Camping with a baby or toddler

I’ve never really considered myself much of a camper – my parents didn’t take me camping as a child and the one trip I did with school was awful – yet in 2010 my partner and I decided that an 1980s VW campervan would be a much better investment than a boring old hatchback. Since then we’ve been all over the UK in it (and the newer one we bought when the first one got too unreliable), as well as to France, Sweden and Norway, squeezing in camping trips when we can alongside my work trips, touring with my partner’s band, and myriad friends’ weddings.

We’ve taken the baby girl camping in the van several times now and here’s what we’ve learned so far,* divided into 10 sections: tent or campervan; packing; choosing a campsite; choosing a pitch; setting up camp; sleeping; feeding; nappy changing and potties; bath time; and insects. I’m sure there will be things I’ve missed, so please add your own tips for camping with babies and toddlers in the comments below.

Tent or campervan

A man with a baby in a back carrier stands in front of a white camper van and awning
At a tiny campsite in Yorkshire in summer 2017, our van’s roof popped up ready for bed

Clearly I’m biased, but a campervan is definitely the way to go if your budget will stretch that far. I’d recommend owning one, but there are places to hire them all over the place if you’re not up for that sort of commitment or financial outlay.

The benefit of vans over tents is that they’re warmer, quieter to sleep in, more secure and you can bring more stuff with you. Many vans will also have a fridge, hob and sink – much easier than setting up a camping kitchen outside a tent and useful for storing baby food and milk. A drive-away awning, which is basically a large tent that you attach to the sliding-door side of the van, provides extra space, and is particularly handy as a self-contained play area once your little one is crawling. Inflatable awnings are more expensive but much faster and easier to erect and strike than traditional tents with poles.

The major downside of a campervan (much as I hate to regret that a downside exists) is that you have to pack everything up if you want to go off exploring in it, whereas with a tent you can just jump in the car and go, leaving your whole camping apparatus in situ. Tents are also much less expensive than campervans to buy or hire of course.

When it comes to choosing a tent (or indeed a campervan awning for that matter), get the largest you can afford: large tents are slightly more time-consuming and complicated to erect than small ones, but not exponentially so, and if you’re stuck inside with a baby or toddler on a rainy day, you’ll want as much space as you can get. Essential elements are a covered porch area (ideally with a ground sheet) so you’ve got somewhere to cook and eat without getting food smells in your tent, as well as a place to store your pushchair and muddy shoes. An internal room is useful so you can sleep separately from your child. As with awnings, an inflatable tent will save you a lot of time.

Packing

Don’t bother with suitcases and pillows. Designate a different colour pillowcase for each family member and use them to pack clothes into instead. Then cram all your pillow-suitcases into a black bin bag so they don’t get grubby in transit or when setting up camp. Half way through the trip you’ll need to consolidate clean clothes into one pillowcase and dirty clothes into another.

Choosing a campsite

Tastes vary – I like my campsites relaxed, peaceful and in wild and beautiful locations, and am not too fussed about the state of the toilet facilities, while some people value a neatly maintained shower block and aren’t bothered by the immediate surroundings. The good news for new parents is that camping with a pre-crawling baby is much the same as camping child-free, so you can choose your campsite based on the same criteria you would have done in the past, whatever your priorities happen to be.

Once your baby is heading towards toddlerhood, facilities like a play area, beach or on-site petting zoo are a major boon.

Choosing a pitch

Again, tastes vary. We usually prefer to be as far from the toilet block as possible, as this tends to be the least busy area of a campsite, but there are benefits to being closer to the facilities once you’re camping as a family. Bear in mind though that if your baby is sensitive to noise, somewhere without a lot of passing traffic will give you all a better chance of a good night’s sleep.

Setting up camp

A woman feeds a baby on a blanket on grass
My sister feeds the baby girl while my partner and I set up camp on a trip to Cornwall, our first as a family

If there are only two adults in your party, try to time your arrival for when your child is sleeping – unless you’ve opted for a small tent, pitching camp single-handed while your other half holds the baby is challenging. Other options are for one person to wear the baby in a sling as you pitch the tent together, or to set up a travel cot to serve as a play pen. Going camping with friends or family members offers the distinct advantage of there always being someone else around to hold the baby while you get things done, of course.

Sleeping

Dress your child in extra layers to minimise the chance of them waking up cold in the night. A 3.5 tog sleeping bag on top of a long-sleeved vest and all-in-one sleep suit or pyjamas will keep your baby toasty in temperatures as low as 14 degrees centigrade. If you don’t have a sleeping bag that thick, doubling up lighter weight ones will work just as well.

