Camping With a Newborn? Seriously?

By Auntie Shelley

Backcountry Shelley.

Dan and I were outdoors people before we had kids.  Our shared love for the outdoors was one of the things that attracted us to each other and we both wanted to share this with our children.  So, when our first child Anna was born, we decided to take her out into the backcountry soon after.  Anna was born in April and by late July we had taken her on her first canoe trip in Algonquin Park. 

Auntie Shelley with baby Eva in the backcountry

As a new mom I was incredibly nervous about this trip.  The internet was in its infancy in those days and so I couldn’t rely on Google.  The few books that were available focused more on car camping and backpacking and barely mentioned infants.  And when I would mention to friends that we were going to take our newborn on a backcountry canoe trip, they would respond with raised eyebrows and question whether it was a good idea, or whether it was even possible, to take an infant into the wilderness. 

Auntie Shelley with baby Eva.

We decided on a short trip (two nights), which, when measured by our pre-kid standards, seemed like a joke.  We were used to going on much more rigorous trips.  Between the two of us we had experienced gruelling, uphill, non-maintained portages, bugs so thick you couldn’t fall asleep because of the noise, pouring rain that soaked everything, unexpected snow storms, rough waters and so on.  Our pre-child way of thinking was: “go big or stay home.”  Now, with our first newborn, we were thinking: “go small rather than stay home.”

My post-partum brain churned over every possible negative (and unlikely) outcome:  What if the canoe tips?  What if we hit really big waves?  What if it rains?  What if a bear comes into the campsite?  What if the temperature suddenly plummets and we all freeze in the middle of July?  This new anxiety about going into the backcountry wasn’t something that I expected when I became a mom.  I grew up in Northern Ontario and most of my childhood and teen years were spent on water and in the bush.  The sense of fear of the wilderness and the need to protect my child were new.

Dan, on the other hand, was much more relaxed about bringing an infant on a trip and patiently worked with me to relieve all of my anxieties.  So, what were my concerns and what did we do?

1. Water Safety

Water safety was probably my biggest concern.  We took several steps to deal with this one.  First, we found the smallest lifejacket possible.  In those days, Salus had not yet come out with their Baby Bijoux Vest, which is what we recommend now (see this post), so we were left with rather ill fitting alternatives.  The jacket we ended up using was serviceable but it didn’t fit as well as I would have hoped and I was still concerned.  Second, Dan assured me that when we got on the lake we would stay close to shore.  We wouldn’t go any further out than an easily swimmable distance in case I had to swim the baby to shore in the unlikely event that we capsized.  Third, we picked a small lake that we knew was most likely going to be calm.  Fourth, I decided that I would hold Anna the entire time and leave the paddling to Dan.  Finally, we decided to avoid taking routes that involved portages on this first trip to minimize time in transit.  This way we didn’t have to worry about portaging gear or being too far away from our car if an emergency did arise.  The lake we chose had a slowly moving river feeding into it and this meant that we could go on easy day trips if the weather was nice.  With these countermeasures in place I was able to worry less about water safety.

2. The Weather

Baby Eva napping in the backcountry.

We knew from experience that even when nice weather is in the forecast, weather systems can change quickly and unexpectedly.  Our trip was in July and although the forecast called for warm sunny weather I worried about an unexpected rainstorm and plummeting temperatures.  My ‘new mom’ fears on this topic came fast and furious and I could imagine a storm emerging out of nowhere throwing rain and hail at my baby and freezing her into a blue solid chunk of ice.   So what did we do?  Well, I packed extra fleece sleepers and base layers, and we picked up a fleece bunting suit.  I brought a raincoat for myself that was big enough that I could slip Anna underneath it, keeping her dry and warm against my body if necessary.  We also agreed that we wouldn’t travel if it was raining.  In addition, I packed a back-up bag of baby clothes, diapers, wipes, etc. and left it in the car; it was reassuring to know that it was there and that Dan could quickly paddle back and get it if it was needed.  As it turned out, the weather was fine and nobody froze. 

3. Night Time

I was also concerned about the baby being comfortable during the night because if the baby is not sleeping well, no one ends up sleeping well.  Fortunately, we already had a short ultralight Therm-a-rest® that was the perfect size for a baby.  I decided that I would wedge it up against my Therm-a-rest®, put down a fleece blanket that would cover both of our Therm-a-rests® and then cover both of us with my sleeping bag**.  Anna usually slept beside me at home so I was comfortable with the idea of co-sleeping in the tent.  We would also bring extra blankets just in case.  This arrangement ended up working out perfectly!

**Update - my friend Keeley gave me a good word of warning about this.  If you're sleeping bags have any type of draw string (mine didn't) then you will want to remove them so that there's no risk of it getting wrapped around your baby.  I also keep anything that could pose a suffocation threat on the far side of the tent.  The entire area around the baby is kept clear.

4. The Bugs

The mosquitoes and black flies can be pretty intense in the backcountry.  If you’ve never been in the backcountry in the summer, just take a look at the “blackfly song” below and you’ll get the idea.  So, I worried about Anna being “eaten alive” by bugs.  To address this concern, we planned our trip for the end of July when the bugs aren’t as bad in Northern Ontario.  I also decided to bring my brother’s extra large bug shirt with me so I could wear it with Anna with me inside the shirt.  And, I planned on nursing in the tent if things were really bad.  In the end the bugs were really mild that year and I didn’t even use the bug shirt. 


In hindsight I will admit that I dramatically over packed for that first trip, but I didn’t know what to expect and being over prepared helped alleviate my anxieties.  Even now I tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to keeping our little ones dry and warm. 

In the end, our trip with our first child turned out to be a wonderful experience for all:  Anna was a happy camper and so were we.  It was different from our previous trips, but I learned new things that I didn’t expect.  I learned that canoeing with an infant wasn’t nearly as hard I thought it would be and that reassured me that I could share my love for the great outdoors with my new baby. I also learned that I was facing a new type of adventure.  An adventure where the battles would be less physical and more psychological; one where the challenge would be less about growing as an individual and more about growing as a family; one that would require me to learn how to put my own desires aside so that this new little person could grow up to love nature and outdoors as much as I do. 

Looking back 12 years, 5 kids, and countless trips later, I can’t believe I ever questioned whether or not it was a good idea, much less possible, to take an infant into the wilderness.   It’s definitely doable and truly rewarding for all.  But it can be hard.  We often think of ‘extreme’ sports as those that involve hurling oneself off a cliff with a thin piece of nylon or jumping out of a plane.  But if you really want to go extreme, try backcountry camping with five little kids.  Now that’s hardcore for all involved!

Kids grow up fast! Anna (11 years old in this photo) enjoying an early morning with baby sister Grace (1 year old) in the backcountry.