Thursday, June 9, 2016

Adventures in Toddler Camping

Living in Colorado affords some amazing opportunities to go camping. There’s nothing quite like packing up the car, driving to the mountains, cooking over a fire and sleeping under the stars. Whether you reserve a campsite or forge out on your own will determine your proximity to civilization and amenities. The best part is camping can be an inexpensive getaway of which you need relatively little gear to do so…perhaps just a sleeping bag and a tent.

Unless of course you’re camping with a toddler.

My parents never took me for a weekend in the wild. My mother’s parents made her camp all the time so she decided when she was an adult with kids that sleeping outside on the ground was not the sort of vacation she’d choose. Luckily she had four children and we lived in Alabama where camping isn’t as attractive as a Gulf Shores beach getaway. With the exception of a boyfriend in college who dragged me along on his trips I never really camped until I lived in Colorado. My husband and I initially took camping trips born out of a necessity to have a 4am start time hiking 14ers. We rarely camped more than a night and for a while I borrowed a tent since we didn’t own one. I didn’t understand why anyone would camp if they weren’t hiking a mountain the next day because what else was the point of sleeping in the dirt?

After having Charlotte my husband and I decided to be daring and take her on her first trip when she was 1.5 years old. We couldn’t carry her up a mountain but we wanted to be in close proximity to hiking so we drove down to Buena Vista. Na├»ve as I was, I thought we could just drive into the Collegiate Peaks Campground up on Cottonwood pass and find a first come first serve spot on a Friday evening in summer. We ended up driving halfway up the pass and finding a spot off the side of the road where a fire ring was present indicating others had camped there before. It was right by a stream and seemed to be the perfect place to spend the weekend. What could go wrong now that we had a spot?

Here are some things you should know when camping with a small child. First you don’t need a pack and play in your tent. This piece of equipment which makes your life easier at home only takes up too much space camping. I didn’t account for the fact that we were going to be camping at approximately 10,000 feet and that even in summer it would be cold at night. Charlotte ended up in my sleeping bag with her socks for gloves (Mom hack!) because I didn’t bring any (Mom Fail). She still liked her milk warm in the morning so my husband would have to heat it over the fire on a skillet which took considerably longer than using a microwave. We ended up sitting in the car blasting the heat in the morning until the sun came up enough to do a little hiking.

First lessons learned camping:
1.  Take elevation into account when packing. Warm weather in the city doesn’t mean warm weather in the mountains. Also bring more clothing than you need. If pants get wet or muddy you can’t just throw them in the dryer.
2. Plan an activity. We woke up our first morning around 6am which would have meant a lot of sitting around staring at each other if we didn’t busy ourselves. Camp near hiking trails for nature walks or by a lake where you can fish. Resist the urge to bring toys or the Ipad in favor of spending time among solitude. I use the Deuter Kid comfort pack to carry Charlotte in while hiking. It has a sun shade which is a necessity plus plenty of pockets for snacks and water bottles. I was not above bribing Charlotte with fruit snacks to sit in there until she got accustomed to the pack.
3. Bring meals that are easy to prepare and eat. Unlike being at home where you can mitigate danger you have to monitor your child even more closely outdoors. Rocks, sticks, fire pits, rushing water and animals all become hazards to be concerned about. Bring a first aid kit. Don’t burden yourself cooking an elaborate meal. Make sure you have plenty of water to drink and to use for hand washing.

On our second camping trip with Charlotte last year when she was a little over two we thought we had become a lot savvier. I knew to bring lots of layers and extra blankets so our car was packed so full the neighbors probably thought we were moving. We had coolers of snacks from yogurts to sliced fruit and veggies and enough chairs for everyone. We thought we’d try our luck with first come first serve camping at the Chicago Lakes trailhead area near Idaho Springs but were again thwarted by arriving too late. With rain pouring down it seemed like going home would be a good option but I was determined. This is why you should always have a back-up plan. We drove over Guanella Pass and found a campsite at 11pm that had just opened for the weekend. The downside to being spontaneous is you don’t always get to camp where you’d like but you make do. Bring cash or checks to pay for a site in case you end up in a fee area campground.

Fortunately my husband bought a canopy to erect at the site because a hail storm rolled in the next day and we were trapped underneath it for shelter. If you don’t have a camper take into account how you’ll stay protected from extreme weather. Sure you may want to hide in your tent but if it’s meal time this just isn’t practical. Also keep in mind the size of your tent when bringing the whole family along. Although larger tents have more room for your pets and kids they also tend to be less warm if there’s to much wasted space. Colorado nights can get down into the low 30s even in summer so look for a tent that’s temperature rated. Tent makers make 3, 3 ½ and 4 season tents. In cold weather, a tent sized for the number of people is the way to go. At 30 degrees, two people in a 2 person 4 season tent will be warm at 40-45 degrees inside.

Camping with a toddler is also messy so bring the baby wipes. Roasting and eating marshmallows, playing with sticks, throwing rocks in the stream, building fires and nature walks are all part of the adventure but make for dirty hands and faces. I’m not one to track dirt into my bed at home but it’s inevitable camping so if you’re a type A cleaner like myself bring a small dust pan and brush (they make special ones for camping) to sweep the tent out daily.

When we were recently camping at a reserved site in Moab sans Charlotte I was awoken one morning by the sounds of a child screaming. I felt for the parents because having a child wake up screaming in a tent is a million times worse than them screaming on an airplane. Of course this woke the whole campground up much to everyone’s dismay. I suggest bringing noise cancelling head phones if your child is a particularly sensitive sleeper. If your child does wake up screaming and you don’t want to make enemies with your fellow campers you can always take them to sit in your car and play music. Remember your child will likely feel out of their element and if you don’t currently co-share a sleeping space this can be disruptive to everyone’s routine. Go with the flow. Even if you do annoy the neighbors you’ll never see them again.

I know for myself and my husband camping with our daughter can be a hassle but the trade-off is family time in a setting where we have nothing to focus on but each other. Use it as an opportunity to teach your child how to build a campfire, how to cook hot dogs and marshmallows and how to stake a tent. Do some bird watching, check out the stars and enjoy the journey. Even if you drive around for a few hours looking for a campsite in the middle of a rain storm I promise you it will all be worth the effort.

Happy trails!

*this blog is also featured on Denver Metro Mom's Blog