Before (and during) our first few family backpacking trips with our very young children, we received our share of criticism, as well as downright bafflement. Backpacking with a baby? friends asked us. Who would do that? Not masochists, we assured them. Outdoor-loving parents!
Does backpacking with a toddler or baby come with its share of challenges? Definitely. Is it easier when kids are older? Certainly. But exposing children to camping trips early makes for tougher, stronger, and happier outdoorsmen and women as they reach school-age. Read on for our family backpacking tips, which will make camping with a baby or toddler not only possible, but enjoyable.
1. Plan a 2-night trip for your first backpack with baby experience
It may seem that a single night out would be the safest bet with a baby in tow, but consider the amount of energy, equipment, and preparation a backpack trip with a baby or toddler will take. Once you’ve packed and prepped for one night, you might as well stay two (all you’ll need is slightly more food and clothing). Plus, the first night of any type of travel with a baby is the toughest. Camping with a toddler or baby is no exception. Why pack up and leave just as baby has adjusted? Preparing for, executing, then returning from a single night family backpack trip will feel exhausting. Returning from a two night stay will feel… well, still exhausting, but at least satisfying as well!
2. Choose a route 3-4 miles or less
It’s possible you’re used to hiking much farther than 3-4 miles on a backpacking trip, but while backpacking with a baby or toddler, don’t tackle too much! This is not just because of baby’s short attention span: consider the extra weight the adults in your party will be carrying. You’ve certainly already taken the weight of the actual baby into consideration — someone will be carrying him or her (more on that later) — but because of this task, someone else will be carrying more supplies than they’re probably used to. Put another way: you’ll need to divide all the equipment, food, and other supplies amongst one less pack than your party is used to. If you backpack with two adults, one will be carrying the bulk of the equipment while the other carries the child. Plan accordingly! (Remember, you’ll also be packing out more trash and/or laundry in the form of dirty diapers.)
3. Buy the right equipment
Trust me, never has choosing the proper backpack been more important! To have an enjoyable time backpacking with a baby, you must have a child carrier backpack that meets your needs. We love the Kelty Journey because it has just the amount of bells and whistles we need, and no more. Try out packs in a retail store before you buy, making sure the pack:
- Is adjustable (so you and your spouse or backpacking partner can take turns)
- Includes space for some supplies (most have an small pack that attaches)
- Stands on its own (to make loading and unloading easier and safer)
- Includes a sun and rain shade for baby
- Will grow with your child
If you have a toddler who would rather walk, decide ahead of time how much of the trail you’ll let him or her navigate, and let him or her know well in advance when it will be time to be carried again. (We bartered deals of about quarter mile walking, one mile riding.) It’s slow-going, but as you hike, you realize you’re instilling a love for the outdoors in your child, making it (mostly) worth it.
4. Pick your campsite wisely
Camping near a water source is more important now than ever. Spare yourself the extra weight of carrying in fresh water, and use a filtration system or water purifier in tandem with a stream or lake. It’s also nice to have a ready water source for bathing your child (I was astounded at how dirty mine got!), or playing in if the weather warrants a swim. Make sure your camp is free from irritants like poison oak if you have a walking child, and is as level as possible. (We loved feeding our baby in his propped up backpack as an impromptu high chair, but this only worked on level ground.) A good campsite is essential when you’re camping with a toddler or baby.
5. Think safety
If you have a toddler, consider putting a small bell on his or her shoelace. Yes, it’s a bit irritating, but we only used this technique around the camp site, where it would be easy for our children to wander. Show older children your site’s boundary (set by you!) and teach toddlers to stay away from cookstoves and fire pits (this is easier said than done, but we enforced it early and often). With active toddlers, it can be a good idea to set up your camping kitchen well away from the “living” areas of camp, despite the inconvenience.
Create and carry a comprehensive wilderness first aid kit, and be sure it contains stand-bys such as baby aspirin, Benedryl, and baby-friendly insect repellent. Make sure the kit is small enough to easily carry with you, and bring into your tent at night. During one memorable backpacking trip, our 18-month-old developed an ear infection. No fun for anyone, but having Tylenol helped until we were able to pack up and return home.
Plan to sleep with your child in a tent large enough to accommodate your family and give your child the appropriate amount of space for safe infant sleeping. We began packing in two tents when we started backpacking with our kids (one of which was a larger 3-person). The extra weight was worth the extra space at night. Make sure your baby or toddler has their own space in whatever tent you choose, well away from loose sleeping bags and pads. Putting our baby to bed in a baby sleep sack worked well for us.
Do you go camping with your baby or toddler? What backpacking tips do you have to share?