Why I recommend getting your first child into the backcountry as soon as possible

By Auntie Shelley


Let me start off by saying that this post is meant for experienced backcountry campers who are wondering how soon they can or should get their little ones out on a trip.  It is not meant for people who don’t have experience with wilderness tripping.  If you have never been on a backcountry trip then I would not recommend heading out into the backcountry with a baby.


4 month old Eva - already on her second backcountry trip

4 month old Eva - already on her second backcountry trip

Over the years we have met a number of couples who used to be avid outdoor adventurers until they had kids.  When they hear that we still head out on backcountry trips their response is usually along the lines of, “We used to love, insert – canoeing, camping, hiking, etc. – but then we had kids.” They proceed to tell us, with longing in their voices, how much they miss the backcountry.


We also meet a lot of people who don’t have kids yet and they want to know how we have managed to keep getting into the backcountry since becoming parents.  They are afraid that having kids will mean that they have to put wilderness tripping on hold for many years and they don't want it to be like this.


Recently I was thinking a bit about why we were able to keep getting out on extended canoe trips after having kids when many of our friends gave it up?  I think a big part of the reason was because we took Anna, our first child, out on a trip within her first year of life.  You can read more about that experience here.  I have noticed over the years that those who get their first child out on a trip within the first year to 18 months of life tend to keep up with their outdoor pursuits.


Eva hanging out with her Dad on Phillip Edward Island

Eva hanging out with her Dad on Phillip Edward Island

Here’s why I think the timing of that first trip matters.  If you’re an average couple, then somewhere around the time your first child hits 18-24 months of age, baby number 2 is going to be on the way.  Trying to get out on a first backcountry family trip with a toddler while mom is pregnant and exhausted is overwhelming. Chances are it just isn't going to happen.  Then the baby arrives and if you've never done it before, the logistics of a trip with a baby and a toddler/preschooler becomes even more overwhelming.  Not to mention the cost of outfitting those two little ones.  All too quickly two, three, maybe even four years have gone by and tripping just isn’t part of your life anymore.  If however, you get out with your first child right off the bat, when it comes time to add another kid it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.  You've slowly been building up your confidence and you’ve already got some gear in place.


Anna was three months old when we took her on her first trip.  Although it felt a bit crazy before we left, it really built my confidence.  When she was 18 months old we took her to Bowron Lakes in Northern BC.  We had also been on countless day hikes in the mountains in BC, so by the time Josh made his arrival we had a good sense of what it meant to be out in the wilderness with a very young child.  Sure there were some new logistical challenges, but because we’d already been building up to it slowly, it didn’t feel at all overwhelming.  Quite honestly however, if we hadn’t done those earlier trips with Anna, I think we would have ended up like many of our friends.  Longingly thinking about the days when we used to canoe, but never really getting back into it.

3 month old Cousin Caleb in Algonquin Park

3 month old Cousin Caleb in Algonquin Park

Depending on what type of backcountry trips you like to do (i.e. canoeing, hiking, etc.) there will be different challenges and logistical issues (we can talk more about that in the future), but I would encourage any outdoorsy couple that is starting a family to get back out there as soon as possible.  Sure you will have to make some changes to accommodate your little one, but don't let that hold you back.  The sooner you get out there the easier it will be.  


If you fall into that category of people who used to love the outdoors but fell away from it when you had kids, please don't let this post discourage you.  It is absolutely possible to get your kids out there and totally worth the effort.  I would encourage you to get back into it.  Depending on the ages of your children it might feel challenging, but don't let that deter you.  After all, isn't the challenge part of what outdoor adventure is all about?  And just think of all the cool new gear you'll get to buy!


As always, if you have any questions about the logistics of backcountry camping with kids feel free to post them in the comments or send us an email.

Hammocks - An Essential Piece of Gear for Naptime and Beyond

By Auntie Shelley

When we first started camping with toddlers, naptime was a bit chaotic.  Our naptime ritual went something like this: I would head to the tent for a “rest” with the little people.  The plan was for us to cuddle up, read a book, and then the little people were supposed to fall asleep and I would have some free time to paddle, read, drink coffee, etc.  In reality we would climb into the tent and the little people would immediately push all of the sleeping bags and gear into one big pile.  They would then proceed to launch themselves head first into the middle of the pile.  This would go on for at least half an hour.  Eventually, after much effort on my part to get them to settle down and sleep, I would pass out from exhaustion while they continued to roughhouse.  Yes, that was naptime.  It was fun for the little people, but not so fun for me. 

Then a few years ago on a last minute trip to Adventure Guide, I picked up a hammock.  Oh how the hammock changed things.  Luke was 2 on that first trip with the hammock.  When he started to look tired I asked him if he wanted to swing in the hammock with Mommy.  He hopped right in, snuggled up and within 5 minutes was out cold.  I think I fell asleep about a minute later.  A new ritual was born.  

Cousin Luke and Auntie Shelley enjoying the hammock.

I have found that my little ones will nap longer in the hammock compared to the tent and often when they wake up they are content to hang out there and watch the trees swaying above them.  I usually put a pad or blanket down underneath them for warmth.  Typically they like edges of the hammock folded up over them so that they are in a little cocoon.  If we’re out during bug season I will drape a mosquito net overtop.  I have also found that on the rare occasion when I don’t fall asleep in there with them, it’s pretty easy to sneak out without waking them up. 

Now, I will admit that when I bought the hammock I wasn’t really thinking about naptime.  I had visions of myself relaxing in it, enjoying a picturesque view of the water while my children canoed and explored the campsite.  In reality, I only got to use the hammock when I was putting Luke down for a nap in it.  The rest of the time it was full of children squirming, giggling, swinging, snuggling, reading, chatting, etc.  There were six or seven children on that trip and I think at least one of them was in the hammock the entire time.  At one point I did try to take back my hammock from the children, but I was out numbered.  They knew it and so did I. 

Since that trip the hammock has become one of our “must have” pieces of gear when camping with little ones.

Cousin Anna lounging in the hammock on a 2010 backcountry trip.

This year we ended up bringing two with us, which was a good thing since Grace staked her claim on the older one the moment it came out of its sack.  She’s rather small, but she is the fifth child and knows how to hold her own.  We all agreed it would be best not to mess with her.

Our latest addition is the ENO DoubleNest.  I picked this one because of its size.  Inevitably three or four kids want to be in there at once and the DoubleNest can easily accommodate them all.  It comes with two carabiners and an attached compression sack and packs down to the size of a softball.    

Cousin Josh in the ENO DoubleNest.

We have lots of webbing kicking around from climbing, so we use that to attach them to the trees, but the Atlas Straps would be worth picking up if you don’t have webbing already.

We have been interested in trying out hammock camping for a while now.  On our recent fall trip, Cousin Chloe tried it out for the first time.  I will let her tell you all about that experience.  For now let’s just say that I think hammocks will be showing up on some Christmas lists this year.

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.