When you first decide to bring your little one along, a lot of things are rushing through your head to account for every little possibility... I guess this is no different than the usual life of parenting. You may be used to roughing it in the backcountry of Algonquin or Wabakimi with everything you need for a week on your back, but when it comes time to expand that camping unit to +1 (or 2 or 3) you are suddenly a newbie.
Take a breath. Remember that kids are resilient. Appreciate that what you do next will encourage a brand new human being to enjoy a life of exploring the outdoors and always learning!
For the purpose of capturing as much information as possible, while still keeping this consumable, I'm going to split up the content into 3 parts:
1) Preparation: essentials, good-to-haves, and luxuries
2) Journey: handling the long drives to the camp (offroad included!)
3) Destination: keeping camping fun, day or night
A disclaimer, I am not an expert in child care, or camping, or backcountry survival, everything that follows are lessons my partner and I have learned while being out there with our little one. I am simply a parent with a toddler we have taken camping with us since she was 4 months old. My partner and I are avid campers of many years, with experience across Canada, USA, the Andes of Argentina, and parts of Eastern Europe.
Where are you going?
So you've chosen to bring along your toddler to the next camping trip. For the sake of this article series I'm going to assume that wherever you're camping you'll be bringing your truck/SUV/car/buggy/horse carriage along.
First, where are you camping: a private campground with full facilities, a provincial park, or crown land (BLM equivalent for our southern friends)? Although we'll discuss the destination in the next part, this is important to consider right away as it will determine what you have available to you.
Often setup not far from a town/city/municipality with all amenities that come with civilization. This type of camping usually means you're very close to other people, have access to indoor showers/washrooms/laundry and most importantly running potable water, often even a pool! Firewood and/or propane is readily available, along with any other small things you may forget (at a premium of course).
Not a bad place to start and take your baby on their first overnight.
Provincial / National Park
Now you're starting to spread your wings a bit. You will still be near plenty of other people, but the location is a little more remote from any towns. More often than not these parks come with indoor showers/washrooms/laundry and potable water supplies. They occasionally have small camp shops and always firewood available.
A shift from the private campgrounds, while still staying in the safety of civilization.
Here we go, you've chosen the overlander's ideal state: a remote location, with no other humans or amenities in sight. Full self-reliance.
This is the goal and what our destination will be in this article. After this you move on to backpacking and portaging with your little one!
When are you going?
This is an important question, it quickly raises important problems that you must solve such as bug tenacity, overnight weather, daytime weather, wetness, etc. This is really where bringing a kid along differentiates from your usual camping. As an adult you can "tough it out" if need be, but even though they are resilient, it is important to keep your child safe and comfortable. That 10C overnight temperature you normally wouldn't bat an eye at? That's too cold for just a sleep sack, you need to consider more extensive sleepwear (perhaps a specialized baby sleeping bag). Going in June or July? Remember the bugs and how to protect your baby, without using DEET. There are a lot of things to take into consideration, I recommend thinking about the below seven to get you started:
What season is it?
Are you going in spring or summer, what does this mean for your geographic location. Spring in the Rockies is different from Spring in the Prairies. A lot of the below points build upon this first question.
Will it rain or snow?
It is imperative to keep your child dry, high chances of wetness means more changes of clothes, dry bags or sealed boxes to keep clothes dry, waterproof jackets/boots/hats, extra layers for snowy conditions, and how you will dry the wet clothes.
Is thunder in the forecast?
How does your child handle thunder and loud noises, will this be a concern and perhaps best to avoid.
What is the overnight temperature?
Sleeping arrangements are important, if it'll hover above 20 all night then you're fairly set, but a drop to even 15C will be really cold for a child. Our first camping together it dropped to 6C, thankfully we brought a couple swaddles and extra blankets. Our swaddle is a 2.5 TOG (TOG is a unit of measure of thermal insulation used in the textile trade. The British "TOG" value is the international standard measurement of a blanket's thermal effectiveness).
For below 0C camping I think a separate article will be needed to cover everything that goes with it.
What is the daytime temperature?
Will you need light clothing because it's staying 30C+ or will you need various layers as the weather significantly fluctuates from morning to afternoon.
Are bugs prevalent during your trip?
Loose fitting, light and long-sleeve clothing is always your best bet for countering bugs. A mosquito net room under your Tepui Awning or a portable gazebo will do wonders to keep the bugs off. A head mosquito net is great (if it stays on!). Read up on Health Canada's recommendations about bug spray, there are many choices, but often you cannot use the same options you'd put on yourself. Icaridin-based products seem to be a safe bet. We did not use any bug spray in the first year and keep the baby covered with personal mosquito netting instead. Recently have started using Icaridin-based spray to good effect.
