The Completely Non-Definitive Camping Guide with a Baby or Toddler
Updated: Mar 22, 2019
I have held off writing this post for a long time, simply because there is no such thing as a definitive camping guide. Camping with kids comes in so many guises, from a full-on "home-from-home, all the creature comforts" at a campsite with an electric hook-up to what one my most intrepid friends does: takes her single-digit kid on 3 day hikes, knocking off a series of Munros, sleeping snuggled up together in a windsock, and drinking burn water.
(A campsite with mod-cons doesn't necessarily mean 'soulless'; one of the nicest ones I've ever stayed at had electric hook-ups but still backed onto this gorgeous beach...)
However, despite there being no definitive list, people have asked me for a guide, especially as I am posting upcoming camping events and encouraging people to come along, often for their first camp since becoming parents. So I thought it was time I put (binary) pen to (electronic) paper and at least made some suggestions.
To explain our current camping style, you have to know our history. Which sounds awfully grand and important, but is actually a fancy way of saying we muddled a long and made it all up, as nothing we'd done in our past was translatable into what we found we needed once newborn Xan came on the scene. Xan's pa, Graeme, was a Munro bagger and a rock climber before not using contraception on that one fateful occasion changed his life. He camped skilfully and often, the former meaning that he got his kit down to the smallest possible size - a one-man windsock, a camping mat the size of a domino etc. - and the latter meaning that he spent his spare time bagging Munros and climbing crags, and camping was never the purpose but the method by which he was able to spend his days doing things he loved. (I should note here: I was so impressed by Graeme's tiny kit when he first showed it to me. It's not often that you can wholeheartedly say that about a man.) As for me, I'm sorry to say I never had any fun* until Graeme came along and showed me one end of a tentpole from the other, and I'm eternally grateful.
* That's not actually true; I lived in Tokyo for 10 years, Bangladesh for 2 years, and India for a year. I had a lot of fun out there.
I have to credit Graeme for being the one to say, when Xan popped out peeled-prawn-pink from the tent he'd lived in for 9 months prior, "This won't change my life, he'll just enhance it. Pack nappies, bring yer norks"....and within weeks of him being born we joined our climbing friends for a camping trip down in Northumberland. And to be fair to Graeme, but also to give kudos to Mother Nature, I personally found with a pair of boobs it was easy to take a newborn camping. In many ways I don't actually need to give advice to parents on how to camp with a baby. All parents of Young'Uns go out with their spawn during the day, and pack nappies, wipes, and the means of milk consumption, be it breast or bottles. What we learned early on is that it is no different at night; you just need more layers. That first trip we packed a Grobag for night-time, and popped Xani in a snowsuit inside it. He was toasty. So really, camping equipment for a baby is whatever you'd take on a long day trip, plus a snow suit and a hat/mittens at night, along with a Grobag, or an extra blanket. Sleep Baby on a camping mat OR bring your travel cot/moses basket in your tent. It really is as simple as that. (Here I'm obviously only talking about what you need to bring for the baby....you'll still need your own ideas for your food, cooking etc., but I have put a checklist for that at the end).
If your baby is bottle fed, there are a couple of ways to keep everything sterilised: one is, you simply take 2 washing up buckets (I find actual buckets work best, not tubs). You use one to do the washing up and the other to have a solution of Milton on the go in your tent to dump the bottles in. Fish out when required. This is what I used to keep his spoons, bowls and cups clean at festivals until he was one, because everything just seems dirtier at a festie than on a regular camp. The other is bringing a big pan and boiling whatever your baby needs on the camp stove, as I have done many times. The bucket-of-Milton is the solution we use at festivals and the boil-your-own for other camps, especially for wild camps where you don't want to drain stuff like Milton into the soil.
We started doing festivals when Xani was 4 months old, and that is when I realised my tent wasn't up to scratch. But that was simply from a comfort POV. I wanted something in which the kids could chill even when it was raining and large enough to move around in easily so I upgraded to a Coleman 5-man and bought the porch extension to go with it. On the negative, it takes hours to pitch. On the positive, everyone wants to hang out Chez Fibie when it rains. Which, if you're misanthropic, can also be a negative. I veer between the two...
So Xan has now just turned 3 and we've camped at 7 festivals, quite a few trips with climbing friends, and numerous kayak camps where we've had to take the boat and all its accessories (wetsuits, life jackets) along with us. So my camping list has evolved to include everything a 3 year old boy, a 10 year old girl, a dog, and 2 adults want (not need) to be comfy, based on camping from Graeme's car (i.e. NOT trekking through glens with a rucksack).
For sleepings mats I use the flat but slightly inflatable kind, as any blow-up mattress I've ever had has punctured faster than Katie Hopkins' reputation once she left Big Brother and became an unbearable racist. But you can also use yoga mats. We use sleeping bags for the adults and the bigger kid. I tend to have the 3 year old dressed in clothes warm enough to fall asleep on my lap by the evening campfire.....so in February (yep, did that when he was 25 months old!) that was a snowsuit; in the summer, a onesie and jumpers. Then when it is bedtime he just lies on his camping mat in an open sleeping bag wearing those same layers with a blanket over him.
