What would happen if you have to take your children, 5 years of age and under, to your mountain retreat in a survival situation? Car camping with toddlers can be a challenge—What about backpacking with babies and young children? How would we carry them and all the necessary equipment? These questions went through our minds in our family’s early years.
Being avid outdoor folks it was hard to give up when the little ones began arriving, so by trial and error, we found shortcuts making it possible to enjoy the wilderness with tiny tots, whether for fun or surviving upheaval.
Packs for toddlers
For infants up to 6 months old, a front pack does a great job leaving your own back free for a standard backpack. The front pack holds the baby’s head up and keeps him where you can see him to pat and love in a moment of distress. Mom can even nurse a baby in the front pack if needed.
The first couple of months, the baby will want to face toward your body. When a little older baby can face outward, an Indian cradleboard is handy around camp to carry the baby. When strapped in a cradleboard, your baby can be leaned against a tree and watch while camp duties are handled. It has the advantages of a plastic infant carrier without the bulk and awkwardness.
When youngsters can hold up their heads and want to look around, a Gerry baby pack attached to an external backpack frame (packsack removed) works well. Using stuff bags, additional gear can be attached to the sides of the baby pack leaving the bottom of the frame for a sleeping bag, pad and/or tent. Depending on the child’s size, this set up will handle a child up to 2 or 3 years old.
When hiking, periodic stops (every 30 minutes to an hour) for toddler exploring or treats helps prevent crabbing and boredom. Young children will also keep a better temperament if allowed to walk at times (terrain permitting) and to ride on someone’s shoulders and out of the baby pack for a while.
Diapers are a challenge. Disposables are too bulky for packing and cloth diapers a nuisance. We’ve settled on a happy medium. We carry a couple of disposables for each day and five single layer gauze diapers. Pre-folded, triple layered cloth diapers are hard to wash, take too long to dry and are bulky.
We try to catch the bowel movements with the disposables (lots of luck). The disposables can then be burned with a hot fire. If you bury them or put them under rocks, animals dig them up and drag them around. Cloth diapers are washed as soon as possible with biodegradable soap (not in the water source) and dried hanging from trees or even your pack as you hike. Let the sun do the bleaching. If time permits, boiling cloth diapers can also help.
Two extra pairs of plastic pants, as well as a change of clothes, should be carried. There is always a mud puddle, stream or a “major mess” (even with the best of babies) to deal with.
Bright colored clothing and even a sheep bell make it easier to keep an eye and car on the toddlers; however, depending on the situation, you may need camouflage for protection. Bring what clothing fits your needs. Thrift shops are a great source for tiny gloves, boots, cool, warm clothes and other hard to find, expensive items.
Changing weather and the comfort of your toddlers
Tiny tots under two years old are unable to regulate the temperature of their bodies like the big folks, so keep this in mind when buying clothes. They must be extra warm for cold weather, yet not so bulky they can’t move and avoid a tight fit that would restrict circulation.
For warm weather, clothing should be breathable and light yet sure to cover delicate skin as babies sunburn easily and insects love that soft, tender skin. Wet weather requires wind and water-proof outer garments to prevent major heat loss. As with adults, the layer principle works best (i.e., T-shirt, long johns, long sleeved shirt, sweater, jacket, and wind/ waterproof shell). This also allows you to help them regulate body heat by removing or adding layers.
Remember—the head loses 80 percent of the body heat, and a soft, bald head is a favorite landing field for bloodthirsty insects (I can testify to that, unfortunately, as I have regressed back to bald!). A sleeping hat along with heavy pajamas are a must. Toddlers seem unable to stay in sleeping bags or under the covers.
During the day, to keep feet warm, try putting plastic bags between layers of socks. The plastic helps hold the heat in.
Feeding the toddlers
Nursing Moms have no problem with infants, but to be safe always take a bottle and powdered formula in case something happens to mom. Powdered formula and cereal are lightweight, and it is a good idea to pack extra. It seems youngsters (like us oldsters) eat more under stress in the wilds.