What kind of water conditions will you face?
Goes with the cold temperature conditions above. Think if the water will be swimmable (or too cold?), or will the ground temperature be so hot you'd be desperate to get in with the little one!
Consider the above 7 items before you read the pack list that follows. It is important now more than ever to know the forecast and more importantly understand everything that it implies.
What do you pack?
I hope you knew how to pack well and pack light, before you had a kid. Although their clothes may be tiny, the amount of extras you're suddenly bringing along is no joke: consider the toys, the additional chair, the sleeping arrangements, etc.
When we first took our daughter camping (4 months young) it was a single night at a private campground, and we brought our portable bassinet along. Nowadays it's more of a "pack the sleep sack and sleep along side us".
Medical disclaimer: Talk to your paediatrician about any concerns or medical conditions and how you should take care of them while camping, well in advance of heading out. As with travel to any part of the world, make sure that both you and your child are up to speed on your vaccinations.
The below is not an exhaustive list, it is meant to get you started and thinking about what is important to bring along so that your child has a great time while staying safe.
- Baby Advil / Tylenol
- Baby Benadryl
- Kid-safe bug-spray (Icaridin-based appears to be the go to)
- kid-safe sun screen
Clothes and Sleeping
- Long sleeve shirts
- Short sleeve shirts
- Rain jacket
- Water shoes/sandals
- Sleep sack/swaddles
- Sleeping bag (only if your child is old enough)
- Age-appropriate blanket
- Diapers (day/night/swim)
- Baby wipes (these things are magic, bring triple what you expect, they're great for your kid, yourself, and heck even your truck)
- Lifejacket (test it ahead of time for fit and that it is certified)
- Towel (quick-dry preferably)
- Seating arrangement (camping chair or feeding chair)
- Sleeping arrangement (will they need their own cot/air mattress)
- Pack 'n Play / Playpen (great for keeping them safe in one spot while you're setting up the campsite)
- Bug protection (whether a full mosquito room under your awning, or a pop-up netted gazebo, or an individual mosquito net for your little one)
- Hard cover/tough books
- Favourite sleeping toy/blankie
- Backup soft toy for above (stick to one or two tops, less cleaning later)
- Sand castle type toys
- Small bucket
- Blow-up pool (a luxury indeed)
- Overall large, easy to find toys (nothing like hunting a campsite for that little toy while packing up camp in a hurry)
- Tablet or smartphone, pre-loaded with kid's cartoons (download ahead of time on Netflix/Disney) this is more for Part 2 - the Journey
Bring the child's usual feeding/drinking utensils. Consider whether to bring a chair or will they sit in a regular camping chair.
The food itself is a totally varied topic all together. Please consider what your child eats daily, and do the careful math to ensure you bring enough of the right stuff PLUS EXTRA! Every kid is vastly different in what they eat, so there's no benefit of me listing out our menu here. Bring some of their comfort foods (like desserts or snacks) as a reward or in the absolute worst case if they choose to change diets mid-trip. Healthy snacks do wonders to also entertain a child, assuming the toddler likes them.
Prep, prep, prep, the food ahead of time as much as possible so it's a matter of heating up or just a quick cooking over the fire.
Milk: is your kid on milk or formula, if your toddler is on milk you need to find a way to keep it cold long enough for the trip, or consider the powdered option.
If you are traveling with an off-road fridge, great! Your choices now expand to fresh everything for the whole trip rather than just the first day. If you are travelling with a cooler, then try to get one that holds temperature the longest; don't use loose ice, and consider freezing potable water in a few 2L bottles to be placed into cooler (this will keep the ice longer).
Water: critical to have plenty of the stuff as always. Will you be simply buying a couple 10L jugs as the grocery store, or will you be filtering the water at the site (make sure it's a good filter, in working order)? There are of course many other options too, but these are the most straightforward.
Now that you've figured out your pack list for your child, make sure to pack it in such a way that it would be easy to access what you need most. For example keep some diapers, a change of clothes, wipes, and a changing pad in the vehicle so you don't have to take apart everything on the road. Pack other diapers together, frequent use clothes together, and so on. Same concept as with adults.
Using packing cubes is a great way to organize everything into appropriate sections. At the end of the day, ensure everything is 1) accessible and 2) dry. The Front Runner Wolf Packs are great for this.
Wrap-up Part 1
I hope that this information has got your brain ticking and thinking about the details of your next trip. And most importantly that it has helped inspire you to bring your child with you on your adventures. There is truly nothing else like the opportunity to see this world anew through their eyes. Consider it a second chance to experience the beauty of nature, while encouraging a love for the beautiful outdoors!
Please join us again soon as we post Part 2 - the Journey.