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Backpacking with Baby

When new parents bring home their first tiny bundle of joy from the hospital, they are so filled with the need to protect their infant from all possible dangers that the idea of taking a baby on a backpacking trip strikes many as ridiculous.

But it’s not. As I discovered 15 years ago, taking a baby along on wilderness excursions can be both safe and enjoyable. Parents will need to make major adjustments to their backpacking style and expectations — but that’s true of everything in life when a baby is born. And the result within a few years is a child who is comfortable in the outdoors, strong, and self-confident. Perhaps the most important outcome is a family that can engage in its favorite activity together.

Before all those good things can happen, Mom and Dad have to deal with some very practical issues. Every family is different and will have to work out the best approach, but here’s some of what I learned from experience.

Clothing:


In November 1994, we celebrated Mary’s first birthday by hiking down the New Hance Trail and staying four nights below the Grand Canyon’s rim. (Photo: Gary Chambers)

Dress the baby in layers, just as for any outing. We used footed blanket sleepers during chilly weather, one as a base layer and one of the next size up over that. Socks work fine for mittens. Knit caps are important in cold weather. During warm weather, use hats and sunscreen, and use a sunshade or rig one up with an old receiving blanket and diaper pins. Baby sunglasses will protect sensitive eyes. Infants can’t regulate their body temperatures well, so check often to make sure they aren’t too hot or too cold.

Feeding:

Breast is best, as the old saying goes, and it’s certainly easiest for backpackers. With breastfeeding, there are no containers to pack in or waste to pack out. Just make sure mom stays adequately hydrated to keep up her milk supply. I carried my daughter, Mary, in a sling for the first six months, and learned how to nurse her while walking.

Bringing along formula or solid foods for older babies adds some complications, but the extra weight won’t be a big problem if trips are kept short. Take a look at the foods you’re carrying in for the adults, and see what will work as baby food. Bringing along actual baby food may be unnecessary, as well as heavy.

Diapers:

We used disposable diapers; some parents use cloth diapers. Either way, whatever you pack in, you’ve got to pack out, preferably in a watertight plastic bag. Hand sanitizer gel and wipes will help with cleanup. Once, we met a couple who left their baby’s wet diaper out to dry overnight, only to discover the next morning that the fog had infused it with a lot more moisture than the baby had.

Kid Carriers:

Slings, wraps, and front-carriers like Snuglis and BabyBjorns are great for very young infants. Experiment with them on day hikes so you’re comfortable and can have your hands free when necessary. Parental preference and comfort will determine what type you use.

At about six months or so, when the baby can hold his head up, get a good-quality baby backpack. Like any pack, you, and anyone who’ll be carrying the baby, should try on carriers with weight before buying. We chose a Tough Traveler Stallion model with all the upgrades.

Infants will sleep a lot in their backpacks; you’ll discover during day hikes where your baby rests his head during naps. Then pad those spots to prevent chafing. We used pieces of flannel from an old nightgown. I learned to keep a little rearview mirror –the sort found in auto supply stores – in my pocket so I could check on what Mary was up to. Now, they’re often sold as carrier accessories, or you can borrow one from a bathroom kit.

Shelter:


Enjoying the view. (Photo: Gary Chambers)

A dome tent is ideal for families. Despite the added size and weight, a dome tent means having enough headroom to sit up during feedings and diaper changes, and while rocking the baby back to sleep. If the weather turns bad and you’re stuck inside for a few hours, the extra headroom — and the extra play room as baby becomes more mobile — will be much appreciated.

We had a dome tent with two doors. After dinner, I would put Mary to sleep on one side of the tent while Gary and I finished our camp chores. If she cried or was restless, I could open up the door on her side to reach her. When she was asleep and it was time for Gary and me to get in the tent, we could use the other door and avoid disturbing her.

Sleeping:

Babies move around a lot in their sleep; dress them appropriately for nighttime temperatures when they crawl around without waking up. Try fleece pajamas and sleepsacks. These are warm and safer than bedding, and in some climates may be sufficient for nighttime temps. By the time your baby turns one, you can experiment at home with child-size sleeping bags.

Avoid surrounding an infant with too much bedding, just as you wouldn’t put any loose bedding in a crib. Some parents feel comfortable sharing a sleeping bag with their baby, just as they share a bed at home. I didn’t want to risk rolling over Mary in my sleep, and we tried a number of arrangements before we found one that worked. We even tried toting along her car seat or a bouncer when she was very little.

What finally worked for us was dressing Mary in a footed blanket sleeper, so that she’d be warm even out of her thrift store, baby-size sleeping bag. The bag was meant for sleepovers, but was short enough that Mary couldn’t get down into it too far. We cut off the stuffed “animal head” pillow to save weight.


On the Colorado River below the rim of the Grand Canyon. (Photo: Gary Chambers)

Most of all, be prepared to do without much sleep during the first few months. I’d wake up every hour or so to find where Mary had gotten to in the tent and put her back in the bag.

Entertainment:

That rearview mirror also makes a good toy. Also, attach some soft playthings to the pack. Sing lots of songs and exercise your storytelling abilities. In camp, the tent makes a good playpen for a baby. As he grows, let him explore, as long as one parent is watching — all the time.

Crying:

Babies do cry. And that’s one more reason to go backpacking instead of car camping. When you’re miles away from everybody else, there’s no one to disturb.

