So let’s start at the beginning.
What age is the perfect age to start backcountry camping with the kids? Of course there is no right answer here. Every kid is different and so is every parent. But I do know that kids take their cues from you. If you are nervous about going on the trip, so are they! Plan to start with a one nighter, keep it fairly close to where you’ve parked in case you need to bail, and make sure there are at least two adults to wrangle the kiddies. Fraser and I decided that single parent trips would have to wait until Luke was old enough and responsible enough to handle an emergency if something were to happen, but I’ll address this further in another post. When you have done your research, planned your menu, bought or borrowed your gear and feel that you are sufficiently confident to meet the challenge, grab your backpack and the baby wipes…it’s time to hit the trail!
Car camping started when Zach and Luke were one and four respectively, but we put off our first backcountry canoe trip until one year later. From personal experience, I can tell you that toddlers are tricky and take an extra amount of patience on your part. Think carefully about what it’s like at HOME with your toddlers. Do they do what you ask of them as soon as you ask? Can you imagine situations in the backcountry when you’d need your kids to do what they are told as soon as they are told? How about “don’t go near the edge” or “don’t put that in your mouth”, “don’t touch that plant”, “don’t leave your cereal on the ground!”. What if it’s raining? Will they happily play outside in the mud or play quietly in a small space (like the tent)?
Toddlers are natural explorers but aren’t quite capable yet of following directions or understanding consequences. Again, this is a tricky time for the backcountry. I’m not trying to discourage you from trying but rather preparing you for a somewhat less relaxing trip than you may be used to. You must keep your eye on them at all times (two adults definitely come in handy here). It only takes a second to fall in a lake or gather up a poison ivy bouquet for mommy. Yikes! Take note that I ended up leaving PDFs on the kids throughout MOST of that first toddler canoe trip. In the boat AND in camp! What I remember most about that first “real” backcountry trip was picking up Zach off the ground constantly. He wasn’t quite coordinated enough to manage the terrain and was constantly tripping over rocks and sticks and roots, or just plain falling down because of the slopey nature of the site. He cried a lot on that trip, but he loved it all the same. While the memories are priceless, I have to admit that we opted out of any more backcountry trips with the boys for a full year after that. It gave them a chance to mature and us a chance to recover!
Common sense must prevail when tripping with little ones. You can’t expect too much of them. They are out of their element and their routines will suffer as a result. Expect no naps (unless they collapse from exhaustion!) and a later bedtime than usual. They are all hyped up and you will presumably be camping in the summer, so the sun will still be shining far past bedtime. I’ll address camping in shoulder seasons (spring and fall) and in the winter in later posts, but needless to say, these are not ideal seasons for little ones. The challenges of unpredictable weather and a toddlers inability to regulate body temperature adequately, make it inadvisable to start them off too young. In the cold weather, consider day trips instead. Or maybe plan a stay in a yurt!
The beauty of a tent is that it acts like an over-sized playpen. You may be able to convince junior to sleep if you lay down beside him, and goodness knows you’re gonna need the rest too! Plenty of times I’ve laid down to coax a nap or bedtime and woken up hours later, or even the next morning! You might not normally co-sleep or lie down with your little one as they fall asleep, but your presence will reassure them. If you have more than one child with you, it also discourages “fooling around” when they should be getting to bed. One piece of advice though… make sure that you tell kids that you are only lying down with them until they fall asleep. Be sure they understand that you will be leaving the tent for some grown-up time and that if they wake up and you’re not there, you are just a stones throw away. Don’t let them wake up thinking that a forest creature has stolen you away and they’ve been left alone to fend for themselves! Of course you will be spending the night in the same tent. You are going to need to be able to watch over them and make sure they are not too hot or too cold. If your babes are out of diapers, you are going to need to be able to unzip the door so that they can go to the bathroom. Keep a flashlight or a headlamp and some slip on shoes easily accessible for late night bathroom trips.
I will make a list in a later post about fundamental campsite rules, but two of them are so important that I’ll post them here as well. ABSOLUTELY NO FOOD IN THE TENT! and ABSOLUTELY NO FOOD LEFT LYING AROUND YOUR SITE! This is a particularly difficult one with snacks and messy toddlers. Food attracts animals and you don’t want that. Animals as tiny as chipmunks can cause a lot of damage and scare the pants off you in the middle of the night. They sound HUGE in the dark! Consequences can range from stolen food and damaged gear to far more serious results like bears in camp. Do not take a chance on this. When my boys were little, I passed on the oat ring cereal that they normally ate for snacks and breakfast, and opted for the fruit ring cereal. There were two reasons for this. One, the anticipation of having a normally forbidden snack was thrilling to them. Two, we could SEE the cereal when it fell on the ground, it’s unnaturally fluorescent colours glowing like little warning beacons.
While we’re on the subject of food. Including other normally taboo food in the menu really gets the kids excited about going camping. Go ahead indulge them in fatty sugary food (if you’re worried about nutrition, this could include dried fruits and nuts which are loaded with healthy fats and natural sugars) and provide lots and lots and lots of snacks. They are going to need the calories and energy to fuel paddling, swimming, hiking and tree climbing! We always visit the bulk food store and load up on bags and bags of snacks! Why not include all of those old-school camp meals like mac and cheese and hot dogs. We have traditional trip meals that we rarely skip. It just wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have spider dogs! Don’t worry, I’ll do a full post on menu planning 🙂
I guess what I’m saying is, I’m glad that we started our boys out tripping as early as we did. While it was a lot of work in the beginning, they can’t remember a time when we weren’t planning or participating in a trip. They have grown into confident and competent campers and are always thrilled with idea of a new adventure on the horizon. They couldn’t wait to be old enough for longer and more ambitious expeditions. They couldn’t wait to be strong enough to carry full packs on portages and hikes…and neither could I.