When my wife and I were young and childless, camping was simple, our packs were light and our gear lists were short. Then our first daughter was born. We wanted to introduce her as soon as possible to the grandeur of the Canadian wilderness and the calming rhythms of outdoor life, and we wanted to continue to enjoy those things ourselves, too. So we tapped into our most precious parenting resource: adaptability. Here’s what we learned, from friends and from hard-earned experience, about camping with a baby:
From high-end glamping in bespoke yurts to car camping to tent sites accessible only by canoe, camping means different things to different people. Taking a baby will require compromises—and adjusting your expectations—so it’s important to figure out which aspects of camping matter most to you. My wife and I decided that solitude and relatively unsullied wilderness were higher priorities than needing to sleep in a soft-sided triangular structure. So one of our first trips with our eldest daughter, Ella, was to a ranger cabin in Algonquin Park, one of 14 scattered through the park’s interior. With a roof and walls to simplify napping and early baby bedtimes, we were able to spend more time hiking, canoeing, fishing, and picking berries in the forests around the cabin.
Though the prospect may seem overwhelming at first, camping with a baby who is less than a year old has a lot of advantages. She probably can’t walk, or at least not very far or fast; she may still be breastfeeding, which vastly simplifies menu planning; and she’s likely more willing to sit (or sleep) in an infant carrier while you hike. In contrast, our trip to Six Mile Lake Provincial Park when Ella was a hyper-mobile two-year-old was far more challenging, and as a result our forest hikes were measured in metres rather than kilometres. That doesn’t mean toddler camping isn’t fun too—but don’t overlook the benefits of a first-year trip with a snugglier, more sedentary baby.
Good luck with this one. For Six Mile Lake, we upgraded to a large family-sized tent that could fit a portable crib for our second daughter, Natalie, who was then almost four months old. Ella, sleeping outside a crib for the first time, rolled around the roomy tent for nearly four hours in the summer twilight, delightedly whispering “I’m naughty!” Eventually, she or I (I can’t remember which) passed out—and somehow, we were all fine the next morning. One of the unavoidable facts of camping is that you’ll have to accept some deviations from your normal schedule, which isn’t always a bad thing. And fortunately, after the first night, Ella calmed down.
Nobody wants to be the parent whose baby is keeping the other campsites awake by crying at 2 a.m. If you’re in a crowded campground where sites are clustered together, it never hurts to introduce yourself to your neighbours (before nightfall!) so they understand you’re doing the best you can. And when night comes, remember that this isn’t the place to insist on a rigid schedule, or the right time to insist on any form of sleep training or cry-it-out. Bedtime might have to be pushed later (if the sun hasn’t gone down yet), or you might try draping the tent with an extra blanket to block out light. If your baby needs comfort in the unfamiliar environment, and perhaps needs to be nursed to sleep, you’ll be doing yourself, your baby, and your neighbours a favour by providing whatever method works fastest.
The characteristics of a kickas* campsite are different when you’ve got a baby with you. That burbling brook or scenic promontory? Major anxiety-inducing hassles if your toddler knows how to toddle and likes to explore. Instead, look for something relatively close to drinking water and a rest station. A grassy surface rather than dirt or gravel is much more fun for crawlers to navigate. On a larger scale, think carefully about how far you want to drive. My wife and I typically prefer more distant, less crowded parks—but for the next few years, while the kids are young, we’re sticking a little closer to home so that the trip doesn’t start on a sour note, stuck in traffic or on the road for hours with two small children. This summer, our first trip will be a one-nighter to Bronte Creek Provincial Park, less than 40 minutes from where we live in Toronto.
One way to find a little solitude, even in a crowded campground, is to use your feet. At Six Mile Lake, we chose a walk-in site that was a few hundred metres from the nearest parking spot. Even such a small distance creates a surprisingly big buffer between you and your neighbours (and your car), giving the trip a backcountry feel. Similarly, during a trip to the Rockies when Ella was six months old, we spent four days at a walk-in place called Shadow Lake Lodge, near Banff. The 13-kilometre hike to get there, hauling clothes, diapers and Ella in a hiking backpack, was challenging. But once we were there, we had our own bare-bones cabin, and all meals were provided, freeing us to spend our days hiking on trails far from the Highway 1 crowds.
