I’m delighted to share this guest post from Genie Gratto, on camping with baby. If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, you know that camping isn’t really my thing, but I know lots and lots of people who love it. Genie is one of them, and shares some real and really valuable learnings from her experience of sharing (and sleeping in!) the great outdoors with her infant son.
Soon after we were home from the hospital with our son, my husband declared it a priority to take him camping sometime in his first year. My in-laws had taken their children camping in their early days, and he wanted our son to have the same experience.
At the time, I thought he was crazy. We could barely get through the day without someone crying, and it wasn’t always the baby. Take that show on the road…and to the woods? Camping with baby? Insanity.
But our infant grew into a chubby baby who laughed far more than he screamed, and suddenly, camping with him seemed like it was more within the realm of possibility.
My husband and I knew of a group campsite in Fremont Peak State Park, a small California park not far from Salinas and about two and a half hours south of our home in Oakland. It was cheap, the park wasn’t overly populated early in the season, and the only people we’d disturb with a crying baby would be the friends who agreed to join us. To make matters more exciting, we would be in perfect viewing position for an early morning lunar eclipse. We booked the campsite and prepared for our getaway.
I’ll admit I had my doubts going into the weekend, but we successfully camped for two nights, then headed home, where our son slipped back into his normal routine without issue. It was a lot more work than camping without an infant, and I felt every one of my 41 years as I hauled the baby in and out of the portable pack-and-play we bought for just this purpose, but we had a lot of fun, and our kid seemed to have a great time (when it wasn’t too cold for him).
Of course, we learned some great lessons, too. For those of you interested in car camping with your infant or baby, here are some tips to help you stay safe and have fun.
6 Tips for Camping with Baby:
#1 – Take an extra vehicle:
For our first camping trip with our son, we took two vehicles. This might seem ridiculous — after all, camping is something most often done by those of us who care deeply about the environment, so doubling up on the fossil-fuel burning seems like an odd choice–but it gave us two very important benefits: Plenty of room to pack anything and everything we thought we might need, and an escape route.
Though California isn’t known for its frigid temperatures, the forecast for the two Spring nights we’d be camping was for temperatures down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4 degrees Celsius. We thought we’d be able to keep the tent pretty warm just with our body heat, and we planned to wrap our kid in as many layers as we could get away with, but we had no idea how our son would tolerate the strange environment and travel pack & play that would serve as his bed. Plus, though we purposely set up our tent far from the rest of our group, we didn’t want to wake up the entire group campsite if he had trouble sleeping through the night. We wanted the In Case Of Emergency option: Should our son be so miserable that we had to call it, I could throw the bare minimum of stuff in my car, strap him in his car seat, and drive out to the nearest hotel, which was about 40 minutes away.
Besides, if we stayed, we knew we’d have everything we needed: Plenty of extra diapers, several more outfits than we needed for day and for night, all the critical stuffed animals and blankets to comfort our boy, and any creature comforts we might need, including the nursing pillow, headlamps (never forget your headlamps!), plenty of camera equipment, and beer.
#2 – Maintain constant awareness of the temperature:
Camping with a baby means paying way closer attention to the ambient temperature than you normally would. We were prepared for nighttime, and had brought lots of warm layers, including snug, warm hats and mittens, for our little guy. In fact, knowing that he’s never been a fan of hats, we even brought ones with chin straps so we could be sure he wouldn’t push his hat off his head in the night.
The place where we ended up very nearly running into trouble turned out to be when the temperature started to climb during the day. Our son woke up early after the first cold night we camped with him, and by 9:30 am, was ready to go down for a nap. Because the morning had been chilly, we still had him wrapped in most of his nighttime layers. We put him down in the tent, then returned to the community area down the hill to finish our leisurely breakfast and hang out with friends.
About an hour later, we both heard a strange yelp from inside our tent. My husband walked up to check it out, and emerged with our wide awake, red-faced, overheated child. In the ensuing hour, the sun had moved enough to put direct light—and heat—on the tent’s exterior, warming it up rapidly. Our poor child was inside beginning to bake as the temperatures rose, and we were lucky to have figured out what was happening in plenty of time. For safety’s sake, keep a close eye on the weather inside your tent, especially as the light and wind shifts over the course of your stay at the campsite.
#3 – Accept the help of friends who love you:
The first time we camped with our son, we organized the trip, so we were in charge of the show. Everyone coming with us knew we’d have a wild-card baby who might not love camping as much as the rest of us did, and they were game for the adventure. That also meant we had extra hands: Hands to hold the baby when one of us needed to run to the restroom, hands to cook extra food to help feed us when we were too tired or distracted to deal with our own camp stove, and hands to pass us cold beers and hot toddies at the end of the day.
