Journeys, &c

notes and images

Solo camping…with a two year old child

“When I first met you, you were expecting your kid”, he laughed, this guy I know who came hiking last weekend with me, my wife, our two year old and some friends. “I remember you telling me you hoped to continue hiking as much as you could, and I went home thinking, ‘nup, won’t happen'”.

“But here you are, hiking with your kid”!

Here I am. But the truth is, when we were expecting our child, I did have darker moments where I imagined all that really was over. That my hiking-most-weekends lifestyle was over; that I wouldn’t get to go wild camping again for a long time. Determined not to let this happen, I started hunting around for gear that could help me take a small child into the hills. Somewhere on youtube – and I can’t find it anymore – was a Dad who took his one year old into the mountains using the baby carrier I ended up buying. He really inspired me. It’s fair to say, he changed my entire attitude to impending and subsequent actual fatherhood. From the moment I saw that clip, I wanted to do the same: solo camping with my little kid (my own youtube clip is at the very end of this post).

The other truth is, it did end, for a while. There’s no getting around the fact that I hiked nearly every second weekend the year before our daughter arrived, and just four or five times the year after. The next year got off to a great start but was hampered by the nasty cold that made its way into our home from nursery, only to lay the three of us out, sequentially, for most of Spring. It turned out that being the “Adventure Dad” I’d built up in my mind was less about having the adventure and more about finding the time between work, smog, sickness, weather, and the other inconveniences of real life in Beijing.

But here I am. About to tell the story of my first Daddy Daughter solo camping expedition. And yes, it’s not “solo” if there’s two of you. But it’s solo in its own way if your camping buddy is a two year old child. “Solo” like “no one else around to help out”. My hat goes off to any parent who is solo all the time; but camping with a toddler brings its own challenges.

First of all, this was not “car camping”. We didn’t drive to a campsite and sleep in a tent, although that is lots of fun too (as we discovered on our first family camping trip last Christmas). This time, I wanted to do a hike, carrying tent and food and everything else, and walk in to a remote location. Wild camping. On the Great Wall in the mountains west of Beijing.

So off we set, finally, on a trip that was first conceived not long after our child, and was postponed or cancelled on at least three or four occasions after concrete plans had been set. Pollution wrecked one expedition, rain ruined another (in Australia, in high summer!). Sickness did in the others. At last, in April 2017, when our daughter was a little past her second birthday, the stars aligned and my wife farewelled us one Saturday morning in Beijing. It was hard to say who felt more nervous: me, the kid, or her mum! Besides anything we would face on the trip, this was also the first night since our baby was born that she and her mother would be apart. Yon handled it very well but there’s no shame in saying there was a tear in her eye as we drove off. She recovered quickly though, booking a massage and going out with her friends. Until midnight! On a Saturday! It must be like visiting a place you loved but haven’t been in a long, long time.

W was great in the car as we set out up the freeway towards Yanqing. Light traffic, and by the time we hit the hills her gentle moaning gave way to welcome sleep. She was still asleep when I pulled into the little village of Bangshuiyu around lunch time, and woke up in my arms as I was ordering noodles. We shared a big bowl, then headed the last few kilometers to a field just beneath the high tower at Kouzilou, above the historic pass at Shixiaguan.

Snobby hikers like to laugh at those who use titanium spoons, decrying it as pointless gear-freakery. Use a plastic spoon, you knob! I steal mine from McDonalds! Yes, because they never break, right? Besides, when you hike on the Great Wall around Beijing, you need to carry every last drop of water. There’s no streams. No springs. No lakes. And every hundred grams of weight you save in equipment is another 100 millilitres of water you can drink. Two year olds don’t drink much, but they can put away the food, and some of that has to be cooked in water too. Besides, carrying a two year old around is thirsty work. You really appreciate every last drop. So, over the last few years, to lighten the load, I’ve invested in some nice titanium cookware. It’s saved about three or four hundred grams which doesn’t sound like much until you’ve run out of water, when nearly half a litre would be very welcome. Last year, I even got a coffee plunger. Decadent? Maybe. But if you get almost no sleep at the best of times, then multiply that by camping with a toddler and driving two hours each way in Chinese traffic, I think building some coffee into your trip planning is actually prudent. Safety. That coffee is a safety measure. Yes, it really is.

Tent, check. Water, check. First aid kit, check. Toddler, check.

Yes, it’s titanium. Deal with it!

