Many new parents may hesitate to head into the wild, as they wonder if camping with a baby or toddler is safe, enjoyable or worth the hassle. Don’t abandon your dreams of an outdoor vacation yet. Campgrounds are crawling (sometimes literally) with babies, toddlers and young families. And camping with a baby may be easier than you think.
“Camping is easiest when they’re small and portable. You just put them in a carrier and go!” says Sandra Kimmet, a mom of three. But whether you pack your new baby and related gear in the family car for an outdoor adventure this summer—or sit it out for a few seasons—depends on your level of experience with both camping and parenting.
“New parents may not be ready to take their newborn to the grocery store, much less to the outback,” says Michelle Terry, M.D. But veteran parents, particularly those with camping experience, may have no problem executing a quick camping or backpacking getaway. Here’s how to plan a memorable trip with your little ones.
Nighttime temperatures at state and national parks can dip into the 40s, even at the height of summer. Because babies lose heat more quickly than older children and adults, your little one will need help staying cozy.
“Below 50 degrees, or 60 degrees in wet, windy weather, body temperature can drop if babies are wearing inadequate clothing,” says Terry. Keep babies and toddlers warm at night with several layers of clothing (preferably fleece or wool), thick socks, and a hat for sleeping. In especially chilly climes, be watchful for cool, clammy skin, which indicates that a baby needs an extra layer or two. Early symptoms of hypothermia include shivering; cold, pale, or blue-gray skin; and decreased alertness.
Don’t plan on sticking around the campsite; a bored toddler is bound to develop an unsafe fascination with the firepit or garbage bag. Staying active keeps everyone cheerful (added bonus: it also helps tire kids out for bedtime). Dad Brian Mark has camped with his kids (ages 4 and 2) since they were babies. “Walk them around as much as possible,” he says. “Take kids to look for firewood and let toddlers collect smooth rocks or bundles of sticks.”
The good news: kids under 2 don’t need much stimulation to stay happy. Most will be thrilled to simply wander the campground (with mom or dad close at hand), admiring scenery and making friends with other campers. Comb local beaches, visit landmarks, and don’t be afraid to drive to the nearest town for a meal or a cup of hot cocoa or coffee — a camping trip with a baby is not the time to rough it, notes Terry. More adventurous families can check in with the ranger’s station for a map of local hiking trails. Take plenty of water -- especially when hiking.
Surrounded by lush greenery and towering trees, many campsites look idyllic — but be mindful of hazards for very young campers. Before pitching your tent, inspect the campsite for sharp rocks and sticks, matches or garbage left by previous campers.
“Be on the lookout for potential choking hazards. Debris could easily make its way into curious hands or mouths,” says Terry. Also watch out for plants that could irritate (poison ivy) or sicken children, like St. John’s Wort, poppies or philodendron. High altitude is another concern—don’t take babies under 6 months old above 2,500 feet too rapidly. “It will be cold and the baby may have trouble breathing,” says Terry.
Use a portable play-yard to safely contain a little one while you start a campfire or cook dinner; keep active kids safely inside the tent at night by safety-pinning the tent zippers together. “The bottom line is that babies and toddlers need constant supervision,” says Terry.
When camping with toddlers, don’t sweat the small stuff, advises Georgiann Derieg, a mom of seven. “When we camp, I dress kids in clothes destined for the Goodwill pile so I don’t need to worry about dirt, stains or rips.”
The outcome of your trip may be determined before you even leave the driveway; often, the difference between a great trip and a forgettable one is what you pack. Tricycles, baby carriers, simple toys, trash bags, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, extra diapers, flashlights, and batteries are must-haves.
“Don’t forget to bring a portable play pen, a standing seat, or a back carrier so that babies can check things out safely,” says Terry. And, of course, take lots of photos, so decades from now you can prove your child was camping before he could walk.
Essentials for Camping with a Baby
Play-yard or portable bassinet
Warm clothing, socks, and hat for sleeping
Diapers, wipes, and changing pad
Flashlights and extra batteries
Insect repellent (consult doctor before using on baby)
Want to go camping in San Diego? Find a list of San Diego campgrounds here.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom of three.