Camping is a popular weekend pastime for many in the UAE, with the current cooler temperatures and plenty of beautiful locations a natural draw. But if your family includes younger children or babies, is a tent under the stars still a good idea or do the practicalities of caring for infants and toddlers mean camping is off limits until the children are older?
Despite the extra planning, organisation and equipment required, one group of Dubai mums say camping with small children is an extremely enjoyable experience and well worth the effort.
Vanessa Abernethy, 37 and mum to 15-month-old Alex, says her son gainedso much from their recent trip to the desert. "It is important for children to geta sense of the outdoors, wildlife and >being self-sufficient without home comforts around," says Abernethy. "Our son was so stimulated by being outdoors, having stars to watch, feeling sand under his feet and seeinga fire blazing for the first time. So long asa parent plans properly in advance and has things with them for all eventualities, camping should be a lot of fun for the whole family."
Abernerthy camped with Katrina Steven-Jennings, 40 and mum to 14-month-old Imogen, and Alison Martinson, 31 and mum to Isla, 13 months. They all say they packed clothing for all types of weather, as they were unsure of how low the temperature would reach. "It was also difficult telling whether [the babies] were warm enough," says Martinson.
The unpredictability of the temperature in the desert is a primary concern, according to Steven-Jennings. "Be prepared with warm clothes for babies as the temperature changes throughout the night," she says.
Parents will then need to decide where their baby will sleep during the trip. Of course, a blanket on the floor of the tent may suffice if parents think their child will sleep properly like this, but there are other options. Post-natal doula Andrea Allen recommends investing in a travel cot for use while camping, or at least a mattress. "You can buy fantastic travel cots that have mosquito nets and even UV covers to protect [the] baby during the day," she says. "Alternatively I would get a small self-inflating mattress, as they only inflate a couple of inches — not so high baby can fall off but enough to be comfortable."
Accordingly, parents may also need to consider if their temporary desert home will have room for everybody. "We bought a much bigger tent," says Abernethy. "Our old tent had just enough room for bedding for [me and] my husband, and would not have fitted a travel cot."
Feeding an infant or toddler at home often involves such equipment as a steam steriliser and dishwasher, but does this mean that it will be impossible in a desert campsite? Not as long as parents are properly organised and prepared, say the mums. "We had to think about all the meals and bottles for all the feeds," says Martinson. "We also had to consider how we would heatup bottles or defrost frozen milk."
Abernethy says she had to pack extra food for her son as he would not simply have been able to eat whatever the adults had put on the barbecue, and make sure she was prepared for any eventuality. "I had to take extra bottles for his milk as I knew the washing facilities would not be that good, so I had bottles along just in case, even though we do not normally needa bottle for him."
If sterilising bottles is a must — such as for small babies — or if baby is eating solids, then solutions are available. "You can get > steriliser tablets that dissolve in water, and some even come in a bag so you just fill to the line," says Allen. "Alternatively you can boil [bottles] in water. If you are giving pureés, take a stock of prepared vegetable ones with you — no meat — and if you are away for more than a couple of days, you can get some great ready-made meals at the supermarket, such as Ella's Kitchen organic meals, which keep really well."
Making sure you have everything ready for when campers wake up is key, according to Steven-Jennings. "Ensure you have everything ready for the morning to heat milk if you need to, for example a gas stove, saucepan with water, lighter and milk bottle," she says.
Martinson found that bath time was another challenging aspect of the camping trip. "We had to consider how we would bath the babies, as Isla is in such a good routine that I tried to stick with her having a bath before bed," she says.
Steven-Jennings took along an inflatable bath as an option but ended up using another parent's makeshift bathing facilities. "Others took along a tub that they set up in the back of their car so we all ended up using that," she says.
Parents may also be worried about the lack of protection from light as the sun rises, but the mums say their babies were not disturbed by this. "Imogen slept until 7am so the sunrise didn't wake her," says Steven-Jennings.
Alongside the issue of light reaching into tents, could the noise of adults enjoying the evening also disturb sleeping small campers? No, say the mums, but thin canvas walls did create some potential difficulties first thing in the morning. "Our son went down at 7pm as he normally does and the noise outside did not seem to bother him," says Abernethy. "[But] as soon as he woke [in the morning], I felt I had to get up with him and play as I was conscious that if I lay in bed [and] he got bored, he would wake other campers."
The message from the mums is that if you are organised and plan in advance, the great outdoors of the UAE is there to enjoy, no matter how young your family.
Safety in the campsite
With creatures and insects, a roaring campfire and rolling sand dunes, a campsite may not seem like the safest place for a small child. But a little extra vigilance and some forward planning is all that is required, says Abernethy. "I spent time thinking about our son's safety before we went camping," she says. "I considered what insects and reptiles he may encounter that could do harm if he touched them, and how we might prevent him from doing so, and what first aid measures I should take in the event of a bite or a sting."
Having a fire in such proximity to her son was a new experience that needed consideration too. "I have not, in the past, had to think about anyone falling into or touching flames!" she says.
And of course, getting to and from the campsite safely was a primary concern. "I was a bit nervous about taking Alex over serious sand dunes in his car seat but the site we went to ended up being over only a few smaller dunes so I was not concerned about driving safety in the end," she says.