Babes in the Woods

Facts, statistics and rock-solid advice from camping moms

My daughter once tripped on a rock before the eyes and capable reflexes of four adults, none of whom had a chance at catching her before she hit the ground (these things happen fast). She rolled into the campfire pit. No fire was yet stoked, but the pit did have a layer of ash and hot coals, and she burned her lower back. She was only two years old. No, she wasn't technically a baby, but she was my baby, who was still getting a grip on walking, running and the consequences of not being careful with her feet. We treated her wounds, hugged her tightly, pushed the “I'm a terrible parent” thoughts to the back of our heads and tried to move on.

When first-time parents email me about taking their babies camping, many ask the same two major questions (these are real-world examples):

1. "How do you handle the worry about being distant from any help? I am trying to make my wife (and, surprisingly, myself) a bit more comfortable with that part of taking our baby camping for the first time."

2. “What if I'm freaking miserable because my baby won't stop crying or won't go to sleep?”

I usually start by telling them that you're not going to childproof the wilderness; it just doesn't work that way. We just have to play the cards we're dealt. Remember how, before parenthood, leaving the comfort and regularity of home for the mountains and trees to live within a nylon shelter smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle provided release, recharge and reveling in the joy of fresh air and solitude? You enjoyed it and want to keep enjoying it, but now that you're a mom or a dad for the first time, which means an adorable, helpless little bundle of perfection relies upon you. In a flash you've become super sensitive to consequences, mortality and your long-lost sleep schedule.

So what are we going to do about all of this? The short answer is probably cliché: Be prepared. Learn CPR and first aid; learn essential backcountry ethics and practices to keep predators away from your camp; learn fire safety, and so on. There's more. I turned to a couple of experienced moms and posed the question to them. Here's how they handle the worries of camping with babies. 

Ways to Stop Worrying: Camping Moms Share Tips
As Lindsey Wilson of reassures us, "Being worried about taking your baby outdoors is OK. Worrying is what moms do best." But be real and be specific about what worries you, she insists. "Just make a list of those concerns, then research ways to mitigate them."

One of the finest resources for getting these answers comes from Alaska adventurer, educator and mother of four Jennifer Aist in her book Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping, Boating with Babies and Young Children. She's no-nonsense and experienced when it comes to safety, good clothing for bad weather, and getting a good night's sleep while camping with babies. She includes hundreds of tips and tricks, checklists and endless examples of what works for different families in virtually all aspects of family camping. Also assuring, she writes, “Keeping our children safe is a process, not a destination. It is a journey of empowering our children to make good, safe choices.”

What About Bears and Wild Animals That Eat Babies All the Time?
You'd be surprised at the reality. According to the Outdoor Foundation, in 2011 nearly 33 million people went camping in the U.S. During that time, there were a grand total of three fatal bear attacks in the U.S., two of which occurred in Yellowstone National Park, and none of the victims were children.  Of course, that's just bear attacks, but it helps paint a realistic picture of how uncommon tragic encounters are with wild animals. Consider this, too: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2010 (the most recent year with figures) 1,210 children under the age of 14 were killed in automobile accidents, and 171,000 children under 14 were injured. There are certain dangers we all accept into our lives, perhaps without realizing it.

Go Have Fun. Be Happy. Be Comfortable.
Let's talk about the big one: What if that baby cries and won't go to sleep?

Well, sorry, he (or she) will cry, but maybe not all night. Just like at home. As cavalier as it might sound, a crying baby is just something you learn to deal with as a parent and you can handle it. A widely lauded resource is Dr. Harvey Karp, a nationally renowned pedatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on The Block. His "5 S's" of calming a crying baby work very well for a lot of parents. Usually one or a combination of the following does wonders:

1.   Learn to swaddle your baby

2.   Hold a fussy baby side/stomach down either in your arms or lap (do not let him or her sleep stomach down)

3.   Make soothing, shushing sounds

4.   Swing

5.   Let your baby suck on your pinky or a pacifier

Don't underestimate the power of Mom and the good of the outdoors, says Amelia Mayer, adventurer, mother and curator of the blog Tales of a Mountain Mama. "...Babies are happy when they're with Mom, and they sleep most of the time. They are resilient and cuddly, and the fresh air is really good for them."

Babies pick up their parents' vibes. Various studies reveal that when parents are stressed, kids are stressed. If you're not headed to the mountains with fun at the forefront of your mind, chances are you won't have any at all, so make your first time out an easy one. That's what Mayer emphasizes. "When we took our boys camping for the first time (at 6 weeks and 4 weeks, respectively) we gave ourselves a break. We were OK with the fact that we were car camping within 30 minutes of home. And we brought way more gear than we needed just so we felt extra prepared."

Much of that extra gear isn't for the baby as much as it is for you. For starters, nursing in a tent is just not an appealing idea. There's a good chance it's time to get a tent with enough space to set up a decent camping chair and enough space for some full size pillows. Suggestion? Check out Springbar Tents for awesome, spacious, reliable tents, and Byer of Maine's Pangean Glider for a convenient camp chair.

The first trip out is going to be weighed down with a lot of anxiety, and that's normal. You're working out the balance of new parenting and trying to get back into something that you used to do before kids. It's a task all of us parents have to confront. Amelia continues, honestly, "We didn't sleep much with campers so young, because we were checking on them a lot. Those times were worth it, though. We made habits, made memories and set an outdoor track for our family.”

Mark Stephens is a father and husband living in Arizona. He writes about the people, places and things that appeal to active parents enjoying outdoor adventure in any of its forms on his blog


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