Bear in mind that if you’re camping in the summer in the UK it gets light early and dark late, not ideal for babies and toddlers who can only sleep in a blackout. Parents of light-sensitive children should check out the travel cot cover made by SnoozeShade. We put the girl in a pop-up tent travel cot within our awning or campervan and put a breathable blanket over the top, which does the same job, though less elegantly.

Noise is trickier to deal with but choosing a quiet pitch will help. White noise could come in handy too.

In campervans with a pop-top roof, the bed in the roof is a good place to put your baby if you don’t want her in your bed with you. The baby girl’s pop-up tent travel cot fits our roof area perfectly, and it means she’s in no danger of rolling out. When she outgrows the tent we’ll start using the safety net that came with our van (it was converted from a panel van by a guy who went camping a lot with his children) to keep her safe in the roof at night. We sleep in the rock ‘n’ roll bed (see picture below), leaving the awning free for any friends or family camping with us.

As already noted above, a large tent with an internal room will enable you to sleep separately from your child, and more importantly, it’ll give you the option to hang out comfortably inside after your baby has gone to bed and while she’s napping.

Feeding

A man and a baby lie on the bed of a campervan
Note the large number of travel pouches of baby food stowed away in the cupboard of our van

As far as I’m aware, there isn’t really a way of feeding your baby while camping that isn’t a bit of a faff. There are lots of options available, but none are without their drawbacks.

A foldable camping high chair is very lightweight and packs away small but the tray is so flimsy that your child will end up covered with food (even more so than they already do). Standard travel booster seats (we have this one) come with sturdier trays, but you’re unlikely to have a chair with you that you’ll be able to attach such a booster seat to safely. That means feeding your child with the booster seat either on the ground or on a table, neither of which is ideal. A lap belt will keep your baby on your lap but means you’re stuck in one place until she’s finished her meal – you’ll also end up covered in food, which is more of an issue that it would be at home because you probably won’t have access to a washing machine. On balance, we find the lesser of these evils is the inconvenience of feeding the baby girl on the ground, so we use a booster seat.

Jars and pouches of readymade baby food come in very handy while camping, since you probably won’t have the space, utensils or storage options available for making your own. Now that the baby girl eats most things we just plan our meals so they’ll appeal to her too, but when she was smaller we always made sure to have a packet of couscous with us on camping trips that we’d add to readymade baby food for extra texture and bulk. That and bits of cucumber, bread and yoghurt mostly formed her diet on those early trips.

For bottle-fed babies, cold water sterilising is your best bet. You’ll need sterilising tablets or liquid and a large plastic container with a lid. See this post for how to do it.

Nappy changing and potties

We try to keep nappy changing to one area in the campervan or awning for the sake of convenience and hygiene but inevitably end up changing the baby girl here, there and everywhere. We just take her nappy change wallet and stow extra nappies, wipes and biodegradable nappy sacks (important in this context to keep odours to a minimum) in an easy-to-access place in the van for refilling when necessary.

I’m not usually a fan of one-use cleaning products, but antibacterial wipes are an important bit of kit when it comes to camping with a baby or toddler still in nappies. We keep bottles of hand sanitizer all over the place too, as with the best will in the world you’re not going to be washing your hands on a camping trip as frequently as you would be at home, and sanitising is better than nothing.

Don’t forget to pack a potty if your toddler is potty trained, as well as some biodegradable potty liners. Your child will most likely use these on camping trips long after she’s toilet trained – far preferable to a long walk to the toilet block in the middle of the night if she wakes up needing a wee.

Bath time

A man stands in front of a campervan and awning
Post-baby bedtime drink – note the inflatable paddling pool in the porch of the awning

Bath time is an important element of lots of babies’ bedtime routines but you’d be hard pressed to find a bathtub at most British campsites. The solution is to pack a small inflatable paddling pool, which you can either use in the shower block or in the porch of your tent if the weather is warm enough. Option two is more labour-intensive as you’ll need to carry water from the nearest tap and heat it up on your camping stove, but it’s nicer being able to do nappy and pyjamas within the quiet and privacy of your own tent, rather than in a bright shower block.

Parents of toddlers who don’t require a bath to get into sleep mode but are grubby enough to need hosing down before bed can experiment with taking their little ones into the shower with them, though I’d only recommend it once your baby is a confident stander. As with showering after swimming, this requires a bit of forward planning to make sure you can get your toddler dry and dressed before they get cold, while also getting dressed yourself. (I’ll be covering trips to the pool in another post, so sign up to the mailing list if you’d find more tips on swimming with a baby or toddler helpful.)