For older children, some easy to prepare yet tasty goodies include instant hot cereal with brown sugar, dried fruit, finely chopped nuts, and instant powdered milk. Some good trial foods we use include dried fruits, gorp (granola, Reese’s pieces & raw nuts), fruit leather, cheese and raisins, small pieces or ground up jerky and peanut butter mixed with honey and powdered milk (use enough powdered milk, so it isn’t too sticky to handle) makes a good candy.
Anything adults eat can usually be mashed with a fork for tiny ones (not infants) to eat. A pleasant drink is made by mixing a teaspoon of brown sugar with a half cup of instant powdered milk, then on the trail, add one cup of hot water. This gives the child protein and carbohydrates and works as a quick pick me up to restore energy which restores body heat. For us, it is easier to constantly munch while hiking rather than taking a lunch break. This, along with a good breakfast and dinner, keeps our energy reserves up.
Shelter and Sleeping
For over a decade, we just used a poncho or piece of tarp if a shelter was needed but were generally able to find some existing type of shelter that would “get us by.” However, we found this didn’t work for babies and young children. A tent makes it much easier to keep active tots warm while sitting out rainstorms and early snows. A large lightweight two man tent such as the Bessport Camping Tent, will sleep two adults and up to three small children up to age four, depending on size.
Gear, however, must be left outside. Sleeping bags that zip together will generally sleep, two adults and two small children. It is helpful to use a small down baby blanket to cover the tiny tots. A good down blanket can be made from old down jackets, sleeping bags or pillows purchased at thrift stores. Since down doesn’t hold up well under repeated washings, and because sticky hands and dirt call for those repeated washings, it’s nice to have a washable cover that zips on and off.
We use flannel, so the blanket is soft. These lightweight down baby blankets and adult size down vests work well to cover napping youngsters. They are also handy for bundling cold little bodies on chilly days. We sleep one of our children (the 4-year-old) in an expedition, polar coat by pinning the bottom closed and zipping him in. His head, poking out the neck hole of the coat, is covered with a warm hat. Doubling up on the use of clothing or sleeping gear will cut down equipment weight, which is critical when packing small children.
Precautions for toddlers
Bugs can be a nuisance and worse for the little people unable to swat and keep them off. A mild insect repellent is a must, but be careful not to put it where the child will rub it in his eyes. For the very young child or baby, insect, netting is the best way to go.
When taking children into the wilderness always have two responsible adults present. If something happens to one of the adults, the other can get the children to safety. Start early to teach young children the basics involved in taking care of themselves, how to build a safe fire, and what to look for in a shelter. Especially stress the importance of waiting for someone to find them.
Related reading: How To Teach Your Children About Emergency Preparedness
Campsites should be located away from cliffs, not too close to the water’s edge and in a small clearing if possible so you can keep an eye on the “bundles of energy”—giving them space to roam before they get in the bushes. It’s also a good idea to check for ant hills, poisonous snakes or plants, and wasp or bee nests.
As soon as the children can understand, teach them about stinging nettle, poison ivy, and other harmful plants and insects. Band-Aids (and plenty of them), a pair of tweezers and needles are a must for first aid kits.
Slivers and small stickers are a never-ending problem, and Band-Aids are a cure-all for minor injuries (they also help keep dirt out). Tweezers help remove wood tics when they stake a claim on youngsters and adults as well. Be sure to check morning and night for the little critters if they are in the area to protect your toddlers.
Sunscreen is another necessity. Sun-burned babies are hard to dress and sleep with and can be downright cranky.
A rewarding experience
Taking toddlers and even babies into the wilderness can be a very delightful and rewarding experience when the necessary preparations and precautions are taken. Now is the time to learn what works for your family—what type of equipment, food, and shelter is needed and how far you can travel in a day.
Will your children feel comfortable in strange surroundings? Now is the time to deal with their fears—not when it is a life or death situation—not when it is a forced march with added dangers and stress.
Many peaceful moments have been spent sharing a special rock, Onetime or snail shell with excited youngsters in our family, and sharing knowledge with them that may help them survive less peaceful times in the future.