It’s no joke trying to pack for an overnight hike trip with a two year old. Most obviously, you’re going to have to carry that two year old for a decent proportion of the hike. Mine weighs about ten kilograms (bottom fifth percentile, yes!). Now add the other gear you can’t do without: small tent, one sleeping bag, small blanket for the kid; one sleeping pad, a tiny stove, food, and the proper clothing to keep the kid warm and dry (I settled for just warm for me, gambling there would be no rain). By the time I had all that together – and I had pre-stashed food and water near my campsite a few weeks before – my load was close to 16 kilograms. I can carry more (not that it’s a contest) but that’s more than enough, too.

Space is actually a bigger problem than weight. In my regular 60 litre pack I can easily carry everything I need for a solo camping trip. But my daughter takes up about 40 litres of usable space. Some of it can be retrieved by strapping things to the outside of the baby carrier – large but relatively light pieces like the tent and its poles. But other things don’t lend themselves to such stowage, and my solution at the suggestion of my brother in law who served in the military is the so-called “battle bra” or chest rig. It’s a combat vest (without the bullet-proof plate!) which allows you to attach various pouches to your front. Since the baby arrived I have collected these pouches, which are very affordable from Amazon and similar sources. Sure, the ones I bought aren’t combat-duty rugged, and one or two I’ve since discarded because the zips broke or the attachment straps kept un-popping. But this isn’t combat, it’s camping with a two year old. Generally my chest rig has been good and cost me a little over $100 all up. It carries things I need ready access to, like nappies and other baby maintenance gear, a water bottle, little things like pocket knife and torch, snacks, spare clothes for my kid, and just about anything I might need relatively handy. Two larger pouches can carry a decent amount of food, or gas cannisters, for example. Everything else – mostly the things I don’t need until I reach the campsite – goes in the bottom of the baby carrier in its one large stowage compartment or is tied to the outside.

The Full Smash: baby, baby carrier with attached gear, and the chest rig. Ready for DaddyDaughter Camping and the Zombie Apocalypse.

With the chest rig on, I do look a bit silly. But as any Dad will tell you, the moment the kid arrives is the moment you stop caring about how others think you look. If you ever did. It’s practical though, and surprisingly so, because most military-issue stuff I have seen has never seemed up to the quality of good civilian outdoor gear. So even if non-military people using military gear outside a military context is a bit left of field, I have embraced it for this particular application.

This set up includes a “vest” which covers the chest, two large pouches (green), a round one for a large water bottle (black), a smaller pouch (beige, for nappies and wipes) and a medium sized one (red, with some first aid stuff). I also have a slim pocket (camo) for little important items, and a pouch for my GPS.

The walk
For our first expedition, I didn’t want to be too ambitious. The point was camping, and proving that a hike could be done, not punching out the miles just for the sake of it. Just as NASA learned to fly once round the Earth before it flew to the Moon, so I would verify each skill and procedure of my much more modest program before moving to the next. We walked together along the flat farmland that lies just north of the steep hill on the western side of Shixiaguan. W sang little songs as she enjoyed picking up stones and sticks and pieces of straw. Already, she was having fun, getting dirty, and stretching her little legs.

Having fun, getting dirty, and stretching her little legs…

Our destination – Kouzilou – way up at the top of that hill.

After about a kilometer, the mountain began and, as is increasingly the case, I couldn’t persuade my hiking buddy to ride in the baby carrier. Instead, I slung her up on my hip, or, more accurately, on the right hand pouch of the chest rig. This turned out to be quite comfortable for both of us. We made steady progress up the steep path, singing “Incy Wincy Spider” as we went. About half way along we had a quick break, and she walked a bit more where it was relatively flat. Then, one more push and we came up to the mighty tower named, I’m told, “Kouzilou”. The elevation gain was only about 150 meters; the ground distance less than a kilometer. Normally I would hardly break a sweat up here. But it felt like a great achievement. And little W saying, “I want to go to the big one house” was strangely and happily satisfying.

Approaching Kouzilou, near where we would camp.

It’s always windy up there at Kouzilou. Time for W’s jacket, though she resisted that too, as well as her little down pants. Eventually she was convinced and we climbed up the wobbly brick makeshift “steps” into the tower. Happily it has been well looked after by previous visitors, though there is always some idiot who smashes a glass bottle inside. It seemed not much different from my visit in summer 2012 (I’d been here a few weeks prior, too, to stash the food). With more than half an eye on the two doorways each with a sheer drop, I chased W around inside the tower for a while. By now it was getting a little late, and colder, so it was time to set up camp.

