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How to Camp With a Baby Like a Pro

We are all dreaming of the outdoors, even those of us with a little one. Here's how to make sure you are all prepared for baby's first camping trip.

If a kid can sleep in a house, they can sleep in a tent, right?

This was our rationale and what we told ourselves over and over again before we dove in headfirst with a four-night backcountry trip with our baby. We had tried camping prior to this, well, setting the tent up and hoping our daughter would sleep there, but it was winter and friggin’ frigid so us adults gave up before our daughter and we ended up sleeping in our van instead. So last June, when our daughter was just over 7 months in age we went tent camping for the first time as a family. Into the backcountry. On a packrafting trip.

And it worked.

Since then, we’ve spent just over 70 days camping in a tent or sleeping in a van at campgrounds and have learned a thing or two.

First things first – expect poop to happen.

Literally and figuratively. Things will go wrong, so be prepared to roll with what comes.

Figuratively - adventuring with a kid is nothing like adventuring on your own. Double your timings since you'll be taking more breaks than you imagine. You'll end up packing way more than needed so double your pack weight.  And even if every condition is right, there will likely still be a meltdown at some point. In the end, it is always worth it but there will be moments of struggle for everyone involved in a family camping trip.

On the literal side - we’ve done a few multiday backcountry trips and our kid always seemed to decide to have an explosion on the first day. Without fail. Does she do this anywhere else? No, but in a tent, it is all but guaranteed. Make room for extra wipes to get the tent or sleeping bag back to a reasonable condition and don’t be too attached to cleanliness.

Once you are prepared for that…

 

Figure out the diaper situation.

 

Sounds obvious, and is basically the same as the above but if you are going to be in the backcountry – this is an annoying thing to think about and it is probably the trickiest part. Leave no trace means nothing is staying behind including diapers, liners, or wipes.

On our packrafting trip, we had a large sealed garbage bag we could store anything diaper related in and didn’t have to think about the weight which would accumulate as it could be thrown into the packraft. Since we were by the lake, we also just opted to leave our daughter either bare bummed or in a reusable swim diaper for the day. This made for less waste. For nights, we used a regular disposable diaper.

When we did our backcountry hikes, such as our five day Chilkoot Trail trek, this required a lot more planning. Not only was bare bumming not an option as our daughter would be in a backpack for most of the day, but whatever she used during that five-day trip we would have to carry out with us. Originally we looked at brands such as G-Diapers (a compostable diaper liner that is placed into a cloth exterior) but the toilets on the trail would not accommodate that liner, despite the company claiming that you can just throw it into any pit toilet. In fact, this is pretty common with most backcountry toilets in Canada and northern USA as the liner can’t decompose as fast as the company claims. So what we ended up doing was bringing regular disposable diapers, and used a one-ply sheet of toilet paper as a liner, hoping it would catch any of her solids so that we could dispose of those in the pit toilets.

It’s not really a nice thing to deal with, but by discarding the solids we managed to keep the weight and smell down with the garbage bag full of diapers we took out with us on the trail. On a final note with diapers, you’ll want a sealed package to put the used diapers into. For us, we eat dehydrated backpacker meals, which the packaging of used meals really helped to lock-in the smells from our daughter’s diapers. Keep in mind as well, that the weight of her pee also means that by the time we got off the trail, our garbage bag weighed nearly the same as one of our backpacks.


 

 

 

What about the food?

Sometimes - there is the obvious choice such as Cheerio’s, an amazing backcountry snack for kids that is lightweight and can occupy them for hours. Same with the fruit and veg pouches that can survive for a short while without being refrigerated even though it is strongly recommended on the packaging.

For us, the best decision we made knowing we were planning on being in the backcountry often was to ensure our daughter was still breastfeeding. It made meal planning a hell of a lot easier especially with bear aware rules meaning you have to be vigilant with where you eat and cleaning up your mess. I think it would have been a thousand more times difficult planning her meals if this was not the case.

If your child isn’t breastfeeding but is formula-fed – this is also easy to prepare for since you’ll have a backcountry stove to boil all the water needed. Men who take their babies out without moms but are also dealing with milk or moms not sure how to bottle feed while hiking – here is a great guide I found some time ago about how to nurse or bottle feed on the go.

Later on the year during our bike trips that we took after Elena was eating more solids, we simply made sure we brought things like bananas, avocados, fruit or vegetable pouches, Lara bars (only a few natural ingredients), Cheerio’s and rice cakes with peanut butter.

 

 

 

 

How to sleep with a little one in the backcountry?

 

First off, do some trial runs at home. Your tent needs to be a 3 person tent at least, not an ultralight two person as kids will take up a surprising amount of room.  We have a 3 person MEC Volt tent from a few years ago (closest comparable tent here…) that is light to carry but with enough room to store our gear in the vestibules and have our daughter in between us.

While camping, we opt to use three insulated camp mats – make sure they are rectangular (not mummy style) so that there are no gaps between mats. We use both a more expensive Thermorest and two better valued MEC branded and find they are all comparable. The verticle rolls of the MEC branded pad meant that we could easily fit the three pads into the tent, without overlapping on each which would have been difficult if all three were the horizontal rolled Thermarest style. Side note – this was also handy to have the three pads when I was pregnant, giving me an extra bit of cushion while sleeping on the ground or a portable body pillow I could hug.

We zipped our mummy sleeping bags rated for zero degrees together to make a blanket rather than a sleeping bag and had our daughter sleep between us so that we knew she would also get our body warmth and not potentially smother herself in the sleeping bag. Note there are risks with co-sleeping - feel free to google them.

