Prior to having children, my wife and I had made an annual tradition of leaving our Michigan home each summer to camp and explore the public lands of the American West for months at a time. When our son arrived in 2018, we decided the show must go on. So, five months later, we hit the road. I knew a four-week camping trip across the West with a five-month-old would be difficult. But knowing something intellectually is a far cry from the knowledge that comes with experience with blood, or tears, or, in my case, frothing sprays of gasoline.
My first reality check came at a gas station in Montana 1,500 miles and just a few days into our road trip. With one last desperate push ahead of us before nightfall, our newborn Everett was already in the midst of a half-hour screaming marathon while my wife, Kylie, prodded me to hurry things along so we could find a campsite before he had a complete meltdown. With a huff, I promptly pulled away from the gas station and onto the road. Distracted by all the crying and focused intently on our destination, I drove off unaware that the gas pump nozzle and hose, which I’d forgotten to remove, was now dragging behind the truck and streaming gasoline in our wake.
Over the next month we camped, hiked, fished, and explored some of the most stunning country in the lower 48. Along the way we tested our assumptions about what was and was not possible when adventuring with an infant.
Despite the challenges, the greatest lesson we learned was that this kind of excursion is possible. It takes extra planning, work, and patience, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative of staying home. We also picked up a few tricks along the way that helped minimize the risk of future gas pump disasters and other frustrations.
Most notable among these was the simple yet magically effective practice my wife occasionally needed to remind me of, that of properly adjusting my own expectations. Before having kids, we frequently embarked on lung-busting hikes and multi-day backpacking trips into the high peaks. But with a baby in tow we quickly came to realize that those days, at least for now, were behind us. To believe otherwise would be a fast track to disappointment.
Admittedly, I did still find myself frustrated when Kylie would point out that a destination or trip idea wasn’t realistic or safe for our son. But when I finally came to grips with this reality and adjusted appropriately, I began to enjoy these trips for what they were. We might not be able to embark on epic five-day ridgeline traverses but we could find a different kind of joy in taking a short hike along the river near our campsite. Best of all was the joy of seeing our young son experience these first tastes of the great outdoors for himself.
Even without kids, camping and outdoor adventure comes with all sorts of limiting factors like inclement weather, physical exhaustion, hunger, and plenty more. But young children hold you captive at every moment. The trick, we found, is to accept these limitations for what they are and plan around them. Take for example my wife’s constant attention to long lunch breaks and extra snacks. “Snacks solve problems,” she says. Kylie also always had the sense to plan our excursions around nap times to ensure we rarely dealt with an overtired child while still making good use of that down time. Long drives to or from destinations were always timed to coincide with naps.
We also found that with a little extra research we could find child-friendly adventures that were still new and exciting for us too. One such discovery was a scenic by-way we found in Montana that allowed us to drive to the top of a long flat ridge that traversed a mountain range above tree line. We were able to tent camp in the midst of a nearly people-free wilderness with mountain and valley views rivaling almost any backpacking trip we’d enjoyed in the past, all within feet of our truck and the myriad infant supplies.
Having survived that first summer, learning a lot from our mistakes, and deciding that the good far outweighed the bad, we decided to head back the following year for a two-month excursion. This time, we learned the value of being quick to adapt.
Our initial plans for the expedition were to kick off the trip with a week of tent camping in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park before heading to Montana to retrieve our camper from storage. We found a campsite surrounded by cottonwoods with views opening up to the snow-capped Teton Range in the distance. I remember saying to myself those famous last words, “Now this is the life,” as I sipped a coffee and set up our small tent.
This state of bliss, of course, came to a shrieking stop several hours later when our toddler woke in the middle of the night crying so loudly and uncontrollably that he likely woke every one of our tent-bound neighbors. The same thing happened again the next night. At 2 a.m. we fled the campground for an emergency stay at a Motel 6 and the next morning we started our way north to move into our camper a week early. My dream of tent camping in the Tetons would have to wait.
Adapt quickly, be flexible, roll with the punches. This, we would find, is the name of the game when camping with young children. There will be campfires that never get started, hiking trips that must be cut short, and boat rides that become nothing more than trips to the dock. All you can do is put on a happy face, adjust plans, and make the best of it.
As the end of our trip neared, we decided to try our first overnight family backpacking trip. It would be the culmination of everything we’d learned over the past two summers. My research had turned up a relatively modest trail that followed a river valley into the Gallatin National Forest. With little elevation gain to worry about, I had hopes of covering five or six miles before nap time and setting up camp near a winding stretch of river rumored to hold eager trout. But soon after setting out, the mosquitos, heat of the sun, and my son’s rapidly vanishing patience stalled our progress. At the three-mile mark, I realized we had a choice to make. I could either push on and risk disaster or adjust our plans.
We stopped, set up the tent in a clearing along the river, and let our son roam. Everett crawled over boulders and threw rocks at my fly as it floated towards rising trout. He was happy right where he was. And so was I.
That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag miles from the truck and work and worries, I realized that we’d done it. Although we hadn’t reached our original destination, or caught any fish, or bagged any other kind of notable achievement, our young family was together in a wild place.
Author’s Note: If you’re looking for more insight and inspiration related to introducing your children to the outdoors, be sure to check out Steve Rinella’s newest book Outdoors Kids in an Inside World.