How to safely camp with a baby or toddler

I have a big family, so growing up, hotel stays were rare. They were just too expensive for that many people. They were also kind of boring. You could watch TV and maybe swim in the pool, but that’s it. Instead, we camped. We had to figure out how to camp with a baby and with several people, and we weren’t super experienced campers when we started.

I’m pretty sure both of my parents had camped before. But camping with kids is a little different, especially when you’re just starting out. My family had only a little fishing equipment when we started. We borrowed a tent, found out it didn’t have all of the parts (while in the mountains, in the middle of the night and during a thunderstorm, with little kids), and had to make an emergency family tent purchase. We had to consider what worked for little kids, what would work for a large family and what would have good, lasting value.

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My husband rarely camped growing up. He went with my family a couple of times when we were dating and after we were married, and we also go on camping trips together. So when I suggested that we camp with a baby, it felt normal to me, but I think he suspected I was a bit crazy.

Our first time camping with a baby

I wanted to take our daughter when she was only a few months old in 2016. We planned to camp in the Southeast, at a familiar site and where it would normally still be warm enough in early fall.

Then, a certain hurricane ruined our plans.

Radar image of Hurricane Matthew in the Southeast in 2016.
Image courtesy of the National Weather Service. Hurricane Matthew made camping in the Southeast a bit difficult. Ugh.

Hurricane Matthew caused a lot of rain and wind, and several areas even well out of the path of the hurricane were closed. Campgrounds dealt with repairs for months, even just from flooding.

Even if we went somewhere anticipated to receive less rain, people were streaming north and west to escape the effects in the most southern and eastern parts. We didn’t know what the roads would be like, or what the path of the hurricane would be. The campground we wanted to visit was closed. Temperatures dropped. It just didn’t work.

It quickly became too cold to camp with a baby and we had to wait for spring. When spring came, we could never get our camping plans to work out for various reasons, including work obligations. Finally, we decided to take her to celebrate her first birthday.

Of course we chose what was one of the hottest weeks of the year. And the week we planned to hold her birthday party.

We had a lot of fun. I loaded her up in our Ergo 360 and we took her for hikes. We didn’t try the most strenuous trails, but did the easy and moderate ones with no trouble. (We’d been hiking, including in that area, before with and without her.)

A cooler kept our food chilled, though we plan to get a nicer one that will hold its temperature longer. Our daughter ate well. She loved seeing the camp fire, watching us make coffee at the site, and sitting in a gigantic-to-her (normal-sized) camping chair. She got one a few days later in a toddler size for her birthday from my parents. It was still big for her, but she’ll grow into it. 🙂

We camped successfully for several days, but once the heat index was well over 100, she struggled to sleep. Someone we knew let us stay in their nearby lake house, where we were able to get her in the air conditioning and finish preparations for her birthday party.

Overall, her first trip was a success. The only reason we had to stop camping a couple of days early was because of the intense heat. She didn’t sleep nearly as solidly as she does at home, and wanted to nurse a lot, but it was largely due to the heat. I don’t blame her for wanting to drink more and for craving snuggles in a new environment. When you camp with a baby, you need to be flexible for their needs.

Camp with a baby– tips

Setting up camp with a baby isn’t as hard as it may sound. Babies don’t really need a lot of the special equipment that advertisers market to parents.

  • I breastfed our daughter, so we didn’t have to worry about bringing a lot of bottles.If we had, I would have brought our bottles, a bottle brush and probably one little bottle nipple cleaning brush. I also would have brought our Spectra S2 breast pump. It doesn’t have a battery pack, but you can use it in your car by plugging it into the cigarette lighter with an adapter. (We LOVE our adapter, and use it for for bringing laptops on car trips, too.) I can’t find our adapter online. Ours only has one plug, but this one has two plus places for USBs. You could pump while charging your phone.
  • We also made sure she had plenty of water in her Nuby sippy cup. When you hike or camp with a baby — or do anything outside– you may want to consider bringing lots of water in a spill-proof cup.
  • A sun hat protected our baby’s face.You can also use baby sunscreen to protect baby’s skin. The Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding sunscreen if possible for children under the age of 6 months. I believe it’s better to use it than risk a sunburn, but it’s best to have the child stay in the shade and wear protective clothing.
  • Our Ergo 360 let us set up the tent, wash dishes, hike and do tasks around the campsite while keeping her close.She could even sleep while we worked or just hung out. We have the Cool Air Mesh in carbon gray. While no carrier is completely cool since your baby or toddler’s body is literally pressed up against yours, the mesh of the Ergo does let our daughter stay much cooler than she likely would in a solid fabric carrier. I have a gray one rather than a heat-absorbent black one. The carrier also works on our fall and winter hikes since we’re both dressed warmly enough to retain heat and I can tuck a blanket around her if necessary.
  • We watched to make sure she didn’t go near water or the camp fire, or eat rocks.It sounds stupidly simple, but just using a little extra vigilance in a new, less controlled environment can mitigate hazards.
  • We let her sleep in a Love to Dream light sleep sack.She loved to be snuggled in a sleep sack, but we didn’t want her to overheat. This one was light enough that she stayed fairly comfortable. The arm caps come off with little zippers, so we could cool off her arms if we needed to. They’re 93 percent cotton and 3 percent Elastane.
  • She also slept in a laundry basket.We probably could have fit her pack and play in our large tent, but it would have been one more thing to keep up with since we wouldn’t want it stolen. It also would have been another bulky item to pack.
    We also knew we wanted her to sleep close to us, but not be overheated or able to suffocate in the blankets or sleeping bags. So we brought our rectangular, hard plastic laundry basket. It has large holes all around the sides that allowed for good airflow, and it provided a firm surface for her to sleep on. She was very small for her age, so the laundry basket provided her with ample room. I liked that our basket was white since it was easier for us to see in dim lighting.

