When I was pregnant, the notion of camping with a baby was appealing and a little intimidating. But no matter how many naysayers I came across, and in spite of how many parents laughed at me, insisting, “Oh, you’ll see,” I knew I wasn’t going to wait years for my child to be “ready.”
My thinking was, better to break the kid in sooner than later… get her used to long car rides, simple pleasures, and strange and exciting environments. I didn’t know if there was an “appropriate” age to take a baby camping, but I didn’t want to get too comfortable with the assumption that it was too hard, or too risky, or this, or that… And if I didn’t at least try, I’d never know if it was possible.
So my husband and I set off for one of our favorite summertime destinations, Kern River in Southern California, when Gemma was nine weeks old. Just the three of us. Into the great unknown: sharing a tent with a newborn.
How did we do?
Happy to say, the little one loved it. She’s a natural when it comes to camping! And her first camping trip went so smoothly, we’re already planning a few more overnight outings — longer ones, and farther away.
We didn’t know what to expect or how exactly to prepare, so we winged it and trusted our instincts. After three days of sitting around a fire and sleeping under the stars with a newborn by our side, we would not have done anything differently.
A few adventurous parents have since asked us how they could bring their own babies camping, so I want to share a few tips on how we pulled it off. If you’re a parent (or parent-to-be) who’s been hesitant about this, I hope our experience inspires you to get outside with your little one!
First, Gemma’s exclusively breastfed, so that solved one big piece of the puzzle. But she wasn’t sleeping through the night yet, nor did she have a predictable sleep pattern or nap schedule. Her longest stretch of sleep was three to four hours, after which she’d eat, then wake every few hours to eat again until she was up for the day. Our bedtime “routine” wasn’t really a routine per se: we’d all turn in for the night, change her, nurse her, and fall asleep together.
Nonetheless, I think these tips will work for most babies and serve as a starting point to help you prepare for a first-time family camping trip.
1. Stay close to home. (At first.)
We chose Kern River for its proximity to Los Angeles, knowing that if things went south, we could bail and be back home in about three hours. It also felt remote enough without being totally off the grid. The small town of Kernville was a short drive away, and if we needed food, clothes, or diapers, we could make a quick run to the restaurant, general store, or grocery store. We could even book a last-minute stay at one of the inns along the river if we got really desperate.
2. Keep it short, but not too short.
For the baby’s inaugural outing, we spent three days and two nights at camp. It was just right. We could take our time setting up, ease into our new roles as adventure parents, and take our time packing up. Things move more slowly (or more speedily!) with a baby in tow, and it was important to have a full leisurely day to ourselves without the stress of logistics.
3. Keep it convenient.
As far as car camping is concerned, we’re big fans of primitive camping. A typical trip involves packing our own tables, toilet, and water, and building our own firepit at a campsite that requires 4WD (or even a boat!) to reach. But we decided to book a site in a developed campground that had picnic tables, fire rings, running water, and composting toilets onsite — four less things to think about.
Primitive camping certainly isn’t out of the question with a baby, especially since our eventual goal is to take our baby on a backpacking trip and hike in to a campsite. But for our first trip to the woods, the convenience of campground amenities like a water spigot cannot be beat.
4. Don’t skimp on the sleeping situation.
Compared to backpacking, car camping is a luxury! Our school of thought is, “If it fits in the car, bring it.” We have a Big Agnes six-person tent that’s tall enough to stand inside, and on past camping trips, we’ve brought a standard air mattress to set our two sleeping bags on.
But as a breastfeeding mama, comfort has moved to the top of my list because if mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy. In preparation for our first family camping trip, we upgraded to a queen air mattress that sits two feet off the ground, much like our own bed at home. (We inflate it with a Goal Zero solar generator, which we also use to charge our phones, cameras, and speaker. Did I mention we definitely don’t pack light for car camping?) We also swapped our individual mummy bags for a 20°F double sleeping bag that lays edge to edge on our new queen mattress — it’s a dreamy setup!
We co-sleep with the baby half the time at home, and decided it was best to co-sleep with her at camp. Gemma could slip into the sleeping bag between us (on top of a waterproof pad to protect against diaper leaks) and I could nurse her at night, lying down, without unzipping the bag or disturbing the hubby. The temperature dipped to 40°F in the middle of the night, and we were all toasty warm. After using a mummy bag for so long, I’d forgotten how nice it was to be able to stretch my arms and legs out! And the extra width meant Gemma could continue to climb into bed with us until she decides she wants her own sleeping bag.
