Photo: Brian Lewis

What It’s Really Like to Take Your Toddler on a Camping Adventure

by Tim Wenger Aug 15, 2019

Wild Toddler Chronicles is an original short documentary series from Matador Network that follows a pair of outdoorsy parents as they introduce their two-year-old to wild natural surroundings, all in the hopes of accomplishing two things — instilling in their daughter a love of the outdoors and an understanding of why it’s so important to protect it. It gets real — the struggles, the triumphs, the bodily fluids. A story in three chapters, this project documents their ongoing quest to expose her to the beauty of the world’s wild places and allow her to experience the healing and formative power of the natural world. Filmmaker and #dadofnature Brian Lewis shared some insight on what happened behind the scenes and what it took to bring this series to life.

I’m sure there were plenty of inspiring, and probably humorous, moments in the process of filming these videos. What were some of the highlights that we didn’t see on camera?

A few of the highlights involve Kaiya doing something unexpected to help during a tough moment. One example is when we got to our campsite in Zion and realized that we’d left an important bag in the parking lot at a gas station about an hour earlier. We had stopped in a panic because Kaiya had been having diarrhea and we needed to get her cleaned up in the bathroom. Throwing away yet another pair of underwear, we hurried to finish up the drive before the next blowout, not realizing that we left a bag with all of her snacks, some toys, and her absolute favorite “neigh jacket” — a fleece she’d worn on all of our adventures pretty much since she’d been born.

Realizing what we’d done, we were devastated and angry with ourselves for making such a stupid mistake. Calls to the gas station were no help and Pam started to cry when explaining to Kaiya that her jacket and all this stuff were gone forever. We could see Kaiya processing what had happened and noticing her mom’s tears. I was prepared for a full meltdown, but instead of getting upset, she hugged her mom’s leg and calmly said, “It’s okay Mommy, it happens.”

It was probably the most mature thing a two-year-old has ever said and it helped recenter us on what’s actually important and why we’re doing this in the first place.

How about frustrating moments?

Plenty. The biggest challenge with this project was trying to shoot footage and be a parent, often simultaneously. Being a parent sometimes called for helping my wife clean up the vomit, but being a filmmaker called for capturing footage of an intense and realistic moment of toddler travel.

One of the main frustrations on this trip was that Kaiya was sick for most of it. She had some stomach issues and there was a lot of action involving different bodily fluids. She had some great moments where she’d seem fine, but for the most part, she was exhausted and just wasn’t herself. There was one moment that was kind of a breaking point. We were on the rim at Bryce Canyon at sunrise with fresh snow coating the hoodoos and an ethereal fog hanging in the canyon. It was stunningly beautiful and I tried to work quickly while the light was perfect, frantically trying to direct her until she just sat down in the middle of the trail and with a voice of total exasperation, said, “Daddy, no more pictures.” That’s when I put the camera away.

How old was your daughter when you first took her camping?

She was just over three months old when my wife surprised me by planning a Father’s Day camping trip.

Anything in particular that your daughter has really taken to in the outdoors? Do you see her as an avid camper in the future? A hiker?

Right now, she’s psyched on anything that involves splashing in water. By far her favorite activity is throwing rocks in any available body of water. We’re not super focused on directing her towards a specific activity — our main motivation is making sure she’s comfortable with being in nature, away from screens and plastic toys, happy getting dirty, and adapting to different routines and environments.

What advice do you have regarding trip planning with a toddler? How did you plan, pack for, and execute these excursions?

Take the itinerary you’d plan on a pre-kid outing and cut it in half. Then take the gear you’d bring on a pre-kid outing and double it. But most importantly, be flexible and maintain your expectations. For us, every outing is different…sometimes she’ll run down the trail on her own, other days are struggles of constant motivation and complaints of tired legs and wanting to be carried. It’s impossible to know which way it will go when you head out the door.

Regarding conservation, you made a poignant point about the need to protect our natural landscapes for future generations. In addition to getting out there and experiencing them, what else can parents do to instill in their kids a mindset of conservation?

For sure one of the most important ways to instill this mindset is to spend time in these places and as much as your life allows, make them part of your routine. And it doesn’t have to be anything extreme or inaccessible — a local hiking trail or city park or backyard garden can instill the same respect for nature as any epic national park.

Another thing we’ve been doing is slowly introducing some of the Leave No Trace concepts just to get her started on the path to recreating responsibly and minimizing our impacts on the land. Right now we’re working on simple concepts and explanations in kid terms — things like keeping a clean camp “so animals don’t get sick from our food,” staying on the trail “so we don’t hurt the flowers,” and picking up trash when we see it. There’s nothing cuter than Kaiya interrupting our hike in a panic by pointing to a food wrapper and shouting “Oh no! Someone’s not being bear aware!”

Watch part three of the Wild Toddler Chronicles below, which focuses on leaving a legacy of conservation behind by teaching kids to care about nature, or catch up on episodes one and two.

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