Baby campers

What I learned on my summer vacation

The author and baby Lily go for a hike.

The author and baby Lily go for a hike.

photo by KAT KERLIN

When you have a baby, any excursion seems like a camping trip. You pack the stroller, food, milk, bibs, spoons, diapers, wipes, toys … and don’t forget the kid.

So imagine what happens when you go for the real deal.

As my husband, 15-month-old daughter and I prepared to head off to California’s Grass Valley area for our first camping trip this summer, I looked at my car in disbelief. I remember a time, not long ago, when all of my earthly possessions could be packed into a car smaller than this one and driven across the country. Yet, here we were, with a Subaru wagon meant to hold dog, family and cargo on trips like this, and we had to leave the dog with my mom. (Thanks, Mom.)

The car was jam-packed: Stroller for the streets of Nevada City, frame-style baby backpack for the trails surrounding the Yuba River, food for baby Lily, food for us. Pots, pans, cooler, tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, pillows, clothes, diapers, toys. Lily, snug in her carseat in the middle of the backseat, couldn’t even see out the window. We were literally in over our heads for a quick three-day weekend.

This was to be the first of several camping trips this summer. But I hope we will have learned a few things from this trip to make those to follow better. “Pack lighter” might be an obvious one, but I know myself too well.

Bring the baby clothes you don’t mind throwing away. Campgrounds, you may recall, are not green pastures. They are dirt and rocks and sticks and cigarette butts and charcoal smudges. They are generally the color black, and if your baby has a tendency to crawl, as many do, that baby will also turn his or her clothes black.

Check out the “family friendliness” of the activities you intend to undertake. The Yuba River is one of the most beautiful rivers in the Sierra region. But getting to it involved steep descents on uncertain paths. Going down them seemed too risky with Lily. So we found an easy hike on Independence Trail and looked at the river from afar.

After so much time in a car seat or baby backpack, however, we wanted to get Lily on the ground. One of the best parts of our “camping” trip was finding Nevada City’s Pioneer Park, a grass-pool-ballgame kind of park where Lily could lay in the grass and play—without turning black. These parks may not be as soul-satisfying as a hike in the woods, but hey, the kid needs to stretch.

Pick a campground full of other families with kids. Pre-baby, you probably chose places with as few obnoxious people as you could. Now, however, seek them out. Here’s why: There’s a good chance your baby—who sleeps so well at home—will wake up screaming at 3 a.m. At least that’s what happened to us. Other parents, perhaps with screaming children of their own, will be more likely to forgive you.

We snagged the last spot at our campground that weekend—right next to a young man who was alone and very quiet. He probably came there for solitude. Then we rolled in.

Lily sleeps 11 straight hours at home. But at our campground, long past her bedtime and while other campers were getting into bed, she cried for about an hour before going to sleep. And the only way she could fall asleep was to sleep on top of me. I haven’t had to sleep with her like that since the first two nights of her life. Then came her 3 a.m. wake-up call. And, of course, she was up with the first crack of sunlight. This being summer, that was around 5:30 a.m.

Our solitary neighbor left after that first night.

None of this, however, makes me want to stay home. Lily is absorbing massive amounts of information now, and I want her to have outdoor experiences in all sorts of places. I happen to like them myself. And, trite as it may be to say, it’s good, quality family time. Too often, my husband and I spend our weekends taking turns watching Lily while we get other things done. But when we’re camping, there’s nothing to “get done.” There’s just us.