Going on a Camping Trip with a Baby

Dad had wanted to go family camping since junior was born. Mom wasn’t too excited about taking her newborn out to sleep in the wilderness. And since he finally had gotten big enough, we were starting to think it would never happen with all the rain this spring. When we were invited to go on a hike at Lake 22 out by Granite Falls, Karl suggested that we camp the night before, at Verlot,  a campground close to the trailhead so we wouldn’t have to rush in the morning. The weather was supposed to be beautiful and we decided it was a great time to do a one night trial run of camping with baby. The campground was only a little over an hour away so, in the worst case scenario, we could stuff everything in the car and come home or, as I thought at one point, “We could just leave everything, go home and be back tomorrow before check-out time to get our stuff.”  (More about that later)

I’ve been so exhausted lately by work-life, sustaining a life and enjoying my life, that I had no energy to prepare for the trip. Karl, the incredible man and glue of our family that he is, took care of everything. Lately we’ve been looking at options (roof boxes, hitch racks, 1987 Volvo station wagons etc.) for accommodating baby and his associated luggage on family car trips so we tried to pack as little as possible to see how much space a “base level” of decadence would take up.

In case it’s helpful, here is a list of what we took.

  • Four-person tent. We used our new, family-sized, car-camping tent for the first time since buying it over a year ago (Sleeping on the ground is way less appealing when you’re super pregnant and have 24/7 morning sickness). Inside we fit our bed, bags and Isaac’s pack-n-play with room to spare. It was quite an upgrade spacewise, though not as cozy, as the two-person backpacking tent Karl and I used to squeeze into!
  • Air mattress. It’s a big one, meant for camping but with two adults and a touchy baby it was a little small, a little cool on the edges for the adults and a little hard on mom’s hips.  This trip makes us consider a larger, more luxurious model.  We might even splurge on a little flocking. (I’ll splurge on your flocking!)
  • Buffalo hides and bear skins. Not really. Karl grabbed the entire set of sheets and blankets straight off our bed. This was fine for me but Karl claimed to have been cold. (Editor’s note:  We were a bit rushed when we went to bed so didn’t have time to really tuck in the sheets and square the bed away to block cold drafts.)  That said, in hindsight, I believe the familiar smell of us and home helped to soothe the little guy when he freaked out (Again, more on that later.)  And blankets allowed us to co-sleep as a family which would have been hard to do in sleeping bags.
  • Pack-n-Play. Although it took a big chunk out of our available trunk space, it was amazing. It allowed Isaac a place to play out of the dirt and away from the slugs where we could see him from anywhere in camp but didn’t have to watch him every second. The wheels made it easy to move around and it was easy enough to get the whole thing into the tent at night. We saw another family using their super yard with a blanket underneath.  That setup provided a lot more room but would not have been as convenient to move or fit into the trunk of as car.  Either way, I highly recommend taking sort of enclosure for them to move and groove in.
  • Dinner. We decided to take spaghetti, which Isaac loves to eat with us.  Karl had par-boiled the noodles so we just had to throw them in a little hot water to finish, heat the sauce and let the garlic bread wrapped in tin foil warm over the fire. In addition to us all having spaghetti, the adults had a nice salad and the mini-garbage disposal got cold, roasted sweet potatoes, yams and squash.  He finished off his meal by bolting a squeeze pack of squash and apple puree. Usually our camp cooking is a bit more involved and “from scratch” but having something easy for our first trip was nice. Being able to sit and relax at the table and enjoy dinner as a family was fantastic.
  • At some point, someone had given us a vinyl, kid krafts, smock for Isaac. Though Isaac is one messy eater, a regular bib would normally suffice. But, I took the smock knowing that our options for clean-up would be somewhat limited. The extra level of splatter control made cleaning him up easy-peasy…relatively.
  • Changing pad.  With such a squirmy baby, 75% of the time a changing pad is little more than a wrestling mat so, we just used a folded towel. Nothing elaborate and it worked great.
  • A chair that attached to the picnic table was perfect! We were able to have Isaac right at the table with us. It was super secure and folded pretty flat to fit in the car.
  • What we didn’t bring was something that Isaac’s suction cup bowl bowl would adhere to. This resulted in spaghetti all over the dirty camp table table. It was a parent moment of “do we just let him eat the stuff that dropped on the table?”
  • Starbucks Via. Great, easy way to make coffee in the morning when you are groggy as heck.  And if you run out of water you can still snort the powder.
  • Boppy. I still use the boppy religiously. It’s so soft and comfy for us both.
  • Front and rear facing carriers. Rear facing is good for gold-panning expeditions and walks on uneven trails through the woods.  Front facing is good for watching scenery and hanging by the fire.
  • Toys but not many. We brought only a few of his toys and he really didn’t mind the limited selection.  Just being out in the fresh air seemed to keep him pretty well occupied.
  • Because we were planning on hiking the following day, and because we’re new to baby camping, we brought tons of clothes that, in the end, weren’t needed. We all came home in the same clothes we arrived in.
  • Baby sunblock but we didn’t use it. I’m only listing it here because, maybe I’m being neurotic, but I read a story right before I left about a child who was allergic. I would highly recommend testing the lotion on a small part of baby’s body before spreading all over. Also, Karl tried to wade through the 4 million web pages warning of the testical shrinking, cancer causing ingredients that are disposed of by the nuclear energy industry via baby sunblock while standing in front of the display at the store.  In the end he chose the most “natural” looking bottle (a oatmeal colored with pea-green writing) that included the words “baby” and “gentle”.
  • Beer. But not in the same quantity as before you had a kid.  A cold tall-boy next to river is awesome but you don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark, half in the bag when Jr. has an “incident.”

