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Last March, during a flight home from Denmark, my wife went into labor. Thankfully, it progressed slowly, and our baby was born safely in the care of a doctor in our home city later that day. Because he had arrived more than seven weeks early, our son spent forty days in the neonatal intensive care unit. Despite the difficult start to parenthood, we were determined to introduce Ari to the things we love at an early age. Four weeks after we took our healthy baby home from the hospital, we did what we have done hundreds of times before: went backpacking.
We did our homework before we hit the trail. My wife and I researched baby carriers and what to pack, but we struggled to find information on setting up a safe sleep environment in the backcountry. Our biggest worries were that Ari would be too hot or cold or that he would suffocate.
Some articles recommend that parents share a sleeping bag with their baby and use lots of warm blankets. While some people are comfortable co-sleeping, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants sleep near, but on a separate surface from, parents. We knew there had to be a safe alternative to sharing a sleeping bag with Ari. With our own research, advice from experienced backpacking mother and author of The Sun is a Compass: My 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds, Caroline Van Hemert, and some trial and error, we came up with these tips on how to create a safe sleep environment for babies on a backpacking trip:
Use a travel bassinet
When your baby is a newborn, this is an easy item to tote along and set up in your tent. The walls of a bassinet contain a baby and help prevent them from rolling into your sleeping bag which is a suffocation hazard. We used the Brica Fold ‘n Go Travel Bassinet, which only weighs 2.45 pounds and folds down to 17 by 22 inches. It can easily be strapped to the outside of a pack, making it useful for short trips.
Use a tent inside your tent
Once Ari was too big for a travel bassinet, we still needed a self-contained sleeping area to keep him from rolling into us or other objects. We used a travel beach tent made by Kilofly that measures 132 by 85 by 60 cm and weighs in at 1.4 pounds. Kilofly ensures child safety by maximizing mesh on the walls (still, make sure to open the vents to increase air circulation) and eliminating padding from the inside. Letting your baby play or nap in their own tent at home will ease the transition to sleeping in it while backpacking.
Leave plenty of space
Having a large enough tent is important when backpacking with a baby. We use a three-person tent and sleep widthwise instead of lengthwise to give Ari extra space and to keep his sleep area completely clear.
When Ari was a newborn, we didn’t have a warm enough one-piece outfit that would fit him. Instead, we used multiple layers and wrapped him in a large swaddle to give him the secure feeling that many babies crave. “The key for keeping babies and younger toddlers warm is to have them suited up as though they are ready for an expedition before they go to sleep,” says Van Hemert. It is important to remember that overheating can be a hazard for babies as well, so layer accordingly to the outside temperature. Layering your baby in one more layer than what you are wearing is a good rule of thumb. You can gauge your baby’s body temperature by feeling the back of their neck. A sweaty neck means it’s time to take a layer off, while a cool neck means put one on.
Use a thermometer
This was a game-changer for our mental stability. Bringing a mini thermometer to hang in the tent gave us peace of mind knowing what the temperature was so that we could dress Ari appropriately.
Use a down suit
Once Ari grew a little, we put him in a one-piece down suit for cold-weather sleeping. However, we were worried about the potential for the hood to cover his nose or mouth. To mitigate this risk, we pinned back the hood with safety pins. Once Ari reached 6 months old, we used a brilliant down “sleeping bag” made by Morrison Outdoors. It is rated to 20 degrees and has arm slots and a snug collar to keep Ari’s face from slipping inside.
Use a foam sleeping pad
Baby crib mattresses for home use are generally made of foam, unlike inflatable camping pads. We felt that using a flat sleeping pad such as the ALPS Mountaineering Foam Camping Mat would be a safer option than the popular Therm-a-Rest Z Lite™ Sleeping Pad, which has small, soft, ridges instead of a smooth surface. Even the small divots in a sleeping pad that is not flat could potentially inhibit a baby’s ability to breathe. The ALPS pad is also wide enough to accommodate the Kilofly tent.
“There are so many uncertainties in parenthood and endless ways in which parents, especially mothers, can feel like they’re getting it wrong,” says Van Hemert. “Taking children into the backcountry has offered incredibly rewarding experiences for all of us and I’m grateful that fear and external parenting pressures (that often encourage us to believe that the safest place for a child is a padded, temperature-controlled room) didn’t eliminate this aspect of our lives.”