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I’ve talked to many people, who despite a passionate love of the outdoors, have stopped camping, backpacking and hiking once they become parents. They feel that the presence of a baby or toddler prohibits them from roughing it like they used to. And while it’s true that babies and small children do change the dynamic of camping, I’m a firm believer that there is no better time to introduce young ones to the awesomeness of nature than in infancy.
My husband and I have always loved hiking, mountain biking and back country camping. Sharing our love of nature together was a pillar of our relationship that helped us stay connected to each other and our values from the very beginning. It was for this reason that when our first son arrived, we shared excitement about taking him out into the wild as soon as possible.
Before his first birthday, our son had ‘hiked’ more than 23 miles with us, with every trip including at least one overnight stay in a tent, at a campsite with no running water. By his third birthday, he had successfully completed a 13-mile round trip backcountry camping trip, on which he saw a black bear and shared his love for rocks with his six-month-old brother. He’s now nearing his fifth birthday, and has begun helping me plan which hikes we will take this summer.
My four year old’s passion for the outdoors and exploration exhilarates me and is inspiring his brother, who is now a toddler. I know that these experiences are connecting my sons to nature in a way that will be forever imprinted on their souls, and therefore drive them to be active in preserving our planet’s beauty and resources. In hopes of inspiring other parents to brave the trails with their little ones, here are a few pointers to help make your trip successful.
When backpacking with children there are three key considerations for packing: 1) food, 2) warm clothing and 3) diapers. All of these items will make up a significant portion of the weight you carry, so you need to plan carefully and be conservative.
Account for the minimum number of diapers and wipes you think you can get by on and add in a couple extra, and remember packing soiled diapers out is heavier than on the way in – this might be a great time to try out elimination communication.
For clothing you’ll want your kids to have at least one layer more than what you plan to wear, but avoid bulky items like chunky sweaters and puff coats. Long underwear, lightweight fleeces and full footie pajamas work great. You’ll want some changes of clothes in case of spills and leaks, but wearing dirty clothes on the trail is a-okay.
When it comes to food, avoid jars of baby food and packaged items. Cheese, bread, tortillas, bananas, avocados, apples, pasta and bars are all relatively easy to pack and provide good sustenance. For babies, I usually relied on mashed whole foods (thus the banana and avocado suggestion) or pureed food pouches. Of course breast milk comes in quite handy for babies on the trail, and if you are front carrying (and adventurous), you can even breastfeed while you hike! For older toddlers and preschool-aged children, it helps to have a few ‘treats’ like a cliff bar or animal crackers on hand to keep their energy levels up.
Research Your Location Carefully
A trail that is mostly flat and has a camp within only a few miles is your best bet with kids, especially if you are going to be carrying your baby or toddler in your pack. You’ll also want to find a location that is near water but does not run alongside rushing water for the duration; we once hiked alongside a powerful river for several miles, and had my son not been in the pack the whole time, I would have been sick with worry and not had any fun.
More things to consider when selecting your location: elevation gain, access to sun and shade, climate, how well the trail is maintained and groomed, drive time to the trail head, and popularity (a highly trafficked trail may lead to trouble finding a spot to set up camp).
Don’t Be Too Ambitious
The more nights you plan to camp, the more you’ll need in terms of food, clothing, diapers, etc. Don’t overdo it, especially not on the first adventure. We have found that one night works great. You have essentially two full days away from technology and the buzz of daily life, but you will pack much less than you would for two or more nights.
Also keep in mind age-appropriateness of your pace and duration. A long hike might be fine if you are carrying your baby the whole time – and you know he’ll sit happily in the pack – but a walking child will be at a much different level and will need an easily tread trail, frequent breaks and lots of water. Everyone will have more fun if the trip is relatively mellow and pressure-free. When your child feels the discomfort of walking too far or to fast, or your baby has sat in the pack for too long, you are more likely to experience meltdowns and overall dislike of the activity.
Use All Your Resources
If you have a child old enough to hike on her own for the entire trail, let her carry a small, very light pack. This will give your child a sense of purpose and importance, and is a fantastic opportunity for her to gain the skills and passion for an active, outdoor lifestyle.
And don’t forget about man’s best friend! We enlist the help of our dog to carry his items in his dog pack, which helps lighten a little bit of weight from our load. Our dog packs in his dishes, food and sometimes carries a water bottle or two (he’s a large breed, so we of course keep his pack weight proportionate to his ability to carry).
You can also look to friends or relatives. While they will need to pack in their own gear of course, an additional adult or two to disperse the extra weight of food, diapers and baby can go a long way in making the cargo seem more manageable.
Don’t Rule Out Car Camping
If backpacking is just not your thing, or if you have a baby that is extremely resistant to being carried in a pack, you can still get out and sleep under the stars. There are hundreds of amazing wilderness-type campgrounds that you can access by car. Many state parks and essentially all national forest areas have plenty of options, including secluded campsites with amenities.
Car camping still gets your family out in nature, while all the effort of preparing for a big hike is avoided. Plus most wilderness type campgrounds (I’m not talking about the KOA here) are located within walking or short driving distance from family friendly day hikes and nature walks. The most important thing to remember, whether you are driving or hiking to your chosen camp, is to leave behind the technology (except perhaps a camera) and embrace the opportunity to connect with nature and your children to create memories that will stay with all of you for life.
If you aren’t quite ready to venture out for camping and backpacking, check out this article with great ideas for outdoor fun a little closer to home.
Photo Credit: Author