Since our plan was to camp for just one night, it was lucky when I could reschedule my salon appointment and we could leave home early, arriving at the campground around 1. This does mean that I have out-of-control hair a bit longer but it was worth it. The campground was sparsely occupied and we were able to select a killer site. Set up went quick and Karl assembled the tent while I watched peanut. Since we didn’t have room in the car and we didn’t want to make any mores stops before leaving town, we bought firewood from the host.  With the baby, it’s easy to fill up a car, so it was worth the extra few bucks and, for what it’s worth, it’s generally good to get firewood from close to the camp site to limit the spreading of pests.

After we set up camp, we went down to the beach. The access was right next to our site. It was fun to watch Isaac take in the flowing river. Dad pulled out his gold pan and started searching for gas money. Baby and I hung out in the sun and I dipped my feet in the water. The river water had been snow and ice about 15 minutes earlier so it was cold as heck!

I thought at this point I could get pumpkin to sleep. No bueno. I think he was too excited to even try. The good news is that Dad let Mom take a nap. That hour was spectacular. When I awoke, Jr and Dad were nowhere to be found. After a little investigation, I saw a day-glo clad prospector with a baby on his back down on the river bank. Baby had fallen asleep while Dad continued to search for riches.

We hiked a short trail along the river to check out the neighboring Turlo campground and for the best sites for next time. Turlo was a little bit more primitive and had some nice sites on the river.  It also had a deeper, slower section of river that looked like it would probably be a good swimming hole when the water level dropped later in the summer.  With the baby I would recommend Verlot over Turlo for the flush toilets and sinks with running water and lots of soap. It was two bucks more ($18 vs. $16)  for those perks.

We spent the next hour or so making a fire and doing dinner. Afterwards we hung by the fire while dad made s’mores and bubba started fading. I pulled out the boppy and gave him some substance. It got dark and Dad and I were enjoying some conversation reminiscing about our favorite childhood memories. Then the incident happened.

Junior woke up. Wait. He didn’t just wake up. He woke up in a screaming terror. I can’t recall a time I’d ever seen him so upset. Nothing I could do would soothe him. He wouldn’t take the boob which is 100% guaranteed any other time. This is when I got really upset on the inside but tried to remain collected on the outside. I tried to walk around with him, nothing. I took him in the tent to attempt to shield the fellow campers from the poor little guys shrills. We thought taking him in the bed with our bedding would calm him. No. It didn’t work. I felt helpless.

I read an article about raising boys. I recalled it saying if you don’t know what is wrong, it could be his penis. Nothing was calming him so I told Karl to check this region. There was no way that kid was going to let Dad take off his diaper. Once we got his pants off he did start to calm down. I’m still not sure if something was going on down there. I bring it up because I still think it’s a good pro-tip. Karl went to find a light and I tried to calm baby. I was eventually able to get him to eat while I massaged his legs. I sang to him for about 10 minutes and he finally passed out. He was so tense until the moment that happened.

For the rest of the night I slept with my boob out. Every time he would wake up, if the boob wasn’t exactly there for him, he would start to shriek again. These shrieks aren’t just a baby cry, they are the sounds of a baby who is terrified or in pain. And being a parent and not able to make it stop fast enough is heartbreaking. It was one of the worst nights of sleep I ever had. I slept lightly so I could keep a close eye on my favorite little guy. He slept until almost 7:30 in the morning. I was so relieved when I saw him making his little smiles while he was sleeping, something he’s known to do that makes him even more adorable than he already is. He woke up and everything seemed ok. At this point we decided to ditch the hike and go home. Due to the light amount of stuff we brought, we were on the road within thirty minutes.

I interrupt this story now to tell you the one tip I want you to know. Always have a light handy. I think what happened is he fell asleep when it was still light out. He woke up in the dark with a dim fire, creepy tree branches waving around, the smell of the fire and mom wearing a baseball cap. I rarely wear a hat so I think he didn’t realize who I was. Still not sure on that. Away from the fire it was really dark and when we got in the tent, even darker still. We were trying to soothe him in the tent but I think the darkness was freaking him out.  We live in the city.  It’s never completely dark, even at night with shades closed. It was a whole new experience for him. Dad ran and got the tent lamp and that seemed to quiet the shrieks a bit. A few minutes to get lights may not seem like a big deal but it would have been nice to help him reorient himself sooner.

We were not at all prepared for that to happen. Isaac usually does not freak out like that and when he does get upset, he’s easy to calm. Also everything else the rest of the day had gone great.  I still am not exactly sure what happened. Maybe he had a bad dream? Maybe he got bit by something? I am thinking maybe next time we’ll practice camping in grandma and grandpas back yard. We could recreate the fire, tent and dinner and see what happens. It was just so sad to watch that the chance of it happening again makes me anxious.

Another pro-tip. Camp next to a river. The water was loud enough to drown out the sound of the screeching baby. The sites were close so I did feel bad for the fellow campers and our organic noise pollution during the freak out.

I’m not sure how this blog comes across but we really do look back at the trip fondly. We had so much fun most of the time and Isaac absolutely loves being outside. He had a smile on the whole time. This will not deter us. We are a camping family at our core. Oh, one more thing. We decided for each trip we would take a rock and put the camp name and date on it. The plan is to put the rocks into something cool that our family can look back on with loving memories.