 

Every family is different, and individual parents have to work out for themselves when and how to resume backpacking. Some start with very short trips and shuttle two or three times between car and campsite to deliver gear. Some hook up with families whose children are old enough to walk, so those parents can carry more of the gear for the group. The main thing is to stay well within your comfort zone so that you can devote most of your time and attention to making the trip a safe and happy one for that tiny child who will someday grow up to love the wilderness as much as you do.

 

Barbara Egbert has been backpacking, with and without a child, since 1988. In 2004, Barbara, husband Gary, and then 10-year-old daughter Mary hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Visit Barbara at www.PCTfamily.com.

This article is the first in a four-part series on backpacking with children of different ages.

Part 1: Backpacking with Baby
Part 2: Backpacking with a Toddler or Preschooler
Part 3: Backpacking with a Grade-Schooler
Part 4: Backpacking with a Teen

 

Filed under: Kids, Outdoor Skills

Related Content

Getting Kids Geared Up for Outside  |  Hiking and Backpacking with Kids  |  Child Carrier Reviews and Info  |  Child Carrier Accessories  |  Child Carriers  |  Child Carriers

Comments

Stranger
0 reviewer rep
39 forum posts
June 17, 2009 at 11:25 a.m. (EDT)

Nice article ad spot on too... We have three kids, oldest 4 youngest 6 months... All of them have done both day hikes and overnights starting around 4-5 months old. It seemed the younger they were the easier it was. As they got older and more mobile and wanted to explore more and would stumble more as they were learning to walk. (though they still stumbled in the backyard too) But at this point the oldest is as keen on going hiking and/or camping as I am. (which would be weekend or more if time off work permitted.) We too have heard friends say "your so brave to take them out" or some other line but we never really saw it as such rather a nice family getaway.
Personally I think if your used to hiking or camping and a parent, it not really that much more work. Yes there is more weight, yes you have another person to keep track of and care for but if you got to a local playground your doing a lot of the same things. Carrying, keeping warm, cleaning, feeding etc are the same activities as you would do at the local playground.
For hiking and camping.. Carrying our kids, they all started in a BabyBjorn and the moved up into a baby backpack which was like them growing out of a car seat. Keeping warm... same layering you'd potential do taking them to a park. Cleaning... The difference here is the trash can maybe a bit further and you need to carry the diapers out (same as you would with other hiking trash). Feeding... Breast feeding where no one is staring at you.. My wife usually like it that way and there is no real difference if they are on a bottle or solid food... Shelter... The small dome tent worked for us for a long until we had the third child. Now I just get kicked out to sleep in my hammock at night...

So to those who say "it's ridiculous" or "your so brave"... I say your're missing out on a great family experience...

vivace72
0 reviewer rep
4 forum posts
May 28, 2010 at 9:11 p.m. (EDT)

We are packing up for a weekend trip with our five month old, and the biggest challenge we are looking at (in advance of the trip) is how to pack all of OUR stuff - the baby backpack has enough room for our son and most of his clothing/diapers, but does that mean my husband gets to carry everything for the two of us adults?


thanks!

GaryPalmer
200 reviewer rep
3,929 forum posts
May 29, 2010 at 8:45 p.m. (EDT)

My parents took me camping when I was 6 months old in June of 1956. I was born in January and they camped that summer in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. My mother says she woke up not to find me beside her and looked and found me rolled out side the big canvas tent they used back then.

Alicia MacLeay (Alicia)
TRAILSPACE STAFF
471 reviewer rep
2,913 forum posts
June 11, 2010 at 2:31 p.m. (EDT)

Welcome (rather belatedly) to Trailspace, vivace72! It's always great to hear from more outdoor families.

I'm sure you've already come and gone on your weekend backoacking trip, so please report back on how it went.

To answer your original question in short: yes, one adult will have to carry a whole bunch of gear and the other parent will have to carry the baby and everything they can fit in the kid carrier. I know personally that that is easier said than done.

Nothing made us start stripping down our gear as light and small as possible, as having kids.

Please tell us how it worked out for you and your husband and baby.

vivace72
0 reviewer rep
4 forum posts
September 23, 2010 at 4:10 p.m. (EDT)

thanks Alicia! I didin't have anything alerting me to responses- apologies! Spo a VERY late response to your welcome!

Everything went really well- now our 9 month old has been out backpacking and in a tent in the Olympic Natl Park (think that was the trip you were talking about), backpacking multiple times in Denali Natl Park, backpacking in the North Cascades and in Glacier Natl Park. He truly is never so happy as when he is outside!

My husband carried an enormous pack and I had the baby (getting more enormous by the day...) Learning a lot about what hear works and what gear doesn't. So we are definitely amending length of trips (though for day hikes Sam hangs in there all day mostly with stops for snacks and play time...we did twelve miles one day in Denali last month!)

I'm trying to remember to blog about this and would LOVE to include stories/lessons/ideas from anyone else willing to share on the blog!

www.aborderlife.com

vivace72
0 reviewer rep
4 forum posts
September 23, 2010 at 4:12 p.m. (EDT)

Another comment actually: on the diapers, for those camping in bear country (pretty much all we do), you need to plan to bring an extra bear can for diapers, too! And don't forget the hand sanitizer...

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