To venture farther afield with camping gear, food, and your baby, you’ll need help. When travel writer Bruce Kirkby hiked Utah’s Uinta Mountains with his four-year-old son, Bodi, he rented four pack goats to schlep their gear. A more conventional option like horse trekking can also get you deep into the Rockies. We’ve found that grandparents along for the trip make reliable and versatile pack animals, and we have friends who wouldn’t dream of heading out for a canoe voyage without an uncle or aunt on board. Increasing the ratio of adults to infants can make a huge difference, and can also be an opportunity for some amazing extended family time. But don’t forget that they’re your kids, so don’t try to pass the buck too often when it’s diaper-changing time.
Speaking of diapers... this is probably the biggest barrier to true backcountry trips—and no, you can’t just dig a hole and bury them. While cloth is theoretically an option, it’s a challenging one. We’ve always used disposables and carried them out—not fun and not light, but simple as long as you bring a decent dry bag to keep odours in and to avoid leaks. An intermediate option is a hybrid diaper like gDiapers, which has an outer cloth cover and a compostable insert. That’s the option Bekah and Derrick Quirin chose for their six-month hike along the Appalachian Trail with their 12-month-old daughter, which they launched in March. (You can also follow along with their journey on Instagram.) They plan to dispose of the liners every few days in garbage cans. Oh, and don’t forget tons of wipes, a camping clean-up essential (and extremely useful for everyone, not just for babies).
Even the most nap-resistant baby might find the gentle rocking of a canoe cutting through the water irresistible. The first challenge? Transport Canada doesn’t certify life jackets for infants under 9 kg, so most outfitters won’t rent them. If you plan to paddle with your sub-9-kg voyageur, buy a non-certified life jacket designed for infants weighing 4 to 9 kg at Mountain Equipment Co-op before you go. For any infant, heading out on the water requires a lot of extra care, because you can’t strap them into the boat. Ideally, arrange to have one parent holding the child—and adjust the pace of your travel plans accordingly.
Having the right equipment can smooth your passage. My friends Daniel Rice and Jenna Just have been taking their daughter Freya on canoe trips since she was nine months old, and they've found that a pair of sturdy infant camping pants makes wilderness crawling more fun. Add a baby bug suit, a rain suit or Muddy Buddy, and a compact hammock for daytime napping outside the sweaty confines of the tent. (It can get humid in there if nap time falls at the noon hour.) It doesn't all have to be fancy outdoor gear, though: they also pack (and portage!) an affordable plastic IKEA high chair to make meal times less fussy. If you’re going to be at a campsite with a picnic table, you can try packing the clamp-on style of high chair.
Health Canada recommends avoiding DEET-based insect repellents on infants younger than six months; the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention OKs their use as young as two months with appropriate precautions (only apply to exposed skin and clothing, avoid mouth and eyes, etc.). Even for older infants, you’ll want to use repellants sparingly, so it helps to have some lightweight bug netting (some double as UV shade sun protection) that can be mounted over a child-carrier backpack, travel crib or baby seat. Having a big family-sized tent also gives everyone a cozy place to escape the bugs—which is particularly nice if you can nurse in peace on a camp seat inside your tent. When we’re car camping, we now also pack heavy artillery: a lightweight screened room that completely protects a picnic table.
The list of preparations and precautions that you could, in theory, take before embarking into the wilderness is very long. If, like the Quirins, you’re hiking unsupported and will at times be several days away from the nearest town, then it makes sense to ensure you have a supply of things like liquid Benadryl, which they carry in case Ellie develops an unexpected allergic reaction. But don’t try to anticipate every possible eventuality. You will undoubtedly forget something important and have to improvise. Someone will skin a knee, the baby will eat some dirt, and you may miss a few naps. It won’t be the usual routine. But you will surmount unexpected challenges—and when you’re back in the comfort of your predictable home environment, those are the moments you’ll remember most fondly.