Tips for backcountry camping with young children

This post comes from Laurel Finney, a Learning and Education Specialist with Ontario Parks.

They say everything changes when you have a baby.

Although that is mostly true, there are some things which do not. For me, one of these is my passion for canoeing and wild places.

My partner and I are avid backcountry campers, and when our babe came along, it was only natural for us to adapt our trips to accommodate our growing family.

The following is a list of tips and tricks meant for experienced campers interested in exploring the backcountry with their little ones.

When and where to go

The best time to start backcountry canoeing with your new babe is when your family is ready.

Our babe was born mid-July, and although we had high hopes of getting into the backcountry that fall, the weather prevented us from doing so until the following summer.

Baby plays on a beach

It is more than okay to be a fair-weather camper and to avoid peak bug season when ‘tripping with babes.

This is no time to explore a new park or route. Stick to familiar routes and campsites with your little one’s mobility in mind. Keep the distances short and plan to stay at the same site for multiple nights.

Our babe’s first backcountry trip was in The Massassaga Provincial Park. Our whole trip only went as far as my partner and I used to get on a Friday evening after work pre-baby.

Practice makes perfect

Before you head out on your trip piece together parts of your adventure and get a sense of how things might work out in the backcountry.

Test your gear, set up your tent in the backyard, go for day hikes, go for a short paddle, go car camping, have a campfire.

Baby sitting in tent

We did all of these things and more, scaling up our adventures and testing out different gear and systems in order to find out what worked for our family.

Assuming a ratio of two adults to one babe, plan your trip as though it were a solo trip with twice as much gear and delays. With one adult on full-time baby duty, all of the paddling, portaging, set-up, meal preparation, etc. will be left in the hands of one adult.

Better yet, bring friends and family along to lend a helping hand. Our babe’s uncles joined us on our first backcountry trip, spreading the work load whilst creating long-lasting memories.

What to pack

Clothing aside, babies don’t need much in the way of gear.

Sun and rain protection, as well as a PFD, are musts.  We also recommend a soft baby carrier for portaging and a hammock for napping.

Collage of baby in waterproof gear

Pack more diapers than you think you might need. Same goes for wipes. Also consider packing a dry-bag dedicated to carrying out waste. Although we use cloth diapers at home, we do use disposable diapers in the backcountry.

Mom reads story to baby in hammock

Whether you are breastfeeding, formula feeding, introducing solids, eating family meals, or some combination thereof, packing food for your babe is easy.

Pack foods that the whole family can enjoy and bring lots, and lots, and lots of snacks. A stroll down the aisle of the baby food section in your local grocery store should give you plenty of packable options.

Our babe tends to be less picky and eat more in the backcountry than at home, and we always have a good supply of snacks on hand while in the canoe.

How to sleep

Baby sleeping on a mat

Sleeping in a tent is pretty exciting, so much so that getting your babe to sleep on the first night may prove to be a challenge.

Don’t force it, and enjoy the extra time around the campfire. Our babe sleeps in a sleep sac, and we layer PJs according to the nighttime temperatures.

On our first few trips we brought along a small pop-up tent, but quickly transitioned to an extra sleeping pad positioned between the two of us.

Just like at home, you’ll have to figure out what sleeping arrangement works best for your family.

Play time!

The backcountry is full of interesting natural objects sure to capture your babe’s interest and imagination. Pots and pans and headlights can also be endless sources of fun.

Baby plays in the water

We tend not to bring too much in the way of toys, with the exception of babe’s favourite stuffie, a few bedtime stories, and once a bit older, some sticker books for rainy days in the tent.

Enjoy yourself

Challenges and uncertainties aside, take the time to enjoy this quality time with your family.

Family and campsite sign

Babies are incredibly adaptable and resilient. As long as you stay within your comfort zone, you are bound to have a safe, enjoyable and memorable experience — all the while raising a strong, confident, wilderness-loving babe.