By Malia Jacobson
In the summer, campgrounds are crawling (sometimes literally) with babies, toddlers and young families. But many new parents may hesitate to head into the wild, as they wonder whether camping with a tot will be safe, enjoyable or worth the hassle.
Don’t abandon your dreams of an al fresco vacation quite yet—camping with a baby may be easier than you think. “Camping is easiest when they’re small and portable. You just put them in a carrier and go!”says Sandra Kimmet, a mom of three. But whether you pack your new baby and related gear in the family car for an outdoor adventure this summer—or sit it out for a few seasons—depends on your level of experience with both camping and parenting.
“New parents may not be ready to take their newborn to the grocery store, much less to the outback,”says Michelle Terry, M.D., a pediatrician with Seattle Children’s Hospital. But veteran parents, particularly those with camping experience, may have no problems executing a quick campground or backpacking getaway. Here’s how to plan a memorable camping trip with your new plus-one.
1. Stay warm
Nighttime temperatures at some state and national parks can dip into the 40s, even at the height of summer. Because babies lose heat more quickly than older children and adults, your little one will need some help staying cozy at night.“Below 50 degrees, or 60 degrees in wet, windy weather, body temperature can drop if babies are wearing inadequate clothing,”says Terry. Keep babies and young toddlers warm at night with several layers of clothing (preferably fleece or wool), thick socks and a hat for sleeping. In especially chilly climate, be watchful for cool, clammy skin, which indicates that a baby needs an extra layer or two. Early symptoms of hypothermia include shivering; cold, pale, or blue-gray skin; and decreased alertness.
2. Stay safe
Surrounded by lush greenery and towering trees, many campsites look idyllic—but they’re home to plenty of hazards for very young campers. Before pitching your tent, inspect the campground for sharp rocks, matches, sharp sticks, knives or garbage left by previous campers. “Be on the look-out for potential choking hazards. Debris could easily make its way into curious hands or mouths,”advises Terry.
Watch out for plants that could irritate (hello, poison ivy) or sicken children, like St. John’s Wort, poppies or philodendron. High altitude is another concern—don’t take babies under six months old above 2500 feet too rapidly. “It will be cold, and the baby may have trouble breathing,”says Terry.
Use a portable play yard to safely contain a little one while you start a campfire or cook dinner; keep active little ones safely inside the tent at night by safety-pinning the tent zippers together. “The bottom line is that babies and toddlers need constant supervision,”says Terry. “Accidents happen when everyone is watching the baby and no one is watching the baby, all at the same time.”
3. Stay busy
Don’t plan on sticking around the campsite; a bored toddler is bound to develop an unsafe fascination with the fire pit or garbage bag. When camping with little ones, staying active keeps everyone cheerful (and—added bonus—helps tire kids out for bedtime). Dad Brian Mark has camped with his kids Lola, 4, and Aksel, 2, since they were babies. “Walk them around as much as possible,”he says. “Take kids to look for firewood, and let toddlers collect smooth rocks or bundles of sticks.”
The good news: kids under two don’t need much stimulation to stay happy. Most will be thrilled to simply wander the campground (with mom or dad close at hand), admiring the scenery and making friends with other campers. Comb local beaches, visit landmarks and don’t be afraid to drive to the nearest town for a meal or a cup of hot cocoa or coffee—a camping trip with a baby is not the time to rough it, notes Terry. More adventurous families can check in with the ranger’s station for a map of local hiking trails.
4. Stay happy
When camping with tots, don’t sweat the small stuff, advises Georgiann Derieg, a mom of seven. “When we camp, I dress kids in clothes destined for the Goodwill pile so I don’t need to worry about dirt, stains or rips.”
The outcome of your trip may be determined before you leave the driveway; often, the difference between a great trip and a forgettable one is what you pack. Tricycles, baby carriers, simple toys, trash bags, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, extra diapers, flashlights and batteries are must-haves. (Derieg keeps extra flashlights around the tent and one under her pillow at night to handle middle-of-the-night mom duties.)
“Don’t forget to bring a portable play pen, a standing seat or a back carrier so that babies can check things out safely,”says Terry. And, of course, pack your fully-charged camera, so decades from now you can pull out pictures that prove your child was camping before he could walk.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist, author, columnist, sleep expert and freelance writer. When she’s not writing, she’s chasing her three children, digging in her garden or exploring the Pacific Northwest.
Packing List: Essentials for Camping with a Baby
Play-yard or portable bassinet
Warm clothing, socks and hat for sleeping
Diapers, wipes and changing pad
Flashlights and extra batteries
Insect repellent (for babies older than two months)
Camera with extra battery