Toddling through the Woods: Camping with Your Tot
Feel like your little one is ready for the wilderness? Get tips to help you brave the forests and have a safe and fun time camping with your toddler.
Into the Wilderness
The first night of our camping trip it rained. “Nope, gonna blow over,” the ranger had reassured us hours before. Yet there we were, Bill, me, and our 22-month-old daughter Annie, huddled in the old green pup tent. Water streamed over the tent fly. Water rose on all four sides, dampening our sleeping bags, extra diapers, flashlights, Goodnight Moon, and feet. Bill looked miserable. Annie, oblivious and dry between us, sprawled like a cat, snoring lightly. At least the rainy mountain air was fresh and clean, I consoled myself. And then our campfire dinner of beans and bacon passed through Annie’s tiny system. Holding my nose, I wailed, “That’s it, first thing in the morning I’m going home!”
Our Annie is an urban toddler, more familiar with cafes than trees; for Annie, deer and frogs are as exotic as elephants and giraffes—after all, we have great elephants and giraffes at the Oakland City Zoo. But we’re wild, adventurous parents, unwilling to give up our youthful ideals. Living in a technological society, we owed our daughter at least a few nights without the hum of the refrigerator or the purr of the distant freeway, we told ourselves. We could camp with a toddler. Should be easy, we thought. Just throw some stuff in the car and head for the hills. After all, children have been surviving the camping experience for as long as there have been children.
Packing: Sturdy and Dirty
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Traveling with a young child requires forethought. In previous camping trips I’ve been known to pack foolishly. Once I brought only one pair of shorts and two shirts, yet five pairs of earrings, one for each day in the wilderness. But I’m a mom now, and smarter. I know the secret to parenting: overpack.
If you’ve never camped before, get supply advice from experienced friends, visit one of the camping equipment stores, or visit a Sierra Club bookstore or your public library.
Along with the normal motley assortment of camping and baby gear, be sure to check out our Camping with Your Toddler Checklist for tips on what to pack for your overnight trek.
A campsite will never be childproof. The first hours before your child understands her boundaries will challenge you. For parents, the woods become a world of no’s.
A good safety tip: When camping, include at least one adult per toddler or preschool-age child. Define the danger areas in terms your child is familiar with: “This is the stove, this is the fireplace. They get HOT. This is the bath,” (about the lake or creek), “it’s dangerous.” Then watch your child like a hawk!
Finding Camping Nirvana
The sun came out in the morning. Dew hung on spider webs, the creek bubbled, the camp coffee tasted divine. I decided to stay. By the afternoon, something had transformed within us all. The silence of the forest had entered our bones, the sun had baked out the city stresses.
Annie ran around and around delighted, falling frequently on the soft pine needle floor and solemnly dusting her hands off before resuming her endless happy circles. In the late afternoon, Annie spent quiet time on her play space under the trees, staring up, up, up.
“Trees, Mommy. Sky.”
“Do you see any birds?” I asked.
“There,” I pointed at a Stellar Jay on a cedar pine.
“Bird!” she said. “Hi, Bird!”
Bill, chopping garlic for dinner, smiled over at us.
What you’ll eat camping depends on your family and child’s eating habits and pleasures. Growing up, my family brought jars of flour and sugar, spices, bags of potatoes, and so on, along on our camping trips. Bill and I aren’t so ambitious; though we rarely open cans of food at home, we depend on them in the wilds. We want to be able to relax too, you know. Plan ahead, and bring a lot (unused cans can go in your family emergency box back at home).
Camping provokes hunger, so pack plenty of food. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Beans are always good (for the first few hours after dinner, at least)
- Sauted onions and garlic spice up anything
- Bring olive oil
- Lunch can be sandwiches
- Fresh vegetables taste delicious steamed over the fire
- For the child who eats only various versions of pasta, you’re in luck; open air spaghetti tastes great!
If you eat meat, wrap it up raw in meal-size portions and freeze it before you leave home. Placed next to a block of ice, it will slowly thaw and remain OK for at least two days. In a good ice chest, block ice lasts about four days. Past that, no perishables.
Fun! Relaxation! Terror!
We swam, we hiked, we rested, we ate. Annie bounced in the tent, watched caterpillars, watched butterflies, and began to understand the relationship between the two. She laughed at hopping frogs, pointed out small fish in the creek and birds in the trees. She walked up and down the bench of the camp kitchen picnic table, only occasionally sliding through. She slept well, lulled by the murmur of the nearby water. As Annie slept and we played gin rummy, a toad the size of a cantaloupe galumphed out of the bushes, attracted by our lantern light.
One morning after breakfast I glanced down beneath the camp kitchen picnic table to see a four foot long rattlesnake with 12 rattles calmly sleeping inches from my feet.
Annie’s feet never touched the ground in that campsite again. Trying not to impose my own prejudices on my child’s experience of wildlife, I held her in my arms and backed away slowly (rattlesnakes are very slow and not aggressive, though probably deadly to a small child), saying,
“See the big snake, Annie? Look, isn’t it big?”
We retreated to the safety of the car, doors locked, while Bill, protective testosterone raging, transferred the entire camp to another, less snake-friendly campsite in 10 minutes, stopping occasionally to take another picture and to lecture the innocent serpent.
I waited until Annie’s attention was diverted before turning my back to silently scream, remembering her little fingers exploring small “gopher” holes in the ground. Gopher holes? Squirrel holes? SNAKE HOLES! “AAAHHH!”
By the last day, Annie had had it with the woods. She sat in the front seat of the car, pretending to drive.
“Want to say goodbye to the creek?” Bill asked.
“Want to play in your special place?”
“No. Market Hall,” she said, mentioning our local grocery market. “Market Hall. Shopping. Restaurant.”
It was time to go. Back over the bumpy, dirty roads. Back over county highways, through country towns. A quick dinner at a fast food joint where the clash of music, primary colors, and the whir of the air conditioner left all three of us reeling after the beautiful silence of the forest.
“Froggy,” Annie woke up saying our first morning home. Her brown curly hair was highlighted red from the sun. I touched her lightly freckled cheek, so glad we’d gone camping, so glad we’d go again.
“Big snake,” she said.”Tent! Run around! Fun!”
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