    She snuggled right between us in that basket, so she was close to Mama and Daddy.
    It’s a little unconventional, but it provided her with the safest option we could think of that also let her stay near us and let us easily keep an eye on her.

  • If we really needed to set her down outside, we put her in her PLCEO travel tent.This tent is awesome. The plastic sides can be kept down to provide shade and relative dimness, or pulled up so baby has mesh on all sides. Our baby is pretty active and wouldn’t stay in her tent for too long, but it did give us some quiet time where my husband could prep food while I built a fire. We knew our baby was safe and contained, away from rocks, bees and harsh sunlight.

    It’s advertised as a beach tent and comes with pegs to keep it from blowing away. I would use it on the beach, but I saw a couple of customer reviews saying that the pegs are a bit short to trust on a gusty beach. I’d use a couple of tent pegs and possibly place a rock on top. For camping in the woods, we had no concerns about it at all.

    Camp near home.

    Remember that every baby has a different temperament and will react differently to a new environment. It will be easier or harder depending on your experience, too.
    It’s totally possible to camp with a baby in a campsite far from home, but if you can camp closer to home, you can leave if the weather makes it difficult or if the baby is disturbing other campers by screaming all night. Some noise is to be expected if you’re at a family campsite, but it’s up to you if you decide to go home. It’s a lot easier to do that if you’re 20 minutes or an hour away versus several hours.

We learned through trial and error, but it helped that I also had years of experience from camping with my family.

After that first trip, we made a few changes. You can definitely camp with a baby, you just need to plan a bit. You don’t have to use all of the products listed above, but they worked really well for us. Now that our kid is a toddler, she still uses several of those items (a straw cup for water, a sun hat and sunscreen, the Ergo, etc.). She also now has her own camping chair and is big enough to participate in fishing and wants to walk for parts of easy hikes.

Even though we only have one kid rather than a large family like I had growing up, we still prefer camping to staying in a hotel. It’s cheaper, gets us outside and active, and there’s so much more to do!

When you camp with a baby, you only really need a safe place for the baby to sleep, a way to deal with heat or cold, and plenty of food and water. The other products just made it easier to set up and enjoy the trails.

Warning sign warns visitors to wear life jackets near a lake
When camping with children, consider risks such as the temperature, extreme weather conditions, insects, rocks or other easy-to-swallow items, camp fires, knives and other sharp objects, and bodies of water. Families with young children may want to camp away from bodies of water and teach water safety when walking near water or boating.

For other activities while camping, consider safety.

  • If you want to bike on quiet roads or campground trails, consider safe biking equipment for babies and toddlers. I recently upgraded my helmet to a Giro Chronicle with MIPS, and my daughter’s Giro Scamp with MIPS will be delivered Wednesday. We use a bike trailer so she can ride with me.
  • For canoeing, you may want to stay in shallow, calm water close to shore– consider a worst-case scenario where the weather suddenly turns, there’s a medical emergency or your boat tips. Make sure you’re both wearing life jackets. I recommend having another adult on board. If both adults have the ability to swim, one can care for the child and the other for the boat. Toddlers are wiggly. Stay close to land, away from sharp currents, deep water or sudden drop-offs. It let young children learn how to properly get in and out of a boat, wear a life jacket and stay still, all in a safer environment than the middle of a deep lake.
  • When hiking, consider an Ergo 360 or similar carrier so your arms are free to take pictures and catch yourself if you trip.

For all activities, pack lots of water, a charged radio or cell phone, sun hats, sunscreen, a first aid kit and proper safety equipment. And keep it fun!

Do you camp with a baby? What are your tips? If not, what has kept you from doing it? 

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