The second time, we were attending a big group campout on land owned by friends of ours, and I went up the day before my husband. When I arrived, my friend’s mother whisked the baby out of my arms and proceeded to feed him watermelon while another friend helped me put up the tent and get settled. Though we brought food to contribute to the potluck, once again, we gratefully accepted anything and everything others fed us along the way, and our son even got to wrestle (lovingly, of course!) with another baby his age. We had a great time, and were grateful for the community.
#4 – If you don’t cosleep at home, co-sleep in the woods:
Even if we were fans of co-sleeping, it would simply be impossible in our house. My husband and I are not small people, and we sleep in a full-size bed. That doesn’t leave much room for our shoulders, much less a baby. But on the first night of our first camping trip, when the temperature dropped so low around 4am that our son woke up wailing, I finally pulled him into the sleeping bag next to me and curled myself around him to help warm him up. We both slept for a couple more hours, and when we woke up and he saw me lying there, his eyes grew wide, and his grin spread wider — he was in bed with Mama! It was magic! We repeated the delightful routine the next night.
On our second camping trip, I had put our son to bed, and then gone out to hang out with all our friends until I finally ran out of steam around midnight. Unfortunately, my efforts to come to bed quietly completely failed, and I woke him up with my clumsy entry. Because my husband wasn’t there yet and we had plenty of room, I went ahead and pulled him into the sleeping bag, thinking he’d go right back to sleep for the normal amount of time.
I was wrong.
Instead, he spent the rest of the night dozing briefly, then remembering where he was and putting his smiling face as close as he could get to mine without actually touching me. Then he would slap me in the side of the face as if to make sure I wasn’t missing all the fun, either. I didn’t get much sleep that night, but I’m not going to lie…it was absolutely adorable.
The second night, with my husband in attendance, we stayed up later and he slept better, but by 6 am, I’d pulled him back into the sleeping bag, desperately hoping he’d catch a few more winks before dawn. He rolled from side to side, delighted to see both of us, until I finally flopped him onto his stomach and he crashed again.
If you co-sleep at home, you probably won’t get the same results we did. But if you don’t, camping is the opportunity to break that rule and delight your kid with a change in routine.
#5 – Wear slip-on shoes at all times around the campsite:
Our family has a strict no-shoes-in-the-tent rule, which is fairly typical. That’s great, but I was used to wearing hiking boots around the campsite in my pre-baby life, and they require a little work to get on and off. The first time we camped with our son, I completely forgot that, most of the time, I’d be going in and out of the tent with a small child in my arms, rather than operating unencumbered, so while I had a pair of flip-flops for daytime wearing, at night, it meant I had to awkwardly set our son on the floor of the tent, where he’d wail at me while I put on my shoes, or try to don the boots while holding him on my hip. Neither solution was ideal, so the second time we camped, I had a pair of flip-flops for day, and some close-toed slip-ons for night. I won’t make that mistake again!
#6 – Throw your nighttime feeding schedule out the window:
By the first time we went camping with our son, he was happily sleeping through the night at home. Nighttime feedings were a thing of the past! But instead of adhering to our at-home policy, I fed him every time he woke up while we were camping. First of all, I knew two nights, in the scheme of things, weren’t going to completely throw him off his schedule at home. Second of all, I knew camping was going to be so out of the norm for him that he wouldn’t behave like he normally did at home, no matter what. Thirdly, keeping warm in the cold night air requires lots of extra energy, so I didn’t want to begrudge him the calories or the comfort.
This meant I was doomed to a few nights of less-than-adequate sleep, but hey…I was the mother of a baby. A good night’s sleep was a long-distant memory, and I knew some extra nursing would be the quickest way to get him back to bed.
Camping with baby is challenging, no doubt, but the rewards are worth it. One of my favorite moments was when we arrived at the first campsite, when my son was new to the camping experience. He had fallen asleep in the car with a light blanket over his carseat to keep the light out of his eyes, so he had no idea where we were when we finally parked. When I pulled off the blanket and brought him out of the car, the look of wonder on his face floored me. He stared up at the trees, then over at the tent that my husband had set up, then back up at the trees, entranced by the light and the breeze and the sound of rustling leaves. He may not remember that moment when he gets older, but we’ll always be able to tell him about the way he reached up, delighted, awed, and curious.
We’ll be able to tell him how we made it possible for him to follow in his father’s footsteps, starting early on his love affair with the natural world.