Insects

Insects are more of an issue in some areas of the UK than others, so look into this before you decide on a campsite if you know your family is likely is be bothered by bugs. Wherever you go however, it’s a good idea to take child-friendly insect repellent with you, and to keep tent doors zipped up at all times, especially in the evening. We learnt this the hard way during a camping trip in the Yorkshire Dales in summer 2017, ending up with an awning full of midges and a million bites each – not fun.

* I’ll cover festival camping in a separate post – sign up to the mailing list so you don’t miss it.

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Essential kit, part 5: baby monitor app

Almost every time we travel with our baby monitor we discover on returning home that we’ve left at least one part of it behind, necessitating either a trip to retrieve it or getting someone to post it back to us. The irritation we feel at our own idiocy is even more acute in those situations when the monitor hasn’t actually done its job, whether because the distances involved were too great, or the signal was blocked by thick walls or floors.

Fortunately, some friends introduced us to the Baby Monitor 3G app; not only does our regular baby monitor now stay safely at home when we travel, but we can be confident that we’ll be able to keep an eye on the baby girl in whatever situation we find ourselves in while on the move.

It’s extremely simple to use. You just buy and download the app on two devices – it’s available on Apple and Android phones, watches and tablets, plus Mac computers and Apple TV – and pair them, nominating one as the ‘baby station’ and one as the ‘parent station’. The app runs live video (or just audio, which uses less data) over wifi or 3G networks, and you can change the sensitivity of the microphone to suit the surroundings.

The app costs between £3.59 and £4.99 per device, plus any data charges if you’re using it over 3G, but that’s it – no in-app purchases or anything of that rubbish. Great for grandparents or other family members who only need a baby monitor on an ad hoc basis, and also for travel scenarios where you don’t have access to mains power, such as when camping.

When travelling by myself with the baby girl I take an old handset along so I can keep both my phone and laptop with me while still using the app. The spare handset is useful for travelling as a family too – god forbid one of us having to cope without our phone for the evening: how would we tweet about what a nice time we were having?

An Apple iPhone runs the Baby Monitor 3G app, showing that the baby is awake.
Uh oh

 

 

Essential kit, part 3: pop-up tent travel cot

I’m not looking forward to the day the baby girl outgrows her pop-up tent travel cot. We bought it for a trip to Goa when she was four-months-old, and have used it every time we’ve gone away since then, at hotels, B&Bs, in our campervan, when staying with friends and relatives, and for nearly a month over the summer when we were working in Edinburgh.

It’s handy for a lot of reasons, the primary one being that it functions almost like a separate space within the room because it’s entirely enclosed once it’s zipped up. It’s not soundproof, and it doesn’t entirely block out the light, but it’s better than an open cot in both respects (if it’s not dark enough in the room we’re trying to get the baby girl to sleep in, we usually drape a breathable blanket over the top of the tent). The zip itself is important too: zipping the tent closed works as a sleep cue – for our baby at least (except when it doesn’t, of course). And once it’s closed, it’s a barrier to mosquitos and other insects.

Given how different sleeping in the tent is from sleeping in a cot, you’ll want to do a few practice runs before you go away. It took the baby girl two naps in the tent in our living room at home to get used to it, as I recall.

Depending on your destination and type of trip, you might find the tent useful in the daytime too; and for more than just napping. We put the baby girl in it all the time in Goa so she could roll around with her teething rings and toys in a relatively clean environment. We must have looked ridiculous carting it to and from our room all day, but the staff took it in their stride. We thought we’d use the tent on the beach a lot, but ultimately it was too hot to do that, so we stayed in the beachside restaurant most of the time and took turns going for dips in the sea. We’ve used it camping too, as a way of safely stowing away the baby girl for the moments when two sets of hands are required to set up or strike camp.

Further perks are that it packs down very small and is very light. It’s so small and so light in fact that you can take the tent as carry-on on a plane, or pack it into your luggage. Your actual cot cunningly concealed, you can then pass off another small bag as a travel cot, thereby making the most of your infant baggage allowance of (usually) travel cot, pushchair and car seat. I’ll be covering infant baggage allowance separately in a future post, so sign up to the mailing list if you want to read more (there’s a link on the sidebar on the right).

A major downside of the tent is that it doesn’t provide complete shade, so you can’t rely on it in sunny places – your baby will still need sun cream, a hat, etc. It gets pretty warm in there too – in Goa we used a little battery-operated fan and covered the baby girl with damp muslin squares to keep her cool.

