For years, my wife, Ella, and I wandered relentlessly. We guided whitewater rafting trips on North Carolina’s Nantahala River, camped up and down the Appalachians, and spent entire summers backpacking Latin America. When our baby boy Gabriel came along, all of that changed. We mostly stayed home “nesting,” as they call it.
Growing soft, moody, and restless, we decided it was time for our first overnight backpacking camping trip as a family. For young children, after all, a camping trip marks the commencement of an era, the beginning of a glorious childhood spent exploring the outdoors. Here are the lessons we gleaned along the way:
1. Know Your Environment
We headed to Pisgah National Forest in Western North Carolina, a 500,000-acre temperate rain forest, marked by 6,000-foot-high Appalachian peaks, misty valleys, and gushing creeks. The Pisgah Ranger District in Transylvania County, where we set up camp, receives 90 inches of rainfall every year, feeding the some 250 waterfalls that gurgle and thunder across the reserve. Despite its sogginess, Pisgah is one of the most popular destinations in the Appalachians, and with well-marked trails, easy access, and loads of foot traffic, it’s an excellent destination for a family’s first camping trip.
Packing is driven by different environments, of course, each requiring their own specific strategies—and presenting unique challenges. Make a packing checklist, and be prepared for worst-case conditions. For cool and damp Pisgah, we packed a waterproof tent and rain fly, rain jackets, rain paints, wool undershirts, and warm winter hats; all of our supplies were stuffed into waterproof, one-gallon freezer bags.
2. Invite Your Friends
We vigorously debated whether or not to go it alone: While I cherish solitude, there is safety in numbers—and with family camping, safety is a top priority. Invite someone (or ones) along with some wilderness experience. We recruited our friends, fellow parents Katie and Dan: Avid outdoorsy types, they had already taken their baby, Kyle, car camping, and they proved to be just the right company for tackling this new family-camping terrain.
Use a map, make a plan, and don’t let your ego misguide you. Hike a loop or an out-and-back route that leaves you within a short distance of the car (it’s your lifeline). Strapped with two boys under the age of one, we settled on a 1.5-mile loop hike from the parking lot of the Pisgah Fish Hatchery. “Wow! You’re so brave!,” sang the chorus of day hikers cheering us on as we trekked through with bouncing babes and stuffed packs. After a modest tromp, the promised land was in sight: the banks of the Davidson, a translucent, rolling river flanked by rhododendron and teeming with brook trout.
4. Eat Well
Just because you're outdoors doesn’t mean you have to eat cold baked beans or chalky energy bars. Summer sausage, potatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, rice, and seasoning all packed very neatly, ingredients that we diced with my pocket knife and flipped into a small pan filled with water. Sitting over hot coals, the ensuing stew sizzled, wafting delicious scents into the fresh evening air. Conveniently, our babies were still breastfeeding, but I look forward to the day when we’ll fill their hungry little bellies with a delicious camp dinner cooked on an open fire. Tip: Bring enough to share with your friends, and your standing in camp instantly skyrockets.
5. Bring Coffee . . . and Whiskey
Only a masochist would take a baby camping without coffee. We set off into the wilderness with a dozen instant coffee packs and two tin mugs tucked into a dry bag. I also carted around an old flask emblazoned with the words “HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY.” It’s a shameful specimen, but a good alternative to walking down the trail with a fifth of Johnny Walker in your hand and a baby on your back.
Setting up camp is both hard work and wonderful fun: Embrace the challenge of making your camp somewhat spectacular and as comfortable as possible for the wee ones. We pitched our tents near the river, with promises of being lulled to sleep come evening time by its gurgling song. We waded out to a little island, gathering logs for a bonfire. A couple of yards from the bonfire, hammocks were hung, where the babies could swing with their mothers, while Dan and I plunged into the frigid river and cast a fly rod. No cell phones (with service nonexistent out here), just simple enjoyment of the moment.
7. Keep in Mind That the Devil Is in the Details
It was about 7:30 p.m. on our first night in camp when disaster struck: A torrential downpour forced us to shelter in our tents, where I read C. Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio aloud and sipped whiskey. After an hour, heavy moisture had saturated the tent and water began accumulating. A hard lesson was learned: Over time, tents’ water resistance diminishes, so you’ve got to seal the seams and recoat the fly with urethane. My tent had been packed away for over a year, and overlooking its maintenance suddenly proved quite costly. I had braced for rain, but not sufficiently so. “There’s a river running through our tent,” I heard my comrades call out. On this night, Mother Nature was a pitiless mistress.
While you need to take preparation and safety very seriously, you don’t have to take yourself too seriously. You’re a baby-toting parent, not Sir Edmund Hillary, after all.
8. Remember to Have Fun
While you need to take preparation and safety very seriously, you don’t have to take yourself too seriously. You’re a baby-toting parent, not Sir Edmund Hillary, after all. Go slowly and have fun. Just before entering into Pisgah National Forest, for instance, we made a pit spot at a local watering hole, the Pisgah Tavern, where neckbeards, tattoos, and $6,000 mountain bikes abounded. Tarrying at the bar gave us a little time to absorb the local culture . . . and clean up a nasty blown-out diaper, too.
9. Know When to Fold ’Em
It was pitch-black when we ultimately decided to abandon camp. With the rain still falling hard and the river rising, we determined it best to get the babies back to the car; a parade of headlamps sloshing down the muddy trail ensued. Our friends’ baby stayed perfectly dry because their pack boasted a built-in baby cover; Gabriel, meanwhile, wailed in his little yellow raincoat. Before I berated myself too much for the oversight, we had covered a quarter-mile and were safely back at the car. The babies were soon warm and toasty. I jogged back to camp to help Dan back up with the sopping gear, where he observed, “The river is overflowing its banks. It was smart camping close to the parking lot.”
10. All’s Well That Ends Well
Thirty minutes later, we were checked into a hotel with pizza on the way, where we conclude that there is no shame in resorting to modern amenities when camping with babies. All that truly matters is that your children stay safe. After the day’s adventures, I felt satisfied, reinvigorated, really, and assured of the fact that if you’re practical and careful, taking your baby camping is safe and rewarding, even in the face of unexpected difficulties. Watching football on TV, I began planning our next camping trip, while taking a final swig from my flask: Happy. Happy. Happy.