We also packed and used a 2.5 tog bamboo sleep sack for our daughter. The natural materials were good for keeping her warm if she sweated while sleeping, and the double zipper meant if we needed to change her diaper in the middle of the night we could without getting her naked, and if we needed her to cool down a bit we could unzip the bottom and let her feet dangle out.  We thought we could also use one of our down puffy jackets as a blanket, but found this sleep sacked worked great (it was also an incredibly thoughtful gift from a friend).

We found over time that camping in warmer places with soft sand or grass and easy access to water was best, therefore, ended up gravitating towards camping on beaches. While before we would constantly seek the most scenic mountain vista, we realized after some time that getting that scenic spot means that being on a cooler mountaintop, setting up a tent on a raised wooden platform which was much harder to allow our daughter time to roam around without being locked in the tent.

 

 

 

 

Any specific items that helped make camp more baby-friendly?

 

If you are in the front country or car camping and have access to picnic tables, we definitely recommend the Phil & Teds Lobster highchair for mealtimes. Sure, we could have just fed our daughter from a camp chair, but this highchair was super easy to set up and made it so that our daughter could be pinned in a place and allow us hands-free time to set up camp.

I also should recommend if you are car camping, that a larger (and cheaper) tent with mesh paneling is vital in keeping bugs at bay and giving your kid a baby jail setting to play in. Watching your kid for hours on end is exhausting, and when camping, they are going to try to eat every rock they can get their hands on. Having somewhere safe to put them so you don’t have to hover is essential for your sanity. I recommend bringing a less expensive tent than your ultra lightweight backcountry tent because your kid may be like ours and just try to tear the mesh apart.

In the backcountry, our lightweight 3 person MEC (same as REI) tent is almost entirely meshing and we used this with a sarong that acted as our playmat and sunshade. In the front country, we opted for a large Woods 4 person tent that had polyester panels that provided wind protection on one side and mesh panels for visibility and bug protection on the other side. (Disclaimer, we were sponsored by Woods last year so we did not buy that tent – but having a large family-sized tent was awesome, while I am not sure if I would recommend this particular tent for front country due to the price tag, Woods does have some other great looking tents with better price values).

If you are wondering about camp chairs, we also had two different setups for these depending on where we were.

Hammock wise, we have a Hennessy two person hammock tent that we were obsessed with (and lived in for months at a time) pre-baby that zips up. Our daughter sort of liked this for just novelty or nap times, not for overnight sleeping. The zipped up feature meant she couldn’t escape from it as easily and bugs also wouldn’t get in. We only used this in the front country.

Also in the front country, we used an oversized Woods Mammoth chair. It’s quite large but fit both us and baby and it was great to not have armrests that got in the way while breastfeeding. It still works wonderfully with our daughter as a toddler who wants to cuddle us. 

In the backcountry, particularly for paddling trips, we have two foldable backcountry chairs (Alite – Mayfly Chairs that seem to not be sold anymore) we bring with us.  The key is that these are low to the ground and were easy for our daughter to get in and out of, yet weigh nothing. On our backpacking trip, we opted not to bring these and instead just sat on a sarong on the ground since keeping weight down was vital.

And if you are wondering about toys, in the backcountry we brought only a rubber teething toy and a squeaky toy we could attach to the backpack. In the front country, bring whatever you can pack in your car and think will keep you sane.

In warm climates, we also opted to bring a plastic inflatable infant pool (less than a meter in diameter) that my mom got us from the dollar store. Weighed nothing but was easily filled with lake water and one pot of boiling hot water to make a warm enough bath for our daughter at the end of the day. Also, if on the beach, find a bucket to put rocks in and take out of. Entertainment for hours.

If you are looking for items that help in regards to clothing for babies while adventuring, follow this link as I wrote a whole article on items that are useful for travelling with a baby.


 

 

 

How to carry your baby and camp gear with you?

 

I would be remiss not to mention what backpack we used for hiking with our baby. For day hiking and anything under three hours, we simply used our BECO baby carrier (seems to be the same as all baby carriers) and a day bag. We did do an overnight hike with the baby in carrier on our fronts and backpack with camping gear on our backs. It took its toll on our body and is not recommended.  Our backs nearly gave out. While I have eyed up the fancy Thule Osprey or Deuter baby carriers, they had a hefty price tag and we have an older Kelty child carrier that we picked up used.

Our particular model did have a good amount of cargo space, but it does not have a rain guard or sunshade so our daughter was out in the elements. We put her in a sunhat and rain suit, but the backpack itself got soaked one day which wasn’t ideal. We’ll likely be upgrading this year to ensure we have both the sunshade and rain cover as I feel that is essential and will be trying a few on in store to ensure the padding and suspension systems are a good fit with my body since our daughter definitely prefers to be carried by mom. Also, I’d want to make sure the pillow and padding for my child’s head fits her better because ideally, I’d like her to sleep while I hike (to get in more kms). Seems like most kids legs will be too big for the backpack, regardless of pricetag, after one year.

Do yourself a favour and get hiking poles. They will really help when carrying a baby on your back – especially when that baby is swinging around with joy in their carrier while you are navigating a boulder field.

 

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Any other questions about camping with a baby?

Let us know by asking on our instagram @meandertheworld.

Please note that this was not a sponsored post, and I have not been paid in any way to write this. All opinions are genuine and my own.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Rachel Bertsch Explorer

Mom | Adventure Seeker | Tour Leader | Find me regularly @meandertheworld on Instagram.