Kris Ungerer waited until her daughter was six months old before they went on their first family camping trip. “We learned a lot from camping with her,” she says. “Now we’re a well-oiled machine.” So much so that when they had their next child, they were on a weekend camping trip when he was just a week and a half old.
Since that first family camping trip, Kris has taken her daughter (now three years old) and her son (now eight months old) camping more than forty times.
You don’t have to be that bold on your adventures, but learning from those who excel at it might give you the confidence to take your own first family camping trip.
Polly Heavenrich camped with her three children throughout their childhoods and has now watched them grow into adults who enjoy camping on their own. Looking back, she sees fostering that connection to the outdoors as one of the best things she did for her kids.
“It’s scary — the first couple times definitely,” says Kris. “But then once you rip off the bandaid, it’s really fun.”
Here’s what Kris and Polly shared with us about how to have a great camping experience with a baby.
Start Small if You’re Nervous
Before Polly had kids of her own, she went camping with a friend and her small children.
“We would go camping at a state park near here,” says Polly. “We’d get carry-out food, we’d eat, we’d go for a little hike, and we’d go to bed in the tent. It was one night, and that was enough.”
Keeping it close to home also means it might be disappointing if you have to pack it in — but not a total disaster. Things like bad weather (too hot, too cold, too rainy) and super buggy campsites can make a trip hard to enjoy. When you hit snags like that, it’s okay to just call it a day and plan to have better luck on your next adventure.
Polly recommends small goals when your kids are little. She remembers one time hiking with her crew, and her young son sat down on a log and said, “my little legs are just too tired.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Start Young
Polly and her husband took their daughter on a backpacking trip for the first time when she was just three months old.
“We may have been nuts,” says Polly. “She was really tiny the first time, and it was serious camping.” Polly and her husband had backpacked before their daughter was born, so they just kept on. Polly carried her daughter in a front pack and a hiking backpack filled with clean disposable diapers on her back. On the way out, it was filled with dirty diapers — much heavier.
Her husband carried everything else they’d need.
“It was cold — like 28 degrees,” says Polly. “I layered her and layered her.” After that trip, Polly decided that perhaps a multi-day backpacking camping trip wasn’t the best for an infant.
But it gave her the confidence to do more low-key camping. And she learned that a baby is actually a pretty great camping companion.
“She was so little. She wasn’t mobile yet. She was absolutely complacent, and I was only nursing her, so I didn’t have to think about food at all.”
Kris also started camping with her kids when they were quite young. So by the time their daughter was a toddler, they were really comfortable with it. They’d gotten a jump on teaching things like safety around the campfire. Kris’s daughter loves s’mores, and she knows to sit in her camping chair a good distance from the fire. “My son’s easy,” Kris says of her eight-month old, “because he doesn’t move.”
Think about Timing
Like hotels, check-in for many campsites is in the afternoon. That timing can be tricky if you’re trying to fit in an afternoon nap, put up a tent, get dinner ready, and then do bedtime in a totally new space.
Kris knows that her kids’ moods can be a little dicey in the afternoon and evening. But they thrive in the morning. So instead of rolling up to a campsite at 2:00 pm and trying to get everything set up, they arrive first thing in the morning to capitalize on their children’s best time of day.
How do they manage that if check-in isn’t until the afternoon?
They book an extra night — the one before they’re going to arrive. Most campsites are inexpensive, so it’s not a big outlay of extra cash. “We just call the campground and let them know we booked the night before, but we’re not actually going to show up until early morning the following morning.”
Let Food be Easy
You don’t want to spend a lot of time prepping food when you could be enjoying the natural beauty and watching your baby take it all in.
This isn’t the time to grill a multi-course meal.
“I bring a ton of snacks,” says Kris. “We do a lot of snacking. Easy things like fruit that they can just grab onto. All those complicated things like grapes or blueberries that you have to cut up — those don’t make the trip. Only the easy, non-choking hazard stuff.”
Kris and her husband keep things simple but delicious. “We get a big thing of brie from Costco and just throw that into a frying pan over the campfire grate and bring a loaf of french bread.” They’ve also made dinners like burritos (prepping the ingredients at home) or sausage on the grill.
“Now that we’ve gotten classy over the last few years, we have a little portable pizza oven,” says Kris. “We just went camping a week or two ago, and we brought that and made pizzas. It just hooks up to a little propane tank.”
They do bring a small stove, but they generally only use it for making coffee and heating up water to mix with formula for bottles.
Don’t be afraid to outsource a little of that cooking to local establishments. There’s a mom-and-pop bakery near Kris’s favorite camping spot at New Brighton State Beach in Santa Cruz. They always visit it for snacks when they go. Now her daughter associates camping with delicious bakery cookies.
Keep Your Same Bedtime Routine
Probably the number one biggest fear most parents have about camping with young kids is sleep. Specifically, will I get any?
Camping enthusiasts say the key is to follow your normal routine as closely as possible. If bedtime at home has four steps — put on pajamas, sing a song, turn on the sound machine, and turn off the light — then bedtime at the campsite should have those same four steps.
For Kris, that means packing a few sleep essentials. Their three-year-old has done all her campsite sleeping in a Nuna play yard. As a baby, she wore the Woolino sleep sack she wore every night at home (and that her little brother now wears). Kris sings the same song she always sings (Three Little Birds by Bob Marley) and turns on their Rohm portable sound machine. (Hot tip: Kris charges and brings two because one usually loses its charge around 3:00 am, and then she flips on the other.)
Then she zips up the tent and heads over to the campfire, VTech battery-operated monitor in hand.
And just to make sure no one’s confused about whether it’s really bedtime on a bright summer night, Kris and her husband upgraded their original tent to a Coleman blackout tent. That also means their daughter and their infant son, who have blackout shades at home, can take naps during the day in the tent. Slumberpod is blackout cover that goes over the pack 'n play and is another good option to help your child sleep better.
Keep Your Camp Gear Together
Packing for that first trip might take some thinking, but once you’ve figured out what you need, put it on repeat.
Kris’s family has what they call “The Camping Bucket.” It’s covered with stickers from their various trips. And inside are matches, lighters, plates, utensils, cookware, coffee mugs. “We have a couple books because they usually get pretty trashed. They’re our go-to camping books,” says Kris. “When we come home, we wash everything and put it back in the garage, so it’s ready for the next trip.”
Expect Some (or Many) Misadventures
Kris remembers a trip in Big Sur when she was pregnant with their second kid. She’d snagged a beautiful riverfront campground.
Their daughter, who was a little over a year old at the time, hadn’t napped that day. Normally, Kris’s rule of thumb is an early bedtime on no-nap days, but circumstances kept her from putting her daughter down early.
By bedtime, she was overtired — and we all know what that means. “She screamed bloody murder for an hour before she went to sleep,” says Kris. “I was thinking, ‘I hope the river is loud enough to drown out the screams for our next door neighbors.’”
“There are a lot of times it goes right. If it goes wrong, so you spent $35 on your campsite,” she says. “There was still something good that happened. Our daughter was so overtired and cranky because earlier that day we were playing in the river and going on hikes.”
So maybe even a rough day camping is better than no camping at all.
“Looking back, we did a lot of things wrong as parents,” says Polly. “The one thing we did right — all our kids fell in love with being outdoors.”