While this sleeping arrangement works well for our family, I realize it’s not feasible for others. The takeaway is this: Stay warm. Be comfortable. Consider your bedtime habits (including how you like to feed and change the baby) and bring all the comforts needed to make tent-sharing as pleasant as possible, and to ensure everyone has a good night’s sleep. If this means dragging along a nursing pillow, battery-powered white noise machine, or in our case, 20 pounds of air mattress and sleeping bag, so be it.
5. Feed frequently.
The slightest hint of dehydration can lead to fussiness and sleep troubles, so I breastfed Gemma a little more frequently at camp than I did at home. We usually nursed alfresco and I used this nursing cover to keep the sun, wind, and gnats off her.
6. Pack plenty of diapers.
Disposable diapers weigh nothing and can be shoved into the tiniest nook in a duffel, so we brought nearly double the amount we normally used at home. And that makes another reason a developed campground is a great place to hone your camping-with-baby skills: you can toss dirty diapers in the trash receptacles upon departure.
7. Pack plenty of layers.
Babies can’t regulate their body temperatures very well, so it’s super important to keep your little one comfortably warm and dry. A warm and dry baby is a happy and restful baby, and all it takes is some strategic layering.
For evenings, a wearable sleeping bag served as a quick outerlayer and this one from Baby Deedee is our favorite for durability and warmth. We sized up so Gemma could get a few seasons out of it, and since we didn’t intend for her to sleep in it, the fit was adequate.
At bedtime, we layered her in lightweight footed pajamas and a microfleece sleep sack with a hat. We tucked her under the sleeping bag with us and she was good to go. Throughout the night I’d check her neck and she’d be just right — not too hot, not too cool.
For the three-day trip, I brought three or four pieces each of tops, bottoms, and pajamas, and we rotated through all of them. If Gemma felt damp (from sweat, drool, or diaper leaks), I changed her immediately into dry clothes to make sure she stayed warm, especially in the evenings. Eventually, I plan to invest in a few sets of merino wool base layers for her to wear while camping, hiking, and all-around adventuring.
Here’s an in-depth guide I wrote on how to dress infants and toddlers for cold weather.
8. Bring a safe and comfortable spot for your baby to sit and sleep during the day.
At nine weeks old, Gemma didn’t need much by way of baby gear. The only items we brought were a Wildbird linen sling and a Baby Jogger all-terrain stroller. It can recline to an almost flat position, so it was the perfect place to put her down for a nap. During the day, we kept her shaded under the generously sized canopy. A plush newborn insert made it a cozy camp chair so she could watch our daily camp activities (cooking, washing dishes, chopping wood) while staying safe at a distance.
Between that and babywearing, playtime and naptime weren’t any more challenging at camp than they were at home.
9. Bring a familiar comfort from home.
A newborn doesn’t have favorite toys or blankets yet, but we didn’t want Gemma to feel overstimulated with all the new sights, sounds, and smells at camp. We brought a couple of her blankets from home so she would have a familiar scent to snuggle with in the stroller. If your baby is particularly sensitive, you could even tuck in one of Mom’s or Dad’s shirts.
Gemma was just starting to focus on objects and see farther away at nine weeks old, so we also brought this toy arch to keep her occupied when we had our hands full. It has universal clamps that attach to any type of seat — we’ve used ours on her car seat, bouncer, stroller, Rock ‘n Play, and Pack ‘n Play. (We loved it so much, we bought a second one to keep in the car.) I’m a bit of a toy snob and don’t like to bring these ugly plastic contraptions into our home, but the toy arch is distracting and entertaining for her, and I imagine she’ll find it even more engaging as she gets older.
10. Bring a bag of “just in case” toiletries.
We were gifted this Little Remedies kit at our baby shower, which has basic supplies to treat minor baby woes. When we go out of town, we pack the snotsucker, nail scissors, baby ointment, aloe vera, and hand sanitizer with it, along with the usual assortment of swaddles and burp cloths. We also really like these water-based wipes for camping; we use them on the baby as well as ourselves.
11. Bring a “nightlight.”
Sometimes we went to sleep before the moon came up, and it was pitch black once the headlamps were off. We used this solar lamp in our tent all night and kept it on the floor at the foot of the bed. It’s bright enough to illuminate the interior (and allow us to check on the baby periodically) but soft enough to let us sleep. (If you have a smaller tent, I recommend covering the lamp with a muslin swaddle or something similar to dim its brightness.)
12. Take it easy on yourself.
Remember that camping is a time to get away, kick back, and relieve yourself of day-to-day drudgery. Be fluid. Prioritize fun. You may not have it all figured out the first time, you might even wonder why Murphy’s Law is in full effect, but if you can learn from it and laugh about it, consider the outing a success. Babies are far more adaptable and resilient than we think they are, and we just have to trust that things will work out. If there’s no salvaging the situation, you can always pack up and head home — because there’s always next time.