The tent is very easy to pop up and pack away, but the fact that you have to be either on the floor or in a very deep bend to get your child into and out of it means that it won’t be ideal for all parents/carers. We use a conventional travel cot when we take the baby girl to stay at her grandparents’ house.

Baby on holiday in a pop-up tent travel cot on a beach in Goa, with the sun setting over the sea. A mini fan is keeping the baby cool. There are sun loungers on the beach.
The baby girl in her pop-up tent travel cot on the beach in Goa, her miniature fan keeping her cool.

Essential kit, part 1: inflatable paddling pool

For most of the babies and toddlers in my life, bath time is an important part of the bed time routine. But what if you’re away from home, and the place you’re staying doesn’t have a bath tub?

Hosing her off in the shower will get your little one clean, but if she’s not used to it, you risk stressing her out with a new experience just at the time of the evening you want her winding down. It’s also a job that really requires two sets of hands, I’ve found.

You could forgo the bath altogether, of course, and use baby wipes instead, but that’s only really a solution for a short trip. Especially if you’re somewhere hot, and dealing with additional grubbiness-inducing elements like sweat, sun cream, insect repellent, sand, chlorinated water, etc, you’ll want to find a way to give your baby a proper wash at the end of the day.

The trick is to travel with a small inflatable paddling pool, which you position on the floor of the shower, or just on the bathroom floor if the cubicle is too small or awkwardly located. If you don’t have hot running water, as was the case at the place we stayed in Goa when the baby girl was four-months-old, you can ask the management for a jug of hot water and blend until the temperature of the water in the paddling pool is what it should be. A paddling pool is also handy for camping, allowing you to do bath time in the warmth and comfort of your tent or camper van, rather than having to go to and from the shower block.

Even if there is a bath tub where you’re staying, a paddling pool is a very handy piece of kit for hot climates, and beach destinations in particular. Unless you’re somewhere tropical, the sea will probably be too cold and rough for more than a very quick dunking; hotel pools, meanwhile, are often unheated, and too chilly for all but the hardiest of babies and toddlers. A small paddling pool, however, left in the sunshine to warm up a bit, is the perfect option for cooling off and splashing about in.

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Baby Adventuring

I’m a freelance travel and arts journalist and, as of autumn 2016, mother to a very cheery baby girl. This is a practical blog inspired by my travels with her, that I hope will be practical and inspiring for you. Before I get started though, here’s some context.

My partner and I spent years deliberating starting a family, trying to work out how a baby might slot into our busy freelance lives. Travel has been a passion for both of us, as well as important in our work, for as long as we can remember, so finding a way to continue our adventuring with a small person in tow was something we came back to again and again. Every trip we went on, whether for business or pleasure, the conversation would inevitably turn to how we might manage in such a place with a baby. We knew that travelling as a family would be different to travelling as a couple, and that some compromises would be necessary, but we were committed to approaching these new travel adventures with the same spirit that had informed our plans thus far.

There’s only so much you can game these things out of course, so eventually we decided to go for it. Our daughter was born just over a year ago and has proved remarkably amenable to gallivanting, accompanying us on work trips and holidays including a city break to Santiago de Compostela, Christmas with the in-laws in the ‘burbs, diving in the Red Sea, camping in drizzly Devon, visiting family in California, and to Glastonbury Festival, as well as countless trips into and across London from our home in Hackney.

Not all these adventures were 100 per cent fun, 100 per cent of the time, but I’d do them all again. (Well, I’d do most of them again. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking a four-month-old to Goa for just 10 days; we had a lovely time, but jet lag + heat + baby girl trying to put everything in her mouth = more stress than ideal.)

I’ve learnt a lot this past year and the aim of this blog is to package up some of those lessons to hopefully bolster the confidence of other parents to travel with their babies and toddlers. You don’t need to fly across the globe – baby adventuring is just about continuing to explore the world while your kids are small. For some, that might mean checking out a local arts festival, going camping as a family or taking your baby to the seaside. Others among you will be desperate to pick up where you left off in late pregnancy and whisk your newest family member away to far flung destinations. Most will fall somewhere in between, and this blog will have things in it for all you.

I’ll be asking for your tips too, and inviting you to request topics for me to cover. I hope this can be a space for conversation, an online version of the sort of chat that parents of small children share in WhatsApp groups, in cafes and at the playground. Parenting is largely trial and error, as far as I can tell – but mining your friends and acquaintances for tips certainly increases your chances of success. The same is true for travelling with babies and toddlers – I’d like this blog to be another location for that mining to take place.