I also bring a sling to hold him in whilst we sit on chairs by the campfire, and I find these ear-blockers really helpful, so we can have beers and raucous chats while he snoozes through.
Tip: still worried about the cold? A friend of mine told me to line the inside of your tent with these foam alphabet mats.....she did it and was so warm (in April by a loch) that she wriggled out of her sleeping bag in the night.
My main bit of advice in all of this is to bring blankets for use on top of sleeping bags, or instead of, if you're leaving kids in snowsuits and don't want them to overheat.
Midges are an occupational hazard for Scottish camping, and can be very upsetting for young kids and babies who won't understand what has hit them. Many brands of midge spray are packed full of nasty shit that you don't want near your tots, and although if I had a quid for every time someone has told me that the SAS use Avon Skin-So-Soft *eye-roll*, I personally think it is rubbish compared to this stuff:
It is beyond fantastic and best of all is safe for babies and pregnant women. I'm going to repeat that: safe for babies and pregnant women .... and I personally wouldn't put Avon Skin-So-Soft on a baby. Midges love Graeme more than his family does and he used to go on about that blasted Skin-So-Soft so much, it was like a 1970s Remington ad ("I bought shares in the company!") yet he says Mosi-Guard is better. Most importantly, unlike the Avon product, Mosi-Guard also protects against ticks, which are very dangerous (and unsurprisingly also love Graeme) so if you take anything away from this post, get some. As for midgie nets, get them not just for yourselves but for your babies: you may think your tots won't wear them, but you'd be surprised what a little bribery or distraction can do. I recommend the hat kind for bigger people, and the regular stocking type for tots: I usually affix Xan's to his head with a Scandi-style scarf or a buff.
Head-torches are another vital thing, again NOT just for yourselves but for your kids. At the Chon camps, the kids spend hours running around the site at twilight and you're risking some nasty injuries if they can't see where they're going. Yeah, we could keep them by the tent after dark, but aren't we then kinda ruining the point of camping and being able to explore? Imho, the Bogeyman that we all worry about with our kids doesn't tend the hang about campsites or woods, even after dark ...he's too busy planning how to become leader of a youth club or similar. So making owl-noises in the campsite grounds when the sun goes down is an experience I really want my (older) kid to have...and a head torch helps her not to break her leg in the process.
Some final Little Tips:
I bought these hammocks. Two of 'em; less fighting. Best. Decision. Ever.
Fairy lights: for a tiny bit of extra bulk to carry, they create a lot of tent-magic.
I also have a tent light. You may be glad of it in the middle of the night.
Take duct tape....it fixes everything bar the broken heart sustained in a camping argument because it's pissing it down and the kids are being bastards.
Bring a mallet for tent pegs. You never know when the ground will be brutally stony.
I bought a portable charger. I want to have my DSLR camera charged, and even though I mostly shun internet while camping, I like to read books on my Kindle app, plus having the Guardian online with a coffee and time to read is a camping joy for me.
I take a dustpan and brush to keep the inside of the tent comfortable. I cannot emphasise how much of a difference this makes on day 2 or 3.
I bought these car boot boxes to store it all inside the tent, because it's so much easier when you know where your shit is at 3am.
We have Raymond the red wagon for lugging it all in.
So the amount of stuff you take or do without is a personal choice and as I said at the start, camping with your car boot nearby, as in the forthcoming Chon camp, is totally different from trotting through the glens where you need to be minimal. On a "car camp" I don't see any virtue in not being comfortable, plus I have a 'tween girl and a toddler which is a combination where a bit of comfort and a tidy tent can make the difference between a weekend of rows or not. So the following list is NOT a definitive guide, but rather a checklist which you can scan and take out the stuff that isn't applicable to your family.
Ice packs (for keeping perishables cold)
Cutlery (you can get a camping "spork" which sometimes includes a tin opener if you want to go more "minimal" )
Tin opener (see "spork" above!)
Big water carrier & water bottles/receptacles for decanting
Flask (so you don't need to fire up the stove for every cup of tea; but you can easily do without it)
Scissors (I have no idea why; feel like we always seem to use 'em, but you can likely do without as I currently can't think of a single use for them!)
Bucket or two
Kettle (but we use our cooking pan when we want to pack less)
Sandwich bags for left-over food (you can do without this; just eat all your food when you cook it!)
Firewood and kindling
Medication, toiletries & Sundries
Hand gel or soap
Bin liners so you can take your rubbish away with you
Milton fluid, if you have a baby small enough to need it. (However you can easily boil bottles on the stove and do without it)
Medical bag with tick tweezers
Dustpan and brush (yeah, just my personal weird thing about having a tidy tent!)
Washing up materials
Dog bags for nappies
*these were essential for us only because I get headaches easily and one night Xani seemed to be really suffering LOUDLY from some unidentifiable pain, so we were glad we had it at 3am, but likely not necessary in most cases
Tent stuff and miscellaneous kit
Wagon (that's just our "thing" for carrying stuff, but not essential....although it doubles up as a toy where my son is concerned!)
Extra blankets & pillows
Fairy lights (I did say this list isn't for everyone ;-) )
Car boot boxes
Phone chargers & Phones
Tent repair kit
A few memories of the fun we've had....