Before we had children, my wife and I had an annual tradition of leaving our home in Michigan each summer to camp and explore the public lands of the American West for months on end. When our son arrived in 2018, we decided the show had to go on. So, five months later, we hit the road. I knew a four-week camping trip out west with a five-month-old baby would be tough. But knowing something intellectually is a far cry from the knowledge that comes with experience with blood, tears, or, in my case, foaming spurts of gasoline.
My first taste of reality came at a gas station in Montana, 1,500 miles and only days after our road trip. With one last desperate push ahead of us before nightfall, our newborn Everett was already in the midst of a half-hour whooping marathon as my wife, Kylie, urged me to hurry things along so we could find a place to camp before that it completely collapsed. . With a huff, I quickly walked away from the gas station and onto the highway. Distracted by all the crying and intensely focused on our destination, I drove along unaware that the fuel pump nozzle and hose, which I had forgotten to remove, were now trailing behind the truck and spurting gasoline in our wake.
Over the next month we camped, hiked, fished, and explored some of the most stunning country in the lower 48. Along the way we tested our assumptions about what was and wasn’t possible when adventuring with a baby.
Despite the challenges, the biggest lesson we learned was that this type of excursion is possible. It takes more planning, work, and patience, but it’s so much better than the alternative of staying home. We also learned a few tricks along the way that helped minimize the risk of future gas pump disasters and other frustrations.
The most notable of these was the simple but magically effective practice that my wife occasionally needed to remind me of, that of properly adjusting my own expectations. Before we had children, we often embarked on grueling hikes and multi-day backpacking trips to high peaks. But with a baby in tow, we quickly realized that those days, at least for now, were behind us. Believing otherwise would be a fast track to disappointment.
Admittedly, I was still frustrated when Kylie pointed out that a destination or trip idea was not realistic or safe for our son. But when I finally accepted this reality and adjusted appropriately, I began to enjoy these trips for what they were. We may not be able to embark on epic five-day treks up the mountain range, but we might find a different kind of joy in taking a short hike along the river near our camp. Best of all was the joy of seeing our son experience these first tastes of the great outdoors for himself.
Pro tips for keeping kids happy
Even without kids, camping and outdoor adventure comes with all sorts of limiting factors like inclement weather, physical exhaustion, hunger, and more. But small children hold you captive at all times. We found that the trick is to accept these limitations for what they are and plan around them. Take, for example, my wife’s constant attention to long lunch breaks and extra snacks. “Snacks solve problems,” she says. Kylie also always had the good sense to plan our outings around nap times to ensure we were rarely dealing with an overly tired child while making the most of that downtime. Long trips to or from destinations were always timed to coincide with siestas.
We also discovered that with a little more research, we could find kid-friendly adventures that were new and exciting for us too. One of those discoveries was a scenic byway we found in Montana that allowed us to drive to the top of a long, flat ridge that ran through a mountain range above the tree line. We were able to camp in tents in the middle of a nearly people-free desert with mountain and valley views that rivaled almost any backpacking trip we’d enjoyed in the past, all within feet of our truck and myriad supplies. for babies.
Having survived that first summer, learning a lot from our mistakes, and deciding that the good far outweighed the bad, we decided to return the following year for a two-month excursion. This time, we learned the value of adapting quickly.
Our initial plans for the expedition were to start the trip with a week of camping in tents in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park before heading to Montana to retrieve our caravan from storage. We found a campsite surrounded by cottonwoods with views that opened up to the snow-capped Teton Range in the distance. I remember saying those famous last words to myself, “This is life,” as he sipped coffee and pitched our little tent.
This state of bliss, of course, was stopped in its tracks several hours later when our toddler woke up in the middle of the night crying so loudly and uncontrollably that it probably woke up all of our neighbors in the store. The same thing happened again the next night. At 2 am we fled camp for an emergency stay at a Motel 6 and the next morning we started our drive north to move into our RV a week early. My dream of camping in tents in the Tetons would have to wait.
Adapt quickly, be flexible, follow the blows. This, we would find, is the name of the game when camping with young children. There will be campfires that never get lit, hikes that need to be cut short, and boat rides that turn into nothing more than trips to the dock. All you can do is put on a happy face, adjust plans, and make the most of it.
Backpacking with a toddler
As the end of our trip neared, we decided to try our first overnight family backpacking trip. It would be the culmination of everything we had learned over the past two summers. My research had revealed a relatively modest trail that followed a river valley into the Gallatin National Forest. With little elevation to worry about, I was hoping to cover five or six miles before siesta time and set up camp near a winding stretch of river rumored to harbor eager trout. But shortly after leaving, mosquitoes, the hot sun, and my son’s rapidly fading patience halted our progress. At the three mile mark, I realized we had a decision to make. I could go ahead and risk disaster or adjust our plans.
We stopped, pitched our tent in a clearing along the river, and let our son wander. Everett crawled over rocks and threw rocks at my fly as he floated toward the rising trout. He was happy where he was. And I also.
That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag miles from the truck, from work, and from worries, I realized that we had done it. Although we hadn’t reached our original destination, fished, or bagged any other kind of notable accomplishment, our young family was in a wild place together.
Author’s Note: If you’re looking for more ideas and inspiration related to introducing your children to the great outdoors, be sure to check out Steve Rinella’s newest book, Outdoor Kids in an Indoor World.