Base Camp
Whether your camp is at 5,000 meters in the Himalayas, or by the side of your car at the beach, setting up a comfortable and safe base is important. This is especially so when camping with little kids, and that’s why I decided for the tent rather than the bivvy bag I normally prefer. Yes, there are those who say bivvying is a purer form of camping, and generally I agree; there are those too who say so more because, like single-source espresso, bivvy bags are “so hot right now”. Well, on the side of a steep hill, with a two year old prone to walking around, and a Dad so exhausted he may not wake up, some kind of enclosure is important. I’m not about to leash my child to something, and nor am I going to risk suffocation by zipping her up in a bivvy bag. Yes, they’re on trend, but keeping your kids alive has always been a hot trend too. So, I packed our little two-person tent.

The red dot at left indicates our campsite, in this image taken in 2012 from the other side of the pass. No snow this time, but the mountainside was just as steep! Not a place for sleepwalking two year olds!

Those parents who seem to spend too much time on social media lauding their own parenting skills as a means of subtly throwing shade on the rest of us might cough at the next sentence. But yes, I confess, to occupy W while I set up the tent, I handed her my phone. On airport mode, so she wouldn’t suffer the radiation (and more importantly, couldn’t get me kicked out of WeChat groups by sending three thousand dancing octopus stickers in less than a minute). Of course, I suffered ten minutes later when the phone had transformed my child into a crack fiend in withdrawal, but it made for this great image.

The moment W found out she’d have to tell the kids at nursery we stayed in a tent instead of a bivvy…or the moment I took my phone back?

This little tent has weathered a few storms.

Dinner came early mainly because I was starving after the effort of getting us up here. Also, I didn’t want to take any risks trying to cook in the dark. So around 4:30pm I fired up the small gas stove, being very careful to keep my kid away from it. She understands the concepts of hot and dangerous quite well – as you can see in the video later – but even so, gas flames and a child’s face are best kept very carefully apart.

Dinner time: “It’s very hot, okay?”

Someone very kindly gave W a little headtorch last Christmas; here we are fooling about with it.

Sleep – when it finally came – was fitful at best. But any parent can say that of almost any day in the first two years, camping or not…

…and dawn breaks on even the longest nights. Breakfast perked us both up.

The Wall
The Great Wall above Shixiaguan is an impressive place, and Kouzilou tower is one of the best towers along the entire 50-plus kilometer stretch of wall between Shuitoucun and Badaling. Its internal staircase remains intact, as does the roof it takes you to. Though close to the road, Kouzilou is some distance from more popular hiking spots nearby. It makes a perfect place to sleep, as I found out in summer 2012, but this time, it made more sense to stay in the tent just nearby.

Our tiny tent stands just inside the wall, with Kouzilou beyond keeping watch over the pass at Shixiaguan (bottom right). The wall continues east over the mountains towards Badaling.

W plays near an access point on the inside of the wall, to allow troops in and out of the battlements.

This area is the next major pass west of the strategically important (and heavily touristed) pass and fortress at Badaling. There is lots of great walking, and plenty of spectacular sights, around here.

The Exploration
Children everywhere are curious. Everything is new, even at two, and simple sticks and stones are endlessly fascinating. Once we found a flat spot on the wall, somewhere fairly safe to play around, we whiled away the end of the evening popping small stones into small holes, picking up sticks, looking at flower buds, and generally conducting a detailed transect of the ten square meters of our little wall-top world. For me, used to looking for beacon towers on distant ridges or faint paths up steep hillsides, this was novel and enjoyable. For W, used to nothing at all just yet, it was absorbing, important work.

The “Rocks in Holes Program” was an important early phase of W’s archeological survey of the western inner wall.

She enjoyed the campsite too, especially after breakfast. We spent quite a while pretending to make coffee (after I’d actually made coffee, and drunk it). It was lovely to sit in the sun, knowing she was warm and fed and happy, just playing with the pots and letting the breeze wash over us.

W enjoys her (pretend) coffee.

The Dump
It’s pretty easy to deal with a dirty nappy in the outdoors. For the contents, do as you’d do for yourself. Dig a nice deep hole, and bury your poo in it. For the nappy, simply wrap it up, put it in a plastic bag and dispose of it thoughtfully upon return. No muss, no fuss? Maybe not. But yeah, no fuss.

Back at the car, it was time for a quick orange before the drive home.

Mission Accomplished
It took about an hour to get back to the car, and another half hour of mucking about and eating oranges together. The drive was straightforward (we were up so early, and on the road so early, we beat all the traffic and made it home for lunch).

And we were glad to get home. It was tiring for both of us. Have a look at the video below and see W’s energy levels by the time we headed back down the hill – she slept almost the whole way home in the car. But she also had a lot of fun, and so did I. And so, it turns out, did Yon in our absence.

Tiring but fun. Lots of fun. I can’t wait ’til next time.


I filmed this on my phone while we were out there. It’s most like to interest you if you actually know our kid, but it’s only eight minutes long.

1 Comment

  1. Awesome adventure!

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