First Camping Trip With a Toddler

By Forrest Smith -

Yeah, I was pretty hesitant at first. Camping with a 10 month old seemed like misery, but I also really wanted to see some mountains. To walk in alpine meadows. To look at the stars.

I think a lot of people fall into the trap of not doing anything once they have children, or perhaps they didn’t do anything interesting before. Either way, given the options of staying at home for the long holiday weekend or getting out — even with the risk of our toddler camping trip ending in total devastation and misery — I decided that I’d rather be miserable than boring.

That being said, I had three main concerns with this adventure:

  1. The drive — We live about five hours from the Sierra Mountains — our closest ‘real’ mountains. The thought of driving with a 10 month old locked into his carseat for five hours sent a small shiver up my spine.
  2. The camping — Camping is dirty. Kids are dirty. This seemed like a bad combination.
  3. The sleeping — Being backpackers and obviously concerned about weight and packability, our tent isn’t large. We fit snugly into it as a couple, which generally isn’t a problem since its just the two of us. Now we’re introducing another small human to the mix — one that cries and squirms.

Getting Ready for Breakfast

We came up with a couple strategies to address these concerns:

  1. For the drives, we would utilize sleeping periods. We wanted to just get up there, so we decided to wake up at two in the morning and drive while he slept (take that parent boringness!). This mostly worked, although he didn’t sleep for quite as long as we were hoping, and we were of course tired that day, and into the next. Getting a nap in to catch back up wouldn’t normally be a problem, but it is more complicated with a child. On the return drive, which we did in the afternoon and evening, we were able to utilize one of his nap times for part of the trip. He didn’t want to go to sleep during his normal go-to-bed time however, which is generally around 8pm, so he was pretty whiny during the last hour of the trip. Doing this again, the plan would be to make it somewhere to eat dinner and take an hour or two at a park for some wiggle time.
  2. For the camping, we purchased a ‘pack and play’. We were able to find a fairly large one, and we ended up hanging out with little Mason in it for much of the time. This kept him contained, and away from all that dirt! I only wish I could find a slightly larger one so I could adequately lounge in it more easily with Mason.
  3. The sleeping wasn’t too bad at all. I was prepared to sleep outside, curled up in Mason’s new ‘pack and play’ if it came to it, but it worked out alright. The second night, to sleep even better we decided to sleep head to toe to give a little more room to Mason to wiggle around. I’m pretty sure that nobody got kicked during the night either.

South Fork Big Pine Creek

Hiking! The real draw was to hike in the mountains.

We did a few miles on Saturday, but ultimately turned around where we hit a creek ford that we didn’t want to risk with a little one strapped to our back. This hit my morale pretty hard. It was a crossing that wouldn’t have been too big of a deal without a child (our hiking book, described it as having ‘sturdy bridge’ — apparently not sturdy enough). With a child, we feared the swiftness and depth of the creek could knock us over, sending me and little Mason into the water and with who knows what kinds of injuiries. I actually still question the decision. Was the water that swift? Was it too deep? Were the rocks that slippery? It didn’t seem that bad, but just enough for us to question it. Perhaps it was the right decision as a parent, but it was another bit of realization that life is not as it was before. The disappointment hit, which I felt for several hours that afternoon.

On Sunday we had success! Clouds had moved in, which was actually a good thing, making our hike quite a bit cooler than it otherwise would have been. And the mountains! Wow! Walking through alpine country to beautiful green lakes. Mason did well on the hike, which was around 9 or 10 miles round trip. We sat and had lunch, high above a glacial green lake with jagged mountains rising from the shores (we were located where the southern-most glaciers in the US cling despearately to the shaded north-faces of granite peaks) . We had done it– camping and hiking to real mountains, with a 10 month old!

Sure, there were times when I missed camping without a child (actually, without a child I would have been backpacking this weekend) and times when I was moderately miserable, but these passed. As a new parent, I generally don’t know if I’m doing any of it right, but I’m pretty sure when you see mountains reflected in a young child’s eyes, you’re probably doing something right.

2nd Lake - North Fork Big Pine Creek

Second Lake - North Fork Big Pine Creek