dependably sleeps through the night. We didn’t have this problem, but we did have some anxiety about it because we were at a crowded campsite. Our emergency plan if our son had any problems was to retreat to the car which has considerably better sound proofing than the tent. And if worse came to worse we could have drove away from the site a bit and gone back in the morning.

27 Diana November 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm

This article is fantastic–but just a word to the wise, my cousin’s husband actually did roll onto and smother his infant daughter as he was napping with her, so it can happen.

28 Kevin Daley November 9, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Manly advice from Sacagawea!

29 Kat November 10, 2011 at 12:15 am

Great Article! Agree with Diana though. I work in the ER and have seen infant fatalities due to co-sleeping, mostly with newborns. It does happen, so please research how to safely co-sleep if you insist on doing so.

30 Charlie November 11, 2011 at 11:28 am

I loved the article. For parents worried about co-sleeping, my wife found a portable co-sleeping bed we used for camping. It was small, folded up and had a handle. It was less than $50, maybe a lot for being used just a couple of times but it was peace of mind. Keep up the manliness.

31 Emily November 17, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Heh, where I live, mountain lions and coyotes are known to attack babies and toddlers. I’ll never forget going to the zoo and watching the cougars come alive stalking my toddler. So keep in mind that in the eyes of many predators, your bundle of joy looks quite tasty indeed. And don’t believe the hype that they won’t hunt humans, they do, they have, they continue to, and every year small toddlers and children go missing where I live in the Rockies with only a few signs of a cougar in the area as any hint as to where they went. Keep in mind that those diapers attract all sorts of things, from scavengers to bears, so store them like you do food, up in a tree and away from the camp.

My parents used to take us camping and tie my sister (who was toddling all over) to a tree so she wouldn’t toddle over a cliff or out of sight. This really isn’t a bad idea. If you’re not holding them, contain them, for their safety.

I’ll never go camping without my dog though. He lets me know if there are animals in the area that I need to be concerned about. And it doesn’t hurt to have a gun, not just for possible animals but also for the human danger. I won’t forget the time a camping trip was cut short when the ranger came to tell us of some dangerous people in the area. :/

32 Nate November 17, 2011 at 9:57 pm

On the formula note, it’s really not that hard. Buy pre-made formula, it’s already sterilized mixed and ready. You just make sure it’s not frigid or maybe warm it up a little. For the very lazy, there are premade ones that you stick a nipple on and then toss, no cleaning. For the rest of us, just get the baggy type bottles and bring plenty of nipples. Washing the nipples will be the worst you have to do, the baggies are already sterile and clean. No big deal.

33 the midnight mama March 15, 2013 at 9:59 am

a question on sleeping – my husband and I backpack frequently and our sleeping backs are not equipped to zip together (mummy bags). we also have personal thermarest pads that are barely large enough for our own bodies. what do you suggest for sleeping arrangements with an infant in this situation? we refuse to car camp on principle. =) we do cosleep but now that our daughter is close to 7 months she likes to toss and turn and have her own space, so she has migrated to her own crib. we are planning our first trip and i’m worried she won’t be able to sleep well.

34 happy campers March 21, 2013 at 3:41 pm

We camped with our three from the time they were a year old and loved it. One thing- if the kids are used to sleeping with a nite-lite make sure you have something- a tea-lite candle works well – so that it isn’t pitch dark and they will be freaked out by it if they wake up during the night. We learned this from experience! Your fellow campers will thank you for it.

35 MominPortland April 24, 2013 at 2:58 pm

I think nursing the baby in the tent would be just fine since I do it lying on my side. I am really excited to try camping with my baby this summer. He’ll be 9 months old when we are planning our first trip. If it goes well we’ll definitely be going again this summer. There are hundreds of spots within a few hours drive out here in the PacNW. To the midnight mama, since you are not car camping is packing in a pack n play an option? We plan on bringing one and setting it up – but he may end up between us anyway in zipped together bags. It’s much warmer for them next to mama’s body heat.

36 Camping Momma May 8, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I have always taken my babies camping and had almost all good experiences. I certainly recommend mastering nursing the baby while lying on your side before you go, especially if your tent is not big enough for a comfy camping chair (my favorite is a rocking camping chair) I don’t sleep well with a baby in the bed so I use the fisherprice rock and play sleeper with the bottom part of the legs removed to make it shorter. to keep them warm I use two layers of warm footie pjs, a knit beanie, a warm jacket with a hood and a warm blanket all together when it’s really cold or if I have a snowsuit in the right size I can use that instead. I know it sounds like a lot but it always gets colder than I expect at night and we use just as many blankets under us as over us. We bring a pack ‘n play to for outside containment during the day, then take out the padded bottom for our preschooler to sleep on at night.

37 Ashley May 16, 2013 at 3:05 pm

I am planning our first (only 2day) camping trip with our 8 month old (will be almost 9 when we go) baby! Glad I came across this page. I’m sure we will forget something and figure out what works and what doesn’t work for us. Good to have some helpful tips and info before embarking though. Thanks!

38 rachel June 22, 2013 at 5:56 pm

What about breastmilk/spit up attracting creatures (big and small) to the tent? Is that a concern? I know you are never supposed to store food in your tent, so how does that rule apply to milk, mommy, and baby?

39 Markov August 22, 2013 at 11:44 am

If you co-sleep and breastfeed and your infant is able to feed lying down beside momma, camping is a breeze.
Just make sure your little bug is warm enough. My partner cut up the sleeves of some old wool sweaters to use as leg warmers and this worked wonderfully, both extending the working life of pants (since they didn’t get dirt-laden as quickly), and keeping the baby warm.

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